Motown Soul Sensations
The Temptations were the quintessential male vocal group of the ‘60s and early ‘70s; commercially successful and critically acclaimed. With their precise choreography and pinpoint vocal harmonies, they were the consumate models for all vocal acts to follow after them. Second only to the Supremes, as consistent hit-makers for the Detroit-based Motown label, the Temptations were one of Motown’s most versatile acts- undertaking soul, pop and funk styles with easy panache and infectious enthusiasm. Entering the fifth decade of their existence, the ensemble has withstood the fickle whims of consumer taste and numerous personnel changes, to become one of the enduring legends in all of popular music.
They have sold an estimated 25 million records, worldwide. But, because Motown Records refuses to open its books or release sales figures for certification, the Temptations have never received official gold or platinum records. However, the group’s chart successes are beyond dispute.
Between 1964 and 1975 they had fifty-two Top 40 pop singles (among them, fifteen reached the Top Ten of the pop charts, including four at #1). Seventy-six of their records were r&b chart singles. The Temptations have recorded fifty-seven albums over a span of forty years, nineteen of which reached the Top Twenty of the pop album charts, including a #1 collaboration with the Supremes. Twenty-eight of their albums reached the r&b Top Ten charts. Fifteen of those reached #1 on the r&b charts.
But, the story of the Temptations begins neither with Motown, nor even in Detroit, but in the late-’50s, in Birmingham, Alabama. A trio of young singers, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks and Kell Osborne, moved to Cleveland, Ohio in hopes of finding success. They briefly performed as the Cavaliers before meeting Milton Jenkins, who became their manager. He renamed the group the Primes. Eventually, at the advice of Jenkins, the Primes migrated to Detroit, which, even at that early date, was known to be a hub for popular music.
Meanwhile, in 1958, a seventeen year old, Texas-born, high school dropout named Otis Miles (who used the stage name Otis Williams), formed a vocal quintet in Detroit called Otis and the Siberians, which featured the talents of Williams, Elbridge “Al” Bryant, James “Pee Wee” Crawford, Arthur Walton and Vernard Plain. That group recorded one single, that received little attention, even on a local level.
Not long after, Otis and the Siberians had a new manager, Detroit music legend Johnnie Mae Matthews, a record contract on her Northern record label and a new name- the Distants. With the name change came personnel changes. Vernard Plain left the group, replaced by Richard Street. Melvin Franklin (“the kid with the deepest voice in Detroit”) replaced Arthur Walton.
The Distants recorded their first single, “Come On,” backed with “Always,” for Northern in early 1960. The single became a twin-sided hit in the Detroit area. Later in 1960, the group recorded a second single, which also met with some local success, but failed to generate any interest on a national level. By the end of 1960, Pee Wee Crawford had left the group, to pursue a solo career. He was replaced by Albert Harrell.
The Distants’ chief rivals in the Detroit music scene were the Primes (who had yet to record a single). The Primes generally performed on bills with their sister group the Primettes (a quartet, which featured all three of the Supremes in their formative years). And though the Distants had the local hit singles, the Primes had something in their live stage repertoire that kept local fans coming back to their shows. Paul Williams had concluded early on that the Primes needed choreography and through his persistence, the group was famous for their smooth stage moves.
By late 1960, the Distants had reached an artistic impasse; their recording career stalled. What’s more, Albert Harrell, the group’s newest addition, had proved to be a poor fit and Richard Street had lost interest in performing with the ensemble. However, in December 1960, the Distants were performing at St. Stephen’s Community Center in Detroit, when, during a break, Otis Williams had a fortuitous meeting in the men’s restroom with Berry Gordy Jr.
At that time, Berry Gordy Jr. was just a fledgling producer and label owner with a vision. In January of 1959, he had borrowed eight hundred dollars from his family to fund his own record label, Tamla. At the same time, he created a publishing house, Jobette and opened a recording studio, which would soon become known as the legendary “Hitsville.”
Gordy had an ear for talent and was looking to build a “stable” of local acts whom he could record in his studios and whose records he could release on his labels. He began releasing a string singles, on a variety of his own subsidiary label imprints. Some of those singles were recorded by the then unknown, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (their third single was released on Gordy’s new Motown label). Early in 1960, Barrett Strong had a hit with “Money,” on Tamla. Later that same year, Gordy signed, and produced records for, Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye. Later he signed Martha and the Vandellas and the Marvellettes. Motown was born.
