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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"The Tears of a Clown" is unique in a profoundly Motown way

Uncommon instruments for pop and a spin on a heartbreak narrative make for an iconic soul number.

I first discussed the 44th Annual Kennedy Center Honors six nights ago when they aired on CBS, as the ceremony inspired me to write about honorees Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now." Tonight, the Honors indirectly inspired me once more as I thought of another one of the honorees: Berry Gordy.

The man behind Motown and the proliferation of Black popular music across both domestic and foreign airwaves, Gordy was honored by a plethora of artists he mentored and/or inspired. His section of the proceedings was presented by Smokey Robinson, whose group the Miracles was one of the first acts signed by Gordy upon Motown's founding. Robinson spoke of his group's first hit single and Motown's first million-selling record, "Shop Around" (1960), a song I find quite interesting largely because of the perspective of the lyrics Robinson and Gordy wrote.

However, this is where the direct connection to Gordy is severed, because I've always been drawn more to a later hit by the Miracles. This hit was written not by Robinson and Gordy, but by Robinson alongside then-17-year-old Stevie Wonder and his collaborator Hank Cosby. One of the most enduring hits of its time, "The Tears of a Clown" — originally released on 1967's Make It Happen — has always piqued my interest because of its instrumentation and the manner in which Robinson sings of hiding his sadness.

"The Tears of a Clown" strikes me as one of the most distinctive hits in Motown's entire catalog because of two particular instruments, both of which are showcased in the opening four measures. On the high, melodic end of the spectrum is the calliope, a steam-powered organ which unmistakably sounds like a circus. The up-and-down calliope melody led Smokey Robinson to write the song's lyrics from the perspective of a clown when Stevie Wonder presented him the instrumental. Propelling the track on the low end is another unusual instrument in popular music, the bassoon. Played by Detroit Symphony orchestra principal bassoonist Charles Sirard, the instrument frequently called "the clown of the orchestra" furthers the track's circus aura. The bassoon's line jumps, then slides before the drumbeat enters and it anchors the verses with low bass notes.

The unique instruments and the opening they yield are certainly attention-grabbing, and they make me think of one of Berry Gordy's keys to Motown's success: he wanted songs to grab the listener within the first ten seconds. "The Tears of a Clown" certainly accomplishes this goal, and it then keeps their attention thanks to Smokey Robinson's iconic falsetto and the story he weaves. The song is one that sounds happy thanks to its various instruments and their melodies, but its lyrics are undeniably sad as Robinson's narrator mourns the loss of a relationship. By using the perspective of a clown, Robinson structures his narrative around covering up his emotions in his daily life. He's all too aware, however, that he can't fool either himself or the woman who's left him, leading to the titular tears flowing "when there's no one around."

I'm particularly drawn to Robinson's lyrics by what could either be considered the third verse or the bridge. This section is where he spells out how his narrator views himself: "Just like Pagliacci did / I try to keep my sadness hid." It's safe to say there aren't too many opera references in popular music, which makes this couplet all the more distinctive. Ruggero Leoncavallo's iconic opera tells a story similar to Robinson's in its portrayal of a clown having found out his wife is having an affair, and it grapples with how even the most jolly performer to the public eye has emotions beneath their stage persona. The opera's perspective is one I believe to be better understood today than in earlier decades through artists opening up about their mental and physical struggles, but I also believe there is a long way to go before such discussion is universally accepted and understood.

"The Tears of a Clown" is a distinctive track, but even in its uniqueness it retains a certain charm and sound that Motown songs of its era intrinsically have baked into them. It's a display of artistry and understanding of popular music in the way Berry Gordy envisioned it, and it's no wonder that through his guidance the Miracles and many other acts reached the heights they did.


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