In 1969, after more than a decade as one of Motown Records' top musicians, Smokey Robinson was ready to move forward.
With The Miracles, 1960's "Shop Around," which he co-wrote with label founder Berry Gordy, was Motown's first million-seller. In addition to 25 Top 40 hits with his group, Robinson had also been one of the company's most prolific songwriters, writing hits for The Temptations ("My Girl," "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Get Ready"), Mary Wells ("My Guy"), Marvin Gaye ("I'll Be Doggone," "Ain't That Peculiar") and others. He had even been given a spot as the label's vice president, and wanted to hone his business skills and get off the road for a spell.
And that was the plan - until a song from deep in their catalog unexpectedly became their biggest hit ever.
"The Tears of a Clown" was tucked away at the very end of Make It Happen, The Miracles' 1967 album. The basic track was written by an up-and-coming writer in Motown's ranks: teenage singer Stevie Wonder, who brought the basic track (written with producer Hank Cosby) to the company Christmas party in search of some good lyrics. Robinson, who thought the melody reminded him of a circus, quickly spun a tale inspired by the tragic opera clown Pagliacci, whose ability to make people laugh hid his own deep sadness.
Yet the big hits off Make It Happen were "The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage" and "More Love" - both Top 20 pop hits and Top 10 R&B hits - and "Tears" seemed destined for album track status. Then, three years later - as Robinson was trying to finalize his plans to part ways with the group - Motown's U.K. branch wanted a single from the group and decided to (allegedly on the recommendation of the country's Motown fan club representative) make "Tears from a Clown" the song to fill the space. It surprised everyone by reaching the top of the country's singles chart - and when it was remixed and released as a single in America, it became the group's first song to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Off the success of the track, Robinson's exit would be delayed to 1972 - by which point a farewell tour and the proper introduction of a replacement, singer Billy Griffin, was solidified. (Griffin would lead The Miracles back to No. 1 with "Love Machine" in 1975.) And Robinson's own retirement from recording was brief: within a year he'd start recording as a soloist for Motown, helping brand a new type of slow, sensuous R&B named after one of his albums: quiet storm.