This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: the top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #310: Tears of a Clown by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
As a child, he was known as William Robinson. He grew up a few houses down the street from a little girl named Aretha Franklin. Although, at the time, they never sang together, the two children were friends. When William was young, he loved watching Western movies and, more than anything else, he wanted a “cowboy” name for himself. One of his uncles started calling him, “Smokey Joe”. That name became the name everyone called him, until he became a teenager and the name seemed child-like, all of a sudden. That’s when he dropped the “Joe” and simply became known as “Smokey”.
As he neared the end of high school, Smokey Robinson met a man named Berry Gordy. At the time, Robinson was auditioning for record companies. In his possession was a notebook filled with hundreds of songs he had written. Impressed, Berry asked Robinson to sing a few of his songs. Smokey did. At the time, Berry was head of a company called Tamla Records. Tamla Records was in the process of changing into, the more recognizable, Motown Records. As President of the newly created Motown Records, Gordy’s first signing was Smokey Robinson. In addition to the many hit songs Robinson sang as a member of The Miracles or wrote for other Motown stars, he, also, went on to serve as Vice-President of Motown Records for most of its most successful years in the 1960s and 70s. As further proof of the bond he shared with Gordy, Robinson’s two children were named Tamla and Berry.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles had some of Motown first and most memorable hits, with songs such as “I Second That Emotion”, “Cathy’s Clown” and “Tears of a Clown”. As a writer in the Motown Hit Factory, Robinson helped write “My Guy” for Mary Wells, “My Girl” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do” for The Temptations and a whole host of other hits for other Motown Stars. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles also participated in annual tours called The Motown Revue, in which many of the current stars under contract to Motown would tour around the country performing their recent hits. One such performer was a young man from Detroit known then as, “Little Stevie Wonder”. It was in collaboration with Wonder (Stevie Wonder wrote the music/Robinson, the lyrics) that The Miracles had their biggest chart success with a song called, “Tears of a Clown”.
“Tears of a Clown” is based upon an Italian opera, of all things, called “Pagliacci”. Pagliacci is known as the “tragic clown”, who conceals a lifetime of heartache behind a painted-on smile. If you listen carefully to the lyrics of this song, you will note how it is all about being brokenhearted but, having to smile and carry on with life, regardless. Robinson even managed to include the unlikely line:
“Just like Pagliacci did I try to keep my surface hid.”
“Tears of a Clown” reached #2 on the charts and sold over a million copies, making it “The Miracles” most successful song. But, success, over the long haul, was what the group was most noted for. They were inducted into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Smokey Robinson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As well, Smokey Robinson (as a solo act), along with The Miracles, have been inducted into just about every Soul and R&B Hall of Fame that exists. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles helped define the “Motown sound” that so many of us love. Whether as singers, producers, promoters or performers, William “Smokey” Robinson and the Miracles changed music as we know it and, in my opinion, they helped change it for the better. Here are Smokey Robinson and the Miracles with “Tears of a Clown”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, can be found here.
The link to the video for the Italian opera, “Pagliacci” (upon which “Tears of a Clown” is based), can be found here. This clip stars Luciano Pavarotti as “the tragic clown”, singing “Vesti La Guibba”.
The link to the official website for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP for supporting great music, in all of its many forms. The link to their website can be found here.