Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – Make It Happen

on July 31, 2010, 8:00am

Released in August 1967 during the Summer of Love, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ Make It Happen is one of the strongest, yet most underrated, albums in the Miracles catalog. Filled with great dance floor numbers and beautiful balladry, Make It Happen is a milestone in the evolution of both the group’s sound and Robinson’s compositional sophistication. It is also an example of a tremendous marketing misstep and outright corporate greed.

Side A of Make It Happen bookends with two hot dance floor numbers: “The Soulful Shack”, a groovy, upbeat number that bridges the album with the previous releases Going to a Go-Go and Away We a Go-Go, and “My Love is Your Love (Forever)”. The lion’s share of side A is a sequence of ballads that beautifully demonstrate the Miracles at their finest. The sequence of the four ballads together provide for a great, easy listen that is somewhat disrupted by the suddenly happy cries of Smokey and crew. It is the placement of the dance numbers that feel out of place. Starting an album off with an upbeat number that is both new and yet familiar enough for the audience to connect with is both creatively and financially astute. However, the first of the ballads, “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage”, features production referencing the British Invasion as well as recognized Motown staples, including beginning with Funk Brother Marv Tarplin’s signature guitar and Robinson’s lyrics characteristically about a man fooled by beauty and the false promises of love. It would have served nicely as the introduction to the album. (On a historical note, this song was also the first single billed as Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and was the biggest single from the album at the time of its release.)

The highlight of side A, however, is the gorgeously tender treatment of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “I’m On the Outside (Looking In)”.  It is on this track that the Miracles connect both with an audience from ten years earlier and the contemporary, youthful audience of 1967.  With lyrics mirroring sentiments so often found in Robinson’s songs and sublime harmonies, the song evokes more emotion in its two-plus minutes than most albums do in their entirety.

Side B is not quite a mirror image of side A. While slow, tearful ballads make up the bulk of the album’s front, the opposite is true for side B, sort of. Beginning with the slower numbers “More Love” (itself a single released after “The Love I Saw in You…”) and “After You Put Back the Pieces (I’ll Still Have a Broken Heart)”, the listener is eased in, almost as deceptively as on side A. “It’s a Good Feeling” raises the tempo of the album back to the level of the album’s opening track. The go-go grooves are present along with the traditional Motown percussion progression (it was written by the powerhouse team behind many of Motown’s hits Holland-Dozier-Holland). This is one of those songs that could have been farmed out to multiple acts in the Motown stable, especially Marvin Gaye. Just as you are getting into the groove, the tempo drops again with “You Must Be Love”, a gentle song that isn’t sad but rather positive, a nice change in subject from the other ballads, despite interrupting the groove.

The album closes with two awesome dance numbers, “Dancing’s Alright” and “The Tears of a Clown”. The liveliest track on the album, “Dancing’s Alright” is a smoker that perfectly captures the hot sounds of Northern Soul. Like fellow Tamla artist Earl Van Dyke’s “Soul Stomp”, the song blasts off right out of the gate and never lets up. The placement of this track cements my idea that the album should have been broken in half, with one side ballads and the other filled with the dance numbers.

However, it is the album closer, “The Tears of a Clown”, that is perhaps the biggest (eventual) success of the album, as well as the key to a huge miscalculation on the part of Motown Records. The music was written by Stevie Wonder with Robinson’s lyrics playing on the carnival feel of the calliope sound opening the track. The song itself was ignored by Motown executives and never released as a single from Make It Happen.

Motown Records was notoriously (or famously) known for a stringent process that each potential single underwent, so not initially seeing the potential behind the song is mystifying.

Three years later in 1970, the Miracles (and other Motown artists) received a boost in popularity via UK DJs playing the upbeat Tamla recordings that we currently refer to as Northern Soul. With no new material coming out, a new mix of “The Tears of a Clown” was produced and released. The song immediately soared to the top of the charts in the UK, providing the Miracles with the first #1 single of their career (eight years after their debut recording). Seeing the reaction across the pond, Motown released the song in the US to similar results. The success of the song forced Smokey Robinson to postpone his plans for retirement and stay with the Miracles for another two years.

With the success of “The Tears of a Clown”, Motown saw an opportunity to blatantly cash in on their audience. Make It Happen was re-released in 1970 under the title The Tears of a Clown, with the obvious intent of cashing in on name recognition. The label didn’t even bother changing the album imagery, with the exception of the title being renamed.  The photograph, artwork, and track sequencing are identical to the 1967 release.

smokey robinson the miracles tears of a clown Dusting Em Off: Smokey Robinson & the Miracles   Make It Happen

If I could change anything that the producers did, it would be to resequence the track listing. Of the 13 songs on the album, seven are ballads. To split the album down the middle, with the slower songs on one side and the dance numbers on the other, might have made a stronger final product. While playing side A, I kept seeing the scene from Top Gun where Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis’ characters are drinking on her porch while playing old shag tunes. The down-tempo tracks here would fit that scene, and a similar one in real life, perfectly. Likewise, having the dance numbers all on one side would make for a great dance party record for those Saturday night throwdowns. Overall, this is a great album that encapsulates both the old, familiar styles of Motown and a bit of the direction the label was steering towards in the latter days of the ’60s, resulting in one of the strongest albums by both the Miracles and Motown proper.

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