Much like Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine in 1969, The Tears of a Clown was an album track by Motown legends, several years old, that could have easily languished as a forgotten album track, but is now considered a soul classic.
William Robinson Jr was born 19 February 1940 in Detroit, Michigan. It was his uncle Claude that gave him the nickname ‘Smokey Joe’ while he was still young. He was a clever child, and sporty, but he really loved music. In a 2007 interview with CBS Robinson revealed he and Aretha Franklin lived only a few doors down from each other, and he had known her since she was five.
Robinson formed a doo-wop group called The Five Chimes in 1955, which included schoolfriends Ronald White and Pete Moore. They changed their name two years later to The Matadors. The line-up then consisted of Robinson, White, Moore and cousins Bobby and Claudette Rogers (who Robinson married in 1959) .
The Matadors auditioned for Brunswick Records but failed. However, among those watching was songwriter Berry Gordy Jr, who was impressed with Robinson’s voice in particular. Gordy recorded what was to become their debut single around the time they settled on The Miracles as their name. Got a Job was given to End Records to distribute – Gordy made the princely sum of $3.19 for his production, and Robinson suggested he start his own record label. Which he did, in 1959, and he called it Tamla Records. Bad Girl became their first single to chart in the US, and around this time guitarist Marv Tarplin, fresh from playing with The Primettes (later The Supremes) joined Robinson and co to form the classic line-up.
The Miracles’ first hit came in 1960, when Shop Around reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on the R’n’B chart. It was only modest successes on Motown Records after that until the classic You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me in 1962. The group’s brand of bittersweet, smooth soul, with Robinson’s beautiful voice, made them Motown’s top-selling act and earned them rave reviews for their live performances, which helped them become known as ‘The Showstoppers’.
But The Miracles were so talented, they all helped write some of Motown’s greatest songs sung by other groups. I’m talking soul classics such as The Way You Do the Things You Do and My Girl for The Temptations and My Guy by Mary Wells. Most other Motown acts had their songs written by staff songwriters, but The Miracles mostly recorded their own.
Around 1964, Robinson was made vice president of Motown, and other members of The Miracles took jobs within the label. Unfortunately, Smokey and Claudette made plans to start a family, but the intense touring schedule was believed to contribute to several miscarriages by Claudette, and in 1965 she quit touring, TV and and publicity photos, despite continuing to record until 1972.
That same year they finally made their way into the UK singles chart with one of Motown’s best songs, The Tracks of My Tears, from the album Going to a Go-Go, reaching number nine. From this album onwards they became known as Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. In 1966 (Come Round Here) I’m the One You Need reached number 13.
At that year’s Motown Christmas Party, Robinson was approached by fellow label legend Stevie Wonder with a backing track he had come up with along with his producer Hank Cosby. Wonder wondered (sorry) if Robinson wanted to work on it, as he was stumped for any lyrics. After a few days, Robinson felt inspired to come up with something circus-themed to match the distinctive opening, and went back to the clown in the opera Pagliacci, who puts on a show for his audience while crying on the inside. He had used this before in the 1964 song My Smile Is Just A Frown (Turned Upside Down), written for Carolyn Crawford. Weirdly, Little Stevie Wonder covered (I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over, which also referenced Pagliacci, on his album Tribute to Uncle Ray in 1962.
For that famous circus-like opening, they hired Charles Sirard from The Detroit Symphony Orchestra to play the bassoon, which is the low burbling sound beneath the piccolo by Jim Horn. Horn would also feature on albums by The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys.
The Tears of a Clown became the closing track on Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ 1967 album Make It Happen. And, unbelievably, there it stayed for three years. In the meantime I Second That Emotion was a top 30 hit on these shores that year, but then the UK hits dried up once more.
By 1969, Robinson was ready to quit the group and concentrate on his role as Motown vice president and be at home more for Claudette, as they had finally started a family. But all that was to change in 1970, when the frustrated British division of Motown asked Karen Spreadbury, head of a Motown fan club here, to pick a song they could release as a single, and she chose The Tears of a Clown.
Motown may be a legendary label, and for good reason, but you do have to wonder about how many hits they let slip through the net when you look at the stories behind The Tears of a Clown and I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Perhaps Gordy (and Wonder, before he became more experimental) found that opening too weird, without realising its exactly that which draws the listener in to begin with. But Robinson was such an expert songsmith he’s able to keep up the momentum, with his always wonderful, soaring vocal and great lyrics.
The idea of a song about a man masking his pain had been done plenty of times before, including by Robinson himself on The Tracks of My Tears. However, I’d argue Robinson’s lyrics here make The Tears of a Clown the definitive example. I particularly like ‘But don’t let my glad expression/Give you the wrong impression’ and the chorus. Robinson is a man on top of his game here. A sad song about heartbreak that’s uplifting and you can dance to it. Oh, and of course, Robinson’s voice. What’s not to love?
The renewed interest in Smokey Robinson and The Miracles meant The Tears of a Clown was then released in the US, albeit in a new mix. It reached number 1 in their home country too.This double success persuaded Robinson to stay on as lead singer for longer. They had their own TV special in the US, The Smokey Robinson Show, also starring The Supremes, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder. One more hit, 1971’s I Don’t Blame You at All followed, and then Robinson decided it was time to go in 1972, introducing Billy Griffin as his replacement. Their final album together was Flying High Together, including the ironic single We’ve Come Too Far To End It Now. Claudette chose to retire entirely from the group too, and within a year Tarplin had gone.
Their first releases in 1973 landed without trace, but they scored a 1974 US hit with funk song Do It Baby. And then in 1976 came the great disco smash Love Machine – Part 1, which was a US number 1 and reached number three in the UK. Despite this, The Miracles left Motown and signed with Columbia Records in 1977, but the hits dried up again, and they split in 1978.
In 1980 The New Miracles were formed and lasted three years. Then in 1983 the Robinsons, Moore, Tarplin and Rogers reunited to perform a medley on the TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.
In 1993 White, Rogers and New Miracles member Dave Finley reformed The Miracles with former Shalamar singer Sydney Justin. Sadly White died in 1995. The group continued to perform until 2011, with even Claudette returning to the fold (now divorced from Smokey), but age caught up with some of the longest-serving members. Tarplin died in 2011, then Rogers in 2013, then Moore in 2017.
Smokey Robinson went on to have a solo UK number 1 in 1981 with Being With You, so I’ll cover his solo career and the controversy with his entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in due course.
The Tears of a Clown has been covered time and time again, and the most notable version is Tears of a Clown, a well-deserved number six hit for ska and new wave group The Beat in 1979.
Written by: Hank Cosby, Smokey Robinson & Stevie Wonder
Producers: Hank Cosby & Smokey Robinson
Weeks at number 1: 1 (12-18 September)
Cricketer Darren Gough – 18 September
18 September: US rock star and guitar god Jimi Hendrix, died in London from a suspected drug-induced heart attack, aged only 27.