In the fall of 1966, The Miracles, not yet Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (at least on their US singles, as two albums had appeared with this moniker), released ‘(Come ‘Round Here) I’m the One You Need’, a springy piece of guitar driven dance pop. It’s a slight deviation from the normal Smokey track, mainly in that the lyric, though a heartfelt message meant to comfort a girl who may be losing her lover, is boasting and assertive. Robinson was always an assured singer, to me second to none in the form, but his songs are usually forlorn excursions, he the victim of loves often sad outcomes. Since the A-side did appear as such, you’d almost assume that the flip side would tread his usual waters. Little did anyone know that when flipped just how beautiful the B would be, perhaps saying in the plainest language possible that if the A is going to be this strong in confident emotional temperament, the B would have to be at least that lamenting comparatively in reverse.
‘Save Me’ was just that, and probably more. It opens to what sounds like a triangle being struck, the sound, if you will, of an elevator reaching its high rise floor destination. The content of the song is clear after its first couplet is quickly spoken in Smokey’s trademark swoon, “Now I’ve cried a river, since the day you said goodbye/Mhmm, and if you don’t come back, I’m going to drown in the tears I cry, mhmm”. This opening in tandem has, if I can have a bit more freedom here, works as Smokey rising to the pearly gates as if his soul sits in between states limbo. The elevator sound queue is cheeky; an elevator to heaven is a long pop culture staple, but as our music track shuffles in the back (Jamerson’s bass is bubbling elasticity) and Smokey yearns for (romantic) salvation we clearly understand he could be returned to Earth within the auspice of second chances. The song’s power then remains affixed for the remainder of the song between this idea of second chances just beyond our control, and the pained cries for help (the first couplet after the first chorus; “Like falling off a mountain slope, I’m sinking down so fast/Clinging to a twig of hope, that this separation won’t last”). That the song remains just a continuous cry for help, with no pointing that the singer will ever be actually helped points it towards its supreme masterpiece status. It sat right there in the fall of 1966 as Pop moved towards increasing complexity and artfulness, when in direct, stark opposition sat the Miracles depth of emotional wringing.
The song would have lasting legs beyond the dreary life in the shadows afforded to most B-sides; given the wonderful stomping shuffle on side A, many dance aficionados eventually got around to flipping it and being turned onto ‘Save Me’s transcendent charms. Within the same year a ska version, titled ‘Rude Boy Prayer’ would be worked up by scene legends Alton Ellis, Zoot Simms and Peter Austin (it’s also rumored to have Bob Marley singing amongst the back up singers as well). The title implies the religious nature of Smokey Robinson’s lyric that the delivery more than fleshes out completely. It’s was within this linage that I originally found the track as the Undertones (an Irish punk band with Northern Soul/Mod sensibilities) covered it spectacularly on their masterful 1983 album, The Sin of Pride. It’s quite a life for a B-side, but then when one has this much poetry (let’s recall that Bob Dylan—or at least someone in his vicinity*—once called Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet”) and beauty, it isn’t ever destined for a life in the usual obscurity for single flip sides.
This post, not mere coincidence, appears today, as Smokey Robinson celebrates his 76th birthday. Happy Birthday.
*the quote has largely been question as to who said it, and in quoting it so often become near truth. A history can be read here, but to me it’s of no real concern, the tracks, and the poetry of the lyrics, speak for themselves.