Standing in the men’s restroom, at St. Stephen’s Community Center, Gordy encouraged Otis Williams to drop by the Hitsville studio headquarters (located in a huge house in Detroit). Gordy mentioned that he was seeking new talent to add to his growing roster of acts and that he was eager to record the Distants. Otis Williams saw a huge opportunity in the offer: Berry Gordy ran the only label in Detroit, at the time, to have had an actual national hit record. But Otis Williams had a problem as well. The Distants were falling apart.
Fortune stepped in, though, when Otis Williams learned that the Primes, whom the Distants had only recently officially met- at a local house party- had broken up; with Kell Osborne leaving the group, to embark upon a solo career. Meanwhile Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams had returned home to Alabama. However, Paul Williams came back to Detroit January of 1961. There he met with Otis Williams and it was decided that the remnants of the Primes and the Distants would combine to form a new group, ostensibly to record for Berry Gordy.
At the same time, Williams persuaded Johnnie Mae Matthews to let the Distants out of their contract with Northern. She graciously acquiesced, with the sole stipulation that the group would give up its name- which she had originally bestowed upon them. It was the group of Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin and Al Bryant that visited Berry Gordy at Hitsville, quickly signing a contract in the early spring of 1961. But, they needed a new name.
At first they decided to rename themselves the Elegants, until they found out the name was already in use. Then they tried the Elgins for a while, but that name turned out to be taken too. Finally, while sitting on the veranda at the Hitsville offices, the group arrived at the name the Temptations.
Over the course of the next two years, the Temptations recorded five singles for Berry Gordy and Motown – two for the Miracle label, “Oh Mother Of Mine, and “Check Yourself,” and three for the Gordy label- the first of which, “Dream Come True,” reached #22 on the r&b charts, while the next two flopped miserably. Eager to see a return from his investment in the Temptations, Gordy forced the group to record the single “Mind Over Matter” under the name the Pirates, but it flopped as well.
Despite the lack of commercial success, the Temptations attracted a loyal local following for their live performances. As he had earlier with the Primes, Paul Williams directed the other members through intricately sophisticated stage movements, which he carefully choreographed, lending the Temptations a stronger visual appeal on stage. Otis Williams later recalled, “when we first got together, we were just a group that was standing there and singing. But Paul said ‘no, no, no, we’ve got to be a group of action and excitement.’ And little did we know that that choreography Paul started, would be a trademark.”
Seeing the value in Paul Williams’ ideas, Gordy brought Cholly Atkins on board at Motown, to teach the Temptations (as well as all the other Motown groups) more complex dance steps and moves. Atkins, a well-known dancer in the ‘30s and ‘40s, had performed at the famed Cotton Club and Savoy Ballroom in New York city. He was responsible for polishing any rough edges in Williams’ elaborate stage routines.
In December of 1963, backstage after a Motortown Christmas Revue show at Detroit‘s Fox Theater, Al Bryant attacked Paul Williams, smashing him in the face with a beer bottle. Shortly after that incident, Bryant was replaced by Davis “David” Ruffin. Ruffin, the younger brother of vocalist Jimmy Ruffin (best known for his 1966 hit “What’s Become Of The Brokenhearted”), had already launched a solo career with two singles, under the name “Little David Bush,” released on the Miracle label- “I’m In Love” in 1961 and “Action Speaks Louder Than Words” in 1962.
Though some members had misgivings about Ruffin’s addition to the group (even Melvin Franklin, his cousin, saw him as a loner, suggesting that David was really only interested in furthering his own solo career), Berry Gordy was adamant that his tenor voice was the key ingredient missing from the previous incarnation of the Temptations. As was his custom (he liked to assign specific producers and songwriting teams to work, long-term, with specific groups), Gordy appointed Smokey Robinson to be the group’s full-time producer, as well as the group’s chief songwriter.
David Ruffin was in the studio on January 4th, 1964, singing backup with the Temptations as they recorded Robinson’s “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” with Eddie Kendrick in the falsetto, lead vocal role. Within eight weeks, the title was a hit, racing up the pop and r&b charts.
In August of 1964, the Temptations recorded “Girl (Why You Want To Make Me Blue“), which reached #26 on the pop charts by the following fall. In September of 1964, the Temps (as their fans had taken to calling them) performed at DJ Murray the K’s live Rock and Roll Show in New York city, with the Ronettes, the Searchers, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes.
