Discover more from Listening Sessions
The Temptin' Sounds of the Temptations
A stroll through the two golden eras of Motown's most versatile group
Welcome music lovers to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions’!
My essay this time around is a meander through the music of the Temptations during their two golden eras: the first, lasting from the beginning of 1964 until the middle of 1968, and the second, starting at the end of 1968 and concluding in 1973. Initially, I had planned to focus solely on the latter period, the so-called “psychedelic soul” era of the group’s music, but found myself writing a lot about the music that came before it, a time when David Ruffin was arguably the heart and soul of the Temptations, and Smokey Robinson and then Norman Whitfield (who would also guide the group’s transition to psychedelic soul) were their primary songwriter and producer, so my essay is a bit broader in reach and really only scratches the surface of why the Temptations were Motown’s most versatile group. That being said, I do hope you enjoy it and will drop a comment below to share your thoughts about it.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
If you’re reading this and are not yet a subscriber of ‘Listening Sessions,’ I hope you'll click the button below to subscribe and get each edition delivered straight to your inbox. I publish a long-form essay on music three times a month, every 10 days or so.
If you are a subscriber, please share ‘Listening Sessions’ with any music fans in your orbit.
On ‘Masterpiece,’ the last top 10 hit by the Temptations on the Billboard Hot 100, they are heard for a total of two minutes, 15 seconds. On the single version of the song, released in February 1973 and written and produced by Norman Whitfield, the group’s contribution—each member gets a moment in the spotlight—is framed by an introduction that lasts just over a minute and an ending that lasts just about as long. It feels generally cohesive even if the lyrics and the story told by them—urban decay through the lens of social realism—feel less developed than ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone,’ which ‘Masterpiece’ mimics.
The album version is another matter.
Lasting 13 minutes, 49 seconds (the single edit is about four-and-a-quarter minutes), the Temptations don’t enter until the 3:54 mark and vanish at 6:09, being present for just 14 percent of the song’s duration.
‘Masterpiece’ had all the ingredients that made Whitfield’s songs and productions almost an equal to the penetrating and forward-looking music Marvin Gaye, whom Whitfield had produced in the late sixties into 1970 prior to Gaye convincing Berry Gordy, Jr. to let him make his own records, and Stevie Wonder, who was also able to win his independence from Gordy, Jr., were making. There is the methodical build of the groove, a socially conscious message to both ponder at and dance to, and a long dénouement (too long in this instance really) exploring different permutations of said groove. But, as noted, what it didn’t have a lot of was the Temptations themselves—the group then comprising of Dennis Edwards, Damon Harris, Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams and Richard Street.
Franklin, Williams and Street had first sung together in the late fifties in the Detroit-based the Distants. In 1960, Franklin, Williams as well as Elbridge Bryant of the group (but not Street) joined forces with members of another Motor City group, the Primes: Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, which had just broken up. They called the newly formed quintet the Elgins. Initially signed to Miracle, a short-lived imprint of Motown, they changed their name to the Temptations on the insistence of Gordy, Jr. after he discovered that another group had the same name and on the suggestion of both Williamses as well as songwriter Mickey Stevenson and label staffer Billy Mitchell. Their initial efforts didn’t make much of a splash but two vital additions to the group’s universe would soon change that.
Smokey Robinson had known Gordy, Jr. since the late fifties when the soon-to-be label impresario was writing songs for Jackie Wilson (‘Reet Petite’ and ‘Lonely Teardrops’ were his two most famous contributions to the Wilson songbook). Gordy, Jr. sensed Robinson was destined to be multi-faceted, someone who could not only sing but who could also write songs and make records. He helped Robinson and his group, the Miracles, record and release their first single, an answer to the Silhouettes’ ‘Get a Job.’ When Gordy, Jr. started Motown in 1959, the Miracles were one of his first signings.
Robinson first worked with the Temptations in 1963 on ‘I Want a Love I Can See,’ a single that continued the group’s streak of flops. Later that year, Bryant was fired and taking his place was a singer from Mississippi who came to Detroit in 1958 and hovered around the orbit of Gordy, Jr. and others who would play a vital part in his label’s empire. It was through his brother, Jimmy, that he learned that the Temptations were looking for a singer and after auditioning for them—his brother did too—David Ruffin became a Temptation at the dawn of 1964.
