ABC released “When Smokey Sings,” a tribute to Motown recording artists Smokey Robinson, in May 1987. It charted at #11 on the U.K. Singles Chart, # 5 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, and #1 on the U.S. Billboard Dance/Club Play Songs Chart. Moreover, Smokey Robinson was actually in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 with “One Heartbeat” at the same time as “When Smokey Sings.”
In the name check of R&B singers, the lyrics differ slightly between the album version and the single version.
“When Smokey Sings” was the first single from their fourth studio album, Alphabet City, which the band thought might be their last album. There was a two year gap between How to be a … Zillionaire! and Alphabet City, while lead singer Martin Fry was treated for Hodgkin’s disease. May critics felt it was a return to form for ABC, calling to mind their first album, The Lexicon of Love, which was produced by Trevor Horn. ABC produced Alphabet City with Bernard Edwards of Chic. The album title was inspired by the Alphabet City section of Manhattan that was the basis for several of the songs on the album.
When Smokey Sings [7″ Version] 4’21
When Smokey Sings [Album Version]
When Smokey Sings [The Miami Mix — German CD Single Version] 5’08
When Smokey Sings [The Miami Mix] 7’02
When Smokey Sings [The Detroit Mix] 6’47
In the style of their movie Mantrap, the music video for “When Smokey Sings” begins with Marty Fry and Mark White driving through London and almost hitting a young woman with their car. She stares at them as she walks away, heading for a separate storyline that is threaded through ABC performing on a soundstage. Visually, the video is a salute to the ‘60s, displaying vintage looks and color, and the couple have a very distinctive look. I would always watch this music video whenever it came on MTV.
Whenever I hear “When Smokey Sings,” I recall seeing the 7″ vinyl record displayed as the $0.99 Single of the Week. I liked the photograph on the record sleeve, and it was only a buck, so I bought it. I was surprised at how different it sounded compared to their “Be Near Me,” their last big hit in the states. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I liked it, but it grew on me with each listen. Over time, it made it onto the mix tape in my car and became one of the songs that painful summer of heartbreak. It’s been on my mind, lately, because I’ve been working on a story set back in the late summer/autumn of ’87, so I’ve been playing the Alphabet City album. I have to say it’s one of my favorite albums from the ‘80s, and I loved the visual imagery that runs through the videos and record sleeves.
What are your memories of “When Smokey Sings” by ABC?