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A Brief History of "Tears of a Clown"

by Rick Henry 3 months ago in song reviews / 70s music · updated 3 months ago
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A great song for the ages...

Smokey Robinson and The Miracles

It was 1966 when 16 year old Stevie Wonder wrote the music for "Tears of a Clown." He then gave the instrumental to Smokey Robinson during the Motown Christmas party that year. He told Smokey that he had a great instrumental, but he couldn't come up with any lyrics.

Smokey listened to the song and within the melody he heard a 'circus' type sound. Wanting to stick with the circus theme Smokey's aim was to write something that would touch people's hearts. After a few days Smokey remembered the story of Pagliacci which he heard when he was a kid. Pagliacci was a clown who made people laugh but at the end of the show he was alone and sad. Robinson stuck with that idea and wrote about a man who works as a clown with a circus. He puts on a happy face for his shows but when the show is over, he's alone in his dressing room and he's sad because his girlfriend/wife has left him.

Robinson recorded the song in 1967 using Stevie Wonder's original instrumental track which was co-written and produced by Henry 'Hank' Cosby.

The finished song was included on Smokey Robinson & The Miracles 9th studio album which was titled Make It Happen.

Upon the album's release neither Robinson nor Wonder felt the song had hit potential so they decided not to release it as a single.

In the US Robinson & The Miracles were consistent hit makers. Frustrated over the lack of hit singles in the UK, the British distributor for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' music approached Karen Spreadbury, the head of a British Motown fan club, and asked her to choose a single from the album "Make It Happen." She chose "Tears of A Clown." The song was released as a single in the UK and quickly rose to #1 in the summer of 1970 and was certified Silver by the BPI. Motown took note and released the song in United States where it also made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, giving the group their first US chart-topper.


The Beat (aka The English Beat)

The British ska band The Beat (known as The English Beat in the United States) formed in 1978. They began rehearsing songs, but nothing really came together for them. They decided to find a song they all knew and learn that one and use it in their rehearsals to get their groove going. They chose "Tears of a Clown" During their rehearsals they would play "Clown" and then play one of the songs they had been practicing such as "Mirror in the Bathroom." Before moving to the next song, they would play "Clown" again and practice "Big Shot" and so forth. Within a matter of a few months, they had six solid songs ready to take on the road and do shows. By the time they started doing shows they decided to add "Tears of A Clown" to their setlist. "Tears of A Clown" was the one song that stood out no matter where they played.

Jerry Dammers, the keyboard player for The Specials, approached The Beat and told them about the 2-Tone label which The Specials had started. He asked them if they would like to do a single for 2-Tone. Originally Chrysalis, who distributed 2-Tone wanted The Best to release "Mirror in the Bathroom" but the agreement was that Chrysalis would own the song. The Beat said no to that deal. After a few disputes they agreed on releasing "Tears of A Clown" and Chrysalis could deal with Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder regarding rights to the song. My guess is Robinson and Wonder retained the rights to their song.

"The Tears of a Clown" was The Beat's debut single, and it shot up to #6 in the UK as well as #16 in Ireland and #23 in Belgium. The song did not chart in the US but it became a popular house party favorite throughout the entire 1980s.

song reviews70s music

About the author

Rick Henry

Writing is a distraction for me. It takes me to places unknown that fulfill my need for intellectual stimulus, emotional release, and a soothing of the breaks and bruises of the day.

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Comments (20)

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  • La nice2 months ago

    Thank you for sharing, great write up!

  • Asa Reddy2 months ago

    It's really nice

  • Paul Levinson2 months ago

    Another superb, very informative article -- thank you!

  • Lon Xi'an2 months ago

    Well done. Thank you for sharing.

  • Frosch Pernice2 months ago

    Fun backstory! I can hear the "circus" influence since you mention it! I always liked The Beat cover too, it has that reggae influence fun twist on the song.

  • jamar chilcote2 months ago

    Great writing

  • Le do2 months ago

    Well done. Thank you for sharing.

  • Bath Rudge2 months ago

    Well done. Thank you for sharing.

  • De pepper2 months ago

    What a lovely, well-written review :) I enjoyed listening to both versions of the song you included and remembering listening to the original growing up. An enjoyable read :)

  • Steffany Ritchie2 months ago

    Fun backstory! I can hear the "circus" influence since you mention it! I laways liked The Beat cover too, it has that reggae influence/a fun twist on the song.

  • Dawn Salois2 months ago

    This was a very interesting read. I had heard the original version of the song, but not the other one. I always find the story behind songs to be fascinating and it always helps me understand the song better. Congratulations on your Top Story!

  • Linda Rivenbark3 months ago

    Fantastic song review!! I remember hearing the original version of the song back in the 60s and 70s. It was one of my favorites then, and after all this time, it is still hard to beat. The Beat's version of the recording is excellent as well. I like the part of the story that tells how Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson did not think the song was "hit material", so instead of making it a single, they buried it in an album...only to have it emerge as one of the biggest hits of all time. Music of the sixties always pulls on my heartstrings!!!

  • Scott Wade3 months ago

    Excellent backstory. Well written. I think Rolling Stone should hire you. Congrats on Top Story. Well deserved. 🥰

  • Kendall Defoe3 months ago

    Glad someone else has great taste on this page! I first heard the Beat's version as a kid and then my brother exposed me to the Miracles' greatness. Thank you for filling in the blanks! ;)

  • Babs Iverson3 months ago

    Fabulous!!! Congratulation on Top Story too!!!

  • Heather Hubler3 months ago

    What a lovely, well-written review :) I enjoyed listening to both versions of the song you included and remembering listening to the original growing up. An enjoyable read :)

  • The clown's backstory is so sad. And forgive me because I read Jerry Dammers and Jeffrey Dahmer 🤣 Anyway, this was a very well written review!

  • Cathy holmes3 months ago

    Great review, as always.

  • Mariann Carroll3 months ago

    Nice song picks. Love the upbeat of the song choices. 💗

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