I read Smokey Robinson’s memoir “Smokey: Inside My Life” in the early ‘90s, when I was in my mid-teens. I leafed through the bio in naive disbelief as Smokey (who I’d imagined as the epitome of middle-aged class and family man-status) discussed his crack addiction, philandering and basically explaining that he kicked his rock habit with the help of Leon Isaac Kennedy (star of the so-bad-you-have-to-watch-them Penitentiary films) and a bruja.
In between the sordid celebrity tell-all tales, though, there was a lot of music talk. A passage I distinctly remember detailed the process by which Smokey wrote “Cruisin’”, a top 5 pop and R&B hit, the song that announced Smokey’s solo comeback after nearly half a decade of flops, and a slow jam classic. It was co-written with Marv Tarplin, who’d been Smokey’s right-hand guy as far back as the Miracles days, and was inspired by the Young Rascals classic “Groovin’”.
It also wasn’t supposed to be a single. “Cruisin’”’s parent album, Where There’s Smoke, was released in 1979 at the height of the disco era. Its first single was a pumped-up dance floor ready cover of The Temptations’ “Get Ready” (which Smokey wrote). It flopped and caused Smokey and Motown to go to Plan B, which should’ve been Plan A. Smokey and disco were as bad a mix in practical application as it looks on paper.
I’m a huge disco fan, but “Cruisin’” must have had the effect of a cleansing, cooling rain after days of uncomfortable humidity. It’s hushed and unhurried, but also passionate. Smokey’s vocal is sumptuous. It hints at sex, but doesn’t get the least bit explicit. “Cruisin’” is the Courvoisier of love songs, from the Courvoisier of love song singers.
This is a kinda shitty statistic worth mentioning: “Cruisin’” was one of the last of Smokey’s hits that was actually written by Smokey. When the guy Bob Dylan calls America’s greatest living poet can’t get on the radio anymore without help from song doctors, you know things have gone to shit.
“Cruisin’” is so good I don’t even mind hearing Gwyneth Paltrow’s Mediocre White self singing it.