SMOKEY ROBINSON-QUIET STORM.

SMOKEY ROBINSON-QUIET STORM.

There can’t have been many recording artists who have left a hugely successful group to concentrate on their position as Vice President of a record company, and in doing so, embark on a somewhat low-key solo career. Well, in July of 1972, that’s exactly what Smokey Robinson did. He’d been planning to do for some time. With the Miracles, Smokey embarked on a six month farewell tour, at the end of which, he introduced his replacement Billy Griffin. For some time, Smokey had planned to combine his role of Vice President of Motown Records with a low key solo career. Having left the Miracles, and settled into his new role, he started working on the first of his solo albums.

His debut solo album was Smokey, released in June 1973. Smokey reached number seventy in the US Billboard 200 and number ten in the US R&B Charts.The album featured Sweet Harmony, which was a tribute to his former group The Miracles. It was released as his debut single, reaching number forty-eight in the US Billboard 100 and thirty-one in the US R&B Charts. 

The follow-up to Smokey was entitled Pure Smokey, released in March 1974. Surprisingly, this album failed to build on the success of his debut album, reaching just number ninety-nine in the US Billboard 200 and twelve in US R&B Charts. However, on the album is one of Smokey’s most beautiful tracks, Virgin Mary. On Smokey, Marv Tarplin co-wrote three of the songs with Smokey. He eventually left the The Miracles to work with Smokey on his solo albums.

By his third album A Quiet Storm, which this article is about, Smokey had released a critically acclaimed and landmark album. Smokey had produced an album which was a contrast to funk music which, back then, it seemed, was ruling the musical roost, and quickly becoming, the most popular and important musical genre. Artists like James Brown, Sly and The Family Stone and former Impression Curtis Mayfield, were all practitioners of funk music, having fallen under its spell. As a contrast to this, Smokey released an album which featured some lovely, slow, smooth R&B music. The music seemed to appeal to many people, reaching number thirty-six in the US Billboard 200 and number seven in the US R&B Charts. Not only was it a critically acclaimed, commercially successful album, but it gave its name to a new musical genre Quiet Storm. 

This genre of music can be attributed to Melvin Lindsey, then an intern at WHUR-FM, a Washington D.C. radio station. The music was mellow, laid back and subtle, with slow jams, gentle rhythms and a slow tempo, and was usually played late at night. Other artists whose music fitted this genre, included soul legends Marvin Gaye, Barry White and Al Green. Later, artists like Anita Baker, Luther Vandross and Sade would have their music played on Quiet Storm shows, helping launch their careers and introduce their music to America. For this, they’ve Smokey Robinson to thank for this, and his landmark album Quiet Storm, which I’ll now tell you about.

Quiet Storm opens with the title track, Quiet Storm, which like six of the tracks on the album, was written by Smokey. It’s an atmospheric and subtle opening to the track, with gusts of wind blowing before a slow bass enters, giving way to melodic keyboards and Smokey’s gentle, soft vocal. He’s accompanied by subtle backing vocalists, who are the perfect accompaniment for Smokey. Quickly, the tempo quickens, the arrangement fills out, with drums at the heart of the arrangement. They’re assisted by keyboards, bass, guitars, percussion and flute, who with the backing vocalists, provide the perfect backdrop for Smokey’s thoughtful vocal, which soars beautifully, high above the arrangement. Over nearly eight minutes, Smokey delivers a beautiful vocal against the sweetest of arrangements, full of gentle, lingering and atmospheric rhythms and melodies, made all the better by the addition of backing vocalists, who combine beautifully with Smokey.

The Agony and Ecstasy is a much slower, laid back track with the rhythm section, gently chiming guitars and keyboards combining before Smokey’s vocal enters. When he sings, his voice is full of sadness and regret as he sings about having an affair, while still married to someone else and the problems it brings. Behind him, woodwind, strings and backing vocalists join the arrangement, adding to the already understated, yet sometimes dramatic arrangement, which meanders beautifully along. The interplay between Smokey and the backing vocalists, really lifts the track. Their voices sweetly soar in unison, as he deliver this tale of sadness and woe. By the end of the track, it’s a combination of Smokey’s lyrics, vocal and production that make this such a beautiful track. He delivers his own lyrics beautifully, and arranged the song in such a way, that the arrangement is sympathetic to his lyrics and the way he delivers them. Quite simply, this is one of the album’s best tracks.

Although a ballad, Baby That’s Backatcha gave Smokey his first disco hit, reaching number seven on the US Billboard Disco Charts. it also gave him his first number one US R&B number one single, and reached number twenty-six in the US Billboard 100. A flute and bass combine before keyboards enter with Smokey’s vocal. It’s a faster, track, very different from the previous track. A combination of percussion, chiming guitars and rhythm section combine with Smokey’s faster charismatic vocal, which is augmented by female backing vocalists. Their voices are soft, in contrast to Smokey’s stronger, powerful and sometimes, throaty vocal. Atop the arrangement sits a floaty flute, as frantic percussion plays a vital role in the track’s success. Together with the rest of the band, they produce a catchy, quick track, that sweeps along with Smokey’s atmospheric vocal at its heart, full of emotion and feeling.

