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.