Few songs are as romantic and melancholy as "Ooh Baby Baby," the classic ballad off Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' 1965 album Going to a Go-Go. While the title track emits energy and youth, "Ooh Baby Baby" conjures images of 1950s doo wop yet updates the sound for 1960s audiences. The single reached the top 20 on Billboard's Hot 100 and R&B charts upon its 1965 release. Co-written by Robinson and Miracles bandmate Pete Moore (also credited as Warren Moore), the song's anguish and sensuality has resonated for generations, inspiring an excellent 1978 cover by Linda Ronstadt. Robinson's words and emotional performance add up to one of the best slow songs ever recorded.
Motown house band the Funk Brothers provide beautifully understated accompaniment, never overshadowing Robinson's ethereal voice. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra's strings further underscore the unabashed romanticism of the tune, also ensuring the song's timeless feel. However, the Miracles' backing vocals carry the song, setting the anguished mood expressed in the lyrics. Robinson's then-wife Claudette, Ronnie White, Bobby Rogers, and Moore (who also arranged the vocals) croon in precise harmony, injecting longing into the track. Then Robinson enters the picture, and he embodies the notion of effectively using your voice as an instrument and dramatic tool. Listen to how his voice rises and falls on the word "crying" or lines such as "I can't stop trying / I can't give up hope," and receive a master class in how to sing with sincerity.
The lyrics to "Ooh Baby Baby" may be deceptively simple, but as is typical for Robinson, they overturn the traditional love song. Yes, the narrator acknowledges that he cheated on his lover with the following heart-wrenching lines:
I did you wrong
My heart went out to play
And in the game I lost you
What a price to pay
Yet after the chorus, Robinson gently suggests that his girlfriend may not have behaved perfectly, either. "Mistakes, I've know I've made a few / But I'm only human / You've made mistakes too," he croons, raising his voice on the final syllable. This significantly departs from the familiar "baby please come back" theme, where the man begs for the woman's forgiveness. While this main character acknowledges his bad behavior, his assertion that she may have played a part in the relationship's demise is bold and unusual for such a ballad. Soon the narrator returns to his words of contrition, assuming more of the begging stance:
I'm just about at
The end of my rope
But I can't stop trying
I can't give up hope
'Cause I'll be here
Someday I'll hold you near
Whisper I still love you
Until that day is here
In these verses Robinson expresses a wide variety of emotions: optimism, fear, longing, sadness, and, ultimately, love. He clearly resolves to win back her love, but realizes it will take work. He may be crying, but he also shows persistence.
Robinson's words reveal the intricacies of a relationship: perhaps they can be seen as a modern take on Shakespeare's profound words from A Midsummer Night's Dream, when Lysander proclaims "The course of true love never did run smooth." Whether Shakespeare directly influenced Robinson is unclear, but the songwriter possesses a similar skill for expressing universal experiences in a succinct yet beautiful, heartbreaking manner. These crucial ingredients absolutely define the exhilaratingly heartbreaking "Ooh Baby Baby."
As a bonus, watch Robinson's "Ooh Baby Baby" duet with Aretha Franklin on Soul Train in 1979: