Forthwith follows a new feature on this blog, in which I'll be writing about a great song every day and providing a link for you to hear the song. I truly hope you enjoy what's going on here and that it makes you think about the songs you consider great.
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MAY 5, 2017
"SMILING FACES SOMETIMES" (WRITERS: NORMAN WHITFIELD, BARRETT STRONG)
ARTIST: THE UNDISPUTED TRUTH
RELEASED 1971 ON 7” 45 AND ON THE UNDISPUTED TRUTH LP
REACHED #2 ON BILLBOARD R&B CHART; REACHED #3 ON BILLBOARD HOT 100
“Smiling Faces Sometimes” is one of the first records that led me to fall in love with the human voice. And when I heard it, probably at age 10 or 11, I fell for all three singers: Joe Harris, Brenda Joyce, and Billie Calvin.
They were singing about adult experiences I’d never contemplated, but there was character, sensitivity, and veracity in their singing. Something important in the record resonated with me even as a pre-teen.
Something almost like preaching guides Harris’ lead vocal, which is echoed in honeyed tones by Ms. Joyce and Ms. Calvin. It’s a lesson, a warning, a benediction of hard-earned wisdom meant for an African American audience but applicable to many in gloomy, war-torn America in 1971: Love your brother, but watch your back.
And that production! With its silken but ominous strings, gauzy guitars, thick bass, and maracas imitating snakes, “Smiling Faces Sometimes” lives in its own gorgeous universe. Norman Whitfield’s careful, psychedelic production and the instrumental textures of the Funk Brothers always made me envision this record as the aural equivalent of sitting in a plush purple velvet chair.
The Temptations were the first to record the song, but when lead singer Eddie Kendricks quit the group, Whitfield wrote a new arrangement and bestowed it on his protégés The Undisputed Truth. He had assembled the young trio expressly to handle some of his more way-out, progressive soul numbers.
And it clicked. Thanks to Whitfield, the group, and the musicians on hand, the record is elegant and lowdown, good and evil, foreboding and smart, full of sadness and full of love.