SMOKEY ROBINSON-SMOKEY’S FAMILY ROBINSON.

SMOKEY ROBINSON-SMOKEY’S FAMILY ROBINSON.

In a previous review, I reviewed one of Smokey Robinson’s solo albums, Quiet Storm, which released in 1975. This a critically acclaimed and landmark album, one that spawned its own musical genre Quiet Storm. The music on Quiet Storm was very different to most of the music being released in 1975. Back then, funk ruled the roost, with James Brown, Sly and The Family Stone and even Curtis Mayfield releasing funk albums. So, Smokey’s album Quiet Storm was a complete contrast to most of the music being released back then. On Quiet Storm’s release, the album was a both commercially successful and critically acclaimed, reaching number thirty-six in the US Billboard 200 and number seven in the US R&B Charts. This was Smokey’s third solo album, with 1973s Smokey and 1974s Pure Smokey the two albums preceding Quiet Storm. Smokey had released number seventy in the US Billboard 200 and number ten in the US R&B Charts, while Pure Smokey reached number ninety-nine in the US Billboard 200 and number twelve in the US R&B Charts. 1976 saw Smokey release his fourth album Smokey’s Family Robinson, a pun on the Swiss Family Robinson, a book and movie. Would Smokey’s Family Robinson continue the success of Quiet Storm, a landmark album, one that spawned a musical genre?

Recording of seven tracks took place in 1975 with musicians Fred Smith playing horns, bassist Wayne Tweed, drummer Joseph A. Brown Jr., and guitarist Marv Taplin. While Smokey produced Smokey’s Family Robinson, Sonny Burke helped Smokey arrange the rhythm section, while Fred Smith arranged the horns. Like Quiet Storm, Smokey wrote four of the seven tracks, while he cowrote two tracks with Rose Ella Jones. With the Smokey’s Family Robinson recorded, the album was set for release in February 1976.

Smokey’s Family Robinson was released in February 1976, reaching number fifty-seven in the US Billboard 200 and number nine US R&B Charts. Open was the only single released from the album, reaching number eighty-one in the US Billboard 100 and number ten in the US R&B Charts. Although the album hadn’t fared as well as Quiet Storm, the music on Smokey’s Family Robinson was just as good as its predecessor. On the album was a combination of dance-floor friendly funk, mellow soul and space jams. Why the album didn’t fare better commercially seems strange, given the quality of music on Smokey’s Family Robinson. So what does Smokey’s Family Robinson sound like? That’s what I’ll now tell you. 

Opening Smokey’s Family Robinson is When You Came, one of four tracks written by Smokey. The tempo is quick, the sound slightly moody as the track opens, quickly giving way to a fast and furiously funky track, which loses the moody sound. It’s replaced by Smokey’s gentle vocal, accompanied by a driving, funk drenched rhythm section, guitars, percussion and subtle, soulful female backing vocalists. Above the arrangement floats a flute, while keyboards punctuate the now joyful arrangement. When you listen to this stonewall funk classic from Smokey, it’s hard to believe that this is from the man who brought us Tracks of My Tears and The Tears of A Clown. This is as far removed from those two songs as you can get, but this is an irresistible and compelling slice of funky from Smokey Robinson.

Get Out of Town is a slower track, one that allows Smokey to demonstrate his beautiful vocal. It’s a soulful track built track built around keyboards and blazing horns, while female backing vocalists accompany Smokey. Their voices have a similar beauty to his vocal, which veers between tender to emotive and passionate. With the rhythm section accompanying the rasping horns and keyboards, the track combines elements of soul with jazz. Drums, horns and keyboards add a punchy dramatic sound, providing the perfect backdrop for Smokey’s vocal. What I like so much about this track, is Smokey’s emotive and passionate delivery of the lyrics, and the horns arranged by Fred Smith that punctuate the track. Together, they combine to produce a quite beautiful track that mixes soul and jazz.

There’s a return to the funk sound on Do Like I Do. Here, Smokey gets into the seventies funk sound that dominated the musical landscape. This isn’t just funk music though, it’s a funky space jam, with some hugely talented musicians accompanying Smokey. The rhythm section, blazing horns and blazing horns combine to play a series of prolonged funk laden jams during the track, while Smokey’s vocal is louder and almost dramatic. It’s a track with a really spacey, but funky sound, with keyboards building the track up, while bursts of horns and the rhythm section deliver a funk masterclass. Atop the arrangement sits Smokey’s vocals with yelps and howls augmenting his vocal. Although the track has a really funky sound, there’s elements of jazz within the track, especially the prolonged jams and solos, which epitomize all that’s good about jazz music. Throw in a huge slice of funk, add to that Smokey’s dramatic and emotive vocal, and you’ve the recipe for a quite brilliant track that closes Side One of Smokey’s Family Robinson.

