Friday, February 19, 2021

The genius of Smokey

Smokey Robinson turns 81 today. If you get the chance, watch Hitsville: The Making of Motown (originally aired on Showtime, it's free on Prime until the end of this month). The documentary's a joy to watch, an inspiring story of personal and civic pride, discipline, camaraderie, courage, and master songwriters, cut through with humor. Among the many highlights for me were the studio breakdowns of "My Girl" and "What's Going On" and the far-too-brief footage of the electrifying Levi Stubs onstage, but the whole story's fascinating and moving. I wish it were twice as long. Smokey and Berry Gordy are the central players in the film, the center around which all of the musicians and songwriters orbit, and it's a blast to see them bs-ing, mock quarreling, and generally holding forth, if not revealing all. It's a must watch.

There are so many indelible songs of Smokey's, or those that he pitched in on, to choose from to celebrate today: but to my ears "The Tears of a Clown" is as close to perfect as a pop song gets. Stevie Wonder and producer Hank Cosby wrote the melody and arrangement, which glides between childlike circus wonder and four-on-the-floor dance propulsion, and brought the material to Smokey who, vibing on the calliope mood, wrote the lyrics. The song closes the Miracles' 1967 album Make It Happen, but wouldn't enjoy prominence for another three years until released as a single in England in July of 1970, where it rose to the top of the UK Singles Chart; always keen to exploit any commercial possibility, Motown recognized their error and re-released the song in the States, where it hit #1 on both the Billboard and the R&B Singles Chart.

And where it duly entered jukeboxes in nearly every bar. I fondly recall in the late 1980s sitting with my buddy John in The Union, our favorite joint in Athens, Ohio, feeding dollar after dollar after dollar into the jukebox, playing "Tears of a Clown" again and again, marveling at the production, the singing, the band, the tight yet somehow fluid arrangement wherein Smokey, effortlessly moving from chorus to verses, sings a fun song about sad stuff, that eternal game. The Union of course, was always loud, but the jukebox was loud, too, and yet we puzzled over the lines in the bridge—we couldn't make them out. We were steeped enough in the song's argument and metaphors, the story it was telling, that our ears were tuned, but drunken epiphanies as to what Smokey was singing were always just beyond us. In those pre-Internet, pre-smartphone days, we really had to work, relying on guesses shouted at each other over the din, on well-oiled hypotheses, squinting our eyes in the smoke as we listened as if that would somehow help, or gabbing our friends and strangers by their collars, jovially desperate for their help. It felt like—it was—a fun game we looked forward to each time, Smokey, smiling, winking his gold-green eyes at us, just beyond our reach: What am I singing? One night, it just clicked for us, we simply heard it, the lyric as clear and sweet as air. And when we heard it, we collapsed in the simple beauty of it—the rhyme, the image, the from-left-field reference that—of course!—made perfect sense!
Just like Pagliacci did
I try to keep my sadness hid
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room I cry
Right there is the genius of Smokey Robinson, a line made infinitely rich with a smart simile sung on top of a lilting melody carrying both joy and agony, the Miracles singing "The Great Pretender" behind him knowingly and pityingly. It's all so simple and simply perfect that I wonder how I ever missed it the first time.

Happy Birthday, Smokey.

Image of Smokey Robinson on the front porch of the Motown Studio, Detroit, Michigan, 1967 via Pinterest

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