unCOVERed: “Who’s Lovin’ You” Featuring The Miracles VS. The Jackson 5
by Matthew Allen
“When I…had you….” and so opens the regretful lament that is “Who’s Lovin’ You,” a ballad that depicts the story of a man who takes a good woman for granted, only to realize how good he really had it after it’s too late. Set to a slow pace in a ballroom dancehall style of the 1960s midwest, “Who’s Lovin’ You,” is a definitive woulda-coulda-shoulda anthem. And while never being an official hit with any artist, it’s been covered by a slew of acts over decades, from David Ruffin and The Supremes to En Vogue and Terrance Trent D’Arby. However, the best known versions are the original version by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles and the 1969 version by The Jackson 5.
Which one is the best? With soulhead, the topic will be unCOVERed.
The Miracles, 1960
The story begins with William Robinson, Jr., known to the world as Smokey. The OG VP of Motown Records has contributed as many additions to the Great Black American Songbook as anyone; “Tracks of My Tears,” “Ooh Baby Baby,” “More Love,” “Tears of a Clown,” “Second That Emotion,” and those are just the ones he kept for himself and his group, The Miracles. In 1960, the soon to be 20-year-old wrote and released “Shop Around,” the song that would open a door for the fledging label that would never close again. The B-Side of that 45 was a ballad featuring some woesome do-wop style singing, mixed with a slow rolling beat and earnest guitar strumming. Smokey’s vocals went from the silky, slyness he became notorious for to a brokenhearted outcry that spoke to the listener. “Shop Around,” as history has told us, was a number one R&B smash that ushered a seemingly endless string of hits for The Miracles into the next decade. Paired with “Who’s Lovin’ You,” it established Smokey as a consumate musical poet and hitmaker.
The Jackson 5, 1969
By 1968, Motown Records had gone from being a scrappy independent upstart in Detroit, to being a massive national music juggernaught with unsurpassed influence. After weathering the storm of losing Holland-Dozier-Holland and navigating Stevie Wonder‘s transition from child star to budding adult genius, things couldn’t be better for the label. That is until a 10-year-old kid from Gary, Indiana, walked through the door with his four older brothers. Everyone knows the legend of the infamous Jackson 5 audition tape, seeing a young Michael Jackson crush James Brown’s “I Got The Feeling,” mimicking his voice and movements to a T. What gets lost is the rest of the story. Gordy and Smokey witnessed first hand the pure authenticity of Jackson’s voice when he sang “Who’s Lovin’ You” in Gordy’s office. They were dumbfounded how a child could emote the sadness and heartache of Robinson’s story and make is so believable. The Jackson 5 wound up recording the song a year later, updating it with a fatter bass part and prominent Fender Rhodes, and like The Miracles, they put it on the B-Side of their first number one single, “I Want You Back.”
The harmonies of J5 were tighter than that of The Miracles. Smokey’s delicate vocal intro cuts right to the point, versus the Rhodes intro of the remake, which gives no clues to what direction the song may take you. Not that any of that matters, though. In the end, Michael Jackson’s prodigious voice trumps supercedes everything. The Jackson 5 wins.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and television producer. In addition to soulhead, his work can be found on EBONY, JET and Wax Poetics Magazines. To keep up with his work, follow him on Twitter and visit his blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict. Check out some of his work for soulhead.