While Motown Records founder Berry Gordy surely deserves credit for establishing the creative philosophy and business strategy that turned his Detroit-based company into a hit-making machine in the 1960s, the inner workings of that machine during the company’s early years depended almost as much on the talents of a young man named William Robinson, Jr., better known to the world as “Smokey.” Even if he’d never sung on a single Motown record, Smokey Robinson would still be regarded as one of the label’s most important figures purely on the basis of his production and songwriting work for acts like Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. But Smokey Robinson did sing, of course, in his trademark falsetto, on some of Motown’s most beloved records: “Shop Around” (1960); “You Really Got A Hold On Me” (1962); “I Second That Emotion” (1967), to name only a few. After more than a decade of hits like these that never quite made it to the top of the charts, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles finally earned their first #1 hit when “Tears Of A Clown” topped the Billboard Hot 100 on December 12, 1970.
Like many of his other songs, “Tears Of A Clown” told a story to which any current or former lovelorn teenager could relate. Mining much the same emotional territory as he did in the song many consider to be his masterpiece, “The Tracks Of My Tears” (1965), Robinson showcased his ability in “Tears Of A Clown” to tell such a story using a catchy melody and clever wordplay—”Don’t let my glad expression/Give you the wrong impression“—without ever lapsing into corniness. It was that ability that led Bob Dylan to refer to Smokey Robinson as America’s “greatest living poet.”
Smokey Robinson’s association with Berry Gordy began even before Motown Records was founded, and it continued long after he stopped scoring hits of his own. Robinson’s “Shop Around” was the company’s first big hit (it was a Billboard #2 hit for The Miracles in 1960), and his “My Guy” (1964) and “My Girl” (1965) were #1 hits for Mary Wells and The Temptations, respectively. In 1967, Smokey Robinson became the vice president of Motown Records Corporation, a position he held for the next two decades until the company was sold to MCA in 1988.