Writing yesterday about The Isley Brothers’ slightly overlooked masterpiece, “Behind A Painted Smile”, I was very careful not to mention Motown’s other famous song about a guy pretending everything was alright on the outside, even when he didn’t feel that way on the inside.
That’s worth an article all of its own.
“Behind A Painted Smile” and “The Tears Of A Clown” have a number of similarities, beyond their subject matter, of course.
Both were produced by superstar songwriters and performers. Both were recorded a couple of years before being released as singles. Both were put together during a golden era when the iconic Motown record label could seemingly do no wrong. Both were successful attempts to move beyond the more direct songs of heartbreak and hoped-for romance that were a staple of Motown’s early years by introducing more subtle lyrics and drawing on more imaginative metaphors.
“The Tears Of A Clown” started off as an instrumental track put together by long-time Motown producer Hank Cosby and Stevie Wonder. They created a great tune but couldn’t find the words to go with it. After some time had gone by and they were no closer to a set of lyrics they were happy with, Hank Cosby and Stevie Wonder played their song for Smokey Robinson, who made their great tune into a masterpiece after writing the perfect lyrics to go with it.
It’s worth noting that, back in the Motown era, artists collaborated with one another the whole time. We often think of collaborations between different artists as a more recent phenomenon, but in the 1960s it wasn’t at all unusual for different songwriters to mix and mingle on one another’s songs, or for one superstar group to provide backing vocals for another superstar group. The collaborative atmosphere was just one of the many secrets of Motown’s success.
As artists and writers often do, Smokey Robinson took the opportunity to work out an idea he’d been carrying in his head for some time, but hadn’t yet found a way to express it.
Some years earlier, Smokey Robinson had heard the story of “Pagliacci”, an obscure Italian opera featuring a clown who put on his make-up every night and transformed the sadness he felt inside into a performance which made audiences laugh, even though he didn’t feel remotely like laughing himself.
Smokey Robinson had been fascinated by this story for years, but it was when Hank Cosby and Stevie Wonder brought along their music, which had a slightly circus feel to it, Smokey Robinson thought, that a creative spark ignited in his brain and “The Tears Of A Clown” was born.
Although he was inspired by “Pagliacci”, it would be unfair to suggest that Smokey Robinson just ripped off the story.
Smokey Robinson was too clever a lyricist to just recycle someone else’s old idea, and a very intelligent man. He was one of Motown’s earliest artists and rose to become a Vice-President of that legendary record company. In fact when “The Tears Of A Clown” was released as a single, he’d wanted to give up his performing and touring to work in an executive role for Motown.
“The Tears Of A Clown” hitting the top of the charts in the UK and the US meant a quick change of career plan. Smokey Robinson was a company man through and through and he knew where his duties lay when he had a major hit record on his hands. The desk job took a back seat for a while.
“The Tears Of A Clown” is also notable for two other reasons. Firstly, it’s the only major hit record I can think of which works the title of an obscure 19th century opera into its lyrics…
Just like Pagliacci did
I try to keep my sadness hid
And it features that rarest of instruments in a popular song — a bassoon.
Although the music on “The Tears Of A Clown” is mostly by the legendary Motown house band, The Funk Brothers, they drafted in Charles Sirard of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for the bassoon part as that was felt to add to the circus feel of the song. You can hear it from the very opening notes of the intro — it’s that low, slightly oom-pah sound under the flute, set back in the mix a little.
But for all the other masterful components in “The Tears Of A Clown”, Smokey Robinson’s lyrics are without doubt the most masterful element.
Now, if there’s a smile on my face
It’s only there trying to fool the public
But when it comes down to fooling you
Now honey, that’s quite a different subject
As someone who was brought up to “carry on regardless” and keep going no matter what I might feel like on the inside, the opening lines of “The Tears Of A Clown” resonated with me instantly the first time I heard them through the tinny speakers of my transistor radio some time in the early 1970s.
But if the opening lines had caught my attention, it only got better from there on in…
Don’t let my glad expression
Give you the wrong impression
Really, I’m sad
Sadder than sad
You’re gone and I’m hurting so bad
Like a clown I pretend to be glad
Then we got to the pay-off line…
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
I don’t think I’m unusual in identifying closely with “The Tears Of A Clown”. I first heard it as a teenager and there’s probably not a teenager on the planet who doesn’t feel isolated from those around them, and despairs that nobody understands them.
But I felt this song spoke to me…told my story…in a way that no other song had up till that point. It was one of the first songs to spark my interest in song lyrics, which as you can see is still going strong many years later. It felt like “The Tears Of A Clown” had been written just for me.
And that’s the definition of a creative masterpiece.
When someone you’ve never met, who lives thousands of miles away and who doesn’t know anything about you can capture your experiences and your feelings so completely in the course of a three minute pop song, and then present it in a way that makes you feel the song has been written and performed just for you, that’s a very special song.
And a very special writer.
It takes real skill to write that well and describe emotions so comprehensively, using a very clever metaphor.
I’m gladder than glad that one day Hank Cosby and Stevie Wonder strolled into Smokey Robinson’s office at Motown Records and said, “we’re written a pretty nice tune, but we’re struggling with the words…could you have a look at it for us, please?”.
Here’s Smokey Robinson and The Miracles with a true musical and lyrical masterpiece…a UK and US Number One, “The Tears Of A Clown”…
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to this track on Spotify, you can find it here… https://open.spotify.com/track/7EmPXV0eBd7wlkARuvnjkh