The subject of “The Tears of a Clown” — that the singer may appear all happy and carefree but inside is truly a brokenhearted wreck — was one that Smokey Robinson had visited not just once, but at least twice before. First, on “My Smile Is Just a Frown (Turned Upside Down),” a 1964 song he wrote the lyrics for but which was recorded by a little-known Motown singer named Carolyn Crawford, and then again on his own 1965 classic, “The Tracks of My Tears.” You would think writing “The Tracks of My Tears,” one of the all-time-great heartbreak ballads, would have been enough to get it out of his system, but no! Smokey would not be denied his wallowing in sadness and masking it with a smile! “I will show them all!” he thought, as he then attacked that theme once again in 1967, putting the words this time to instrumental music that Stevie Wonder had written but for which he was having trouble coming up with lyrics. “I know just where I can get some lyrics like that!” Smokey apparently also thought when Stevie presented his dilemma, as he proceeded to almost directly lift the lines “Just like Pagliacci did / I’ll keep my sadness hid” from the aforementioned “My Smile Is Just a Frown.” Building up the song around that idea yet again, he did the unthinkable: he turned the recycled lyrics, with much thanks to Stevie’s music, into not only the greatest song in the entire history of “I-may-look-happy-but-I’m-not” pop, but one of the greatest songs — oh yes — in all of popular music.
Funny thing, then, that the song somehow sat around as a mere album track when it came out on the 1967 album, Make It Happen. It took three whole years for it to show up as a single in 1970 — in the U.K.! And only then, after it hit #1 there, was it released in the U.S. as a single later that year. Needless to say, it quickly shot up to #1 here as well. The Make It Happen album was rereleased as The Tears of a Clown to capitalize on the hit, because clearly, someone at Motown had not made it happen three years earlier. Strange, because one tends to think of Motown’s Berry Gordy as having such an ear for hits that he wouldn’t have missed that opportunity. I find it baffling that it wasn’t immediately obvious what an amazing song it was. And still is. The English Beat recorded an excellent ska version of it in 1979 (which also became a hit, minus the “The” in the title), but, although they came very close, no one will ever capture the propulsive momentum of the original recording. And then there’s Smokey’s singing, which, as was usually the case, is unassailable. “Tears of a Clown” still gives me shivers every time I hear it.