Smokey Robinson based this song on the Italian opera Pagliacci, which is about a clown who must make the audience laugh while he weeps behind his makeup because his wife betrayed him. In the last verse, Robinson sings: "Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my surface hid."
Robinson heard the Pagliacci story when he was young, and always found it intriguing.
Stevie Wonder came up with the music for this song with a top Motown producer named Hank Cosby. They recorded an instrumental demo and asked Robinson to complete the song - it was common practice for Motown writers to work on each other's songs at the time.
Robinson listened to the song for a few days and decided it sounded like a circus - he came up with the lyrics based on the clown. "I was trying to think of something that would be significant, that would touch people's hearts, but still be dealing with the circus," said Smokey. "So what is that? Pagliacci, of course. The clown who cries. And after he makes everyone else happy with the smile painted on his face, then he goes into his dressing room and cries because he's sad. That was the key."
A variety of instruments, including a bassoon, were used to create the circus sound. The piccolo was played by Jim Horn, who played saxophone or flute on albums by The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, U2 and many others.
The low, honking instrument that helps create the circus atmosphere in this song is not a saxophone, an oboe or a tuba, but a bassoon. Motown had their own house band (The Funk Brothers), but would sometimes use members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra when they needed to expand a song's sonic palette. This was the case on "The Tears of a Clown" - Charles Sirard from the orchestra was brought in to play the bassoon.
With his group The Miracles, Robinson had a big hit in 1965 with "The Tracks Of My Tears
," and the tears theme led many listeners to believe that this was a sequel. Robinson said he didn't notice any similarity until it was pointed out to him, but noted that the songs both deal with "contradictions of desire."
Released on the Make It Happen album in 1967, this song wasn't released as a single until three years later. Neither Smokey Robinson nor Stevie Wonder (co-writers of the song) thought it had much hit potential and didn't push for it - the ballads "The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage" and "More Love" were chosen as singles from the album.
In the UK, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles had a tough time finding an audience - "I Second That Emotion" made #27 in 1967, and a re-release of "The Tracks Of My Tears" hit #9 in 1969, but that was all they had for UK chart entries to that point. By 1970, their British distributor was so frustrated that he asked Karen Spreadbury, who was head of a Motown fan club in England, to pick a single from the Make It Happen album. She chose "The Tears of a Clown" - the last song on the album. The song was issued as a single in the UK and shot up the charts, rising to #1 in August, 1970. Motown took note and released the song in America a short time later, and in December it rose to #1 on the Hot 100, giving the group their first chart-topper.
The lyrics, "Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid" are also in the 1964 song called "My Smile Is Just A Frown (Turned Upside Down)" written partly by Smokey Robinson, sung by a Motown artist named Carolyn Crawford. The song has similar meaning. (thanks, Kenneth - Auckland, New Zealand)
In the UK, this song was re-released in 1976, going to #34. In 1979, a cover version by The Beat
(known as "The English Beat" in America), made #6 UK. This version was titled "Tears of a Clown," leaving out the the