The group with “five lead singers” – David Ruffin (replaced by Dennis Edwards in 1968), Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin – the temptin’ Temptations was THE male vocal group of the ’60s and the early-’70s. Mellifluous harmonies, dynamic dance steps, and killer material provided primarily by Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield (with co-writers Eddie Holland and Barrett Strong) yielded 43 Top Ten hits over 25 years, 36 of which are included on the spectacular recent double-CD collection My Girl: The Very Best of the Temptations.
After recording a series of unsuccessful singles with Motown beginning in 1962, the Tempt’s hooked up with Smokey Robinson for their first smash “The Way You Do the Things You Do” in 1964.
Smokey and the group then cranked out hit after hit, including their signature tune, “My Girl.” The intro is instantly-recognizable genius: the three-note bass line repeated, the ascending guitar line that feels like home, the swanky finger snaps, the drum break. Then David Ruffin enters with his greatest vocal – a gospel-tinged reverie of private sunshine, warmth and honeyed music, hovering above a cushion of Temptin’ harmonies where “Under the Boardwalk” meets “I Only Have Eyes For You.”
Robinson ended his run with the Temptations with the aggressive, even menacing “Get Ready” in ’66: chattering sax, a charging beat and Eddie Kendricks’ falsetto soaring through a great chorus give his lover fair warning that wildness awaits her upon his arrival.
Then Norman Whitfield entered the picture. Whitfield stands as the most adventuresome and funky of the giant Motown songwriter/producers; his greatest work, including seven years of hits with the Temptations, ranks among the finest pop music of the last fifty years.
Whitfield was born in Harlem in 1943 where he developed twin interests in music and billiards. Whitfield’s family fortuitously ended up in Detroit when his father’s car broke down on the way back to New York from an aunt’s funeral in California.
By the age of 18, Whitfield had already written and produced local hits for the Distants and the Synetics. The persistent, observant youth could be found loitering about the Motown office, “always staring at something,” Berry Gordy told Nelson George in Where Did Our Love Go?
Tall, thin and quiet, Whitfield somewhat creepily watched for a year before he was hired in 1962 by Gordy at $15 per week to listen to demos and rate them for future release as part of Motown’s mysterious Quality Control department. Following two long years of rating and waiting, Whitfield finally wrote and produced his first songs for Motown: the Velvelettes’ “Needle In a Haystack,” and the Marvelettes’ “Too Many Fish In the Sea.”
The mild success of these songs led a call up to the majors: The Temptations. Whitfield came into his own with the classic “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Benny Benjamin’s crisp drum intro commands the listener’s attention as David Ruffin’s abject first line is wrenched from his soul: “I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go.”
The songs bounces along jauntily behind the fabulous Funk Brothers, the Motown house band, with the Tempt’s twirling and gesturing as Ruffin pleads for his relationship, and perhaps, his life. His friends lend concerned support on the chorus, but Ruffin’s regret strained voice tells us that he is ultimately alone – so, so alone: the other side of the universe from the satisfied pop of “My Girl.”
“Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” and the passionate “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “I Wish It Would Rain” also featured Ruffin on lead as the hits continued.
In the mid-to-late-’60s Sly Stone psychedelicized black music by combining peace, love and social conscience with gospel melodies, funky beats and rock ‘n’ roll. Whitfield wanted to follow him onto the new vibe with the Temptations. When David Ruffin, always suspect as a team player, blew off a 1968 live performance, he was fired and replaced by ex-Contour Dennis Edwards, whose gutbucket shout was perfect for Whitfield’s trip into uncharted waters. Whitfield began to write and use the studio differently as his hair sprouted into a militant afro, and the old Funk Brothers house band began to break up.
Uriel Jones replaced the ailing Benny Benjamin on drums. Bob Babbitt replaced James Jamerson on bass, while Dennis Coffey and Wah-Wah Watson came in on guitar. Jones told Nelson George that “Cloud Nine”
- began as a beat on the cymbal…He’d have you sit and play that two or three minutes by itself, and he’d tell you to add a certain beat on the foot. Actually, what he’s doing is just listening to see what he wants to add to it…A lot of times we’d just sit and play and just rap on the tune until somebody just opens up and does something. We’d have as many as twelve or thirteen guys in there just grooving on the rhythm.
“Cloud Nine” experiments with structure, rough social commentary and vocal trade-offs in the context of a lyric that accepts, or at least sympathizes with drug use. Many were stunned. The adrenaline rush, the funk, the freaky instrumentation and the social realism that Whitfield and the Temptations strung out on “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” and especially “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” directly influenced Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Gamble and Huff, Barry White and many others, and eventually led to the extended grooves and shameless hedonism of disco.
Gradually Whitfield’s experimentation with the Tempt’s yielded diminishing returns and he turned his attention elsewhere. The Temptations hooked up with various other writer/producers and scored several more hits including “Shakey Ground,” “Power” and “Treat Her Like a Lady.” They continue to this day as a viable unit: the final song on My Girl, “Lady,” was released just last year. My Girl is an astonishing testament to the Temptations’ unprecedented run.