“THE TEMPTATIONS are one of the cornerstones of popular music…”
In 1963, The Temptations were paired with William “Smokey” Robinson, lead singer of The Miracles and a proven songwriter in his own right. His first shot with the group was “I Want a Love I Can See” featuring Paul which, while not a major charter, became a fixture in their live set. Impatient that the group hadn’t made it yet, Elbridge Bryant left the group. Enter David Ruffin from Whynot, Mississippi, who was signed to Motown as a solo artist but had his eye on joining The Temptations from the moment he first encountered them.
Ruffin’s entry into The Temptations marked what in musicology circles is considered the group’s “Classic Five”: first tenor Eddie Kendricks, second tenors David Ruffin and Paul Williams, baritone Otis Williams and bass Melvin Franklin.
It was Robinson’s next single attempt that relieved the group of its ‘No Hits Temptations’ nickname and broke them wide open as a national sensation: “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” with matinee idol Eddie’s soaring falsetto as the lead voice. The group swiftly became the stars of the company’s “Motortown Revue” concerts with a string of hits including “I’ll Be In Trouble” and “Girl, Why You Wanna Make Me Blue.” Another breakthrough occurred when Smokey wrote one with ever-bespectacled Ruffin in mind entitled “My Girl” that shifted the star focus to him, resulting in a multi-million-seller that topped Billboard’s R&B chart for six weeks and the Pop chart for one. The Tempts/Smokey hit train rolled on with “It’s Growing,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” “My Baby” and “Get Ready.”
Then Berry Gordy handed the production reins over to a hungry and highly competitive Norman Whitfield who fortified their hit streak beginning with “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” which sat for 8 weeks at the top of the R&B chart. It was followed by “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” “I Know I’m Losing You,” You’re My Everything,” “I Wish It Would Rain” and “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You).” The latter turned out to be Ruffin’s last hit of an incomparable run which included eight consecutive #1 albums in three years time on the Billboard R&B chart: The Temptations Sing Smokey, Temptin’ Temptations, Gettin’ Ready, Greatest Hits, Temptations Live!, With a Lot of Soul, Temptations In a Mellow Mood and I Wish It Would Rain. Ruffin’s attitude and inflated ego forced The Temptations to terminate his membership. They could not afford undue stress and unpredictability at this time. Bigger things were in the works.
Eddie and Otis plucked powerhouse Dennis Edwards out of the Motown dance group The Contours to be Ruffin’s replacement. He proved to be perfect and right on time for the group’s transition into an elastic band of 360 degree excellence. The Temptations released the album Live at The Copa (i.e. New York’s legendary high-tone Copacabana nightclub reserved for class acts and a pinnacle for Black entertainers of the time), two LPs paired with the Supremes which led to the top-rated and groundbreaking “T.C.B.” (Takin’ Care of Business) NBC-TV special and soundtrack album (the group’s sole project to top Billboard’s Top 200 Pop Albums chart) which led to the sequel “G.I.T.” (Get It Together On Broadway) and having their own TV special/soundtrack “The Temptations Show.”
Most importantly, Dennis Edwards’ entry into the Temptations coincided with producer Norman Whitfield and songwriting partner Barrett Strong – under the influence of emerging Sly Stone – taking the group into harder, grittier and funkier territory musically that became defined as Psychedelic Soul with lyrics that were boldly more forthright about sociopolitical issues of the day. This began with the single “Cloud Nine” which became the first Grammy-winner for both The Temptations and Motown Records. It was followed by fiery missives such as “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” “Don’t Let The Joneses Get You Down,” “Message From a Black Man,” “Slave,” “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today),” “Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are),” “Masterpiece” and the triple Grammy-winning “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.” Many of these opuses stretched from 7 to 12 minutes with long instrumental intros and solos that increasingly alienated the group as Whitfield’s ego grew and grew.
In 1971 – in the middle of Whitfield’s `67-`73 run – Eddie Kendricks left the Temptations to pursue what became the most successful of any former member’s solo career, including nine Top 10 R&B hits, three at #1: “Keep On Truckin’,” “Boogie Down” and “Shoeshine Boy.” Eddie’s swan song from The Temptations was the dreamy ballad “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” which also poetically included what would become the farewell lines of Paul Williams (“Every night on my knees I’d pray”) before he was forced to step down from the group due to sickle-cell disease, depression and alcoholism. After recording two songs for an unreleased single, Williams was tragically found dead in his car from a self-inflicted gunshot on August 17, 1973.
Paul was replaced by the group’s longtime friend from their days as The Distants, Richard Street (who had been subbing and singing off stage for Paul for some time). Eddie was briefly replaced by Ricky Owens before Baltimore-born Damon Harris was ultimately settled upon. This lineup rode out the high flying early to mid-`70s years of The Temptations loaded with world touring, television galore, a spot in the concert film, “Save the Children,” a live album recorded in Japan, plus the handoff from Norman Whitfield to producer Jeffrey Bowen for one of the finest albums the group ever recorded, A Song For You in 1975 – nine indisputable classics in “Happy People” (backing band: The Commodores), “Glasshouse” and “Shakey Ground” (musicians including members of Parliament/Funkadelic), “The Prophet,” “A Song For You,” “Memories,” “Firefly” “Soulmate” (unreleased until decades later) and “I’m a Bachelor” (the first song to be written and arranged solely by all five Temptations: Otis, Melvin, Dennis, Richard and Damon).
