“When Smokey sings, I hear violins…“- ABC
I once read somewhere, or saw it on television, or possibly even made it up myself (which is not very likely), that mainstream popularity goes in cycles; that bubblegum manufactured pop trades off with singer / songwriter material every few years as a preferred style of music. While this theory has its points, it does not necessarily account for another genre, which seems to bubble up to the surface every now and again, that being the collection of standards. At this moment in time, for some odd reason, people are acting as if crooners of these classics are the most entertaining things on the market since the Flobee. Sure, the old folks have always clung to their Lawrence Welk records, but at a certain point the Rat Pack became cool with the kids again, just as the same can be said for Tony Bennett. Yet, I have never seen as big a resurgence in the `old as new again’ category of standards as I have over the past few years. Harry Connick, Jr. is one of those artists that rely solely on the standard, and Michael Bublé has essentially stolen his schtick. Youngsters such as Jamie Cullum are also getting into the act, singing those standards alongside some of the newer `hip classics.’ Even more recently, Rod Stewart has witnessed a massive career overhaul with four volumes of the `Great American Songbook.’ Barry Manilow and Bette Midler have also horned in that particular style successfully.
None of these recent albums or artists have sparked my interest. It takes something special for me to want to listen to the same old songs again and again. I’m a big Sinatra fan, and Connick certainly has a lovely voice, but everyone else leaves me cold. Not so with the most recent purveyor of standard material, the legendary Smokey Robinson. His honeyed romantic voice was made for this type of music as he exudes the charm, sentiment and soul that every song requires. Sure, we’ve all heard “In the Mood for Love,” but have we heard it combined with “Moody’s Mood for Love” (recently brought to the American consciousness again by American Idol) and sung so beautifully? A number of the tracks on Timeless Love, Smokey’s first non-holiday, non-gospel album in seven years, is a more than welcome addition to the lineup of standard interpretations. One of the more interesting things about Timeless Love is that a number of the songs were made popular by female artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Robinson’s voice is in a high enough register that he is able to pull off “Love is Here to Stay” and “I’m Glad There is You” while both recalling those inimitable jazz powerhouses and putting his own sensitive masculine stamp on them.
Another medley of like titled tunes also stands out on the album, the combo of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Time After Time,” as popularized by Sinatra, with Cyndi Lauper’s tune of the same name. Lauper’s “Time After Time,” as well as her “True Colors,” have come back into style as standard type material with both finding homes in advertisements, television and movie soundtracks (Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, anyone?), and a popular cover by Eva Cassidy. Robinson’s blend, which sounds like a brand of coffee, flows seamlessly, buoyed by his delicate, soulful voice that reminds us all of his renowned Motown masterpieces. Just so as not to forget that Robinson himself is just as gifted a songwriter as he is a singer (after all, he penned “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Tears of a Clown,” Mary Wells’ “My Guy” and the Temptations’ “My Girl” while also dubbed “America’s Greatest Living Poet” by the man for whom many use the same praise, Bob Dylan). “I Love Your Face” is Smokey’s own addition, having first debuted on his 1992 album, Double Good Everything.
I began the review with a line from ABC’s “When Smokey Sings,” a tribute to the power of Smokey Robinson’s indelible voice. Martin Fry’s sentiment stands as true today as it did in 1987 when ABC penned the hit, and as true as it did in the early ’60s. One of the closing tracks on Timeless Love, the great “Under My Skin,” was one of the first album tracks that the Miracles recorded in 1962, bringing Robinson back full circle to where it all started. There are few voices as sublime as Smokey Robinson’s, and if nothing else, this album serves as a reminder to his vocal prowess, still potent after over forty years in the business.
Rod Stewart- The Great American Songbook series
Diana Ross- Blue
Various Artists- Red, Hot and Blue