My mum and dad didn’t have a great deal in common; polar opposite political views, different religious backgrounds, they couldn’t even agree on what to call me when I was born and had to compromise on existing family names. How they managed to produce two reasonably adjusted children, Gawd knows. The relationship limped along for a few years before the inevitable divorce, and they never spoke to each other again.
But they were both huge music fans, albeit fans of different genres, natch. Dad was a traditional country music afficionado – Jim Reeves was a particular Sunday morning favourite I seem to recall – along with classical, with a predilection for the chamber music end of the market. Mum had a very eclectic vinyl collection with a range of musical loves including jazz male vocalists such as Matt Munro, Jack Jones and, of course, Sinatra (who could have easily been my other Other Side of Me). When dad worked away this also meant lots of record and radio time for The Beatles – I can remember vaguely being taken to the cinema to see (probably) ‘Help’ and wondered what all the screaming and crying was about – and lashings of Motown. And especially William ‘Smokey’ Robinson Jr.
Born in Detroit in September, 1940, Robinson was a huge fan of cowboy westerns as a child, and his Uncle Claude gave him the nickname ‘Smokey Joe’, which he used instead of William with everyone. Soon dropping the ‘Joe’, he formed the first iteration of the band with whom he would become synonymous in about 1955, initially calling themselves The Five Chimes, followed by The Matadors, and then ultimately settling on The Miracles. The group met Berry Gordy, founder of what would become Motown, in 1957 and impressed him enough to help them get a recording deal with a local record label. Robinson was a prolific writer even in those early days and felt that he and Gordy could do better on their own, encouraging Gordy to set up his label, Tamla (which, of course, later became Motown). The first act signed by the label, The Miracles recorded the Robinson-penned ‘Shop Around’, which became their first nationwide, million selling hit.
Alongside performing with The Miracles, Robinson became an integral part of the Motown machine, assuming a vice president role, with lead responsibilities for song writing and producing, his tally for The Miracles ending up as 26 top 40 hits in one or both of these roles. Some of the songs created during this time are among the greatest of the era; ‘You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me’, ‘Tracks of My Tears’, ‘I Second That Emotion’, all for The Miracles, but Robinson also wrote so many great songs for other artists; ‘My Guy’ for Mary Wells, ‘Get Ready’ and ‘My Girl’ for the Temptations, ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ for Marvin Gaye among so many others. He left The Miracles in 1972 to focus on his role at the label, and although he had a number of successful performing comebacks, including a 1981 number one hit with ‘Being With You’, and a Grammy in 1988, it is safe to say the golden years for performing and writing were the ten years from around 1960.
I only became of aware of this music as mum would blast the older tunes out of the radiogram at every given opportunity, so mine was a retrospective discovery. Apart for one track, which I got in real time. The – surprisingly – only number one hit for Smokey Robinson and The Miracles (as by this time they were now re-named), ‘Tears of a Clown’. The track was actually recorded in 1966 and appeared on the album ‘Make It Happen’ a year later, but never released as a single. Co-written with Stevie Wonder, it was initially released in the UK in the summer of 1970, and quickly went to number one and stayed there. That same summer, I was on a family holiday at Butlins in Bognor Regis (young ‘uns, look it up). Not for us any fancy, la-di-da, Gunner Graham, Continental sun, sea and sangria holidays. Oh, no. A mild, wet, late August week in what was effectively an army barracks on the south coast would fit the bill perfectly, apparently.
But ‘Tears of a Clown’ was being played everywhere….in the disco, in the bars, roaring out of the speakers by the unheated outdoor pool, in the amusement arcades. I loved every note, every time I heard it. This to me is pure Smokey, the soulful genius distilled into a fabulous three minute single. It is said there is no such thing as time travel. Well, I am here to tell you that every time I hear that song I am immediately transported back to late summer of 1970, when flower power ruled, Hendrix and Joni Mitchell played the Isle of Wight Festival and people could smoke inside pubs….imagine that! As Martin Fry would write many years later, “when Smokey sings/I hear violins”….and, oh man, so do I.