One of the most memorable lyrics in music history, this song is a great bit of romantic poetry, listing all the wonderful things about the lady. It's not Shakespeare, but it's very effective. From the first lines, it's clear the singer is on to something:
You got a smile so bright
You know you could have been a candle
Some other analogies for the lady:
Broom - she sweeps him off his feet
Perfume - she smells so sweet
Flower - she's pretty
Crook - she stole his heart
Schoolbook - she's smart
Money - she made his life rich
Honey - she's sweet
Smokey Robinson wrote this after Berry Gordy implored his Motown writers to come up with something for The Temptations. Gordy wrote his own song for the group, but he put it on the shelf when enough people at Motown told him that Smokey's song was better. Robinson became the primary songwriter for The Temptations.
This was the first hit for Temptations, whose previous seven singles all flopped. It established a template for more hits by the group, which became a marquee act on the label.
A dancer named Cholly Atkins was brought in to do choreography for The Temptations, which was particularly effective on this song, where they did literal interpretations of the lyrics, miming sweeping the floor or putting on cologne, for example.
This was the first song on the first Temptations album, which was a collection of their singles released in 1965. At the time, Motown focused on releasing hit singles, and album sales were secondary. Singles were more profitable because more people bought them.
Otis Williams of The Temptations recalled in Mojo magazine February 2009: "The first time we heard the song, we loved it. The melody swung, and the lyrics had lots of charm. They were silly in a way, talking about a girl you loved as a candle, a handle, a schoolbook, a cool crook, a broom, a perfume, but, typical Smokey, he made it work. It got a good response whenever we did it live, so our hopes were up. We knew from past experience that even the best tracks don't always click."
Bobby Rogers, who was a member of Smokey's group, The Miracles, helped him finish writing this song and is listed as the co-writer.
Smokey Robinson told Mojo October 2014 that Curtis Mayfield was his inspiration for this tune. "He had a song out with The Impressions called 'It's Alright' and they sang with this great harmony and I knew The Temptations could sing like that because they had a great harmony sound," Smokey explained, "and Curtis had this high voice like Eddie Kendricks and I wanted to simulate that if possible."
UB40 covered this in 1990. Their version hit #6 in the US.