“Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says ‘treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.’ Man bursts into tears. Says ‘but, doctor…I am Pagliacci.’ Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.”
Alan Moore ‘Watchmen’ (1987)
One Sunday afternoon last year, driving home from a gig the previous night in London, I was listening to the radio when ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles came on. Taking into account that I’ve probably heard this track thousands of times in my life, I could never quite work out what the line in the middle eight was, directly before ‘I have to keep my sadness hid’. All of a sudden it was clear as day ‘just like Pagliacci did’! The same Pagliacci Alan Moore was referring to in the quote above from ‘Watchmen’. As any regular reader of the blog will know, Moore and ‘Watchmen’ have been the subject of a whole heap of pieces here, so Smokey wasn’t going to slip a ‘Pagliacci’ past me this time – Moore’s invocation of Pagliacci, whilst outlining the death of the book’s central character, The Comedian (narrated by the vigilante, Rorschach, who’s investigating the murder) is one of ‘Watchmen’s’ most powerful sequences.
It all makes sense now – Pagliacci was an Italian opera from the late 1800s, a role made famous by the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso. The title is the name of the main character, the story illustrating how, behind the make up, clowns are real people too, who also experience the joy and sorrow of real emotions, but given their role as laughter bringers, their sadness being of a particularly poignant variety. As Smokey Robinson put it so well – ‘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’.
‘The Tears Of A Clown’ is a titan amongst tunes, first issued in 1967, and co-written by a teenage Stevie Wonder, it’s a once heard never forgotten experience. It’s one of the best-known Motown recordings, which is some going when you consider just how many great Motown tracks there were, hit after hit after hit throughout the ’60s and ’70s and on into the ’80s and beyond. So, as you can see, this is a track with real weight – what might be termed a classic amongst classics.
Yet this wasn’t even issued as a single in ’67, but hidden away as the closing track on an album called ‘Make It Happen’. The Miracles had already had 14 hits in the US chart by this point, the biggest their first, 1960’s ‘Shop Around’, which peaked at #2, but the label slept on ‘The Tears Of A Clown’, they obviously didn’t hear this as a hit single (whereas this would subsequently become the group’s biggest hit of all, 3 years down the line).
The key to its success wasn’t in its home country, but across the Atlantic in the UK, and acts as a perfect illustration of how club DJs have been breaking records in this country since the ’60s, their obsession with black music bringing Soul to the fore during this period, an initial trickle of hits in the early part of the decade, followed by the opening of the floodgates, especially with regards to the Tamla Motown label (the UK umbrella for the various Berry Gordy owned labels – Motown, V.I.P, Soul, Gordy, Tamla etc.), topped off by the hugely successful ‘Motown Chartbusters’ compilations (Volumes 1 & 2 released in 1967 and ’68 as ‘British Motown Chartbusters’). Each of the first 8 releases in what would be a 12 album series entered the top 10 of the UK album chart, with Volumes 3, 4 and 5 all reaching #1 – this was a phenomenal series:
Tamla Motown established itself in no time as an iconic British record label – for many people of my generation, the most iconic ever. Launched in March 1965 it was a label that shaped British youth culture more than any other back then. I can’t over-emphasise the British love affair with this music, which subsequently became as obsessive as you can get, spinning off a whole subculture that would come to be known as ‘Northern Soul’, where enthusiasts dug deeper and deeper, unearthing rare older records, especially on other smaller Detroit labels of the era, a number of which, whilst ignored in their country of origin, went on to retrospectively become hit singles here. Tamla (as it was then generally referred to in the UK), was championed by the Mods, whose love of Rhythm & Blues had helped precipitate the seismic cultural shift of the Swinging Sixties, with its Carnaby Street epicentre. From the underground to the mainstream, Tamla Motown dominated the playlists of dance hall and discotheque DJs throughout the country – each sacred 7”, it seemed, a gift from the floorfiller gods. Just look at the quality of artists associated with this prolific label during the ’60s – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles etc. etc. As I said, hit after hit after hit after hit…
It’s against this background that ‘The Tears Of A Clown’, which had been overlooked at source, had been picked up on by British DJs who looked beyond the 7”, curious that there might be some hidden gems on the LP’s by these artists. It was as a result of these DJs digging that bit deeper that ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ became a cult track within the more discerning British nightspots, where Soul reigned supreme, prompting the single release in the first place.
In 1969, following a quartet of more modest UK hits (the highest placing being #27 in ’67 for ‘I Second That Emotion’), Tamla Motown finally got Smokey & The Miracles into the Top 10 with a 4 year old recording, ‘The Tracks Of My Tears’ (a US Top 20 hit in 1965), but were unable to capitalize on this success because Smokey had decided to leave the group to concentrate on his role as vice-president of Motown, as well as raising a family. His departure halted the momentum, but, the following year, some extremely bright spark (who? I’m not sure) suggested the label release another track from the band’s back catalogue, not a former US hit this time, but a relatively obscure album track that had found favour in the clubs called ‘The Tears Of A Clown’.
