Songs Written In Tribute #1 – ‘When Smokey Sings’ by ABC

As a great fan of alphabetisation, I have often wondered how I could create “a series” by working my way through the 26 letters of our alphabet, in song, but impossible of course, as how on earth could you ever pick only one artist to suitably represent each letter. Had this series ever become a reality, it would have been a no-brainer to kick the whole thing off with the band ABC who had great success in the early 1980s, their album Lexicon of Love spawning no less than four top twenty singles.

The band came from Sheffield, a city that has a rich history of producing successful musicians. I’ve written about this around here before, but it seems twice as many people in Sheffield (percentage-wise) are engaged in the creative industries compared to the national average. The city suffered the collapse of the steel and coal industries in the ’70s and ’80s and there does seem to be a correlation – When work is no longer plentiful, young people have the time and energy to exercise their creativity which no doubt led to a flurry of artists from that city having peppered the charts over the years – Human League, Heaven 17, Pulp, Babybird, Moloko and The Arctic Monkeys, as well as the aforementioned ABC.

After hearing a song by ABC on the radio last week, it occurred to me that another series could be derived from one of their best-loved hits. Over the years songwriters have often paid tribute to artists who have gone before, and in 1987 ABC released When Smokey Sings, a tribute to the great Smokey Robinson. It narrowly missed the UK Top 10 but the song did give the group their biggest hit in the US. Here’s a reminder of how it sounds.

When Smokey Sings by ABC:

Martin Fry, the vocalist and writer of the song is looking very dapper in this clip, as many bands of the blue-eyed soul persuasion did in those days. He was usually dressed in a smart suit with big shoulder pads, and his short blond hair was always neatly blow-dried into place. It was the mid-80s, so of course there had to be a saxophone in the mix, but it really works, and I don’t think this song has dated much at all.

But how does it compare to something by the man himself? Well the song I most associate with Smokey Robinson & the Miracles is this one, Tears of a Clown, written in 1967 but becoming a No. 1 hit in the UK in 1970. Smokey Robinson had arrived at Berry Gordy’s Motown studios in 1957 with a book containing over 100 songs he had written whilst still a schoolboy, so a bit of a “boy wonder”.

Pagliacci, the Sad Clown

Talking of wonder, it was Stevie Wonder who came up with the music for Tears of a Clown with Smokey adding the lyrics later. He decided it sounded like circus music, so came up with lyrics based on the Italian opera Pagliacci all about a clown who must make the audience laugh while he weeps behind his makeup because his wife betrayed him – The sad clown.

Tears of a Clown by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles:

Watching this clip, the set designers seem to have had a bit of a field day, as was often the case with light entertainment shows around that time. As someone said in the clip’s comments boxes, they probably went on to work on screen savers for Microsoft in later life. Like Martin Fry, Smokey and the boys are looking very dapper in their purple suits and bow ties, but this time, no big shoulder pads.

So, two songs written 20 years apart, one a tribute and one by the recipient of the tribute, but which artist do we now warm to most all these years later? On this occasion I’m going with Martin Fry and ABC, as their canon of work best fits my era. Controversial perhaps, but as our blogging friend Charity Chic always says, others may chose to disagree.

Until next time…

When Smokey Sings Lyrics
(Song by Martin Fry/Mark White)

Debonair lullabies
In melodies revealed
In deep despair on lonely nights
He knows just how you feel
The slyest rhymes, the sharpest suits
In miracles made real

Like a bird in flight on a hot sweet night
You know you’re right just to hold her tight
He soothes it right, makes it out of sight
And everything’s good in the world tonight

When Smokey sings, I hear violins
When Smokey sings, I forget everything
As she’s packing her things
As she’s spreading her wings
The front door might slam
But the back door it rings
And Smokey sings, he sings

Elegance in eloquence
For sale or rent or hire
Should I say yes and match his best
Then I would be a liar
Symphonies that soothe the rage
When lovers’ hearts catch fire

Like a bird in flight on a hot sweet night
You know you’re right just to hold her tight
He soothes it right, makes it out of sight
And everything’s good in the world tonight

When Smokey sings, I hear violins
When Smokey sings, I forget everything
As she’s packing her things
As she’s spreading her wings
Smashing the hell
With the heaven she brings
Then Smokey sings, he sings

When Smokey sings, I hear violins
When Smokey sings, I forget everything
As she’s packing her things
As she’s spreading her wings
She threw back the ring
When Smokey sings
Smokey sings
Smokey sings

Author: Alyson

Whenever I hear an old song on the radio, I am immediately transported back to those days - I know I'm not alone here and want to record those memories for myself and for the people in them. 50 years ago the song "Alfie" was written by my favourite songwriting team Bacharach and David - The opening line to that song was "What's it all about?" and I'm hoping that by writing this blog, I might find the answer to that question.

19 thoughts on “Songs Written In Tribute #1 – ‘When Smokey Sings’ by ABC”

  1. Great idea for a series, and two fine tunes to start it off. I will have to go with Smokey though, despite being a child of the 80s. I suspect I may always go with the inspiration rather than the inspired, but I hope to be proven wrong.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I hope to find out a bit more about those artists I know very little of, but have songs written about them.

