Marv Tarplin: Miracles guitarist whose understated licks played a crucial role in the music of Smokey Robinson

Spencer Leigh
Wednesday 05 October 2011 00:00 BST

Among the key moments in the career of the guitarist Marv Tarplin is his quiet, understated introduction to the Miracles' 1965 single, "The Tracks Of My Tears". The song itself, which he wrote with lead singer Smokey Robinson, is dramatic, but the gentle riffs were in keeping with the man himself and ideally suited to the record. It was a hit before Robinson had even sung a note.

Marv Tarplin was born in Atlanta in 1941 but raised in Detroit from age of three. His mother encouraged him to have piano lessons and he found he could play by ear. At the age of 12 he switched to guitar and his first jobs were in Detroit clubs, often working with the Primettes (later the Supremes) and the Primes (later the Temptations). He played a black Gibson Les Paul guitar and his favourite players were Chuck Berry and later, Curtis Mayfield: he was a black musician who loved country music.

The Primettes asked Tarplin to play guitar at their audition for Motown Records. Smokey Robinson liked what he heard and signed the group but he also asked Tarplin to join his own vocal group, the Miracles. Unlike many Motown musicians, Tarplin was not studio-based but touring with the Miracles, being their musical director and showing local rhythm sections what was required.

In his autobiography, Smokey (1989), Robinson wrote about the audition, "Their guitarist was a monster, smoothest I'd ever heard. I mean, this cat made magic with his fingers. Had a gentle touch, an easy-wristed riffin' approach, sweet, swinging and steady as a rock. I flipped. His personality was as cool as his playing – laidback, funny in a quiet way, the kind of dude who was smarter than he let on." In a later passage, Robinson refers to Tarplin's "fluttering guitar" and in 2007, the Milwaukee musician Paul Cebar performed a tribute song, "Marv's Fluttering Guitar".

Tarplin was credited as a member of the group on the album, Hi...We're The Miracles (1961), but he was not shown on the cover photograph. He did, however, make the cover of Cookin' With The Miracles (1962). He can be heard on "You've Really Got A Hold On Me" (1962) and on the Temptations' "The Way You Do The Things You Do" (1964), which was produced by Robinson. He played on several Mary Wells records, again produced by Robinson.

Tarplin would give cassettes ofhis riffs to Robinson, who would mould them into songs, adding poetic lyrics, full of quirky imagery. SometimesPete Moore and Bobby Rogers ofthe Miracles would also contribute to the lyrics.

In 1965, Tarplin was playing along to Harry Belafonte's "The Banana Boat Song", but by mistake he had put the record on at 33rpm instead of 45. This inspired him to develop "The Tracks Of My Tears", and its success led to another song in the same vein, "My Girl Has Gone". "The Tracks Of My Tears" became a standard, being recorded successfully by Bryan Ferry (1973), Linda Ronstadt (1976), Colin Blunstone (1982) and Go West (1993).

Tarplin created a legendary disco riff for the Miracles' "Going To AGo-Go" (1966), which was revived by the Rolling Stones in 1982. He co-wrote "The Love I Saw In You Was JustA Mirage" (1967) and was stronglyfeatured on "I Second That Emotion" (1967).

When Robinson produced Marvin Gaye in 1965/66, he wrote with Tarplin and had him play on the sessions. Tarplin was responsible for the insidious "I'll Be Doggone" which merged the Motown sound with the Searchers' "Needles And Pins". While touring the UK with the Miracles, Tarplin created the riff for "Ain't That Peculiar", another Gaye hit and clearly borrowed for Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Moutain High". Robinson praised Gaye's vocals as well as he might as his unwieldy lyrics for "One More Heartache" (1966) were hard to sing. Tarplin also worked with the Four Tops and is featured on their 1970 hit, "Still Water (Love)".

In1972, Smokey Robinson left the Miracles in 1972 and Tarplin joined him in California the following yearto write songs and to encouragehim to perform solo. They wrote"Precious Little Things" for the Supremes and when they wanted to capture the feel of the Young Rascals' "Groovin'", they came up with "I love it when we're groovin' together", which Robinson amended to "Cruisin'" (1979). The meandering verses make you think that the song is going nowhere but then a killer chorus kicks in; even the karaoke film, Duets (2000), couldn't destroy its power.

In 1987 Smokey Robinson was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland but it seemed unjust not to include the other Miracles. Tarplin worked on stage with Robinson until his retirement in 2008.

Marvin Tarplin, guitarist and songwriter: born Atlanta 13 June 1941; married (wife deceased; three children); died Las Vegas 30 September 2011.

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