"And love, like a versified cliche, came down on me/Hard, in its casual way," wrote militant black poet LeRoi Jones in 1962. "Versified cliche," of course, could be considered an apt description of pop music -- that is, until Smokey Robinson got his hands on it. The Miracles' music was a chiffon-laced confection of pop, gospel, doo-wop and R&B, all pomaded process hairdos and silky harmonies. But like the love in Jones's poem, Smokey's softness came down hard. After him, the simple, innocent love song would never be the same.
Robinson is known for many things -- co-founding Motown, writing and producing for the Temptations and Marvin Gaye, the success of later solo cuts like "Being With You" -- but he is most famous for his work with the Miracles from 1957 to 1972. The list of hits is almost mythic: "Shop Around," "The Tracks of My Tears," "You Really Got a Hold On Me," "I Second That Emotion" and "Ooo Baby Baby" are just a few of the cultural artifacts scattered across this double-disc, 52-track set. The selection sticks to singles, a limitation that only serves to illustrate the group's consistency. Even minor chart triumphs such as "(Come 'Round Here) I'm the One You Need" display Robinson's impeccable sense of rhythm and poetic diction; lines like "Every time you need some affection/The one you love goes in another direction" stretch and snap with a jazz-like cadence that amplifies the anguish of a doomed romance. Robinson, however, uses his powers for the cause of joy as successfully as he does for despair. "Special Occasion" sparkles like champagne -- a brilliant, vivid snapshot of love that is framed, as even the happiest Robinson compositions are, with a halo of loneliness and melancholy.
As tender and urbane as the Miracles' music is, it still sounds raw, even earthy; among the group's contemporaries, perhaps only Curtis Mayfield's Impressions can rival such depth. The grit and sinew of hard luck and tough love lie like a foundation beneath Robinson's sophisticated couplets and taffy-soft voice. Even deeper, though, runs a vein of social consciousness. "Tears of a Clown," the Miracles' biggest hit and signature song, can be read as an incisive commentary on the role of black entertainers in American society -- indeed, on the self-image of an entire race struggling for justice, dignity and identity -- as much as a wistful tale of camouflaging a broken heart.
Elvis Costello, an obvious disciple of Robinson's adroit wordplay, released Get Happy! in 1980, basically an album-long homage to his lyrical hero. Bob Dylan once named Robinson "America's greatest living poet." Motown was built on the back of the Miracles' seemingly inexhaustible talent; besides their massive influence on '60s popular music, songs such as 1968's "Baby, Baby Don't Cry" prefigured the lush, orchestral "soft soul" that groups like the Delfonics and the Chi-Lites would usher into the '70s. In the sweeping, epic smash "More Love," Robinson sings in his licorice tenor, "My love would be so solid/It'd take about a hundred lifetimes to live it down, wear it down, tear it down." Kind of like Smokey's legend itself.