William “Smokey” Robinson was the man behind many of Motown’s greatest hits– not just the tracks he recorded himself with The Miracles, he also wrote many hits for other Motown acts. But perhaps his greatest achievement was “Tracks Of My Tears“. It was selected by the RIAA & NEA as one of the 365 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century; it’s on the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s list of 500 Songs That Shaped Rock & Roll, and Rolling Stone magazine named it The Greatest Motown Song Of All Time. Join us for this episode as we explore this masterpiece.

“The Tracks Of My Tears” (William “Smokey” Robinson, Warren Moore, Marvin Tarplin) Copyright 1965 Jobete Music Co. Inc. (ASCAP)


Every good song tells a story. The story is often all there in the lyrics; sometimes you have to use a little imagination to fill in the gaps, sometimes the story is mostly in the rhythm or the groove. Sometimes the melody tells you everything you need to know. Either way, a song takes you on a journey. Sometimes inward, sometimes outward. This is the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast, where we look at how these songs, these stories, are put together and trace the steps along those journeys.

My name is Brad Page. I’m your tour guide on these musical trips. You don’t have to be any kind of musical expert here. Just open your ears and come along for the ride.

“Shop Around”, “You Really Got A Hold On Me”, “Ooh Baby, Baby”, “Going To A Go Go”, “I Second That Emotion, “Tears Of A Clown”. All of these were huge hits from Motown, all written or co-written by Smokey Robinson, and all performed by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. That’s quite a track record. But if I had to pick just one Smokey Robinson song, my favorite would have to be “Tracks Of My Tears”. Three minutes of pop perfection. On this episode, we’ll be tracing the “Tracks Of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

William Robinson Junior was born in Detroit on February 19, 1940. His uncle Claude gave him the nickname Smokey Joe because little William loved cowboy movies and that was his cowboy nickname. By the time he was twelve, he dropped the Joe, but Smokey stuck. He and his friends at Detroit’s Northern High School, Pete Moore, Ron White, Sonny Rogers and his cousin Bobby Rogers, formed a doo wop group, first called The Five Chimes and later The Matadors.

Smokey’s mother had died when he was ten years old and his sister Jerry became his legal guardian. Jerry was a jazz lover and turned Smokey onto singers like Sarah Vaughn, who became a big influence on Smokey.

I can definitely hear the influence in Smokey’s vocal style there. In 1957, Sonny Rogers left the band and he was replaced by Sonny’s sister, Claudette.

With a woman now in the group, they changed their name to The Miracles. Smokey and Claudette would eventually get married. Right around that time, they had an audition for Jackie Wilson’s manager. They didn’t get that gig, but they did meet Barry Gordy at that same audition– a chance meeting that would literally influence the course of music history. Gordy became their manager and producer, and he nurtured Smokey’s songwriting. When Gordy started Motown Records, The Miracles were one of the first artists he signed. In 1960, they released “Shop Around”, which became their first big hit, and Motown’s first million selling record.

A lot more hits would follow, including “Mickey’s Monkey” and “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me”.

And of course there was “Ooh Baby Baby”.

By then, guitarist named Marvin Tarplin had joined as an unofficial “Miracle”, and became one of Smokey’s key collaborators. Besides The Miracles, Smokey was writing and producing records for other Motown artists, like Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. By 1965, with the release of the “Going To A Go Go” album, the name of the group was changed to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. And Claudette stopped performing with the band.  Though she would record with them in the studio, no more live gigs.

“Tracks Of My Tears” was released as a single, and it’s included on the “Going To A Go Go” album. The track was recorded on January 20, 1965. It was written by Smokey Robinson, Warren Moore and Marvin Tarplin. In 2021, Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Tracks Of My Tears” as the greatest Motown song of all time.

Now, as to who actually played on the track, well, that’s tricky, because I have a hard time finding documentation of who exactly plays on a lot of these old Motown tracks. Of course, it’s well known that Motown had its own in-house band, the Funk Brothers. And if you’ve never seen the documentary about the Funk Brothers, “Standing In The Shadows of Motown”, go watch it right now. It is essential viewing. But the Funk Brothers was a conglomeration of many players; multiple drummers, guitarists, horn players, etcetera. And determining which guys played on which record, well, I found it really hard to do. So here are just some of the key players in the Funk Brothers, who probably played on this track.

You had Earl Van Dyke, who was not only a keyboard player, but also the bandleader.  On guitars, there were Robert White, Eddie Willis, Joe Messina. James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt on bass—I’m pretty sure it’s James Jamerson on this track. Drums, Benny Benjamin, Richard “Pistol” Allen and Uriel Jones. And on percussion, you had Eddie “Bongo” Brown and Jack Ashford. Jack turned tambourine playing into an art form. And for the horn section, well, that number of potential players is just too long to list here.