Two months later they were back in the studio with Smokey Robinson, recording his song “My Girl,” which featured the debut of David in the lead vocal role. The song immediately shot up the pop and r&b charts during the first three months of 1965, eventually reaching #1 on both.
This started a string of Ruffin-led Top Forty hits in 1965, including “It’s Growing,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” “My Baby,” and “Don’t Look Back.“ The hits continued into early 1966, with Robinson’s “Get Ready,” which reached #1 on the r&b charts, featuring Eddie Kendricks in the lead vocal role.
Later in 1966, Norman Whitfield took over production responsibilities for the Temptations from Smokey Robinson. Whitfield’s first record for the Temptations was “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” which he co-wrote with Eddie Holland (of the famed Holland, Dozier & Holland songwriting team, who wrote countless hits for the Supremes and Four Tops, among many others), which reached the Top Ten. Whitfield and Holland wrote a string of Top Ten hits for the Temps, including “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep” and “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” both of which reached #1 on the r&b charts.
Under Whitfield’s tutelage, the Temptations continued their remarkable string of hits. In 1967 the group attempted to broadened their stylistic horizons, recording an album of standards, In A Mellow Mood, and appearing at the famed Copacabana nightclub in New York city. Several more Top Ten hits followed, including “You’re My Everything,” “All I Need” and “(Loneliness Made Me Realize) It’s You That I Need.”
The year 1968 brought more Top Ten hits, including “I Wish It Would Rain,” “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You),” which hit the top of the r&b charts, and “Please Return Your Love To Me.” But, in October, David Ruffin left the group, for a solo career. He had wanted Berry Gordy to grant him star billing with the Temps- as he had for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Diana Ross and the Supremes. Gordy wouldn’t hear of it. The four other members of the group fired David, after he failed to show up for a concert; replacing him with Dennis Edwards- who spent the next nine years as the Temptations’ lead vocalist.
Then, in 1969, Norman Whitfield teamed with Barrett Strong to write for the Temptations- resulting in a new sound for Motown, referred to as “psychedelic soul.” “Cloud Nine” was just the first of several Whitfield-Strong compositions to reach the Top Ten of the pop charts. The song also garnered for the Temps (and Motown) their first Grammy award. Other hits included “Run Away Child, Running Wild,” which reached #1 on the r&b charts; and “I Can’t Get Next To You” (which reached the top of both charts), “Psychedelic Shack” and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” all of which cracked the Top Ten.
In 1971 the Temptations returned to their soul roots with the classic “It’s Just My Imagination,” which topped the pop and r&b charts. It was the last Temptations record with Kendricks performing in the lead vocal role. Soon after its release, he left for a solo career. He was replaced by Damon Harris.
Later that year, Paul Williams also left the group. An alcoholic, Williams had been performing on stage with the group, but with a former member of the Distants, Richard Street, actually singing his parts from backstage. Plagued by debt and other personal problems, in August of 1963 Paul Williams was found in his car, parked a few blocks away from Hitsville, dead from a self-inflected gunshot wound. Richard Street stepped out from behind the stage curtain to replace Paul Williams.
Harris and Street, lent the group a gospel style, manifesting itself in “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” which reached #1 on the pop charts in 1972. That year also brought the group three more Grammy Awards, including one for the instrumental version of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” released as the b-side to the vocal version single. More Top Forty hits followed, with “Superstar,” which also won a Grammy; “The Plastic Man,” “Masterpiece,” “Let Your Hair Down,” “Happy People,” and “Shakey Ground.”
Despite numerous personnel changes (all tolled, there have been over twenty different members), the Temptations continued to have hits throughout the ‘80s, with “Treat Her Like a Lady,” “Lady Soul”, and “Look What You Started.” A brief 1982 reunion tour (which saw Ruffin and Kendricks return) produced the hit single “Standing On The Top.” In 1983 the Temptations performed on the Motown 25th Anniversary TV special. They released a string of nine Top Ten r&b hits from the mid-’80s to the early ‘90s.
The Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. In September of 1994, they were awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. That same year, the group was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
Otis Williams, the only surviving original member, remarked in a recent interview that the Temptations had been “able to survive. It lets me know that this group has a purpose, that it’s in God’s plans for this group to be around. And here it is, we’re just as popular as when we first started out.” Williams continues to lead the Temptations to this day.