“Oh man, it’s probably all over for The Miracles now that you’re leaving the group. What do you think is going to happen to them?” singer Smokey Robinson said he was asked on the inside of the gatefold sleeve to The Miracles’ post-Robinson debut, “Renaissance.”
His answer? “I think that Bob, Pete and Ron are professionals in the field of entertainment, and that under any circumstances they will be able to carry on and be fantastic if it is their desire to do so.”
To read that observers harbored such skepticism isn’t all that surprising – by the early ‘70s, the Robinson-led Miracles were a pop music institution.
The blend of Robinson’s soaring voice and The Miracles’ harmonies was effortless, sweetening hits like “Shop Around,” “Ooo Baby Baby” and “The Tears of a Clown.” By 1967, however, Robinson was given top billing and The Miracles – Pete Moore, Ronnie White and Bobby Rogers – were relegated to hooting owls on much of the group’s output, or even worse, weren’t featured at all. Then in 1972 the inevitable happened: After a lavish farewell concert, Robinson mounted a solo career and introduced his replacement, a handsome young Baltimore native named Billy Griffin. Much like The Supremes two years earlier after the exit of Diana Ross, a new day had dawned for The Miracles. Reconfigured and reenergized, the foursome issued the artistic triumph that was the Tamla LP “Renaissance” in April 1973, setting the second phase of their existence in motion on quite the high note. Though later albums would prove more successful, this remains their finest hour and the ideal starting point for those interested in the group’s underrated ‘70s canon.
Given that Griffin sings in a falsetto style like Robinson, choosing him as a replacement made sense. However, it’s important to point out that that’s where the similarities between the two singers pretty much end. While Robinson’s voice was sweetly romantic at its core, there was a no-bullshit bite to Griffin’s vocals – and they injected a lot of much-needed youth and vigor into the group’s direction. More importantly, the singers were functioning as a group again, with the harmonies as prominently displayed as the leads. Washington Post writer Ivan Brandon noted in a favorable review of an October 1973 performance at the Mark IV Supper Club that though the group featured a new soloist, the veteran members were given a more substantial role in the act than they’d seen in years. “William Griffin, the new lead singer, works well within this framework, and the group comes across more like four singers instead of a leader and three obscure backup men,” Brandon wrote. He went on to praise the group’s new sound and image, saying the combination was more than enough to keep Robinson off of fans’ minds.
The same can be said for the “Renaissance” album.
Executive produced by Robinson, the record is strikingly consistent when you consider 10 different producers were utilized in its creation. Released during an interesting and overlooked period in Motown’s storied history, it’s one of the many early ‘70s albums the label issued that painted a real musical picture rather than collect singles and filler. Much like The Temptations’ “Sky’s the Limit” or “Valerie Simpson Exposed,” “Renaissance” finds The Miracles with a brand to call their own that did its part in pushing The Sound of Young America into the new decade. Melodically and lyrically, the project is an amazing example of the label’s reconstituted vision.
The lead single, the plush “Don’t Let it End (‘Til You Let it Begin)” (No. 26 R&B/No. 56 pop) was a fitting start to the new group’s journey, as it is close enough to the classic Miracles sound to appease longtime fans and fresh enough to rope in interest from the uninitiated. This and other ballads like “If You’re Ever in the Neighborhood,” “Nowhere to Go” and “I Wanna Be With You” are fine entries into the sweet soul sweepstakes, cuts that give the best offerings by contemporaries Blue Magic and The Stylistics a run for their money.
The quartet shines in the mellow moments but they genuinely sound exciting on the album’s up-tempo material, as this seems to be where Griffin seems most in his element. The album’s opener, the percussive, rapid-fire “What is a Heart Good For” (which also surfaced on “Do It Baby” the following year) is one of the group’s best performances and should have become a hit single. Written by Leon Ware and the late Arthur “T-Boy” Ross (Diana’s little brother), the song boasts one of the group’s most clever vocal arrangements and a dynamic lead vocal from Griffin. “I Don’t Need No Reason” and “I Didn’t Realize that the Show was Over” also excel, while the sly, witty “Wigs and Lashes” finds the brothers begging for their women to let them see them for who they truly are, not what they portray themselves to be on the world’s stage. It’s obvious that the songwriters brought their best to the table here, and The Miracles are clearly giving their all. It’s almost as if they felt they had something to prove.
The stunningly beautiful “I Love You Secretly,” however, is the cut that takes top honors. Produced and co-written by Motown prince Marvin Gaye, the song is one of the greatest ballads in The Miracles’ history, with or without Robinson. Quite often, when artists of Gaye’s magnitude produce records for fellow acts it sounds almost as if they could fit on their own albums, but that is not the case with this song. Griffin’s lead aches with the unrequited love expressed in the lyrics as it glides across soft strings, horns and his group mates’ silky harmonies. Not even The Originals, who frequently collaborated with Gaye, could have brought this song across with such style. The alternate take featured on “Love Machine: The ’70s Collection” is even more memorable, complete with a spoken intro that didn’t make the original cut. Moore, who wrote the compilation’s liner notes, says he was moved to tears upon hearing it for the first time in decades. Those brothers stamped that one, no question.
For all its loveliness, “Renaissance” peaked at a paltry No. 33 R&B/No. 174 pop – a travesty when you consider the quality of the material. The group would redeem themselves from a commercial standpoint the following year with the sexy proto-disco of “Do It Baby” and “Don’t Cha Love It,” while “Love Machine” became their biggest hit single in 1975, topping the pop chart and finding life in films and commercials for years to come. The concept album that birthed the single, “City of Angels,” really was sensational, complete with a song called “Ain’t Nobody Straight in L.A.” (It’s as funny as it sounds, trust.) The group carried on, eventually landing at Columbia for the album “Love Crazy” (which saw Griffin’s brother Donald added to the lineup) and the single “Spy for the Brotherhood,” but by this point the shine had dulled. Griffin would stay at Columbia as a solo act, a tenure that yielded one of my favorite rare groove cuts, the classic dancer “Hold Me Tighter in the Rain.” He continues to record today, having issued the critically acclaimed “Like Water” in 2006. Led by Rogers, The Miracles continue to perform, though White left us in 1995 after a struggle with leukemia.
There’s always a degree of trepidation that comes over the masses when a new lead singer steps into an established group. The key is allowing oneself to let go of the image you’ve come to know and love and embrace something that can be quite rewarding. Such is the case with The Miracles and the long out-of-print “Renaissance,” a timeless classic that put a new face on a much-heralded group. Robinson addressed those who said they were not sure if the new group had that spark with a short, sweet answer as he wrapped up the album’s sleeve notes.
“You can be,” Robinson emoted. “All you have to do is listen to this album.”