Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song The Tracks of My Tears. This is a great Motown song from the mid-60s. We will start with the original version by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and then discuss covers of that song by Anita Baker and Linda Ronstadt.
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and The Tracks of My Tears:
William “Smokey” Robinson, Jr. was an exceptionally versatile artist and musician. He played a major role in the founding and growth of the Motown Records empire.
Smokey Robinson grew up in the North End area of Detroit, where one of his elementary-school friends was Diana Ross. Although he was a very promising student, his real passion was for pop music.
In 1955 Smokey assembled a doo-wop group, the Five Chimes. After a couple of years and a few changes in membership, the group was re-named The Miracles.
Below, a photo of The Miracles circa 1963. Clockwise from upper L: Pete Moore, Bobby Rogers, Ronald White, Claudette Robinson, and Smokey Robinson.
The year 1957 was pivotal for Smokey, as it was then that he met the young songwriter Berry Gordy, Jr. The two of them hit it off, and Gordy began managing The Miracles. When Gordy formed Tamla Records in 1959, he naturally brought The Miracles into his stable of artists.
Tamla Records later morphed into Motown, which eventually became the incredible pop/R&B powerhouse. At that point, Gordy developed a system where he compartmentalized every aspect of his business. As a general rule, the singers were separated from the songwriters, who themselves tended to be separate from the producers, and from the house band.
However, Smokey Robinson was a notable exception to this compartmentalization. He took part in virtually every aspect of Motown operations. He was the lead singer for the Miracles, but for several years he was also their chief songwriter.
Smokey also produced several artists. In addition, he wrote a slew of Motown’s greatest hits, not only for the Miracles but also for other artists such as The Temptations, Mary Wells, and Marvin Gaye. As Berry Gordy’s best friend, Smokey also had an enormous impact on the music released by Motown, and he was a mentor to many of the musicians in that organization.
Smokey Robinson wrote a number of great hits with The Miracles, but Tracks of My Tears is by far my favorite song from that group. The song was co-written by Smokey with his Miracles band-mates Pete Moore and Marv Tarplin. Apparently that is Tarplin on guitar in the famous introduction to this song.
The Tracks of My Tears describes the situation of a man who puts on a jolly front, but who is inwardly desolate upon losing the love of his life.
People say I’m the life of the party
‘Cause I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I’m blue
[CHORUS] So 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
The tracks of my tears
The singer is only too aware of the disconnect between his cheerful outward demeanor and his inner sense of loneliness and heartache.
Outside I’m masquerading
Inside my hope is fading
What terrific lyrics! No wonder that Smokey Robinson was a renowned songwriter, even among Motown’s stable of terrific writers.
Here is a video of Smokey and the Miracles singing Tracks of My Tears, from 1965.
This could be a music video, but it really doesn’t matter. Smokey is perfectly capable of producing this in a live performance. His voice is simply beautiful – crystal clear, able to nail the high notes, with great enunciation, and conveying real sincerity.
This is your typical Motown group video – the classy dress; the simple but stylish choreography; the impressive harmonies; and the great musical backing from the Motown house band, the Funk Brothers.
The Tracks of My Tears is a highly-acclaimed song. It
was preserved by the United States Library of Congress for its “cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance” … [it was also] ranked by the RIAA and the National Endowment for the Arts at number 127 in its list of the Songs of the Century – the 365 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century.
Despite its current renown, Tracks of My Tears only reached #16 on the Billboard pop charts upon its release, although it hit #2 on the R&B listings. In fact, the highest-rated version of this song was Johnny Rivers’ 1967 cover.
Smokey Robinson has managed to sustain his wonderful voice for many years. As proof, we give you another live performance by Smokey of Tracks of My Tears.
Here, Smokey is accompanied by another Motown legend, Stevie Wonder. It’s just great to see that bright, clear voice still in great form, decades after the original song was released.
Robinson continued as lead singer of The Miracles (later re-named Smokey Robinson and The Miracles) until 1972. He had married Claudette Rogers, a member of the Miracles, in 1959. They had two children, and Smokey retired in 1972 in order to spend more time with his family.
However, one year later he returned as a solo artist, and also took on the responsibility of vice president for Motown. Although Smokey had a number of solo hits, it was not easy for him to juggle his solo career with the administrative duties at Motown.
In 1986, Smokey and Claudette Robinson divorced after it was revealed that he had a son by another woman. In 2002, Smokey married Frances Gladney, his current wife.
