Back in the ’70s there was a television commercial for one of those K-Tel type compilation albums. In this particular commercial a father was haranguing his son for playing music too loud, and demanding that he turn it down. “But dad,” the son replied, “that’s Smokey.” Exactly.
There is no point in trying to it recap Smokey Robinson’s many accomplishments or assess his impact on popular music. It’s simply incalculable. Leave it Bob Dylan, who is a pretty good wordsmith himself. Dylan once famously called Smokey “America’s greatest living poet.” And his poetry was just the start of it.
Smokey had numerous hits with the Miracles. Their 1960 single “Shop Around” was Motown’s first #1 hit on the R&B chart. Then there were the many hits that he wrote for other Motown artists. Chief among them would have to be the Temptations indelible hit, “My Girl.” Smokey has been no slouch as a solo artist either, scoring one chart hit after another over the years, including one of my favorites, his 1987 smash “Just To See Her,” which was his debut single for Motown as a solo artist.
I could feature Smokey Robinson in this column for weeks and months on end and never run out of songs to write about. Instead I chose just one, and more or less at random because it’s perfectly representative of everything that I love about Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.“The Tears of a Clown” first appeared on the great Miracles album Make It Happen in 1967. It wasn’t until three years later that Motown subsidiary Tamla released the song as a single. It was a good decision because it quickly became a #1 hit on both the Billboard Hot 100, and the R&B charts.
The record was an international million seller, and the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. It was so big that Smokey, who had already announced that he was going to get off the road and focus on his role as a Motown Vice-President, delayed his departure from the Miracles for two more years.
The music for the song was written by Stevie Wonder and producer Hank Cosby. Smokey was responsible for the amazing lyrics which include the quintessential couplet “Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid.” Still think Dylan was exaggerating? It wasn’t the first time that Smokey had employed these particular lines however. The same lyrics appear in “My Smile Is Just A Frown (Turned Upside Down),” which he wrote in 1964 for Motown artist Carolyn Crawford.
It’s hard to believe, but “The Tears of a Clown” was the one and only #1 hit that the Miracles had with Smokey Robinson as their singer. In 1976 they reached #1 with “Love Machine,” but by then Smokey was long gone.