By the second week of the new year, the group recorded ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do,’ written by Robinson and fellow Miracle Bobby Rogers. It was released at the end of January and became the Temptations’ first galvanizing hit. In addition to overflowing with the catchy and elegant wordplay that was a staple of Smokey Robinson’s songwriting, ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’ was an impossibly swank feature for Eddie Kendricks and his smooth, light falsetto as well as the wide harmony that the group could generate from Franklin on the low end all the way up to Kendricks. The song kicked off a year in which Motown would begin its ascension to become one of the defining labels of the sixties and of which the Temptations would be one of its defining voices.
What distinguished the group from its peers at Motown was that it wasn’t driven by just one voice. The Temptations had the luxury of three distinctive, ear-friendly singers who could sing lead, bringing a range that even the Four Tops, the group to which they are most often compared, couldn't top.
There was Paul Williams, whose voice had a smoky polish with the slightest hint of gruffness and whose lead on ‘Don’t Look Back,’ originally relegated to the B-side of ‘My Baby’ in the autumn of 1965, brought a tender toughness to Robinson and Robert White’s song that ensured it transcended its rather modest chart placement.
There was Ruffin with his granite-like tonality aided by a coarseness that was full of the struggles of everyday life and the efforts required to transcend them or, at the very least, wrestle them down to something manageable. He was maybe never better than on ‘Since I Lost My Baby,’ in which he invested lines like “next time I’ll be kinder / won’t you please help me find her? / someone just remind her / ’bout this love she left behind her,” with the urgency and poignancy that made clear his life was on the very line.
And there was Kendricks who could make a lyric dance with the urban style of a Cholly Atkins dance routine. He dug into the beat of a go-go number like ‘Get Ready’ as if it was nothing, lightly yet forcefully pulsing and percolating along with the churning rhythm of the Funk Brothers. While he sang a lengthy come-hither seduction, the rest of the Temptations were a Greek chorus, subtly moving the narrative along as Kendricks began by laying it on strong (“you’re outta sight”) then admitting his newfound crush may play coy (“it’s outta sight”) before coming to terms with the likelihood that one of his friends may instead be her winning suitor (“be outta sight”). It was a touch of sophistication that Robinson added, who wrote and produced it, to elevate ‘Get Ready’ to something far beyond a mere trifle.
But as good as ‘Get Ready’ was, it floundered on the charts when it was released in the winter of 1966. It was the result that Norman Whitfield had gambled on when he made a fortuitous wager with Gordy, Jr. He had recorded ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’ with the Temptations prior to the release of ‘Get Ready.’ Whitfield wrote it with Eddie Holland of the hit-making juggernaut Holland - Dozier - Holland and was certain it would be a smash. He felt the exact opposite about ‘Get Ready.’ He bet Gordy, Jr. that if ‘Get Ready’ didn’t hit the Billboard top 20, ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’ would be the group's next A-side. It didn’t (‘Get Ready’ only got to #29) and when ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’ came out in May, it validated Whitfield's belief in it, making it to #13 on the pop charts. With that, Robinson was out as the Temptations’ guiding force and Whitfield was in.
Like Robinson, he had been at Motown since the very start, beginning in quality control and then taking a place among the label’s coterie of songwriters. Early hits that Whitfield worked on included ‘Pride and Joy’ by Marvin Gaye, ‘Too Many Fish in the Sea’ by Martha and the Vandellas, and ‘Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)’ with the Temptations in 1964 that was their third top 40 hit.
Under Whitfield, the prettiness of Robinson’s lyrics and productions gave way to something tougher and grittier. A certain poetry that was a hallmark of Robinson’s songs was swapped for a more urgent literalness that was Ruffin’s specialty, in particular. Two sides of the Whitfield touch could be found on ‘(I Know) I’m Losing You,’ an intense number powered by an insistent guitar and a Ruffin vocal that was tightly coiled and detailed the signs that a love affair was about to unravel offered in unsparing, unsentimental detail, and ‘I Wish It Would Rain,’ in which the heartbreak was all too real.
