The Tears of a Clown

Album: Make It Happen (1967)
Charted: 1 1
  • songfacts ®
  • Lyrics
  • 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 played by Charles Sirard, 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. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    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.
  • This was an influence on the 1979 song "Bed and Breakfast Man" from the UK ska band Madness.
Please sign in or register to post comments.

Comments: 28

  • Jennifur Sun from RamonaHank Cosby was also a Sax man in the extended personal of the Funk Brothers.
  • Colin from LondonI disagree with some of the lyrics displayed. This is what I hear:
    "In order to shield my pride I try"
    ...
    "That I've been happy since you
    Decided to go..."
    ...
    "I try to keep my sadness hid
    Smiling in the public eye"
  • Jennifur Sun from RamonaCharles the bassoon player was a man named Charles Sirard.
  • Lisa from New York, UsaJust thinking about Robin Williams recent suicide. "there are some sad things known to man, but there ain't too much sadder than, the tears of a clown, when there's no one around". Heartbreaking. And true.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn July 10th 1971, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles performed "The Tears of a Clown" on the ABC-TV program 'American Bandstand'...
    Ten months earlier on October 11th, 1970 it entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #68; and on December 6th, 1970 it peaked at #1 (for 2 weeks) and spent 16 weeks on the Top 100 (and for 10 of those 16 weeks it was on the Top 10)...
    And on November 29th, 1970 it reached #1 (for 3 weeks) on Billboard's Hot R&B Singles chart...
    It was the group's thirty-seventh Top 100 record and their first #1 hit on the chart, five years later in 1975 they would have their second #1 with "Love Machine - Part One"...
    Mr. Robinson will celebrate his 75th birthday this coming February 19th, 2015.
  • Patrick from Bremen, GaThis could easily be an accompaniment to the classic song "Laugh Clown, Laugh", in which the saddened clown is being told to make people laugh, also based on the same Italian opera.
  • Jordan from Toronto, CanadaTears of A Clown is used twice in the lates '80s early '90s television show The Wonder Years. Once while the protagonist Kevin is at a school dance and is trying to make a girl he likes jealous by dancing with someone else. The second time is in an episode where his love interest Winnie is really unhappy at her new school and is trying to cover up her feelings by putting on a happy face and hanging out with older kids.
    The Wonder Years was set in the late 1960s and masterfully included many songs from the era into their show. Tears of a Clown (particularly in the second episode mentioned) might be the best example from the entire series.
  • Flo from Bolton, United KingdomDoes anyone know the percussion instruments (besides the tambourine)on Tears Of A Clown?
  • Kristin from Bessemer, AlSmokey Robinson uses the line "just like Pagliacci did, I keep my sadness hid" in another Motown song he wrote for an obscure artist by the name of Carolyn Crawford - the song was "My Smile Is Just A Frown Turned Upside Down", released in 1964.
  • Alan from Syracuse, NyChris LaB. Bob Babbitt is credited with playing bass on this hit. He is a top session player. Check out his awesome list of hit records he played on at www.bobbabbitt.com Also love the incredible drum fills on this.
  • Guy from Wellington, New ZealandLove it! I have to remind myself it's a sad song coz the music just makes me want to dance. Love Smokey's way cool vocals.. and that bassoon is pretty cool too.
  • Dylan from Port Orange, FlSmokey Robinson is singing this on "American Idol" even as I speak.
  • Chris Labenne from Niles, OhThis song is instrumentally great. The vocal harmonies in the chorus are very well structured, Smokey's vocals are great as always, Jame Jamerson's bass is simple yet great, and the bassoon player in the background is surprisingly good.
  • Jim from Seattle, Wai'd also like to add that in general i find clowns creepy, not funny.
  • Jim from Seattle, Wathe english beat covered this pretty decently
  • Audie from Auckland, New ZealandI hate seeing sad clowns...*cries*
  • Roddy from Waterford, IrelandThe song was also covered in Ireland in the '80 by a band called THE BOGEY BOYS
  • Gordon from Ft. Lauderdale, FlIt would be nice to know who plays the bassoon on Tears of a Clown. A bit of trivia to be sure, but it catches my ear like any instrumentalist would on the track. I like to pick out the musicians and hear them play their parts when listening to songs I like.
  • Greg from Victoria, CanadaExcellent tune!
  • Dennis from Anchorage, AkThis is, quite simply, on of the best recordings in the history of pop music.
  • Howard from St. Louis Park, MnThis was probably the only number one song of the rock era to feature a calliope in the instrumental track.
  • Michael from Winnipeg, Canadahey,
    my name is Michel and i live in canada. I herd about your song and i herd it and it was like i was floating. it was so amazing and it stil is amazing every time i hear it. it is THE BEST SONG IVE EVER HERD IN MY LIFE. i play it over and over, i cant get enough of it my dream is to hear Smokey Robinson play that song for me

    anyway I love the song sooo much
  • Charlie from Phoenix, AzCan any body tell me what instrument/s they used to get the sound that is so unique to this song? I've tried to figure it out for years but haven't got a clue.

    Thanks!
  • Steve from Wilmington, DeI wanted to say I feel like a clown. In 1979/80 I drove Smokey around Philly in a black limo for 3 days. It was an absolutely OUTSTANDING priviledge and honor. I have turned out ot be fairly successful considering where I cane from and I think I partially attribute that to the fact I can always look up to people like Smokey. He may not know it BUT he had a tremendous influence in my life that just never ever dies. I mean, HECK, I drove SMOKEY ROBINSON!!! I gave the picture of my then BABY (now 26) to him and he gave her the most beautiful autograph I have ever ever seen. I gave her her baby pic a few years ago. I don;t know how she really feels about it but in my heart I know it matters.

    Anyway, I remember Smokey inviting me to watch his show at he Forest Theater on Braod Street in Philly and remember how bitter sweet it was cause I was breaking up with my first wife in 1979/80. I can still hear his swet melody wafting in my ears. THANKS SMOKEY; and GOD BLESS!!!!!

    Steve ...you're limo driver way back when!!!
  • Rob from Santa Monica, Ca(The band) ABC's tribute to Smokey Robinson, "When Smokey Sings" basically used this beat and bassline.
  • Kristy from La Porte City, IaThe English Beat did a new wave cover of this song in '80s...they made the song more upbeat with reggae influences.
  • Scherrie from Cleveland, OhThankyou, I would love to read anything about Smokey Robinson.
  • Brad Wind from Miami, FlWhen "Tracks of My Tears" was a hit in the UK (in 1970), management looked for a song with a similar theme for a follow-up. Since no new Miracles' product was scheduled to arrive from the USA, they opted for "Tears of a Clown."
see more comments

Joe ElySongwriter Interviews

The renown Texas songwriter has been at it for 40 years, with tales to tell about The Flatlanders and The Clash - that's Joe's Tex-Mex on "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

Chris Frantz - "Genius of Love"They're Playing My Song

Chris and his wife Tina were the rhythm section for Talking Heads when they formed The Tom Tom Club. "Genius of Love" was their blockbuster, but David Byrne only mentioned it once.

Cy Curnin of The FixxSongwriter Interviews

The man who brought us "Red Skies" and "Saved By Zero" is now an organic farmer in France.

Second Wind SongsSong Writing

Some songs get a second life when they find a new audience through a movie, commercial, TV show, or even the Internet.

John Doe of XSongwriter Interviews

With his X-wife Exene, John fronts the band X and writes their songs.

Justin Hayward of The Moody BluesSongwriter Interviews

Justin wrote the classic "Nights In White Satin," but his fondest musical memories are from a different decade.