      The story behind Smokey’s song was really interesting I thought, from a time before clowns gave us nightmares (blame Stephen King).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. So am I – I’m going to learn a lot about artists from a bit before my time. Sorry, there was supposed to be a link to your name in the above post but it didn’t seem to work – Have fixed it now.


  2. Yes – a lovely new series to be excited about! Great idea and you’ve got me thinking – look forward to more.
    And if you’re putting points in columns for this, mine goes in Smokey’s please!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lots of tribute songs out there and although I obviously knew a bit about Smokey there are many tribute songs where I know very little about the person i.e. Blind Willie McTell?!?

      Not sure if this is going to work as a compare and contrast actually as it seems to be more about the artist than the song, but if we compare artists, yes a tick in the Smokey box for you. I know I should probably go for Smokey too if I was being objective, but music also reminds you of times in your life, and I really enjoyed the mid ’80s. This ABC song reminded me of those days. Can’t say I ever went out with anyone who looked like Martin Fry though who wore sharp suits and had blow dried hair! He certainly did cut a dash.


  3. Alyson,

    I think I’d side with you on choosing ABC, for similar reasons. It was just at the right time of my youth. You are probably right to think of “Tears of a Clown” when you think of iconic Smokey, but you could have also gone with “Ooo Baby Baby”, “I Second That Emotion”, or “The Tracks of My Tears.” (The latter two would automatically be disqualified by Jack Black for ‘their association with The Big Chill’ if you recall the High Fidelity scene!) My first association with Smokey, though, would have come just before Lexicon of Love…namely, Smokey’s solo tune “Being With You” from 1981.

    Have you checked out Lexicon of Love II? I really thought Martin Fry & co. captured the spirit of the first album in an effort that was just as compelling as the first. It might be overblown to call it a “triumphant return”, as it never really did anything on the charts. However, it allowed the new romantic movement to briefly shine again, but without being maudlin or oversentimental. Just a back-to-basics effort and a fitting punctuation mark to ABC’s career. Looking forward to seeing more of the series.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes I went with iconic Smokey and I do remember Tears Of A Clown from my childhood – I can’t find it now, but I’m pretty sure Pans People did a dance to it on TOTP wearing clown costumes. Smokey would have been one of those artists they couldn’t get to appear live on the show so the dance troupe would have been brought in. But, very vague memories of it, whereas the ABC years are much clearer in my mind and when I heard their song of the radio the other day it made me really happy. I have watched High Fidelity since starting this blog and have a copy of it on DVD but I can’t remember that scene – Will have to watch it again soon.

      Didn’t know they had made a Lexicon of Love II. Having just looked it up it seems to be a fitting follow up to LoL1, for chaps now in their late 50s. Martin’s still looking pretty good today and he popped up on a mainstream telly show set in Sheffield recently. It was about how “the corner shop” has changed over the decades and for the ’80s episode he came in to buy a copy of Smash Hits magazine, one where he was on the cover. Needless to say the lady who was playing the shopkeeper role was a bit star struck as she’d been a big fan back in the day. Martin talked a bit about the Sheffield of his youth – Was a nice segment.

      Thanks for dropping by.


  4. A strong start to the new series – pressure is on now.
    Bated breath for the B selection …
    Although to segue from this post, could the next one be The Beat’s cover of Tears Of A Clown?
    (I doubt it, it’s not a song written in tribute, merely a cover version (but a very fine cover version indeed)

    Couple more Sheffield bands for the list:
    Def Leppard
    Joe Cocker
    Richard Hawley
    John Shuttleworth

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wasn’t sure if I would stick to the A-Z format for this series but I suppose that does make it more of a challenge, and I have started with A for ABC after all. I actually wrote about The Beat recently when I had to source a ‘mirror for my new bathroom’ (made sense)! I shared a link to Tears of a Clown back then and really enjoyed it so why not share it again.

      Yes, lots of other Sheffield bands/artists I could have mentioned but I was being lazy and just used a snippet I’d already written in a post about Human League – Thanks though.


  5. I love ABC. And on the back of reading this have been playing Lexicon of Love II almost continually, a great (stand alone) album but so obviously a bookend to the original.
    Got loads of example of tributes but of course I won’t step on your toes!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Alyson,
    Before you leave this post for your most recent one, I wanted to share with you how your writing caused me to revisit some of my old CDs (or their mp3 equivalent). Long a fan of Jimmy Webb and more recently of singer/songwriter Phil Sloan (aka PF Sloan), my morning ‘concert’ was Rumer’s “Boys Don’t Cry” CD coupled with Webb’s “Still Within The Sound Of My Voice” (Rumer duets on the title song). On the Rumer CD, the lead single is her version of Jimmy Webb’s “PF Sloan’. I created a playlist in the shuffle mode. Not a bad song in there!
    What a great voice Rumer has. What songs Webb wrote and what an underappreciated songwriter was PF Sloan. From ‘Secret Agent Man to ‘A Must To Avoid’ to ‘The Turtles’ and the ‘Grass Roots’, plus all the session work along the way.
    So, thanks for starting the thread that led to a great listening morning.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad I inspired you. I love Rumer’s voice as she so reminds me of the late Karen Carpenter, and Jimmy Webb is a god as we all know. I’m going to have to investigate PF Sloan as although I’ve seen him being shared on some of the other blogs I don’t really know his songs at all. Thanks for the heads up.

      Liked by 1 person

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