Following an end of the decade slump during the Disco years, the Temptations shocked the industry by leaving Motown and recording two albums for Atlantic Records featuring short-lived lead singer Louis Price (replacing Edwards in `77) and Glenn Leonard (who’d replaced Harris in `76). When no hits ensued, the group made a dramatic return to Motown to usher in the `80s, personally overseen by President Berry Gordy who wrote the politically charged “Power” for them and brought Dennis Edwards back to ensure its explosiveness, peaking at #11 R&B. That same year a second holiday album, Give Love At Christmas, was issued, noteworthy for including their second recording of “Silent Night” which has become one of the most popular R&B Christmas songs of all time.
When the Hollywood movie theme “Take Me Away” and an album produced by legendary Philly Soul maestro Thom Bell (of Stylistics and Spinners renown) surprisingly failed to connect, The Temptations were saved by the new king of Motown in the `80s, ‘Punk Funk’ royalty Rick James (Melvin’s nephew), who first featured them on his multi-platinum Street Songs album (name-checking them on his crossover dance oddity “Super Freak”) then fired up their Top 10 hit “Standing On The Top” as writer, producer and guest star. The latter event single was the highlight of a special 1982 project, Temptations Reunion, which brought David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks back to the Temptations for one album and tour.
Following two more albums (including Back to Basics which reunited the group with Norman Whitfield), The Temptations participated in the legendary Spring of `83 television special “Motown 25” which celebrated the company’s January 1958 Silver Anniversary by having many of the stars the label launched come back to sing its praises. Amidst stellar performances by Michael Jackson, The Jacksons, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and more was an unforgettable “battle” between The Temptations and The Four Tops in which they traded back and forth singing not only their own hit records but each others’! This good natured encounter between old friends proved such a classic, it was released as a limited edition12” single.
Dennis Edwards left The Temptations again, this time recording two solo albums and scoring an enduring funk hit with “Don’t Look Any Further” (a duet with Siedah Garrett) that hit #2 for two weeks in 1984. His replacement was another worthy fire-starter, Detroit native Ali-Ollie Woodson, who had been considered to replace Dennis the first time in `77. Also added around this time was Philadelphia-born Ron Tyson, a former member of The Ethics and Love Committee but, more importantly, a seasoned Philly Soul songwriter who replaced Glenn Leonard.
The Otis, Melvin, Richard, Ali and Ron edition of The Temptations settled into a satisfying run of albums and singles from 1984 to 1992, beginning with the #2 R&B charting “Treat Her Like a Lady” (produced by former Earth Wind & Fire members Al McKay and Ralph Johnson). Following were the standouts “(My Love Is) Truly For You,” “Lady Soul,” “To Be Continued,” “Special,” “Soul to Soul” and “Hoops of Fire.” In between, Ali was replaced a third and final time by Dennis Edwards for the Together Again album in 1987 which yielded two Top 10 R&B singles: “I Wonder Who She’s Seeing Now” and “Look What You Started.”
The close of the `80s saw the eagerly anticipated publishing of Otis Williams’ best-selling autobiography “Temptations” in 1988, and the induction of original members Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, plus long-tenured Ruffin replacement Dennis Edwards into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on January 18, 1989.
The `90s were marked by great tragedy and great triumph for the Temptations. In 1992, Richard Street left the group after 22 years of service. He was replaced by Theo Peoples of St. Louis. Far deeper, original member Melvin Franklin, whose health bad been deteriorating, succumbed to a brain seizure on February 23, 1995, a devastating loss for childhood friend Otis, the institution of The Temptations and the world of music as it lost the greatest, most instantly identifiable bass singer of all-time. Franklin’s final recordings were included in the romantic standards CD, For Lovers Only, which featured their gossamer single/video of the classic “Some Enchanted Evening.” Former Parliament-Funkadelic bass singer Ray Davis slid into his hallowed position, followed by former Futures member Harry McGilberry.
On the upside, 1998 was a banner year for The Temptations. They starred in the halftime of Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego on January 28, 1998, celebrating Motown’s 40th anniversary. By summer, they enjoyed the #1Adult Contemporary radio hit “Stay” – produced by Narada Michael Walden, led by Theo Peoples on the recording but lip-synced in the video by Barrington “Bo” Henderson – floating on a blissful sample from The Temptations’ now-evergreen 1965 gem, “My Girl.” Then in the fall on November 1 & 2, the two-part miniseries “The Temptations” – produced by longtime Temptations manager Shelly Berger with Otis Williams whose book “Temptations” was the source material – aired on NBC. Viewed by 45 million fans, it won an NAACP Image Award for Best Television Movie or Miniseries, and an Emmy for Outstanding Direction for a Miniseries or Movie.
The Temptations won their third Grammy for the CD Ear-Resistible in the Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance category 2001. They have since released the concept albums Legacy, the Grammy nominated Reflections, Back to Front, and the aptly titled Still Here.
Otis Williams remains the sole original member of The Temptations, still leading a carefully chosen/ever-revolving group of torchbearers (including Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, Larry Braggs and Willie Green) around the globe for over a hundred shows a year to carry on the legacy of the world’s longest running singing group in the annals of R&B. Otis once stated, “I equate The Temptations with the fabulous New York Yankees who have remained strong for years and years – long after Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Reggie Jackson. We look for great songs, which has always been our strong suit: melodies that a five year-old can hum with lyrics that everybody can relate to.”
In the “Ball of Confusion” our world continues to be, The Temptations have been taking us up and away to “Cloud Nine” for six decades…with no ceiling in sight.
— A. Scott Galloway
Month of May