En español | Just looking at the lyrics on the page — “I second that emotion ...” or “... it's easy to trace the tracks of my tears” — the music comes flooding back to the mind, like muscle memory for the brain. Somehow it's not 2021, but a high school dance or a college party circa late 1960s or early ‘70s. Smokey Robinson's power is long lasting. In 2015, he even had President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama singing along to “My Girl” (looking like they knew every word) at a White House performance full of VIPs. He's playing dates this summer that include all the classics at 81 years young.
Robinson wrote more than 4,000 songs and dozens of Top 40 hits, including “My Girl” for The Temptations, “My Guy” for Mary Wells and “Ain't That Peculiar” for Marvin Gaye. But Robinson also sang many of his hits: “The Tracks of My Tears,” “I Second That Emotion” and “The Tears of a Clown,” among them.
In a series of videos for AARP, Robinson, who is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame and has been honored by the Kennedy Center and with the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, shares the backstory on the famous Motown songs we can conjure up in our heads at the strike of the first chord. He's a great songwriter, for sure. Here we see he's a great storyteller, too.
Robinson first styled teen star Mary Wells as a calypso singer, but it was this 1964 female-fidelity anthem (with Wells improvising a jokey impression of sultry Mae West at the end) that made her Motown’s first star, scoring the label’s first No. 1 single, which interrupted the Beatles’ reign of four top singles in a row. But her contract permitted her to quit at 21, so her follow-up song “Where Did Our Love Go?” went to the formerly unpromising Supremes. Wells’ career sank, and the Supremes soon gave the Beatles more to worry about — and Robinson more hits to celebrate.
The Tears of a Clown
The best Christmas present Smokey Robinson ever got has to be this one, presented to him by a 16-year-old Stevie Wonder. It had a propulsive calliope intro, complete with brilliant, radio-ready co-production by co-writer Hank Cosby. But no words. The calliope sound made Robinson think of circus themes, and a line he’d written in a previous tune: “Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my secrets hid.” He expanded it into an aria of woe sung by the beloved yet lovelorn funnyman from composer Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera, added what has been called “the most deliriously fun bassoon line ever written” (performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra great Charles R. Sirard), and it became a No. 1 hit in 1966.
Smokey Robinson called the Temptations singer David Ruffin a “sleeping giant” — a great growler, but nobody thought of him as a romantic lead singer. So he wrote Ruffin this irrestistible 1965 love song with a “heartbeat tempo.” Miracles guitarist Ronnie White walked around the studio playing a simple intro riff, which he didn’t think worth recording. “My butt,” said Robinson, “that’s going to be in the song.” The Temptations added gorgeous “hey-hey-heys,” and Robinson sweetened it with strings. It became the group’s first number one, million-selling hit, earning Robinson a $1,000 bonus.
Ooo Baby Baby
Smokey Robinson never wrote a more spontaneously inspired melody. One night onstage, he improvised the four-note title phrase at the end of an unrelated tune, and the Miracles — some of whom had harmonized with him as preteens — instinctively invented a lush harmony. Crowds went nuts for a falsetto “ooh” in 1965, so Robinson created a mournful cheating-guy’s lament to make a whole song out of it. “Ooh”-loving composer John Lennon heisted Robinson’s line “I’m crying” for his own “I Am the Walrus.” Both owe it to that night Robinson accidentally wrote his most-requested hit.
You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me
Robinson idolized Sam Cooke’s mournful blues ballad “Bring it on Home to Me.” So he wrote “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” to capture its feeling — only reversing its premise. Instead of apologizing for driving his girl away, Robinson’s protagonist is the injured party, but he loves her helplessly anyway. Cooke inspired Robinson and, in turn, the Beatles found “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” so inspiring that they released six recordings of it on records, TV and film. It’s one of Robinson’s best.
Motown founder and CEO Berry Gordy asked Robinson to write a song for Barrett Strong, who had torn up the charts with “Money (That's What I Want).” Robinson penned this “easy” tune in 20 minutes — and was later convinced to record it with his own group, The Miracles, instead. Weeks after the record was released, Robinson got a 3 a.m. call from Gordy: The bluesy sound on the record was all wrong! They rerecorded that night, and it was the first million record seller for Motown.
The Tracks of My Tears
Robinson got stuck on the fourth — and key line — of this song's chorus until one morning while shaving he looked in the mirror and thought, “Golly, what if a person had cried so much so their tears had actually left tracks in their face?” Bingo! The song, winner of multiple awards, has been preserved by the United States Library of Congress and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007.
I Second That Emotion
The idea for “I Second That Emotion” came to Smokey and his cowriter friend Al Cleveland when they were Christmas shopping. When replying to a salesperson's comment, instead of saying “I second that motion,” Cleveland responded, “I second that emotion.” The malapropism gave the men a good laugh — and the lyrics to this 1967 Grammy-nominated song.
Lorrie Lynch is an executive editor for AARP, covering health care, caregiving, Movies for Grownups, travel and other topics. Previously she was senior editor and columnist for USA Weekend magazine and a news editor for USA Today. She is the author of the journalism textbook, Exploring Journalism and the Media, which is used in high schools around the country.
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.