How many top ten records reference the Italian opera Pagliacci? Smokey Robinson's talent for combining literary lyrics with accessible pop and soul continued in 1970, when the uptempo "The Tears of A Clown" was released. The single topped the UK and US pop and R&B charts, becoming Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' only number one hit. Interestingly, Robinson had planned to retire from the Miracles, but the undeniable success of "The Tears of A Clown" persuaded him to stay with the group for two more years.
The melody originated from Motown labelmate Stevie Wonder, who had recorded the instrumental track with songwriter/producer Hank Cosby in 1966. Unable to write lyrics that fit the tone, Wonder presented the tune to Robinson at the Motown Christmas party later that year. As Robinson listened to the song, a theme quickly emerged. As he told Sabotage Times in 2011, "the first image I got in my mind was a circus. So I ran through all kinds of circus subjects: trapezes, elephants...nothing that would make for a moving song." Upon deeper reflection, he recalled the Italian opera about a sad clown. "I thought about Pagliacci, the clown who made everyone laugh in the ring, then went home alone and cried. As soon as I had that, I had the whole song." This did not mark the first time he used the crying clown metaphor, as he revisited that motif in "Tracks of My Tears." However, he expanded upon it to even greater effect in "The Tears of A Clown."
The 1970 recording session featured the usual lineup: Robinson on lead vocals with the other Miracles (wife Claudette, Pete Moore, Ronnie White, and Bobby Rogers) on backing vocals. Marv Tarplin once again played guitar, while Motown house band the Funk Brothers added their special touches. Another unique element was the prominent bassoon, here performed by Charles R. Sirard.
Immediately "The Tears of A Clown" establishes the circus motif with the calliope or steam piano sound, followed by the patented Funk Brothers drum and bass-heavy sound. Showing he can perform danceable numbers as well as ballads, Robinson pitches his voice higher and raises the energy level, yet still communicates sadness. "Now if there's a smile on my face / It's only there trying to fool the public," he sings. "But when it comes down to fooling you / Now honey that's quite a different subject." The Miracles next provide vocal punctation and background vocals to emphasize how this apparent joy remains a front. "Really I'm sad, oh sadder than sad / You're gone and I'm hurting so bad / Like a clown I pretend to be glad." The call-and-response segment smoothly segues into some of the most heartbreaking sentiments ever expressed in R&B:
Now there's some sad things known to man
But ain't too much sadder than
The tears of a clown
When there's no one around
Robinson continues contrasting his outer appearance--fittingly labeling it "camouflage"--and his inner pain from losing his lover. He uses this cover to "shield my pride" and "cover the hurt with a show of gladness." Who cannot relate to those words? He clarifies that that this show (he repeats the word twice to stress this facade) hides his constant hurt from his lost love. As the song reaches the climax, Robinson introduces a literary element: "Just like Pagliacci did / I try to keep my sadness hid / Smiling in the public eye / But in my lonely room I cry." This image encapsulates the universal experience of protecting vulnerability, the releasing the pain in private. Not everyone may be familiar with the Pagliacci character, but the sad clown experiencing loneliness resonates with most listeners. One can vividly picture a figure sitting alone in a room, crying to himself. These lines as well as the entire "Tears of A Clown" demonstrate how Robinson transcends common love song cliches, elevating these feelings to an eloquent and more complex level.
In addition to the profound words, Robinson's nuanced singing effectively dramatize the outer happiness and inner anguish the narrator feels. His tenor both soars and quivers, at times emulating sobbing through gasps and slight vocal cracking. Both his transcendent voice and stunning words create a still unique track that manages to inspire both dancing and empathy.