One of the most gut-wrenching songs on record, this one is about a man who tries to hide his pain, but cannot conceal the tracks made by his tears. He has come out of a relationship with the love of his life, and the song is his confession to her that his high spirits are just an act and she's the only one for him, or perhaps what he wants to tell her but can't.
Miracles leader Smokey Robinson came up with the concept when he was looking in the mirror one day, and thinking, What if a person would cry so much that you could see tracks of their tears in their face?
Miracles members Smokey Robinson, Warren Moore, and Marv Tarplin wrote this song. Robinson penned the lyrics; Tarplin, The Miracles' guitarist, came up with the riff. Robinson recalled: "'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.'"
Robinson had the music Tarplin wrote on a cassette, but it took him about six months to write the lyrics. The words started coming together when he came up with the line, "Take a good look at my face, you see my smile looks out of place." From there, it was a few days before he got the lines, "If you look closer it's easy to trace... my tears."
What to do with those tears was a problem, as he wanted to say something no one has said about tears. In a 2006 interview with NPR, he explained that he finally came up with the image of tears leaving lasting marks, and the song came together. "One day I was listening, and it just came - the tracks of my tears," said Robinson. "Like footprints on my face. So that was what I wrote about."
Four different artists have charted with this song in America. Johnny Rivers had the biggest hit, taking it to #10 in 1967. Two of the most acclaimed female vocalists of their time, Aretha Franklin and Linda Ronstadt, also charted covers, Franklin's making #71 in 1969 and Ronstadt's going to #25 in 1976.
Other notable versions of this song include renditions by Go West in 1993 and Adam Lambert in 2009.
When he first recorded this song with The Miracles, Robinson left out the last chorus, fading it out on the "I need you, I need you" line. He was convinced to end on the chorus when he played the song at one of the famous Monday morning meetings at Motown, where songs were scrutinized by their team.
Robinson wrote a similar song a few weeks later called "My Girl Has Gone," which was released as the next Miracles single.
Motown head Berry Gordy has said that this song represents Smokey Robinson's best work.
The song was popular among American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War, which is reflected in the 1986 Oliver Stone movie Platoon, where the song is used.
Other films to feature the song include The Big Chill (1983), The Walking Dead (1995) and Bobby (2006). TV series to used the song include The Wonder Years and Wife Swap.
Pete Townshend of The Who was so enthralled by the way Smokey Robinson sang the word "substitute" in the lyric, he turned that word into its own song
, which became a hit for his group.