The Tears of a Clown: Smokey Robinson

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Today is the birthday of pop music titan Smokey Robinson (b. 1940). A talent so prolific and prodigious that it’s almost literally the case that he MADE an entire record label. Certainly the fact that “You Better Shop Around” was a monster hit in 1960 helped Motown get off the ground. But then he wrote so many hits for his group the Miracles and other Motown acts (including himself as a solo act) over the years that he and the label practically seem synonymous. So distinctive and unmistakable is his voice (not just his singing voice but his voice as a writer) that I long assumed later hits that he had written were from a much earlier period. (In other words, when they were contemporary hits, I pretty much assumed “Cruisin'”, released in 1979, and “Being with You”, released in 1981, were oldies — because, who listens to the deejays?)

And the same with the song below, his last hit with Miracles, and ironically his first #1 with them. Released in 1970, but kind of sounds like it could be from a decade before (that’s because the music track, by Stevie Wonder and Hank Cosby, dates to 1966). “Tears of a Clown” manages to be both lush and lively; dense with creativity and excitement, it’s never boring for even an instant. Personally it creates a feeling in my belly not unlike that produced by an amusement park ride. The fact that Robinson is such an awesome lyricist on top of it, closes the sale: “Just like Pagliacci did/ I Keep My Sadness Hid” ranks with the best of Tin Pan Alley.

What I love about this clip that –unlike the almost universal practice at the time — he doesn’t lip sync the number. He and the Miracles are performing it live (or “live-to-tape”) with a real band.

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