Version Tracker examines how different artists have performed the same song over the years, adapting it to suit their own needs and times.
In an interview for Bill DeMain’s book Behind The Muse, Smokey Robinson explained that he turned a corner as a songwriter when he stopped thinking about “writing a record.” According to Robinson, his Motown boss Berry Gordy taught him to think about songs as little stories or films, with their own continuity—a beginning, middle, and end that all make sense together. Once he could do that, he could create something durable. “It might not have the right treatment the first time people hear it,” he told DeMain. “It might not take off, or it might not be accepted widely. But if it’s a song, it has a chance to live on and on and on.”
Robinson should know. The Miracles’ frontman wasn’t just one of Motown’s most famous faces; he’s also a credited songwriter on enduring hits like “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” “Tears Of A Clown,” “I Second That Emotion,” and “Ain’t That Peculiar.” In 1965, Robinson and Miracles bass vocalist Warren “Pete” Moore worked with a guitar riff by their bandmate Marv Tarplin and came up with “The Tracks Of My Tears,” a catchy midtempo ballad about a man who pretends to be happy when he can’t be with the woman he loves. Though it only reached No. 16 on Billboard’s Hot 100, the song routinely makes lists of the greatest singles in pop, rock, and R&B history—including landing at No. 46 on critic Dave Marsh’s The Heart Of Rock & Soul list of the rock era’s 1,001 best.
In his book, Marsh wrote:
Robinson’s talents as songwriter, arranger, and producer far surpass his vocal ability… It’s the things that set up the singing that make his records memorable. With its crying lead and doo-wopping vocal background, “The Tracks Of My Tears” is a throwback to the days of R&B smoothies like Clyde McPhatter. What brings it up to date are the details: huge drums, a lovely guitar line by cowriter Marv Tarplin, sharp horns, hi-fi dynamics. The lyrics might be flimsy if their rhyme scheme weren’t so intricate. “My smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you” is tremendous not for what it says but because it sings. If you’re going to be the coolest crooner around, it helps to know how to craft such material. Only one guy did.
Marsh is mostly saying what Robinson has said: “The Tracks Of My Tears” is wonderful because of its superior craftsmanship, not because it’s flashy. The song been covered regularly—and successfully—over the past 40 years, but most versions tend to follow the blueprint of The Miracles, from the simple opening guitar lick to the soft, sweet harmonies on the chorus. The variations below then are fairly subtle in their differences, which have to do more with production trends and personal statements than they do with reinterpreting a song that doesn’t demand many changes.
Because Motown in the 1960s was more singles-driven than album-oriented—and because Gordy liked his acts to record far more material than ever got released—the label’s archives are filled with similar takes on Motown staples. Gladys Knight’s “Tracks Of My Tears” actually came out around the time it was made, while the Martha Reeves cut popped up on rarities collections decades later. Both are appealing extensions of the house style that gave birth to the song in the first place. The Pips sing the backup vocal part slightly out of step with Knight’s rich, raspy vocal, giving the chorus a more complex rhythmic structure; while Reeves sings the lead in a evocatively affectless tone and her band works at a slightly quicker pace than The Miracles did. The Knight version is more vibrant, but there’s an alien edge to The Vandellas’ that has its own strange pull. Grades: A-/B+
Pop scholars have filled hundreds (or thousands) of pages with analysis of the differences between Motown and Stax, Atlantic, and the other major R&B labels of the 1960s and 1970s. Aretha Franklin’s version of “Tracks Of My Tears” wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Motown compilation, but it does have some subtle distinctions that mark it as an Atlantic recording, such as the simpler instrumental backing that puts the emphasis on Franklin’s big, expressive voice. Franklin’s usual Muscle Shoals crew—with producer/engineer Tom Dowd working the boards—bring a little southern gospel ecstasy to the number too, especially when the horns start engaging in a call-and-response with the singer in the final half-minute. Grade: A
One of the true measures of a song becoming standard is when covers start popping up where least expected. White pop/rockabilly guitarist Johnny Rivers had a bigger hit with his version of “Tracks Of My Tears” than The Miracles did, hitting the Billboard Top 10 with a string-and-flute-enhanced interpretation that comes across as overly fussy and strained in comparison to the original (or to Aretha Franklin’s near-definitive later version). Martin, meanwhile, followed the lead of his drinking buddy Frank Sinatra in belatedly trying to embrace pop trends, crooning a schmaltzy take on “Tracks” that pairs a reasonably hip arrangement with a vocal that sounds tossed off. Grades: B-/C+
The influence of American R&B was felt around the world as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, and as multiple indigenous music scenes started incorporating strains of western funk and soul. Yet both Pat Kelly’s reggae “Tracks Of My Tears” and Mongo Santamaria’s Afro-Cuban version remain remarkably faithful to their source material, aside from the little hitches in the beat that are attributable to their genres. Sanataria’s slowed-down instrumental is more distinct, but it’s still basically The Miracles’ arrangement, with more flourishes in the brass section. Grades: B/B-
