NNENNA FREELON / “The Tears Of A Clown”
So here’s the deal-lee-o: “The Tears Of A Clown” (1967) is music written by Stevie Wonder and his producer Hank Cosby, hence the connection to this week AND the lyrics are by Smokey Robinson, hence the connection to last week. BTW, the music was written first and later offered to Smokey as a gift. You know, keeping it in the Motown family. It was originally issued on the 1967 Smokey and the Miracles album Make It Happen. In 1970 the single was re-released in Britain, hit number one for Motown and thereby prevented Smokey from starting his solo career as early as he had wanted. After success in Britain, “The Tears Of A Clown” was put out as a single here in the States and went to number one in 1970. Smokey remained with the Miracles for a year or so after the single’s success, which was the last big hit for Smokey and the Miracles. Appropriately, we kick off the covers with a live version (from the album The Live Collection) by Smokey and the Miracles, taken at a tempo just shy of too fast. It’s Motown fake-Las Vegas and were it not for Smokey’s enthusiasm (make that “professionalism”) there would be absolutely no reason to include it except as an example of how not to do a good song. Next up is a remix of the original from the Motown Remixed album. I like on a par with the original. Although I never was a big fan of the original’s music, one would have to totally un-sentient not to be feeling the lyrics. The music of the remix works for me or more precisely I should say, I like the remix better than the live version. Now here come our cousins from the island, copping everything that ain’t nailed down. If it’s a good R&B ballad, chances are there’s a better reggae version (or even two or three better versions) laying out on the beach just waiting to be discovered the next time your kicking back at Montego Bay or floating in a blue lagoon while sipping something smooth out of a coconut shell over at Ocho Rios. Reggae, mon, get reggae. Junior English (yes, that’s his name) has strong, high tenor that manages to remind you of Smokey without sounding like he’s trying to imitate Smokey. He seems totally comfortable singing in the treble clef. I would have totally dug it if English had taken it at a slower tempo. Perhaps he only heard the live version. This is from English's album simply called MEE. Now the Chosen Few are thieves of the highest order. They specialize in reggae-fying Seventies soul and they are good. No, they’re better than good. They are expert, from the opening moan to the backing harmonies, not to mention that stepping bass skanking underneath and the serpentine horn licks that are spot on. It’s a wonderful three-minute wind-up. (Available on the Trojan Records compilation Touch Me in the Morning.) We’re going in a jazz direction with the last two versions. Accompanied only by Dave Stryker's acoustic guitar, Kevin Mahogany offers up a gentle moment of melancholy reflection. Gone is the musical recreation of a circus atmosphere. This is truly a backstage, after-the-show-is-over recital by a broken-hearted cat crying in a cracked mirror. Kevin’s version (from Pride & Joy, his album of Motown covers) would have been the feature were it not for Ms. Freelon. Nnenna Freelon absolutely nails “The Tears Of A Clown” on her album Live, not to be confused with her version on her Stevie Wonder tribute album. The music itself is totally transformed into a stunning jazz ballad. All the instrumental touches are sensitive and effective, especially the resourceful percussionist(s) employing his/their whole arsenal to offer compelling counterpoint and sensitive shadings. As good as the music is, the music is only background because this is Nnenna’s show. She makes you feel how painful the tears are. Ranging from whispered intimacies to pain-filled moans, Ms. Freelon completely remakes the song into a compelling personal statement. Towards the end of the song she begins improvising new lyrics (“see me / feel me / touch me”). We believe her when she says “I’m hurt.” Nnenna Freelon sings this one like it’s musical autobiography. This version is a superb example of the power of song to evoke emotional truths. —Kalamu ya Salaam Chosen, Mahogany and Smokey I'm a Chosen Few fan already, so you know I had to dig their version. Those boys made an entire career out of redoing sweet soul records as roots reggae. It's always funny too, to hear how they change the lyrics around, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. (I'm guessing.) The Junior English is cool too, but of the two reggae versions, I gotta go with Chosen. So then we have the two slowed down jazz ballad versions. I know Kalamu is making Nnenna's the feature (and it's definitely not a bad take) but I have to go with Kevin Mahogany. I like Kevin's version more than Nnenna's because Kevin sings it as if he's never heard the original. It's just chords and lyrics. Nneena's cover is decent, but I feel like she's consciously trying to sound different from the original. Of the two, Nneena's performance is more impressive, certainly, but I still prefer the way my man K. Mahogany uses his warm, warm sound to create a calm, low-key record that is completely at odds with the sound of the original. I dig the Miracles live version too, but where's the original?! Oh, and by the way, that remix is TERRIBLE! Baba, come on now. —Mtume ya Salaam P.S. Smokey wrote many, many great songs, but these might be the best lyrics he ever came up with. "Ain't too much sadder than the tears of a clown / When there's no one around." What a line. Reminds me a little of Jimi's line in "Wind Cries Mary": "After all the clowns have gone to bed / You can hear happiness staggering down the street / Footprints dressed in red." The Original Ok, the original version is in the jukebox right after the "TERRIBLE" remix. ;>) BTW, in listening to the original, I've got to admit I'm floored by how good it sounds. Ridicously good—the driving bass, the hip backing vocal harmonies, etc. etc. etc. Smokey with your bad self! —Kalamu
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