After two funk and one soulful track, one wonders what’s coming next. What will When You Came open Side Two of Smokey’s Family Robinson? When Open reveals itself, the track heads firmly in the direction of funk. From a hesitant start, the track quickly grows, with a female vocalist accompanied by the funkiest of rhythm section, searing, soaring guitars and blazing horns. There’s almost a late sixties sound to the music, with the track building and building, growing in power. Smokey’s vocal is louder and stronger, transformed into a growl, while female backing vocalists play a major part in the track, singing lead and backing vocals. They’re accompanied throughout by the choppy reverberating guitars, a loping bass, punchy drums, and horns which rasp and blaze gloriously. Together they create a powerful wall of sound of the funkiest music which unbelievably, includes Smokey Robinson’s vocal. Never before have you heard Smokey quite like this. 

So In Love is a mid-tempo track, that reveals a side of Smokey we’re much more familiar with, a lovely soulful love song. Punchy drums, flute and rasping horns open the track, before a tender vocal from Smokey enters. Like the horns, female backing vocalists envelope his beautiful and emotive vocal. Throughout the track, the punchy drums add touches of drama as the song’s smooth and soulful beauty reveals itself. This is much more like you’d expect from Smokey Robinson, and this is quite simply the best track on the album. What makes this such a good track is the arrangement, with its sultry horns, gorgeous soulful backing vocalists and of course Smokey’s romantic and beautiful vocal.

From one beautiful song in So In Love to another in Like Nobody Can, which features another beautiful and heartfelt vocal from Smokey. It just the rhythm section, percussion and keyboards combine before Smokey’s gentle and thoughtful vocal enters. Smokey’s vocal is allowed to take centre-stage, with the slow, arrangement meandering along, before subtle, but soulful female backing vocalists enter, They accompany Smokey, while the arrangement still just features the rhythm section, percussion and keyboards. This is perfect, as nothing is allowed to overpower the beauty and emotion of Smokey’s vocal on this stunning love So good is this track, that it’s even better than the previous song So In Love,

Closing Smokey’s Family Robinson is Castles Made of Sand a track that has much in common with the previous track. The arrangement has a similar understated beauty, while the arrangement has a similar sound. It’s just the rhythm section, percussion and keyboards, with a guitar played with subtlety. Smokey’s vocal has a similar understated sound, tender and heartfelt, and again, is enveloped by swathes of tender and quite beautiful backing vocalists. Their addition is a masterstroke and really add to the track, making an already beautiful song even better. What a stunning and gorgeous track this is to close Smokey’s Family Robinson.

Having spent some time revisiting Smokey’s Family Robinson, I’ve come to the conclusion that I much prefer Smokey’s Family Robinson than Quiet Storm. It’s an album that combines a compelling combination of soul and funk. On Smokey’s Family Robinson are a trio of funk tracks, When You Came, Do Like I Do and which demonstrate a very different side of Smokey’s music. How fans of Smokey’s old group Smokey Robinson and The Miracles reacted to this change in music, one wonders? I can imagine they’d be quite nonplussed, but would welcome the trio of tracks that close the album. So In Love, Like Nobody Can and Castles Made of Sand demonstrated that Smokey could still write and record some beautiful soul music. This trio of tracks are among the best tracks on the album. However, that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the funky side of Smokey. Quite the opposite. On these tracks Smokey demonstrates his versatility as a singer, songwriter and producer. Although Smokey’s Family Robinson was very much a change in direction from his music with The Miracles, and even from previous solo albums, to me it demonstrates Smokey developing as a singer and producer. Not for him releasing the same type of album time after time. Instead, he wanted to grow as an artist and develop his music, taking it in new directions. While Quiet Storm helped spawn a new musical genre, Smokey’s Family Robinson saw Smokey music cross the musical genres. From soul, funk and even touches of jazz music, there’s a real mixture of music on Smokey’s Family Robinson, an album that features some fantastic funk and stunning soul music. It might not be one of Smokey’s most successful solo albums, but Smokey’s Family Robinson is an underrated and compelling album Smokey Robinson, one that’s full of some great music, and well worth seeking out next time you’re in your local record shop. Standout Tracks: Do Like I Do, So In Love, Like Nobody Can and Castles Made of Sand. 

SMOKEY ROBINSON-SMOKEY’S FAMILY ROBINSON.

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