When the soul scene shifted from AM-friendly pop to FM-ready funk in the 1970s, classic Motown fell out of favor, though there were a few acts who tried to reimagine the old hits for a heavier era (similar to what Motown’s own Rare Earth did with its 20-minute acid-rock spin on “Get Ready”). Chicago’s The Pharaohs make a few mildly radical changes to “The Tracks Of My Tears,” from a lengthy intro that incorporates casual chatter among friends (à la Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On”) to a slowed-down tempo and jazzy orchestration that seems to split the difference between Blood, Sweat & Tears and War. Grade: B+
During her mid-1970s heyday, Linda Ronstadt took some heat from critics for the way she converted old soul, country, and rock favorites into pleasant Southern California easy-listening (while making millions of dollars in the process). But while her “Tracks Of My Tears” lacks spunk, it does find a sweet spot between different genres. Ronstadt sings like a genuinely heartbroken woman, morosely turning the dial on her radio, looking for some musical empathy. Ronstadt’s friend Dolly Parton essentially covered that 1973 version on her 2008 album Backwoods Barbie, adding some modern production polish but otherwise settling into the same relaxed, melancholy, twangy mode. Grades: B/B-
Bryan Ferry was just becoming known to a worldwide audience as the lead singer of Roxy Music when he recorded his 1973 debut solo album, These Foolish Things, which surprised many with its relatively faithful covers of classic pop. The main twist that Ferry puts on songs like “The Tracks Of My Tears” was his cabaret-inspired vocals, which teeter on the edge of camp. The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone gives an equally European accent to his 1982 take (a minor hit in the U.K.), but his voice sounds sweeter and more sincere. The overall tone of both is very similar, but while each is respectful in its way, Ferry’s is more like performance art while Blunstone’s reaches out to people. Grades: B+/B+
The only “Tracks Of My Tears” on this list that’s a total goof, Half Japanese’s half-assed take comes from the era when David and Jad Fair were bashing out just about any old tune that they could even partially remember, and documenting the outcome on cheap equipment. This cover’s relevance is in how it reinforces the song’s ubiquity. Grade: C-
On Big Country’s first tour, while the band was still riding high on its hit album The Crossing (with its singles “In A Big Country” and “Fields Of Fire”), bandleader Stuart Adamson padded out an otherwise short set-list by performing a surprisingly faithful “Tracks Of My Tears,” with none of his typical guitar pyrotechnics. Like the politicized punk-folkie Billy Bragg—who also covered “Tracks” live in some of his early live sets—Big Country called back to Motown as a way of claiming a sometimes-hard-to-spot connection to the past, to put idiosyncratic songwriting into a larger context. Bragg has the edge, because his stripped-down arrangement and softer vocal cuts closer to the heart of Robinson’s original. Grades: B-/B+
The soulful U.K. pop duo Go West hit the charts at home with a highly 1990s approach to “The Tracks Of My Tears,” with percolating electronics that make the rhythm track and much of the instrumentation sound synthetic. La Toya Jackson did much the same for her insipid 1995 version, recorded as part of an entire album of Motown covers (a crassly commercial move, since La Toya was never really part of the Motown family). The Go West “Tracks” is at least sung well, but neither of these is, as Robinson might put it, “the right treatment.” Grades: C/D
The 2000s have seen a preponderance of aging rock and pop stars filling albums with glossy covers of boomer favorites. The Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald actually waited until the second volume of his “Motown” LP series to do “Tracks Of My Tears,” in a syrup-slow, over-produced version redeemed only by McDonald’s effortlessly commanding voice. Rod Stewart included “Tracks” on the sixth of his “Songbooks”—this one called Soulbook—and like the rest of the songs on those records, The Miracles cover is bombastic and excessively dramatic. The downside to how entrenched this tune’s become is that acts like McDonald and Stewart can effectively sleepwalk through performances, coasting on the inherent likability of Robinson’s composition. Grades: C+/C-
One way that Boyz II Men tried to fulfill the latter half of its name was to record a Motown tribute album, featuring a “Tracks Of My Tears” that gets the harmonies right yet still comes across as punchless. As for the Irish “man band” Boyzone, its “Tracks” (from its own Motown covers record) has a pleasurable thump, but as with too many versions cut post-1980, it sounds pro-forma. A lot of the modern acts seem to miss what the song is meant to be, and just take advantage of a memorable melody to pass their fans’ time unobjectionably for three or four minutes. Grades: C+/C+
The reduction of “Motown” to a replicable style reached an apotheosis in reality competitions like American Idol, which have made “Motown week” a common challenge for contestants. At least these shows try to respect the history and cultural significance of the label though—as when American Idol had Robinson on as a mentor, in a week where future runner-up Adam Lambert performed an acoustic “Tracks Of My Tears” that was one of the best in over 35 years. Like too many Idol numbers, it eventually turns into too much of an excuse for the singer to show off, but for a good long while, the restrained arrangement and heartfelt vocal come closer to capturing Robinson’s intention than anybody has in a long while. Grade: B+
Ideal cover: It’s hard to beat Aretha Franklin’s take, which has a progression that even The Miracles’ misses, adding instruments and emotional changes as it plays out. Too few covers have followed Franklin’s lead.
Ideal artist: Well, Franklin’s still alive, although judging by her overworked 2014 album Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics, she might not be the best person right now to interpret herself. The 2013 Mavis Staples album One True Vine—produced beautifully by Jeff Tweedy—has exactly the right vibe for a new “Tracks Of My Tears.”