Where There's Smoke...
‘Being With You’ lives on, via Kim to Katy (and Mary J., too)
Contemporary Hit Radio (or BBC Radio 1) isn’t likely to play Smokey Robinson these days or nights, although last year you might have heard a few seconds there of his speeded-up voice from “Being With You.”
That’s because Smokey, and the inviting riff which saxman Joel Peskin played on the record, were sampled by Katy Perry for the intro and outro of “Power,” a track on her 2017 album, Witness. Over the past ten years, electropop princess Perry has been ubiquitous on modern music platforms, including CHR-formatted radio stations. So the sample should have earned Robinson some useful performance income.
Katy aside, “Being With You” has stirred interest on the Motown Forum website recently, focusing on the song’s history. In some respects, this is a well-told tale: how Kim Carnes had a Top 10 hit in 1980 with a remake of Smokey’s “More Love,” prompting him to call her producer, George Tobin, to offer “Being With You” to the singer (Robinson hadn’t recorded it himself at that point). Tobin didn’t advise Smokey that Kim was no longer a client, and encouraged him to bring over the song for him to hear.
“He’s pitching it to me for Kim,” Tobin explained in The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, “and I’m saying, ‘No, no, this is great for you, you ought to do it.’ ” As a result, Smokey got the impression that the producer didn’t like the song, and was simply trying to be tactful in declining it for Carnes. Tobin recalled for me how he set the Motown star straight. “I said, ‘Look, I’ll make the record with you, I’ll pay for it, and if you don’t like it, it can be your demo so you won’t have to go sing it live for anybody.’ Smokey replied, ‘Well, no one has ever produced me [as a solo artist] before.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’ll do it.’ ”
The outcome was a 1981 chart-buster which travelled to No. 1 on the Billboard R&B rankings, No. 1 on the Cash Box Top 100, and No. 1 on the Music Week best-seller lists in Britain. What’s more, Smokey’s Being With You album became his first and only Top 10 solo success on the pop charts.
The irony? Berry Gordy didn’t think that “Being With You” would be a hit when Tobin first spun it for him. “And I played it for everybody at Motown,” recalled George, “all of whom said, ‘It’s not a hit record.’ ” (One exception was the late Skip Miller, the company’s promotion chief, but he wasn’t about to buck Berry.) To add insult to injury, Motown was unwilling to pay Tobin his going rate for the album production. “So I told them, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. You double my royalty, and I will give you the album for free.’ They thought they were getting the deal of the week.”
Motown’s reluctance stemmed from Smokey’s relatively poor album action during the 1970s. His first solo release, Smokey in ’73, sold some 250,000 copies domestically. A Quiet Storm in 1975 did more than 400,000, but nothing after that exceeded 250,000 units until 1979’s Where There’s Smoke, which was ignited to 700,000 by its hit single, “Cruisin’.” That figure was also what Being With You achieved in the U.S., but it was additionally bolstered by business in Britain and other territories.
Smokey was a pleasure to produce, according to Tobin, who worked on – and entirely paid for – the sessions at his own Studio Sound Recorders facility in North Hollywood. “He’s like one of those guys who’s just happy to be there,” George said. “The funny part? Those were the days when the Prophet-5 was a synthesizer I was using. Smokey kept listening to the track…and I said, ‘As soon as I put the Prophet on, everything will be fine.’ He kept looking at me strangely because he had no idea what a Prophet was. Finally, he looked over at [associate producer] Mike Piccirillo and said, ‘Mike, what’s a Prophet?’ So Piccirillo said, ‘When George is all done, he makes a cassette of the rough tracks, puts it on top of the machine, and it’ll go 23 with a bullet in three weeks, 18 with a bullet in two…’ ”
The musicians on the sessions included Piccirillo on keyboards and guitar; Bill Cuomo, also on keyboards (his was the synthesizer sound which made Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” so distinctive); Scott Edwards on bass; and the afore-mentioned Joel Peskin on sax. The background vocals were provided by, among others, Smokey himself, wife Claudette, Piccirillo, Maxine and Julia Waters, and Robert John.
George Tobin and Robert John had something else in common: time spent at Motown several years earlier. John and songwriting partner Michael Gately were signed to Jobete Music in the early ’70s; Tobin said he was under contract as a producer and worked with the Commodores before James Anthony Carmichael became their go-to guy in the studio. After that, and more conspicuously, George produced a 1975 dance anthem, “(Call Me Your) Anything Man” by Bobby Moore, and Deborah Washington’s 1978 disco remake of the Four Tops’ “Standing In The Shadows Of Love.”
Next came Tobin’s productions of “Sad Eyes” by Robert John, a major hit in 1979, and Kim Carnes’ “More Love.” Which led Smokey to place that phone call…
For the record, “Being With You” was Motown’s 88th Number One on the Billboard R&B charts. Robinson wrote the company’s first (“Shop Around”) and another 12 of the 88. For his 2014 album, Smokey & Friends, he re-recorded “Being With You” as a duet with Mary J. Blige. “Mary has done a metamorphosis from when I first met her,” Robinson told Associated Press upon the album’s release. “She came from having the image of the hip-hop world into what she has now. And that’s a whole other vision of her.”
A whole other vision of Blige was apparent earlier this week, when she received two Academy Award nominations for her acting and musical contributions to the movie Mudbound. Smokey was swift with praise. “I’m so pleased you got your just due musically,” he tweeted, “and overjoyed that you got recognized for your outstanding role in this GREAT film.”
The two stars share one more link: Mudbound is a Netflix original movie, while Smokey is executive music producer for that company’s new, Motown-themed animated children’s series, Melodia, currently in production. “Being With You” may become still another vision.