Whitfield wrote it with Barrett Strong, who would become his frequent collaborator and who scored one of Motown’s earliest hits with ‘Money (That’s What I Want), and a young up-and-comer, Rodger Penzabene. The song which employed sounds of birds and the ocean as well as a classical bent in the turn to its main refrain, is torrential in its despair; even more so as it was Ruffin singing lead, his tough exterior giving way to a devastated interior especially when he sang the song’s title. It was one of a cycle of songs Penzabene co-wrote in the wake of a relationship that ended. He wasn’t able to release himself of his pain by putting it to song and tragically took his life on New Year’s Eve 1967.
‘I Wish It Would Rain’ signified the beginning of the end of the Temptations’ first golden era. Ruffin, by now elevated in all but name to the stature of the group’s sole lead singer and in truth, the group’s beating heart and soul (he tried, unsuccessfully, to receive the same billing that Robinson and Diana Ross had recently attained with their respective groups), was soon out of the group, his ouster a combination of drug use, ego trips and growing unreliability. Replacing him was Dennis Edwards, with an even grittier sound than Ruffin but without his touch on a ballad, who had previously been a member of the Contours, a Motown group that beyond ‘Do You Love Me’ lurked around the periphery of the label. Even if the transition wasn’t smooth—in the immediate aftermath of his dismissal, Ruffin would show at gigs and jump up on the stage when the Temptations began to perform one of the songs on which he sang lead—and Ruffin was, very briefly, permitted to return to the Temptations’ fold, it heralded a profound transition.
By the beginning of October 1968, pop music had undergone revolutionary shifts. There had been the embrace of a growing and daring sophistication—one in which Motown could arguably be said to have been ahead of the curve with its wide soundscapes that balanced a pop sensibility with a firm, soulful foundation. In 1966, there was also the beginning of the Eastern- and jazz-influenced psychedelic-rock movement. That was something about which Motown was far more tentative. Diana Ross and the Supremes’ ‘Reflections,’ a Holland - Dozier - Holland concoction released in the summer of 1967, was the closest the label had gotten to incorporating its sensibility. Soul was also branching off into the pared-down, relentlessly-devoted-to-the-one funk that James Brown and Sly Stone were pioneering. Amidst all these changes came ‘Cloud Nine.’
For an initial attempt at a new sound for the Temptations, ‘Cloud Nine’ had all its pieces in the exact right place. The drums of Spider Webb and Uriel Jones were accentuated by the bongos, most likely played by Eddie “Bongo” Brown. Collectively, they found the middle ground between funk’s minimalism and Motown’s maximalist ethos. The bass of James Jamerson propelled the song along, providing a counterpoint to the razor-sharp beat. The fuzz guitar of Dennis Coffey casted a Day-Glo haze. The lead vocal was shared by all five members of the Temptations, signifying a new, collective approach. It was a huge hit. The follow-up single, ‘Runaway Child, Running Wild,’ barely deviated from the ‘Cloud Nine’ playbook, only going further on the album version of the song, released on Cloud Nine, with an extended instrumental section that stretched the song’s running time to almost ten minutes. It sounded more expansive than it was as Whitfield simply had the Funk Brothers repeat the song’s primary groove, playing it first with just bongos and then with the full backbeat, over and over until the track faded out. Far more interesting was several moments when all five Temptations sang various snippets of the song’s refrain creating an effect akin to a soul chorale.
The equally adventurous ‘Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down’ was followed by the more mainstream and chart-topping ‘I Can’t Get Next to You.’ While Whitfield was taking the Temptation further and further into new territories, they kept one foot in the label’s more traditional realm, releasing a series of duets with Diana Ross and the Supremes, the biggest of which was Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Jerry Ross’ ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.’ It remains a beautiful recording for sure, but was of an aesthetic that Motown, if not popular taste, was largely leaving behind. The label was becoming bolder and brasher. The Temptations’ Psychedelic Shack, released in 1970, was an album-length statement of the new and exciting road being taken.
