The Temptations

Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive
1989
Category:
Performers
Members:
  • Dennis Edwards
  • Melvin Franklin
  • Eddie Kendricks
  • David Ruffin
  • Otis Williams
  • Paul Williams

The Temptations set the bar high for Motown vocal groups (and soul and R&B music in general) thanks to snappy stage moves and elegant harmonies.

Early hits such as "My Girl," "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and "Get Ready" remain beloved classics, while later forays into funk and psychedelic music such as "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" were just as influential.

Biography

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Motown Records dominated music in the 1960s on the strength of vocal groups such as the Temptations.

In their heyday, the quintet boasted dynamite choreography and soulful, elegant harmonies spanning the entire spectrum of vocal timbres: high and middle tenor, baritone and bass. More than that, however, the Temptations' arrangements were deceptively simple: Although the group's melodies and vocal interplay sounded effortless, they were actually carefully organized to amplify the strengths of each individual member.

The Temptations coalesced around members of Detroit-based vocal harmony groups the Primes and the Distants. The latter needed a pair of musicians to complement existing members Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin and Elbridge Bryant, and extended an invitation to two members of the former group, childhood friends Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams.

Then known as the Elgins, the quintet auditioned for Berry Gordy, who signed them to Motown Records. Success didn't arrive right away, however; in fact, the newly christened Temptations only had one R&B chart hit, "(You're My) Dream Come True," by the end of 1963.

The group's fortunes changed in 1964 when bespectacled vocalist David Ruffin—a Mississippi-raised son of a minister who had cut his teeth singing gospel—replaced Bryant. The Smokey Robinson-co-written "The Way You Do The Things You Do" became the group's first No. 1 R&B hit, and just missed the pop charts top 10.

This success kicked off a four-year golden age where the Temptations were crossover stars. Ruffin was a magnetic presence who led the group with his ragged, soulful voice and an unparalleled ability to command the stage. He sang lead on the Temptations' first No. 1 dual pop and R&B hit, "My Girl"—another Smokey Robinson co-write, this time with his Miracles bandmate Ronald White—as well as R&B smashes "It's Growing," "Since I Lost My Baby" and "My Baby."

As the group's popularity soared, their music reflected harder-edged contemporary influences. Accordingly, Ruffin's voice too sounded rawer and more anguished on hits "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and "(I Know) I'm Losing You." Meanwhile, the Temptations' backing harmonies were also growing more sophisticated, as heard on the Kendricks-led, locomotive-smooth "Get Ready."

Ruffin left in 1968 for a solo career and was replaced by Dennis Edwards. Incredibly, the group barely missed a beat as they continued down a funkier and, at times, even psychedelic path—as heard on the percussion-heavy "Cloud Nine," the buzzing, guitar-spackled "Runaway Child, Running Wild" and (especially) the No. 1 "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone." Yet as the 1971 No. 1 "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)" proved, few could match the group's soulful harmonies and delivery.

The Temptations would continue to evolve with the times, incorporating disco and funk-rock in the '70s and contemporary-sounding R&B, dance and soul production in the '80s. Their lineup also shifted as well, at times out of necessity: Paul Williams quit performing with the Temptations in the early '70s due to health and alcohol problems (and, sadly, committed suicide in 1973), while Melvin Franklin passed away in 1995 following seizures.

Despite all of these shifts, the Temptations are still going strong well over a half-century later: The group continues to tour and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.  As it turns out, the group's constant progressions and reinventions have kept them not just vital, but entirely relevant for the modern age.