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AARP Presents 'Smokey Wrote That'

Motown legend and prolific songwriter Smokey Robinson tells the stories behind timeless hits

En español | Just looking at the lyrics on the page — “I second that emotion ...” or “... it's easy to trace the tracks of my tears” — the music comes flooding back to the mind, like muscle memory for the brain. Somehow it's not 2021, but a high school dance or a college party circa late 1960s or early ‘70s. Smokey Robinson's power is long lasting. In 2015, he even had President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama singing along to “My Girl” (looking like they knew every word) at a White House performance full of VIPs. He's playing dates this summer that include all the classics at 81 years young.

Robinson wrote more than 4,000 songs and dozens of Top 40 hits, including “My Girl” for The Temptations, “My Guy” for Mary Wells and “Ain't That Peculiar” for Marvin Gaye. But Robinson also sang many of his hits: “The Tracks of My Tears,” “I Second That Emotion” and “The Tears of a Clown,” among them.

In a series of videos for AARP, Robinson, who is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame and has been honored by the Kennedy Center and with the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, shares the backstory on the famous Motown songs we can conjure up in our heads at the strike of the first chord. He's a great songwriter, for sure. Here we see he's a great storyteller, too.

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You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me

Robinson idolized Sam Cooke’s mournful blues ballad “Bring it on Home to Me.” So he wrote “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” to capture its feeling — only reversing its premise. Instead of apologizing for driving his girl away, Robinson’s protagonist is the injured party, but he loves her helplessly anyway. Cooke inspired Robinson and, in turn, the Beatles found “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” so inspiring that they released six recordings of it on records, TV and film. It’s one of Robinson’s best.

Shop Around

Motown founder and CEO Berry Gordy asked Robinson to write a song for Barrett Strong, who had torn up the charts with “Money (That's What I Want).” Robinson penned this “easy” tune in 20 minutes — and was later convinced to record it with his own group, The Miracles, instead. Weeks after the record was released, Robinson got a 3 a.m. call from Gordy: The bluesy sound on the record was all wrong! They rerecorded that night, and it was the first million record seller for Motown.

The Tracks of My Tears

Robinson got stuck on the fourth — and key line — of this song's chorus until one morning while shaving he looked in the mirror and thought, “Golly, what if a person had cried so much so their tears had actually left tracks in their face?” Bingo! The song, winner of multiple awards, has been preserved by the United States Library of Congress and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007.

I Second That Emotion

The idea for “I Second That Emotion” came to Smokey and his cowriter friend Al Cleveland when they were Christmas shopping. When replying to a salesperson's comment, instead of saying “I second that motion,” Cleveland responded, “I second that emotion.” The malapropism gave the men a good laugh — and the lyrics to this 1967 Grammy-nominated song.

Lorrie Lynch is an executive editor for AARP, covering health care, caregiving, Movies for Grownups, travel and other topics. Previously she was senior editor and columnist for USA Weekend magazine and a news editor for USA Today. She is the author of the journalism textbook, Exploring Journalism and the Media, which is used in high schools around the country.

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