Smokey Robinson - Warm Thoughts / Being With You (Solo Albums, Vol. 6)

Smokey Robinson
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The 70s didn’t quite go as planned for Smokey Robinson. He parted with the Miracles while they were still at their commercial peak to pursue both a solo career and an increased role behind the scenes at the Motown label. But while as a solo artist he had some early wins on the R&B charts, he never remotely approached his prior group success. And as the decade wore on, Robinson struggled to stay relevant amidst a changing musical landscape, particularly the rise of disco, a trend that Robinson chased fairly unsuccessfully. Then, just as he appeared to be headed to the oldies circuit, his second single from 1979’s Where There’s Smoke, “Cruisin’” – chosen for release because his son liked the old school sound of the song -- became a surprise hit, shooting to the top of both the R&B and pop charts.

The 70s didn’t quite go as planned for Smokey Robinson. He parted with the Miracles while they were still at their commercial peak to pursue both a solo career and an increased role behind the scenes at the Motown label. But while as a solo artist he had some early wins on the R&B charts, he never remotely approached his prior group success. And as the decade wore on, Robinson struggled to stay relevant amidst a changing musical landscape, particularly the rise of disco, a trend that Robinson chased fairly unsuccessfully. Then, just as he appeared to be headed to the oldies circuit, his second single from 1979’s Where There’s Smoke, “Cruisin’” – chosen for release because his son liked the old school sound of the song -- became a surprise hit, shooting to the top of both the R&B and pop charts.

Perhaps the biggest lesson “Cruisin’” provided to Robinson was that his success was not conditioned on keeping up with the latest musical fads. And he brought that new attitude to the studio when he recorded 1980’s Warm Thoughts, an unabashedly romantic album that became the critical high point of his solo career.  While it was not chock full of hits (“Let Me Be the Clock” was the only major charter), it was loaded with some of Robinson’s most brilliant material.  Warm Thoughts featured everything that Robinson did well, combining his sense of melody with warm production, his always clever lyricism (“It keeps on raining and raining, but into each rain some life must fall”) and that sexy, wispy tenor voice. 

Thoughts was heavy on ballads, and they were gems. “I Want To Be Your Love,” was like a downbeat cousin to “Cruisin’” and “What’s In Your Life For Me” was mesmerizingly ethereal. But best of all was “Into Each Rain Some Life Must Fall,” a dramatic piano ballad that may be one of Robinson’s all time best. And when the album went uptempo, it did so on Smokey’s terms:  “Heavy On Pride (Light on Love)” was a guitar-driven bouncer that benefitted from Robinson’s clever wordplay (“So you say you came by to make sure I watered Creeping Charlie /and to use the phone/oh, but that ain’t so baby ‘cause I know/you well enough to know that kind of stuff couldn’t bring you home”).  And “Melody Man,” contributed by Stevie Wonder, sounded like a great upbeat outtake from Hotter than July.   Smokey even provided a surreal twist on the catchy “Wine, Women and Song,” a duet with ex-wife Claudette Robinson about a star singer who can’t give up those vices to settle down with his mate – a description that bore more than a passing resemblance to Robinson’s own struggles with faithfulness as a husband.

More than thirty years after its release on vinyl – and never having been issued digitally - Warm Thoughts has been packaged in a new compilation with 1981's Being With You as Smokey Robinson Solo Albums, Vol . 6.  And as great as Warm Thoughts is, it stands out even more when compared to its companion album. Being With You was known for its great title cut and not much else. It was surprising that, following Smokey’s critical triumph of 1980, he relinquished the boards on Being to pop producer George Tobin (best known for his work with the teen star of the day, Tiffany).  Tobin fashioned a disc that playedlike a Star Search version of what a Smokey Robinson album should sound like -- it was a bit too precious in 1981 and sounds even worse with age. And while Robinson penned over half of the songs on the album, they had the feel of songs left over from other efforts.  Being With You is not quite a disaster, but it is the portion of the new compilation where you can safely go get a sandwich.

Fortunately, the relative weakness of Being With You can’t spoil the significance of The Solo Albums, Vol. 6. This release is all about Warm Thoughts finally seeing the light of day after three decades. It sounds as perfect now as it did then and stands not only as Smokey Robinson’s finest album, but also as an essential piece of early 80s “quiet storm” R&B. Highly  recommended.

By Chris Rizik

 

 

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