ABC: When Smokey Sings

Posted July 13, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Vault

A New Wave-y pop song gives extra-special kudos to a Motown legend

The world of Motown proved to be the soundtrack for many pop and rock acts in the Eighties. And covers of the Motown sound literally flooded the marketplace from David Bowie & Mick Jagger’s take on “Dancing In the Streets” to Phil Collins’s “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Years after hitting it big with “The Look of Love” on their acclaimed debut album, English band ABC pulled out their clever ode to William “Smokey” Robinson with “When Smokey Sings.” There’s also heartfelt nods at Luther and Marvin and Sly and James inside the lyrics. But deep inside, the melodies of “The Tears of a Clown” (or H-D-H’s “I Can’t Help Myself”) ring out the loudest on this soulful tribute. Even with the song’s classic Detroit tempo shuffle used on the jubilant chorus, Martin Fry‘s slick crossover vocals along with Steve Kelly‘s ambient synths easily stir up the overjoys of Eighties pop time travel. New Wave remnants are also there and so is an opulent string arrangement handled by Richard Niles.

At the time, Robinson was enjoying his own success with the Top Ten hit “One Heartbeat.” And out of nowhere, Fry delivers a sweet ego-stroking memento to the Motown star: “Luther croons/Sly’s the original originator,┬áJames screams/Marvin was the only innovator/But nothing can compare…when Smokey sings.”

The song was bigger than life in the US than it was in their hometown, soaring to number 5 pop while settling at number 11 over there. It also managed to soar to number 1 on the dance charts here, which might explain why ABC locked down a guest slot on Don Cornelius’s Soul Train.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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