We do know that Smokey’s songwriting partner, guitarist Marv Tarplin, played on the track. And the members of The Miracles who provide backing vocals are Bobby Rogers, Ronnie White, Pete Moore and Claudette Robinson. With Smokey Robinson, of course, on the lead vocal, the song opens with a guitar part played by Marv Tarplin.

As the story goes, Marvin Tarplin was just kind of messing around with the chord changes to “The Banana Boat Song” by Harry Belafonte.

He switched the chords around, changed the rhythm, and the central idea for “Tracks Of My Tears” was born.

That little drum fill is such a classic Motown intro. It’s simple, but it’s so perfect. You can also hear Eddie Brown on bongos and Jack Ashford on that tambourine. The bongos are fairly low in the mix on the final version, but that tambourine jumps out through the whole song. Drum fills like that would be borrowed and used on hundreds of songs to come, because they announce what’s coming. They ease you into the song, but they don’t step on any of the other instruments or vocals. Just perfect. I believe that’s Uriel Jones playing drums on this track. One of the unsung greats.

Let’s listen to just Smokey’s vocal track. It sounds so great acapella.

Remember, this was before AutoTune and before they were punching in every other phrase or word even, to get the perfect take.

That short verse brings us right to the first chorus in classic Motown fashion. They don’t waste any time here. They’re packing as many hooks as they can into three minutes. And for my money, this chorus can’t be beat.

Smokey said that Marv Tarplin would make tape recordings of his guitar parts and give them to Smokey, and he would listen to them over and over to come up with melodies and lyric ideas for this song. The first three lines of the chorus came to him pretty quickly. “Take a good look at my face, you’ll see my smile looks out of place. If you look closer, it’s easy to trace”. You’ve got that nice triple rhyme in there, face, place, and trace. But he was stuck on what comes next. Until one day, Smokey was looking into the mirror shaving, and the thought popped into his head. What if someone had cried so much that it left tracks down their face? And that was all he needed to finish the rest of the song.

And then we have this short little two measure transition that gets us from the chorus into the next verse.

And that gets us to the second verse. And I especially like Smokey’s performance and his phrasing on this verse.

Let’s go back and listen to that vocal track again.

Smokey is not a belter. He’s a smoother, gentler singer. He’s up on the mic so you can really hear his breath. And I think that just adds to the intimacy and the humanness of the part.

Now, about the next line. Pete Townsend of The Who was a big fan of this song and the story I’ve heard– I don’t know how true this is, but what I’ve read is that Townshend was so captured with the way Smokey sings the word “substitute” that that inspired Townsend to write his song “Substitute”, which would become a Who classic.

Let’s listen to the backing track. Under that verse, you can hear some bells or maybe vibes, probably played by Jack Ashford. And notice how the strings swell up under the second half of the verse, all, um, building for that chorus. That little descending part that happens all throughout the song. That is such a crucial part of the song, resolving the end of each line, bringing it back to the start to the root. Now, let’s listen to the vocal track for this chorus and notice how he leaves out the last word of each line. Those key rhyming words, face, place, and trace. Smokey doesn’t sing them this time. He leaves that to the backing vocals.

Now let’s listen to that again as it all comes together in the final mix.

I love how they just stop there. They pause everything for a heartbeat and then another great drum fill takes us into the bridge.

That’s the crescendo of the song right there. A repeating set of four triplets, 123-223-323-423; the whole band is hitting those notes so dramatically. Even the tambourine is in on the action.  And the vocal is hitting those beats too.

Smokey Robinson and The Miracles – “Tracks Of My Tears”

My mother-in-law wasn’t what you’d call a diehard music fan, but she did love Smokey Robinson. She’s gone now. So this one’s for you, Kath.

You can be forgiven for thinking of Motown as your parents’ music. For many people, that’s probably true. The music of Motown was the sound of Young America. It was everywhere when your parents, or maybe your grandparents, were young. It’s part of the soundtrack of their youth. These songs may have been oldies by the time you were discovering your own music, but I believe– I have always believed– that there is no expiration date for a great song.

Thank you for once again joining me on the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. The journey continues, and we’ll be back in about two weeks with another new episode. In the meantime, you can find all of our previous excursions on our website, lovethatsongpodcast.com, or just find us in your favorite podcast app.

And if you’re still looking for even more musical adventures, be sure to check out some of the other podcasts here on the Pantheon Podcast Network. If you’d like to support our show, the best thing you can do is to recommend it to a friend, share it with your other music loving friends and help to spread the word.

I’ll see you soon. Thanks for listening to this episode on “Tracks Of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.


Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Motown Records

Standing in the Shadows of Motown (Documentary)