The most successful group in black music history was formed in 1961 in Detroit, Michigan, USA, by former members of two local R&B outfits. Eddie Kendricks (b. 17 December 1939, Union Springs, Alabama, USA) and Paul Williams (b. 2 July 1939, Birmingham, Alabama, USA, d. 17 August 1973) both sang with the Primes ; Melvin Franklin (b. David English, 12 October 1942, Montgomery, Alabama, USA, d. 23 February 1995, Los Angeles, California, USA), Eldridge Bryant and Otis Williams (b. Otis Miles 30 October 1941, Texarkana, Texas, USA) came from the Distants.
Initially known as the Elgins, the quintet were renamed the Temptations by Berry Gordy when he signed them to Motown in 1961. After issuing three singles on the Motown subsidiary Miracle Records, one of them under the pseudonym of the Pirates, the group moved to the Gordy label. ‘Dream Come Home’ provided their first brief taste of chart status in 1962, although it was only when they were teamed with writer, producer and performer Smokey Robinson that the Temptations achieved consistent success.
The group’s classic line-up was established in 1963, when Eldridge Bryant was replaced by David Ruffin (b. 18 January 1941, Meridian, Mississippi, USA). His gruff baritone provided the perfect counterpoint to Kendricks’ wispy tenor and falsetto, a contrast that Smokey Robinson exploited to the full. Over the next two years, he fashioned a series of hits in both ballad and dance styles, carefully arranging complex vocal harmonies that hinted at the group’s doo-wop heritage. ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’ was the Temptations’ first major hit, a stunningly simple rhythm number featuring a typically cunning series of lyrical images. ‘My Girl’ in 1965, the group’s first US number 1, demonstrated Robinson’s graceful command of the ballad idiom, and brought Ruffin’s vocals to the fore for the first time. This track, featured in the movie ‘My Girl’, was reissued in 1992 and was once again a hit. ‘It’s Growing’, ‘Since I Lost My Baby’, ‘My Baby’ and ‘Get Ready’ continued the run of success into 1966, establishing the Temptations as the leaders of the Motown sound. ‘It’s Growing’ brought a fresh layer of subtlety into Robinson’s lyric writing, while ‘Get Ready’ embodied all the excitement of the Motown rhythm factory, blending an irresistible melody with a stunning vocal arrangement.
Norman Whitfield succeeded Robinson as the Temptations’ producer in 1966 – a role he continued to occupy for almost a decade. He introduced a new rawness into their sound, spotlighting David Ruffin as an impassioned lead vocalist, and creating a series of R&B records that rivalled the output of Stax and Atlantic for toughness and power. ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’ introduced the Whitfield approach, and while the Top 3 hit ‘Beauty Is Only Skin Deep’ represented a throwback to the Robinson era, ‘I’m Losing You’ and ‘You’re My Everything’ confirmed the new direction. The peak of Whitfield’s initial phase with the group was ‘I Wish It Would Rain’, a dramatic ballad that the producer heightened with delicate use of sound effects. The record was another major hit, and gave the Temptations their sixth R&B number 1 in three years. It also marked the end of an era, as David Ruffin first requested individual credit before the group’s name, and when this was refused, elected to leave for a solo career. He was replaced by ex- Contour Dennis Edwards, whose strident vocals fit perfectly into the Temptations’ harmonic blend. Whitfield chose this moment to inaugurate a new production style.
Conscious of the psychedelic shift in the rock mainstream, and the inventive soul music being created by Sly And The Family Stone, he joined forces with lyricist Barrett Strong to pull Motown brutally into the modern world. The result was ‘Cloud Nine’, a record that reflected the increasing use of illegal drugs among young people, and shocked some listeners with its lyrical ambiguity. Whitfield created the music to match, breaking down the traditional barriers between lead and backing singers and giving each of the Temptations a recognizable role in the group. Over the next four years, Whitfield and the Temptations pioneered the concept of psychedelic soul, stretching the Motown formula to the limit, introducing a new vein of social and political comment, and utilizing many of rock’s experimental production techniques to hammer home the message. ‘Runaway Child, Running Wild’ examined the problems of teenage rebellion; ‘I Can’t Get Next To You’ reflected the fragmentation of personal relationships (and topped the US charts with the group’s second number 1 hit); and ‘Ball Of Confusion’ bemoaned the disintegrating fabric of American society. These lyrical tracks were set to harsh, uncompromising rhythm tracks, steeped in wah-wah guitar and soaked in layers of harmony and counterpoint.
The Temptations were greeted as representatives of the counter-culture, a trend that climaxed when they recorded Whitfield’s outspoken protest against the Vietnam War, ‘Stop The War Now’. The new direction alarmed Eddie Kendricks, who felt more at home on the series of collaborations with the Supremes that the group also taped in the late 60s. He left for a solo career in 1971, after recording another US number 1, the evocative ballad ‘Just My Imagination’. He was replaced first by Richard Owens, then later in 1971 by Damon Harris. This line-up recorded the 1972 number 1, ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’, a production tour de force which remains one of Motown’s finest achievements, belatedly winning the label its first Grammy award.