Nobody would deny that 1964 was among the most pivotal years in rock and roll. Nobody except Lester, a guy I worked with decades ago. He was an idiot. The Beatles and the other artists who stormed the US pop charts during the first British Invasion made an indelible impact on contemporary music and culture. Motown was ascending and producing classic singles. Girl groups were still hanging around creating pop perfection. Bob Dylan was making himself known, messing with the vocals one expected on a hit record. And Dionne Warwick was already the queen of Twitter.
Here are thirty songs that partly defined 1964. Take note, Lester.
In 1966, Stevie Wonder and Motown producer Hank Cosby wrote a piece of music and recorded it. Wonder couldn’t come up with any lyrics to go with the music, so he gave a tape of the song to fellow Motown singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson to see if he could come up with something. The music reminded Smokey of the circus, so he free associated and came up with the image of a clown. That reminded him of a story he heard as a child – the story of the opera Pagliacci, about clowns who must cover up their sadness, as their jobs required them to entertain and elate the public. Based on this idea he wrote the words to the song that became “The Tears of a Clown.” He and his group The Miracles recorded the song. Smokey didn’t think much of it, though it was included as the last song on the group’s 1967 album Make It Happen. Two singles were released from that album – “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage,” which reached #20, and “More Love,” which reached #23.
In 1969, tired of touring, Smokey told his group The Miracles that he would be retiring from the group so he could stay at home with his family and focus on his job as a Vice President at Motown. That same year, a reissue of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears” made the top ten in the UK. Though the group had many chart hits in the US, “Tracks…” was only their second song to crack the top 40 of the UK singles chart, following “I Second That Emotion” a year earlier. Motown Britain wished to capitalize on the late but growing fame. Learning there was no new material forthcoming from the group, the label asked the head of a UK Motown fan club if she had any suggestions for a Miracles song that would make a good single. She suggested the last cut on the group’s 1967 album Make It Happen.
In 1970, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “The Tears of a Clown” went to #1 in the UK. Seeing its success, Motown US released the song as a single stateside, albeit with a slightly updated mix. “The Tears of a Clown” became Smokey Robinson & The Miracles only #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (though The Miracles would hit #1 one more time following Smokey’s departure from the group.)
(Some bonus trivia: Stevie Wonder was initially brought to the attention of Motown Records by Miracles member Ronnie White.)
Today Tunes du Jour celebrates the 81st birthday of Smokey Robinson with a playlist of songs he sang and/or wrote, plus a tribute song, kicking off with “The Tears of a Clown.”
This week I’m reviving a feature I used to do on Tunes du Jour – Throwback Thursday, with each week focusing on a different year in the rock and roll era. This week we’ll listen to the music of 1966. Some notable events:
The Mamas & the Papas had their first hit with “California Dreamin’.” Perhaps you’ve heard it.
Simon & Garfunkel had their first top 40/top 10/#1 single in the US with “The Sounds of Silence.” The duo had actually broken up already and were unaware that their record label released a version of their 1964 acoustic recording on which electric guitar and drums were added.
Bob Dylan released his game-changing album Blonde On Blonde, a staple of greatest albums of all-time lists since.
? and the Mysterians released their debut single, “96 Tears.” Perhaps you’ve heard it.
Producer Phil Spector released what he considered to be his best work – Ike & Tina’s Turner “River Deep – Mountain High.” In actuality, Ike had nothing to do with the recording. Though a hit in the UK and several European countries, the single stalled at #88 in the US, leading Spector to retire for two years and produce far less frequently following that.
Percy Sledge released his debut single, “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Perhaps you’ve heard it.
The Beatles performed their last official concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
The Supremes scored two more #1 pop singles plus another two that went top ten. During their career the group would have 12 #1s and 20 top tens. Many more hits followed for the trio’s usual lead singer, Diana Ross. Perhaps you’ve heard of her.
New York City’s WOR became the first FM radio station in the US with a rock format.
Inspired by the season and the December 20 birthdays of Billy Bragg, Minutemen’s Mike Watt, Kim Weston, Alan Parsons, Heatwave’s Keith Wilder, Kiss’ Peter Criss, Anita Ward and The Easybeats’ Stevie Wright.
Inspired by the October 19 birthdays of Fugees’ Pras, Divine, Peter Tosh, Jennifer Holiday, World Party’s Karl Wallinger, Jeannie C. Riley, George McCrae, The Doobie Brothers’ Patrick Simmons, Gloria Jones, and Patrick Cowley.