322. Gilbert O’Sullivan – Clair (1972)

I said you’d never get a song like Mouldy Old Dough at number 1 now, and it also applies to this song that toppled it in the winter of 1972. Thanks to 60s and 70s celebrities like Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris and Gary Glitter (two of which had number 1s), any song referencing love for a child is understandably looked upon with suspicion nowadays. In this song, Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan professes his love for his manager’s young daughter.

O’Sullivan was originally Raymond Edward O’Sullivan, born in Waterford on 1 December 1946. The family moved to Battersea, London when he was seven, and Swindon, Wiltshire a year later. O’Sullivan attended St. Joseph’s and the Swindon College of Art, and he briefly played drums in the band Rick’s Blues. Rick was Rick Davies, who went on to form Supertramp. He taught O’Sullivan drums and piano.

1967 was a big year by O’Sullivan. His then-manager Stephen Shane suggested a name change from Ray to Gilbert as a play on ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’. At the time his songs were avant-garde – so much so, Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band expressed an interest in recording some. He was then signed to CBS Records by Mike Smith, producer of number 1s by The Marmalade, The Love Affair and The Tremeloes.

His first three singles, all credited to just ‘Gilbert’, got nowhere, but things improved after O’Sullivan sent demo tapes to Gordon Mills, manager of Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones. Mills signed him to MAM Records, despite not being a fan of his idiosyncratic image. At a time of long hair and flares, O’Sullivan was going against the grain with a retro look consisting of a pudding-bowl hairstyle, cloth cap and short trousers.

In 1970 O’Sullivan had his first top 10 hit with Nothing Rhymed, considered one of his best tracks. He built on this success the following year with his debut album Himself and singles We Will and No Matter How I Try, which was recognised as Best Ballad or Romantic Song at the 1972 Ivor Novello Awards.

Then came his most famous single. Alone Again (Naturally) was a bleak introspective tale of a man contemplating suicide after being jilted at the altar. This critically-acclaimed 7-inch reached number three here, but topped the Billboard Hot 100 in the US.

Upon the release of his second album Back to Front, O’Sullivan ditched the old image and went to a different extreme, perming his hair and displaying his hairy chest like labelmate Tom Jones. Despite this, the music contained within was still light melancholic pop with a touch of music hall.

Clair begins as a straightforward love song. O’Sullivan and Clair began as friends, but he knew from the start this was special, and his feelings grew even more as the friendship did. But hang on, there’s an age gap, which has clearly thrown a spanner in the works:

‘But why in spite of our age difference do I cry.
Each time I leave you I feel I could die.
Nothing means more to me than hearing you say,
“I’m going to marry you. Will you marry me? Oh hurray!”‘

Wonder what the gap is… sounds tricky, a teen perhaps?

‘I’ve told you before “Don’t you dare!”
“Get back into bed.”
“Can’t you see that it’s late.”
“No you can’t have a drink.”
“Oh allright then, but wait just a minute.”
While I, in an effort to babysit, catch up on my breath,
What there is left of it.’

Oh… he’s her babysitter… and it’s his manager and producer’s daughter… right.

Now, I’m not going to be silly enough to suggest O’Sullivan is a paedophile, or that everyone who kept this at number 1 for a fortnight condones such behaviour. Clearly they saw this as nothing more than a cute song about this lovely little girl and how he can’t help but love her. They perhaps also liked the punchline of it being about a child, in the same way they Brotherhood of Man’s Save Your Kisses for Me at number 1 for six weeks in 1976. Times have changed.

But yes, there’s no escaping how problematic some of the lyrics are, namely the fact he can see himself marrying Clair eventually, and most of all ‘I don’t care what people say, to me you’re more than a child.’ When we’re only a year off the likes of Glitter conquering the charts, it can’t help but make modern listeners feel queasy.

Songs about children are a precarious concept. Even a musical genius like Stevie Wonder overdid it with Isn’t She Lovely, a nice tune that went on far too long and didn’t need baby noises thrown in. John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy) just about stays on the right side of sentimentality. It’s very easy to be too twee and make the listener feel sick, and that’s what Clair does for me, particularly that ‘Oh Clair’ and the giggle at the end. Yuck.

Written by: Gilbert O’Sullivan

Producer: Gordon Mills

Weeks at number 1: 2 (11-24 November)

Meanwhile…

18 November: 100 years to the day since the England men’s team played its first official association football match, the women’s team did the same, against Scotland, in Greenock. They won 3-2.

290. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles – The Tears of a Clown (1970)

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)

Births:

Cricketer Darren Gough – 18 September

Meanwhile…

18 September: US rock star and guitar god Jimi Hendrix, died in London from a suspected drug-induced heart attack, aged only 27.