Category: Smokey Robinson

Covered in Folk: Smokey Robinson
(covers from Billy Bragg, Patty Griffin, John Hiatt, Laura Nyro and more!)

August 2nd, 2009 — 12:58 pm

At 69, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and multiple Grammy winner Smokey Robinson is a cultural icon, with three songs on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, and a string of chart hits longer than Def Jam’s rap sheet. Though he is best known for his work with the Miracles in the sixties, and his subsequent solo career, his influence on modern music runs deeper still: his list of 4000 published songs includes writing or co-writing credit for My Guy, Don’t Mess With Bill, and Marvin Gaye’s first two million-sellers; he was the primary songwriter and producer for the Temptations from 1963 to 1966. Perhaps most significantly, it was his suggestion to songwriter and collaborator Berry Gordon that he start a label which led to the creation of Motown, and as a producer and VP for the label through much of its formative years, he provided guidance for a plethora of artists and styles who continue to frame much of the musical spectrum today.

Indeed, given the sheer number of songs “the poet laureate of love” has written and recorded in his 50 year career, and the heavy influence of the Motown sound on the generation of songwriters which followed, it would be odd if we couldn’t dig up at least a few covers from the folk and acoustic world.

But the sheer variety of coverage that such a search reveals is worthy of note. Perhaps because his songs address such universal emotion, and in such a direct, heartfelt manner, the simple, soulful ballads for which Robinson is best known seem to lend themselves well to individual transformation. From the many covers of You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me and The Tracks of My Tears which pepper the landscape — among them Billy Bragg and Greg Brown‘s slow, broken-hearted solo acoustic covers, Laura Nyro‘s gospel soul take with R&B trio Labelle, indiefolker Thao‘s ragged retro styling, and subtle and soulful in-studio duets from Patty Griffin and She and Him — to obscurities such as Claudia Russell‘s sultry, bluegrassy I Second That Emotion, Loudon Wainwright III and John Hiatt‘s rare majestic paean to My Girl, a live English Beat-flavored cover of Tears of a Clown from swamp-roots rockers The Radiators, Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles‘ acoustic guitar-driven alt-rock americana Being With You and the Jerry Garcia Band‘s early, jammy instrumental version of Temptations hit Since I Lost My Baby, the covers assembled speak louder than words, paying fitting tribute to a seminal soul and R&B songwriter.

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If you’re a Smokey fan, don’t forget to head over to his website to download his most recent single, a cover of Norah Jones’ Don’t Know Why. And whether you’re a folkfan or just in it for the covers, definitely come back later this week for a look at the continued influence of Berklee College on the Boston folk and bluegrass scenes.

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