Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “The Tears of a Clown,” Pop #1, R&B #1
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
One of pop music’s most unique and amazing properties is its ability to wrap the most heartbreaking lyrics in a bubbly, effervescent melody.
Think about it for a moment. While there are shades and degrees to consider, and this is obviously a simplification, because other types of art usually inhabit only one medium, i.e. words or images, a sad poem or a sad painting typically going to be predominately sad. I’m not saying music is the only art form to convey multiple emotions at once; that’s a ludicrous assumption. But it seems pop music does this a lot easier than most.
Few songs handle the light/dark juxtaposition as effortlessly as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 1970 smash “The Tears of a Clown.” The song started out as an instrumental Stevie Wonder wrote with his producer Hank Crosby. Unsure what to do with what Wonder knew was a great track, he brought it to the Motown Christmas party in 1966 to see if Robinson had any ideas. Robinson said hear head a circus in the melody and wrote the lyrics. The finished track appeared as the final song on the Miracles 1967 release “Make It Happen.”
For three years the song lay hidden as a deep cut, ignored by both the label and the band. In 1969, Robinson announced he was tired of touring and being separated from his family. By leaving the Miracles, Robinson reasoned, he could spend more time in Detroit with his family and focus on his role as Motown’s vice president. From Robinson’s perspective, it was a sound plan. The trouble was, the Miracles were one of Motown’s biggest act in Europe and the band had delivered only one Top 10 hit over the last two years. Desperate for new material, Hitsville UK scoured the vaults and back releases and stumbled upon the long-forgotten “The Tears of a Clown.” After giving the song a new mix it was released as a single in February, 1970. The song shot to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.
Fortunately for music fans everywhere, the song’s success made Robinson reconsider his decision to leave the Miracles. Motown re-released “Make It Happen” with a modified tracklisting as “Tears of a Clown” – even the cover art stayed the same – and Robinson stayed in the Miracles until 1973.
Thematically, “The Tears of a Clown” mirrors the Miracles’ 1965 hit “The Tracks of My Tears.” Both songs deal with a heartbroken lover masking his/her pain in public. The subject of both songs craves the estranged, but it too proud to share those feelings in all but the darkest, quietest places. Not happy stuff. But while it was impossible to escape the anguish of “The Tracks of My Tears,” listeners could be possibly forgiven for thinking “The Tears of Clown” was little more than a happy romp on the calliope. Wonder and Cosby’s upbeat melody is a perfect antonym for Robinson’s lyrics. One moment poignantly cuts at the heart of the song, however. The arrangement briefly pauses while Robinson confesses “when there’s no one around.” In those tender seconds, his soul is laid bare.
“The Tears of a Clown” was the Miracles biggest hit while Robinson was in the group. Unsurprisingly, several other bands wanted a taste of this success. “Clown” has been widely covered over the past 40 years. The English Beat delivered one of the best interpretations with their 1979 ska adaptation of the song. At the other end of the spectrum are the version cut by LaToya Jackson for her 1995 Motown covers album, and Enuff Z’Nuff’s hair metal reading. Somewhere in the middle lie Phil Collin’s version, included on his “Testify” album, and Petula Clark’s 2000 reading. Early ‘90s Swedish pop duo Roxette also worked the “Clown” melody into their hit “Spending My Time.”