It was an inspired move, the single going on to top the UK chart, a feat that would greatly impress the parent company in Detroit, who decided to unleash it on the US market. But first they felt, with radio in mind, that they needed to bring the track sonically up to date, so they decided to re-record the drums and the bass to help give it a more contemporary production sound.
Having done this, as with the UK, the records release would prove to be a major coup, taking the group all the way to the top of the US chart for the first time. Given their new found success, Smokey Robinson would re-join The Miracles, staying with the group for 2 more years before he introduced Billy Griffin as his official replacement (The Miracles’ second US #1 would come courtesy of ‘Love Machine’, a Griffin fronted Disco favourite from ’75). Yet amidst all this history there remained a mystery.
The drummer who played on the original session recording of ‘The Tears Of A Clown’, Benny Benjamin, had passed away less than two years on, so his successor, Uriel Jones, overdubbed the 1970 version. When Bob Babbitt died, just over 12 months ago, most of the obituaries credited him with playing bass on ‘The Tears Of A Clown’, but given that his first session for Motown was in 1970, and the track was actually issued for the first time 3 years previously, I knew this couldn’t be the case. Furthermore, the legendary bassist James Jamerson is also often listed as playing bass on the track, so something was wrong somewhere. However, once I learnt of the later overdubs, all began to make sense – that was until I came across the possibility that James Jamerson might not have been the original bassist after all.
There’s another bass player who lays claim to the original recording. This is Tony Newton, who was part of the The Miracles touring band at the time the track was recorded. It was in researching this piece that I came across the following thread on Soulful Detroit.com, which places Tony Newton’s name in the frame as the bassist on the original version of ‘The Tears Of A Clown’:
Tony Newton was chosen to replace James Jamerson as touring bassist with The Miracles when he was just 18, so that Jamerson could concentrate on studio recording exclusively. He came over to Britain for the famed 1965 ‘Motown Revue’ dates, which did so much in helping popularise the music in this country. He also appeared on a number of recordings, said to include ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, ‘Baby Love’, ‘Stop In The Name Of Love, (by The Supremes) and ‘Nowhere to Run’ (by Martha & The Vandellas) in Detroit, and later, when the company moved to Los Angeles, ‘ABC’, ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ (by the Jackson 5), and ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ (by Thelma Houston), amongst many others.
The ‘Motown Revue’ tour was instigated by Dave Godin and his Tamla-Motown Appreciation Society, which was crucial in giving the label its influential British identity, and where the artists, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas and the Earl Van Dyke Sextet were staggered by the amount of knowledge UK Soul aficionados had already amassed. I wrote about Godin, and his great contribution to British culture, in the blog post ‘Original Soulboy’:
In detective mode, I had a look around the internet to see if I could shine any further light on the Newton’s involvement with ‘The Tears Of A Clown’. Interestingly some of the top results when I entered ‘tony newton tears of a clown’ into Google linked to Anthony Newton, a contemporary African-American artist who describes his work as ‘primarily a study of Hip-Hop culture via portraiture’. By pure coincidence (I imagine) one of his paintings, from 2010, is called ‘Tears Of A Clown’:
The internet can be the great connector and, as I was looking around, I actually found Tony Newton’s website and was able to drop him an email asking him about his involvement in the track, which he confirmed. So, it appears the original bass on ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ was courtesy of Tony Newton, whilst the 1970 re-recording was Bob Babbitt, which would mean that the UK release featured Newton and drummer Benny Benjamin, whilst the US combines Babbitt and Uriel Jones.
So, Italian Opera, the British Mod movement, the music of Motortown, Detroit and a trio of great bassists, along with the comic book gravitas of Alan Moore, all collide in a fusion of cross-cultural reference, each adding richness to the other in this process.
As I mentioned back in June (https://blog.gregwilson.co.uk/2013/06/american-trilogy-motortown-philly-nyc-2/), when I played ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ at Movement’s open air ‘Appreciation Party’, at TV Lounge in midtown Detroit, right there amidst the ghosts of Motown past, it was in full awareness of the legacy of a track that, although one of Detroit’s greatest, only achieved that greatness because of DJs across the Atlantic – this was very much a gift that Britain had given back to Detroit, and consequently the world. So next time you hear ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ remember that classics aren’t immediately identified as such – sometimes their assent to such a lofty status may require a passage of time and / or a roundabout route.
Whilst we’re on the subject of Detroit, can I draw your attention to the Detroit Sound Conservancy Oral History Project, which is archiving stories from Motor City, highlighting its rich musical legacy. More at the website:
The Tears Of A Clown Wikipedia: