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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"The Tears of a Clown"

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles - "The Tears of a Clown" (1967)

Ain't no party like a bassoon party 'cuz a bassoon party got soul.

Another tale of a song that wasn't appreciated until a few years after its release, but in this case the single's success was due to a record company secretary looking for a new hit. Front man Smokey Robinson had announced to his band mates and other label friends that he was going to retire to focus on being Vice President of Motown Records. EMI was the label that distributed Motown in the U.K. and when they heard the news they got upset, as SR&TM were just as hugely popular over there as in their home country. They went into the back catalog looking for a hit and found this cut off of 1967's Make It Happen. It was released summer of 1970 and became a number one hit in September, fully three years after it was first released on an album.

The song was written by Stevie Wonder, who couldn't find lyrics to go with it until Smokey Robinson heard it at a Christmas party. Commenting on it's circus feel, Robinson proposed a song about a clown and Wonder told him to take the song. Motown session musician Henry Cosby of The Funk Brothers rounded out the power trio of writing responsible for this song. What makes this song a hit? Just try not to smile when you hear it. I mean yes, it is a tragedy about a man who must appear to be happy while hiding his sadness; Robinson even name drops Pagliacci just to let you know he knows what he's doing. But despite the sadness of the lyrics, the song is upbeat and driven. Bassoon and flute dance together in the songs famous opening, and the bassoon sticks around to drop some serious low tones, out blasting the electric bass. The drums focus on the bass drum and toms, pushing the song, never letting it sit back. You can hear a tambourine as well, particularly when it's down to the bassoon and flute holding the song up. The background singing here is as tight as you would expect from one of Motown's primary groups. There's also organ clearly playing an important background roll, that's gotta be Wonder's influence on the track.

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