Bob Dylan once proclaimed him "America's greatest living poet," and the Beatles and Rolling Stones revered his compositions. Along with Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson is responsible for building Motown and changing soul music forever. His peerless songwriting skills stand the test of time; today his words sound as fresh and intelligent as they did in the 1960s. For the next four columns, DeepSoul will salute Robinson's silky voice and classic tunes, kicking off with the heartbreaking "Tracks of My Tears."
The track began life in 1965 when Marv Tarplin, guitarist for Robinson's group the Miracles, played the basic melody. In the five-LP publication The Motown Story, Robinson explained that "Tracks of My Tears' was actually started by Marv Tarplin, who is a young cat who plays guitar for our act. So he had this musical thing [sings melody] you know, and we worked around with it, and worked around, and it became "'Tracks of My Tears.'" Once the melody was established, Robinson began crafting the lyrics. In a 2011 interview with Sabotage Times, he explained that he worked over two days, starting with the line "Take a good look at my face." As that phrase repeated, he said he conjured an image of "someone who had cried so much that, if you looked closely enough, those tears had actually made tracks in their face. And that was it. Once I'd got that image fixed, the words poured out of me. [Sings] 'People say I'm the life of the party, because I tell a joke or two...'"
Released on June 23, 1965, "Tracks of My Tears" peaked at number two on the Billboard R&B charts but, curiously, reached only number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. Despite its now legendary status, the song was not as huge a crossover hit as one would believe. Today, the song is recognized for its complexity and sophistication. The original recording is ranked at 50 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, resides in the Grammy Hall of Fame, is preserved in the National Recording Registry, and has earned countless awards and citations. Artists such as Aretha Franklin, Linda Ronstadt, and Elvis Costello have also covered "Tracks of My Tears," but none have equalled the raw emotion of the original, thanks in large part to Robinson's melancholy vocals.
Tarplin's gentle guitar licks immediately set the tone, with Motown's incredible house band the Funk Brothers showing appropriate restraint setting the rhythm. Robinson's then-wife, Claudette Rogers Robinson, along with Pete Moore, Ronnie White, and Bobby Rogers, execute perfectly understated harmonies that cushion Robinson's falsetto pipes. "People say I'm the life of the party / 'Cause I tell a joke or two," he sings mournfully. "Although I might be laughing loud and hearty / Deep inside I'm blue." Suddenly the mood changes, the volume rising along with the Miracles' voices. "So take a good look at my face / You'll see my smile looks out of place / Yeah, look a little bit closer and it's easy to trace / The tracks of my tears," Robison cries, his words echoed by the Miracles. It's a moment of defiance, of confronting the woman who broke his heart.
Interestingly Robinson utilizes a metaphor he frequently revisits: the sad clown. "Outside I'm masquerading / Inside my hope is fading / Just a clown ooh yeah since you put me down," he croons, emphasizing the dichotomy with the "inside/outside" reference. Instead of wearing literal makeup, however, the narrator claims that his own smile is a mask he wears ever since their love ended. As Robinson and the Miracles repeat the chorus, it's evident that he has captured the anguish of love lost in this deceptively simple ballad.
Symbolism, vivid imagery, complicated rhymes, and a flawless voice: all of these elements contribute to a soul classic, and demonstrate why Robinson stands among the great songwriters as, as Dylan correctly asserted, a poet.