Smokey's 'Big Time' Education
MUCH IS LEARNED, A FORTUNE IS LOST
Sometime soon, Netflix is expected to announce an airdate for its animated series based on the songs of Motown, for which Smokey Robinson is executive music producer.
The producer/director is Josh Wakely, known for success with another animated music series for Netflix, Beat Bugs, featuring Beatles copyrights. When the Motown project was originally announced in July 2016, it was described as drawing inspiration from songs “made famous by the likes of” Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, Lionel Richie, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and Smokey himself, of course.
“Set to a backdrop of incredible tunes,” announced Netflix, “the untitled Motown project revolves around the visually stunning adventures of a loveable and slightly shy eight-year-old boy named Ben, with an extraordinary artistic ability to bring street-art to life.” Ben and friends, it seems, live in the imaginary city of Motown – they’re not the only ones – and discover that “creativity is magic as they revive vibrancy to their city and learn life lessons.”
The production company, Grace/Beyond, cut a deal for use of the Jobete catalogue with Sony/ATV, and a primary investor in the series is Universal Music, owner of Motown Records. The latter will market the soundtrack recording.
This is the latest, and far from the first, venture into moving pictures for Mr. Robinson. In the 1970s, he tried to interest Motown in an animated film project about the first men on earth in Africa, for which he also wrote some songs, while in the ’80s, he fronted a network TV series, The Motown Revue starring Smokey Robinson. He also dabbled in acting: for example, in TV episodes of Police Woman with Angie Dickinson and Police Story with Mel Ferrer during the ’70s, and in a 1986 action movie, Knights Of The City, with Leon Isaac Kennedy.
The Kennedy connection brings to mind Smokey’s hitherto best-known – and most expensive – foray into film. This was the 1977 crime caper called Big Time, into which he poured his soul, put up most of the budget, spent every day on-set during its production, wrote songs for the soundtrack, met distributors, and promoted the final product with a short concert set before the film’s screening in a number of cities.
“I wanted to move into movies,” said Smokey, simply.
'LEON THE LOVER' FROM CLEVELAND
The Motown maestro told me that and more during an interview done as Big Time was making its way into American cinemas. The picture was co-written and co-produced by Kennedy, a Smokey soulmate, judging by his autobiography, Inside My Life. “I call Leon my brother brother,” the singer-songwriter confided. “I met him at Leo’s Casino in Cleveland. It was the sixties and he wasn’t even old enough to get into the club. He snuck backstage.” Smokey added, “Once I met him, I adopted him for life. I loved him.”
Leon Isaac, nine years younger than Robinson, was born in Cleveland, but well-known in Detroit as DJ “Leon the Lover” on local, R&B-formatted WJLB-AM during the late ’60s. That the two were close became clear when Smokey served as best man at Leon’s 1971 marriage to Jayne Kennedy, a former Miss Ohio USA. (It was hardly a surprise, therefore, when Jayne was picked to star in Big Time, together with Christipher Joy and Tobar Mayo.)
Robinson was initially approached about the project by producers Andrew Georgias and Louis Gross. “They came to me, along with about 15 other potential investors, and sold us this short film,” he recalled. “And I liked what I saw there and thought it would have a great deal of potential for us to do some really funny things with it. I financed the entire thing so that I could have complete creative control, and from that time, I was involved with every aspect of it.
“I’d get up at like 6:30 in the morning so I could be on the set by 7, and usually we worked until at least 7 or 8 at night, shooting. Then I’d go home for a couple of hours, and the soundtrack album was basically recorded at the studio I had built at the back of my house. I would work in the studio on the soundtrack for maybe two or three days a week, stay in there until maybe 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, then go to sleep and wake at 6:30 and go back [to the set].”
The scriptwriting of Big Time had begun in June 1976 and was completed in July; filming ran through August. In October, there was a slight obstacle. Georgias and Gross sued Smokey and three others, according to trade mag Variety, over “a quarrel over credits” and an allegation that the original short version of the film was missing. “The inspirational thing of it was I saw a short version of the basic idea for the film,” agreed Smokey during our interview, but the legal dispute was quietly settled.