Wedding Song sees the tempo drop and like other tracks features a “Quiet Storm” blowing, with gentle gusts of wind making their presence felt when the track opens. Woodwind, chiming guitars, percussion and rhythm section combine slowly, playing with a subtlety, before Smokey sings. Immediately, his voice is gentle and thoughtful, as he sings about two becoming one, and starting their married life together. Behind him, drums dramatically and briefly interject, as an organ shimmers, and flute plays, both add a lovely atmospheric sound, helping to make an already quite beautiful arrangement, even better. When the arrangement is added to Smokey’s gentle, considered vocal which delivers some tender lyrics, this is a winning combination. The result is a a gorgeous track, which has always been one of my favorites on Quiet Storm.

When you listen to the start of Happy (Love Theme From “Lady Sings the Blues), you’re lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that what starts as another slow, tender love song will remain like that until the closing bars. However, midway through a track lasting seven minutes, it’s all change. The track gathers legs, and is transformed into a much quicker song, featuring the desperate pleas of Smokey as he begs a woman not to leave him, to stay. Likewise the arrangement is very different, much fuller than the original arrangement that opened the track. It was just a piano that accompanied Smokey and was hugely effective, allowing his hugely, emotional vocal to take centre-stage, as he sings what was meant to be the theme tune to the film about legendary jazz singer Billie Holliday. When the film was released, the song neither featured in the film, nor soundtrack. Later, when the track changes, a horns soars, the piano quickens and the rhythm section, guitars and percussion combine with Smokey’s dramatic vocal. Quickly, the arrangement fills out and it’s like a different track. Then, when you think the track was slowing down, it was merely a dramatic pause, with things returning to what’s gone before. In the end, the two contrasting parts of the track combine brilliantly, creating a song that’s both hugely moving, mainly thanks to Smokey’s vocal, and steeped in musical drama.

Love Letters has a bright, funk laden introduction thanks to a combination of funky, rhythm section, machine gun guitars, keyboards and percussion before a suitably funky vocal from Smokey enters. He’s singing about writing a love letter, but the recipient’s address is unknown. The arrangement chugs along, a melange of powerful, driving, rhythm section, soaring guitars, plentiful percussion and keyboards with a fast, sometimes frantic vocal from Smokey. However, neither the style, nor arrangement works. Here, the tempo is too quick, the arrangement sounds crowded and there’s a lack of space within the arrangement. Even Smokey’s usually excellent vocal seems to struggle to keep up with the arrangement, and the result is the only disappointing track on the album.

Quiet Storm closes with Coincidentally, another of the quicker, funkier sounding tracks on the album. This time, the combination, of horns, buzzing bass, drums, keyboards and guitars that accompany Smokey works much better. His voice seems much more at home with the song, as his voice soars, full of emotion. As usual, he’s accompanied by soulful backing vocalists, whose contribution, like before, helps the track. Later, a saxophone solo bursts into life, blazing high above the rest of the funk drenched track. Unlike the last track, there’s a real catchiness about the track, with the addition of braying horns really improving the arrangement. Meanwhile, Smokey’s vocal is laden with emotion and passion from the opening to closing bars. After a disappointing previous track, both Smokey’s vocal and the arrangement are much better. This fantastic, fast and funky track, is the perfect way to end what’s been a really good album from Smokey Robinson.

After Smokey Robinson left the Miracles and embarked upon his role as Vice President of Motown Records, many people thought that his solo career might play second fiddle to his main job at Motown, and as a result, the success he’d been accustomed to with The Miracles would allude him. This may have seemed the case after his first two solo album, but Quiet Storm proved that he still was capable, of writing, recording and producing music of the highest standard. The music on Quiet Storm featured a combination of some beautiful melodies and music that looked forward. Songs like The Agony and The Ecstasy and The Wedding Song saw Smokey roll back the years, producing some beautiful sounding music. However, other tracks like Baby That’s Backatcha and Love Letters saw him producing music that looked toward the future, with the former’s disco sound, and the latter’s somewhat disappointing funk sound. Apart from Love Letters, every other song on the album was a winner, so much so, that Quiet Storm lent its name to a new genre of music. Quiet Storm was also apparent at the start of each track, with the gentle winds blowing, maybe drawing attention to changes that swept away Smokey’s past as a Miracle and his new found career as music executive and solo artists. If you’ve never heard this album, it’s an excellent, landmark album, one of the most important seventies soul albums. I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone, and it’s available as part of a series of rereleases of Smokey’s solo albums, entitled Smokey Robinson The Solo Albums: Volume 2. On the album are both Quiet Storm and Smokey’s fourth album Smokey’s Family Robinson. Standout Tracks: Quiet Storm, The Agony and The Ecstasy and The Wedding Song and Happy (Love Theme From “Lady Sings the Blues). 

SMOKEY ROBINSON-QUIET STORM.

A Quiet Storm

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