The Motown Star The Beatles Said Was Like ‘God in Their Eyes’
The Beatles had many idols. They had their own personal influences, but one of their most significant inspirations was a particular Motown singer. The Beatles said he was “God in their eyes” and inspired a couple of their earliest songs and beyond.
One Motown hit maker heavily inspired The Beatles
If you’ve listened to any of The Beatles’ earlier records, you know that they harmonized excellently. That’s because they learned from the best; Smokey Robinson.
According to Rolling Stone, Paul McCartney once said, “Smokey Robinson was like God in our eyes,” and you can tell they thought that on those early records. “Nowhere was Robinson’s divine presence more felt than on With the Beatles,” Rolling Stone wrote.
With the Beatles features the band’s cover of “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and songs like John Lennon’s “Not a Second Time” and “All I’ve Got to Do,” which John once described as “me trying to do Smokey Robinson.”
Rolling Stone wrote that “All I’ve Got to Do” in particular is “one of the most soulful songs of the early Beatles originals: With its plaintive vocal, it recalls the Miracles’ ‘(You Can) Depend on Me,’ especially when Lennon’s voice soars through the bridge.
“Robinson cast a wide shadow on the Beatles long after they split: In the Seventies, Harrison wrote a tribute called ‘Pure Smokey,’ and Lennon admitted that he was still trying to sing like Robinson during the Double Fantasy sessions.”
The group felt cool covering Robinson
In the Anthology documentary (per Beatles Bible), Paul said that The Beatles felt cool covering Robinson. “A lot of our tracks may not have been ‘cool,'” he said. “I think if we’d just been cool, we wouldn’t have made it how we did. But that was a great aspect of us. John would do ‘A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues’ or ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ – you could call that cool.”
Besides Robinson, the Shirelles and the Ronnettes inspired The Beatles to do three-part harmonies. George Harrison told Guitar World, “We always loved those American girls groups, like the Shirelles and the Ronnettes. So yeah, we developed our harmonies from trying to come up with an English, male version of their vocal feel.
“We discovered the option of having three-part harmonies, or lead vocal and two-part backup, from doing that old girl-goup material. We even covered some of those songs, like ‘Baby, It’s You,’ on our first album.”
Smokey Robinson loved that The Beatles were the first white band to admit they loved Motown
Robinson loved The Beatles almost as much as they loved him. During the documentary Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever (per Rolling Stone), Robinson said he appreciated that The Beatles were the first white band to give Motown it’s credit.
“They were the first huge white act to admit, ‘Hey we grew up with some black music. We love this,'” said Robinson. “We knocked down those barriers, and I must give credit to the Beatles… It seemed like at that point in time white America said, ‘OK if the Beatles are checking them out, let us check them out,'” said the Temptations’ Otis Williams.
Robinson told Uncut that he knew the Fab Four before they broke America, while they were still playing the clubs around Liverpool. “They were already performing a version of my song, and John was asking me about this Miracles song and that Miracles song,” Robinson said. “I was very flattered he knew so much about my music. They were all lovely people, and all became my friends.”
The fortunate thing about being in The Beatles was that they got to become really good friends with a lot of their idols. Just as they were able to get close with the artists they inspired.