By April 1977, most of the production was done, save for last-minute changes to improve narrative coherence. “I had to go back and reshoot about the last fifteen or twenty minutes,” Smokey noted. Everything was wrapped up by June, when Motown put out the soundtrack album, followed in August by the film’s theatrical release.
'DEEP IN MY SOUL' ON SUNDAYS
Robinson’s workload was compounded by the “regular” studio LP which he was recording in ’76. “Even on Sundays, I was working at the Motown studios on the Deep In My Soul album, which was written and produced by others,” he said. “It would have been impossible for me to do it [myself] and to come out with any kind of quality.”
Deep In My Soul was issued early in 1977 as an eight-track assembly of songs by the likes of Jeffrey Bowen, Kathy Wakefield, Michael Sutton, Donald Baldwin, Elliot Willensky, Larry Brown and Bobby Belle. The producers included Bowen, Willensky, Sutton, Brown, Belle, Hal Davis and Terri McFaddin. “A lot of people didn’t want to accept it because I didn’t write it,” said Robinson. “And people called me with all kinds of things: ‘Do you think you’re running out of material?’ ‘Do you think that you can’t write songs anymore?’ Everyone didn’t know that I was so involved with Big Time at that time.”
More importantly, he added, the involvement of others in Deep In My Soul sent a signal of encouragement, “especially for young, starting songwriters and producers. [It showed that] Motown had a very open heart, a very open mind to new material and new people. And it saved my life, so to speak, because for any singer – I don’t care how long you’ve been in the business or what your particular ties are with the record company – you still have to deliver. So they delivered for me on that [album]. All I had to do was go into the studio and sing it, and it was a great pleasure.”
For Big Time, Robinson produced and wrote all the background and foreground music, with collaborators on three songs, including his elder sister, Rose Ella Jones. (This is the title track.) Also drafted for the album was one of his earlier solo hits, “The Agony And The Ecstasy.” His intimate involvement with the making of the film “gave me deeper insight into the music,” Smokey told me. “I knew basically what I wanted to do all along, rather than if someone had come to me with the script and said, ‘Hey, would you like to do the score for this film?’”
Such effort must have made Robinson all the more disappointed with the commercial results. Big Time was blessed neither with good reviews, nor good boxoffice. In Rolling Stone, critic Dave Marsh wrote of the soundtrack album that “some of the instrumental passages are fit only for elevators and shopping malls…which drags the record down.” However, he did concede that “on the four songs he sings, Robinson sounds as good as he has at any point since leaving the Miracles.” In the New York Times, reviewer Janet Maslin was eviscerating about the film. And before the end of 1977, Big Time was being bundled with Bruce Lee pictures for “$3 per carload” ticket offers at drive-in theatres.
Robinson subsequently accepted that the adventure was “an education,” rather than a profitable pursuit. The scale of that personal loss? It’s been estimated at $500,000, equivalent to more than $2 million today.
The experience may yet compensate for the fiscal deficit. Robinson is sure to be well rewarded for his counsel on the Netflix series, and will also be nobody’s fool with his own biopic, currently being scripted by “the guys who did Ray,” he said a few months ago. That film earned a half-dozen Oscar nominations, and two wins.
Not to mention the value bestowed upon him by one of the Big Time co-producers. When Smokey’s cocaine addiction was destroying his personal and professional well-being in the 1980s, it was Leon Isaac Kennedy who helped him onto the path to recovery. Now that’s time well spent.
Music notes: the Big Time soundtrack is available on streaming services, replicating its reissue on compact disc in 2010. It was packaged then with Deep In My Soul as the third volume of a Smokey solo albums series. An added virtue of that CD release: insightful liner notes by Peter Doggett, to whom Robinson admitted about the movie: “I lost a fortune.”