Remembering Barrett Strong
The news of Barrett Strong’s death this week at the age of 81 (here’s my Guardian obituary) naturally sent me back to 1959 and “Money (That’s What I Want)”, but also to the masterpieces of psychedelic soul that Strong and Norman Whitfield created for the Temptations between 1967 and 1972. While “Cloud Nine” was the most surprising, “Ball of Confusion” the most intense and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” the creative pinnacle of this response to the innovations of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, my own favourite has always been the full 12 and a half minute version of “Smiling Faces Sometimes”, to be found on the Tempts’ 1971 album, Sky’s the Limit.
David Van DePitte, who orchestrated the track, deserves equal credit. In the first half-minute alone we’re introduced to four independent lines, one after another: James Jamerson’s stately bass guitar, a gentle bassoon, a piercing high line for violins doubled by a piano an octave down, and a nasty fuzz-tone guitar. They drift in and out before locking together, at which point a woodwind choir and French horn whoops usher in Eddie Kendricks’s lead vocal, his high tenor stripped of its usual swooning romantic urges, here quietly conveying a mess of paranoia: “Smiling faces sometimes / Pretend to be your friend / Smiling faces show no traces / Of the evil that lurks within…”
By this time there are also two rhythm guitars, one strumming open chords and another, slightly further back in the mix, using a wah-wah pedal: the sound of Blaxploitation movies. Coming up to the three-minute mark there’s a rattle of fingertips on a conga drum before the player (probably Eddie “Bongo” Brown) drops into the medium-paced groove alongside Jamerson’s running bass line. At 3:45 a single punch on a bass drum (sorry, kids: kick drum to you) prefaces the gradual entry of the kit drummer, probably Uriel Jones: just an almost subliminal 4/4 on the snare alongside the conga slaps, then fading away before returning as syncopated bass-drum beats.
The bassoon line is taken up by violas, there are flute and piccolo punctuations, and the fuzz-toned guitarist returns at 7:50 for a searing solo as the rhythm section simmers quietly. The strings swoop and dive. Then Jamerson, having explored all kinds of ornamentations and passing notes, is left alone to support Echoplexed voices before conga and strings join him, and suddenly there are two fuzz guitars — probably Melvin Ragin and Dennis Coffey — and a drummer stealing in, emphasising the first beat of each bar with a cymbal whoosh, raising the intensity. Then just bass and congas again as the singer’s voices echo off each other as they head for the horizon, towards some place into which you don’t want to follow them, fading to silence.
And that’s it. A symphony in E flat minor — the black keys. A track in which space and time expand and contract, where themes and textures are picked up, tossed around, recombined, dropped and rediscovered, all against a background of unswerving but infinitely flexible momentum. Something I’ve listened to countless times since 1971, and of which I’ll never tire. Soul music’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, if you ask me. So thank you for your creativity, Mr Van DePitte. Thank you for your virtuosity, Mr Kendricks and Mr Jamerson. Thank you for your vision, Mr Whitfield and Mr Strong. None of you, now, still with us.
I didn’t know this (or might have heard and ignored it). Absolutely brilliant. Thanks again, Richard!
Lovely tribute. Recall your glowing review of this album in MM in either July or August ’71 an issue when, unless my memory is playing tricks, you also wrote that initial article about Roxy Music !
‘Smiling Faces…’ is wonderful and eclipses both ‘…Rolling Stone’ and ‘Masterpiece’ IMHO. Not a bad album either given that it also contains ‘Just My Imagination’!!
Fabulous writing, I had never heard the track but felt like I had just by reading this. Now listening to the tune and it’s every bit as good as you describe.
That’s a superb track. Thanks for the recommendation
A brilliant analysis Richard of a track which is as mesmerising now as it was in 1971. It was the track I’d play for my “rock” friends who, even then, thought Motown was no more than a disposable three minute single.
Similarly, I endured many disdainful looks and comments when I stepped outside the boundaries of my then tribe by buying this album. Led me onto such treasures as Marvin’s masterpiece and Stevie’s classic run of albums. Thank you Richard for the vindication, especially welcome from a source I have valued since the MM. “Soul Music’s Sistine Chapel ceiling” indeed.
Superb summation of an underrated masterpiece Richard.
I still have the LP ( do we have to call it “vinyl” now?). A bit scratched and the cover’s torn but the music is still as good as it ever was.
It’s a fantastic track to which your piece does full justice, Richard. I wish I knew who played the solo trumpet that emerges at about the three minute point . . .
Tightly muted, almost buried in the mix. My guess would be Johnny Trudell: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Trudell
Second thoughts: perhaps more likely to have been Maurice Davis, who played the trumpet solo on “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”: https://bit.ly/3HH1hIr
Many thanks for taking the time to check out the trumpet credit; much appreciated.
A great commentary. I remember your review of The Sky’s the Limit. I bought it and realised it was a masterpiece. I have used the following lyrics from Barrett, as a guide in my professional life -:
Let me tell you
The truth is in the eyes ’cause the eyes don’t lie, amen
Remember, a smile is just a frown turned upside down my friend
So, hear me when I’m saying
Smiling faces, smiling faces, sometimes, yeah
They don’t tell the truth
Smiling faces, smiling faces tell lies and I got proof
(Beware) beware of the handshake
That hides the snake (can you dig it, can you dig it?)
We should perhaps remember the lyrics “My smile is just a frown turned upside down” were “borrowed” (presumably with permission) from Carolyn Crawford’s 1964 Motown song of the same name, composed by William Stevenson, Janie Bradford and Smokey Robinson.
I also got the vibe Barrett and co-writer Janie B. of “Money” were paid properly from Jobete/Motown as I sat with her and Claudette Robinson at that Jackie Wilson event. This piece also makes me realize how important the arrangers like Paul Riser and Frank Wilson were.
Thanks, Richard. Your description raised hairs on the back of my neck, whetted my appetite and most important of all, propelled me to listening. Wonderful, wonderful.. like New York, New York..have to say it twice! I saw the Temptations around that time at Sunderland Locarno..electric blue suits, single mic stand with individual mics hanging off, like a palm tree. A tuxedoed string section plus their own rhythm section. I wasn’t just my imagination, it was real.
Still got the LP, played it to death when it was first released – not heard this track for a while, so your fine piece forced me to play it – and, surprise surprise, it blew me away again like it did all those years ago.
RIP Barrett (… and Jamerson, Willis, Messina, White, etc etc
A wonderful tribute to a constellation of talent which has left an indelible mark on so many of us.
Richard – thank you for reminding about this song, which I had not heard for many years. Unbelievably I had forgotten all about it, Mea Culpa (a little acknowledgement of your Sistine Chapel reference there.) I am really pleased to discover your Blogs, courtesy of Adam White, I am now following you and looking forward to many more of your erudite musings.