With such a stellar career, Smokey Robinson has received nearly every honor in the music business. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. But he was distressed that he was inducted as a solo artist, which caused considerable friction with his band-mates from The Miracles. However, in 2012 The Miracles were inducted as a group into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Smokey Robinson is an incredibly talented guy. Singing, song-writing, producing, administrative work – he excelled at all aspects of the music business. Along the way, it seems that he gained the respect and admiration of nearly everyone he worked with.
Anita Baker and The Tracks of My Tears:
Anita Baker is a singer-songwriter who has had a lot of success, but whose early life was rather difficult. She was abandoned by her mother when she was two, and raised by foster parents.
However, her foster parents both died, and Baker was then raised by her sister. At age 16 she began performing in Detroit nightclubs. There she was ‘discovered’ and became a member of the funk band Chapter 8.
Below is a photo of Anita Baker performing at Radio City Music Hall in September, 1986.
The group Chapter 8 secured a record deal with Ariola Records and released an album. However, four years later they were dropped by that label. At that point Anita Baker dropped out of the music business, returned to Detroit and took up various odd jobs.
Then in 1983 Otis Smith, a former associate of Ariola Records, contacted Baker and signed her to a record deal as a solo artist. Although her first album contained a song, Angel, that dented the top 5 in the R&B charts, Baker and Smith had serious creative differences.
A lawsuit between Baker and Smith dragged on for several months; but eventually Baker was released from her Ariola contract. She then signed with Elektra Records, and in 1986 released her first album Rapture with that label.
The album was a big hit, especially the single Sweet Love, which made it to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 record listings. Baker’s first Elektra album and her subsequent records made her a pop star. Over the course of her career she has won eight Grammys, five of her albums were certified platinum (meaning that they had sold 1 million copies), and she has also been a major draw on tour.
Here is video of Anita Baker performing Tracks of My Tears in 2008, at a charity concert sponsored by the United Negro College Fund, “An Evening of Stars: Tribute to Smokey Robinson.”
This is a concert that was filmed for TV. There are several shots of Smokey Robinson, sitting in the front and clearly enjoying the show. Anita Baker’s performance starts out a bit subdued, but she gains momentum as the song progresses. She clearly possesses a terrific voice and produces a fine performance. Good stuff!
Linda Ronstadt and The Tracks of My Tears:
Linda Ronstadt is one of our favorite artists. She is particularly interesting since she produced so many covers of great old songs. We previously discussed her work in our blog posts on the Chuck Berry song Back in the U.S.A., on the Buddy Holly song That’ll Be The Day, and the Everly Brothers’ When Will I Be Loved.
So here we will briefly review Ronstadt’s career and her work.
Below is a photo of Linda Ronstadt performing in 1976.
Linda Ronstadt is one of the most successful women artists in rock history. She has released an impressive number of albums and has sold over 100 million records. In the process, she has garnered a slew of awards and honors, culminating with her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.
One of the most impressive features of Linda Ronstadt’s music is her versatility. She has collaborated with artists in the fields of rock, country, jazz, light opera and Hispanic music.
Ronstadt was born in Tucson where her grandfather had emigrated from Germany and became a prosperous rancher and early settler in Arizona. She began her performing career in the mid-60s as the lead singer in a folk-rock-country trio, The Stone Poneys.
However, she became a blockbuster star in the 70s, when she produced a series of best-selling albums, and filled up venues on stadium tours with fellow West Coast folk-rockers such as the Eagles (who had performed in her backup group before joining forces as their own band), Jackson Browne and The Doors.
Here is Linda Ronstadt singing The Tracks of My Tears. This is a live performance from Offenbach, Germany in 1976.
Linda Ronstadt turns Smokey Robinson’s soul classic into a folk-rock tune. I really enjoy the adaptation here, in particular I find the pedal steel guitar to be quite effective. Linda’s vocal treatment is also very impressive, as she manages to convey the heartbreak in Smokey’s song in very palpable form.
At the same time, Smokey Robinson’s original record sets the bar extremely high. As much as I enjoy this song, I feel that it suffers somewhat in comparison to Smokey’s absolutely stunning vocals.
Nearly all Ronstadt’s hits were covers of standards by classic artists like Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison. However, her songs tended to feature great country-rock arrangements and catchy hook-filled production values. Plus, being marketed as a sex symbol certainly didn’t hurt Ronstadt in a business dominated by male artists.
In recent years Linda Ronstadt has concentrated on albums of traditional Mexican folk songs that she remembered from her youth. However in 2011 Ronstadt announced her retirement, and in 2013 revealed that she had contracted Parkinson’s disease, which prevents her from performing.
We hope that she is doing well, and we wish Ms. Ronstadt all the best.