A Brief History of "Tears of a Clown"
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.
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