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Smokey Robinson Takes Us Back

The 12th and final cut on Smokey Robinson's new album, Time Flies When You're Having Fun, isn't even mentioned on the CD jacket. Why the secrecy? The song is Robinson's take on The Jackson 5's first hit, "I Want You Back"; he recorded it a year ago but decided not to list its title, so he wouldn't seem to be capitalizing on the death of the man he calls his "little brother."

How did "big brother" treat this nugget of bubblegum pop? Well, with the kind of masterful touch that might be expected from Motown's ultimate ladies' man. He slows it down, employs minimalist instrumentation and shows off his silky, seductive falsetto. Robinson may not soar quite as high as he did back in the days of the Miracles and, sure, there's a tiny hint of rasp once in a while. But during his choice moans in "I Want You Back," it's clear that the 69-year-old singer has still got it.

The song kicks off with Robinson's soulful finger-snapping, conjuring up the doo-wop that inspired him as a young musician and setting a deliberate pace that feels very "quiet storm." As he makes his way through the familiar lyrics, Robinson knows when to keep the melody the same and when to take liberties, as in the sexy way he sings "back in your heart" in unison with his female backup singers. This slowed-down "I Want You Back" underscores the poignancy of a man begging for one more chance. The ironic timing of the song's release adds another layer of meaning: The listener can't help but think that what Smokey Robinson really wants back is the singer who made the song famous.

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Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.