It opens with the title track. The beginning is exactly the same as ‘I Can’t Get Next to You.’ A door opens, a cheer is heard but instead of a piano, a slightly unhinged guitar, almost certainly played by Coffey, leads into a freight train of a groove. The Temptations appear singing “Yeah! Psychedelic Shack, that’s where it’s at / Psychedelic Shack, that’s where it’s at” shifting from left to right in the mix. Even as it’s bit of a marvel to reconcile that a song extolling the virtues of the kind of spectacle—the be-ins and happenings of San Francisco—whose moment had passed by the time the song came out as a single in the last week of the sixties, it continued Whitfield and the Temptations’ streak of smash singles. There certainly was a formula to Whitfield’s excursions in psychedelic soul and ‘Psychedelic Shack’ was proof of its inherent soundness. Here especially was energy, drive and an immersive phantasmagoria of sound. Its powerful punch was an ember that, after it fades out, slowly burns throughout the rest of the first side of the album and makes any concern about its timeliness superfluous, if not downright foolish.
‘You Make Your Own Heaven and Hell Right Here on Earth’ is an expert exercise of one of Whitfield’s foremost tricks: a verse that is suspended in time resolving into a hard-driving chorus. ‘Hum Along and Dance,’ which follows, exudes joy, style and radiance.
It has a fierce groove played to perfection by the Funk Brothers and the Temptations slip snuggly into it, especially in the slickly funky and danceable break at the end of each verse. The sound is colossal and unrelenting before it segues suddenly into the quiet of ‘Take a Stroll Thru Your Mind.’ Kendricks starts off by singing “one drag is all it took / and now I’m hooked.” One might take it as a sign that what we have here is an anti-drug song but it isn’t (the songs that Whitfield and Strong wrote that had either explicit or implicit drug references were often neutral or so ambiguous that it remains up to the listener to insert his or her own interpretation). It’s a mood, a long rap session, loose and ever-so-slightly avant-garde. Edwards calls back to ‘My Girl.’ Paul Williams riffs on the blues standard ‘Stormy Monday.’ Motown had never sounded so commercially unconcerned. It was a milieu that Whitfield would pursue most ardently with a group he would soon form, the Undisputed Truth.
Psychedelic Shack’s second side tempers the experimentalism. ‘It’s Summer’ sounds like Whitfield and Strong mimicking Smokey Robinson at his least inspired. It’s invocations of the season are plain and frankly unoriginal, particularly when compared to Sly and the Family Stone’s enduring anthem ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime.’ ‘War’ is too sedate though Melvin Franklin’s “hut-two-three-four” gambit throughout is clever. Whitfield would soon record it again, going full balls-to-the-wall with Edwin Starr, the most apocalyptic of Motown's roster of singers, bringing the fire and brimstone, and evoking the death and destruction that the song required. ‘You Need Look Like I Do (Don’t You)’ is a throwback to the classic dance tracks of the label with Kendricks, the most lithe signer in the group, having a ball and Whitfield adding a build of magnificent, tight fervour before the final chorus.
The album closer, ‘Friendship Train,’ was well-known by then in the hit version Whitfield produced for Gladys Knight and the Pips. He uses that recording as the basis for the Temptations’ version but takes it way further out. The beat is just a little heavier, the arrangement a little larger and the track more than twice as long. It strikes the right note of affirmation that calls back to the euphoria of ‘Psychedelic Shack,’ concluding what is arguably the best album Whitfield made with the Temptations.
However, it also marked the beginning of the growing disharmony between him and the group. Kendricks, never a fan of the Temptations’ new direction, left at the beginning of 1971 but not before the glorious gift of his lead on ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away from Me),’ quite possibly the finest ballad Motown ever released. Health issues and alcoholism led to Paul Williams departing soon afterwards. ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ made the group’s current members suspicious that they were becoming incidental to Whitfield’s wider vision. ‘Masterpiece’ calcified that impression and led some to re-christen the Temptations as “The Norman Whitfield Choral Singers.” They parted ways with Whitfield at the end of 1973, concluding their second and final golden era.
All of Motown’s groups from its halcyon days of the sixties and early seventies hit a point when the hits stopped coming and most did far earlier than the Temptations. The inside baseball of who guides a group—the group or its producer—is important in providing context but may ultimately be incidental in evaluating the worth of said group’s music. In the Temptations' case, all that really counts is that their music included more than a few masterpieces that endure.