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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

At the White House today, an all-star tribute to Motown.

(Soundbite of song, "Love's In Need Of Love Today")

Mr. JOHN LEGEND (Singer): (Singing) You know that hate's going round, breaking many hearts. Oh, so stop...

NORRIS: That's Grammy Award-winning singer John Legend with a tune made famous by Stevie Wonder. It was the latest in a series of White House musical events - this one in honor of Black History Month.

NPR's Ari Shapiro was there.

ARI SHAPIRO: The music was just a short coda to an hour-long music history lesson told by the men who lived it. A hundred twenty kids sat on the White House State Dining Room. Many had never heard of Motown. First lady Michelle Obama gave them some context.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA (First Lady): There wouldn't be an Usher if there wasn't a Smokey Robinson. You know, there wouldn't be an Alicia Keys without a Gladys Knight.

SHAPIRO: The man responsible for the success of Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight and the rest of Motown is Berry Gordy. He created the record label in his garage and never dreamed where he'd end up.

Mr. BERRY GORDY (Founder, Motown): Because, actually, to be honest, when I started off, all I wanted to do was make some music, make some money and get some girls, you know, that was, you know...

Unidentified Man: In that order?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GORDY: Not necessarily in that order.

SHAPIRO: What he did was revolutionize music - first in America, then around the world.

Mr. GORDY: And music started integrating people passionately before they got in it, you know, intellectually. So I knew I was a normal kind of person, so anything I felt, I could write about it and know that you all would feel it too.

SHAPIRO: Smokey Robinson described watching that integration from the stages where he played.

Mr. SMOKEY ROBINSON (Singer): Black people would be on one side and the white people would be on the other side, not even hardly looking at each other. And a year or so later, we go back to those same places and because the music was bridging those gaps, not only were they in the same area, they were dancing together.

SHAPIRO: Bob Dylan has called Robinson America's greatest living poet. This afternoon, Robinson described his songwriting philosophy.

Mr. ROBINSON: I know that there are no new words for the English language. There are no new chords for the instruments that you play chords with. I really think that probably there are no new ideas. So what my goal is to try to say I love you differently than it has ever been said.

SHAPIRO: He gave an example from one of his most famous songs - "Tracks of My Tears."

(Soundbite of song, "Tracks of My Tears")

SHAPIRO: For a long time, Robinson had a melody but no words.

Mr. ROBINSON: And finally one day, I came up with the first line: Take a good look at my face. You'll see my smile looks out of place. If you look closer, it's easy to trace. That I miss you so much. Oh, it's easy to trace that you're gone, and I'm here. And that's terrible. Oh, it's easy to trace that you don't love me anymore. No, no, no.

SHAPIRO: The line came to him in the car one day.

(Soundbite of song, "Tracks of My Tears")

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) So take a good look at my face. You'll see my smile looks out of place. If you look closer, it's easy to trace the tracks of my tears.

SHAPIRO: Music legend Smokey Robinson speaking at the White House today.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of song, "Tracks of My Tears")

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) Since you left me, if you see me with another girl, seeming like I'm having fun. Although she may be cute, she's just a substitute because you're the permanent one. So take a good look at my face. Oh, you'll see my smile looks out of place. If you look a little bit closer, you'll see...

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