Lives of the Great Songs: It's the per-man-ent one: There's never been a time for singles like 1965, and this may have been the track of the year. Richard Williams tells its tale: The Tracks of My Tears

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THE FIRST thing you heard was Marvin Tarplin's guitar, finger-picked, lightly amplified, chiming like distant bells floating on the night air. Before anyone even had time to utter a word, here was a sound overloaded with memories, haunted by regret, hoping beyond hope, a sound of loss and lamentation. Within a few seconds, Smokey Robinson's swooning falsetto was along to give verbal expression to those emotions, and today it is Robinson whom we associate with one of the most affecting of all pop records. But 'The Tracks of My Tears' started with Marvin Tarplin and his old black Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar, in more senses than one.

In the days when making a pop single was about structural ingenuity, about matters such as getting the hook-phrase in early and not bringing it back so often as to wear it out - in other words, in the days before James Brown and Andy Warhol conspired to establish the primacy of repetition and monotony - the intro was where, in a matter of seconds, a pop record could establish its claim to originality. Think of the electric 12-string guitar arpeggios that began the Byrds' 'Mr Tambourine Man', the neck-snapping horn figures prefacing Otis Redding's 'Mr Pitiful', the sleazy fuzz-guitar riff of the Stones's 'Satisfaction', the haughty Hammond organ that paved the way for Dylan's 'Positively 4th Street', the dramatic a cappella opening of the Righteous Brothers' 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' '. All those examples come from within a few months, practically a few weeks, of each other - from 1965, the year in which pop music achieved a perfect blend of innocence and experience, of intuition and craftsmanship. For a few precious months, what it had to say was matched by its means of expression. And that summer, Tarplin's eight bars of finger-picked guitar rang clear and sweet across the airwaves.

The song's origins were banal enough. Tarplin, born in Atlanta but raised in Detroit, had been the Miracles' guitarist since their first American No 1, 'Shop Around', in 1960. In those days, a rhythm- and-blues vocal group would travel with a guitarist who acted as a musical director, teaching their arrangements to local rhythm sections and theatre orchestras. Tarplin played with the Supremes when they were still called the Primettes, which is how he came to the notice of Smokey Robinson, who, in his capacity as a Motown Records talent scout, spotted the female trio's potential but managed to swipe the guitarist for his own group.

A quiet, humble man who preferred country-and-western music to rhythm and blues, Tarplin had no pretensions beyond his accompanist's role, but was fooling about with his guitar one day early in 1965 when he came up with an idea inspired by an unlikely source. 'Harry Belafonte had this song out,' Tarplin told me a few years ago, in what seems to be the only interview he has ever given. ' 'The Banana Boat Song' - that's where I got the idea. Belafonte had calypso-type tunes, and it's basically the same chord changes - three chords, turned around a little bit.' He passed the result on to Robinson and another member of the Miracles, Warren 'Pete' Moore.

'Marvin is a brilliant guitarist whose music has always inspired me to words,' Robinson himself later told me. 'I wrote all the words with the exception of about the first three lines of the chorus thing, the bit which says, 'Outside, I'm masquerading; inside, my hope is fading.' Pete Moore wrote that. But the first couple of verses and the ending - 'my smile is my make-up', all that stuff - I wrote that.'

Robinson, then aged 25, was in the middle of writing and producing a remarkable sequence of medium-tempo ballads, all characterised by a lush, swooning mood. Within the span of 1965, for instance, he wrote and produced 'My Girl', 'It's Growing', 'Since I Lost My Baby', 'Don't Look Back' and 'Fading Away' for the Temptations. Now he used that mood and the music Tarplin had given him as the basis for an exploration of his favourite theme: the masks that we use to disguise our true emotions. 'People say I'm the life of the party,' his new lyric began, ' 'cause I tell a joke or two. Although I might be laughing loud and hearty, deep inside I'm blue. So take a good look at my face - you'll see my smile looks out of place . . .' Later he was to re-examine the subject in two more of his finest songs, 'The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage', also with music by Tarplin, and in his hugely successful collaboration with Stevie Wonder, 'The Tears of a Clown'.

Released in the US on 23 June 1965, 'The Tracks of My Tears' reached No 16 in Billboard's pop chart and No 2 in the rhythm-and-blues list (kept off the top spot by James Brown's 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag'). In Britain, where - despite the Supremes' success - Motown records were still a cult item, it failed to register.

As well as being a record label, Motown was also a publishing company - its boss, Berry Gordy, was quick to see that true prosperity flowed from publishing copyrights rather than record royalties. So the label's artists were often required to fill up their albums with versions of songs owned by the company, which is why the first cover of 'The Tracks of My Tears' was by Gladys Knight and the Pips, on a 1968 Motown album titled Silk 'n' Soul. Curiously, Knight ironed a little of the poetry out of the song when she sang 'you're the only one' instead of Robinson's 'you're the per-ma-nent one' at the end of the second verse, thus eliminating an exquisitely judged use of an essentially unpoetic word.

There was a little more character to the next significant version, by Bryan Ferry, who included it on These Foolish Things, his first solo album, in 1973. With its exaggerated vocal inflections and clumpy Brit-rock drumming, Ferry's reading now sounds like a camp period-piece, betraying the affection he undoubtedly felt for the song - although, strangely, he shared Knight's preference for 'only one'. Linda Ronstadt, at the height of her popularity, restored the 'permanent' and took the song back into the US charts in 1976, but the country-rock arrangement nailed it firmly to the floor, while Ronstadt's inflexible voice suffered by comparison with Robinson's fluid, highly wrought phrasing. Surprisingly, the most successful homage came from the British pop duo Go West, whose respectful treatment reached the Top 20 last year. Sensitive electronics and sensible blue-eyed-soul singing added little, but neither did they take too much away.

No, this always was more than just a great song. It was a great record, its components so interlinked that every reinterpretation has been forced to exist in reference to the original. Singers may not use it as a vehicle for the exploration of their own feelings: in trying to recreate its magic, the best they can hope for is a reminder of how they felt when they first heard it. Unlike the rest of the songs in this series, 'The Tracks of My Tears' is not open to negotiation.

Nor was its essence open to duplication, even by its creator. In concert, Robinson treats 'The Tracks of My Tears' with special care. But when he tried to make a follow-up in the autumn of 1965, 'My Girl Has Gone' - guitar intro and all - seemed no more than a faded carbon-copy.

As for the original, the years have only clarified its qualities. In 1969, it was reissued and reached the British Top 10. In America, it is one of the best-loved and most-played golden oldies. When Oliver Stone, making Platoon in 1986, wanted to show us his tragic, brutalised group of American soldiers, stuck amid the degradation of the Vietnam war and trying to lose their conscious minds in opium and dreams of home, he needed a piece of music that was not only of the correct period but would evoke the 95 per cent of all human emotions missing from this particular season in hell. Briefly silencing the dark beat of the gunship rotors and the crackle of automatic weapons, 'The Tracks of My Tears' became, for Stone and for us, the perfect reminder of a better world.

'Platoon' is on BBC2 tonight, 10-11.55pm.

To hear 'Tracks of My Tears', tune in to Virgin 1215 at 9.30-10am today, when Gary King will play one of the versions discussed. Virgin is on 1215 AM (MW).