The Temptations

  • Biography:

    In addition to being the most consistently commercially successful and critically lauded male vocal group in rock history, the Temptations have been charting hits for 40 years. Yet unlike most other living institutions, the Temptations remain a vital, hitmaking group, with the double-platinum Phoenix Rising from 1998 living up to its name. In their early "classic" lineup —with alternating lead singers Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, and Paul Williams, with Melvin Franklin, and group founder Otis Williams —the Tempts, as they were known, were simply untouchable. Through the years, the group's trademark razor-sharp choreography, finely tuned vocal harmonies, and a number of compelling lead singers (Ruffin, Kendricks, the little known Paul Williams, and later, Dennis Edwards) made them the exemplars of the Motown style. The Temptations have been distinguished among their Motown stable mates (with the exception of the Four Tops) for their ability to move comfortably from smooth pop and standards to provocative, politically charged rock soul, from the Apollo to the Copacabana (and back). Despite personnel changes and conflicts, through countless triumphs and setbacks, the Temptations, with Franklin and Otis Williams at the helm, forged ahead. Today, with Williams the sole surviving original member, the group continues.

    The Temptations currently hold 13 gold and six platinum albums. The group's chart statistics are unparalleled: between 1964 and 1975 19 Top 20 albums. Over its career, the group has had 37 Top 40 singles (among them 15 Top 10s, including 4 at #1) and 32 R&B Top 10 albums (including 17 at #1).

    The original Temptations came together from two struggling vocal groups. Otis Williams (not to be confused with Otis Williams of Charms fame), Elbridge (a.k.a. Al, or El) Bryant, and Melvin Franklin had been in a series of Detroit groups, including Williams' Siberians and Otis Williams and the Distants. Once Franklin, the young bass singer of Detroit's Voice Masters, joined the Distants (which included future Tempt Richard Street) they recorded "Come On" for the local Northern label. Around the time that Williams decided to expand the group, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams (no relation to Otis), with Kell Osborne, were working around Detroit as the Primes. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, this trio was making something of a name for itself in the Motor City. They were doing so well that their manager put together a "sister group," the Primettes, a quartet of young women, three of whom (Diane Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard) would later be rechristened the Supremes. Eventually the Primes disbanded, but not before Otis Williams had seen them and been impressed by Kendricks' talent and Paul Williams' knack for creating great choreography.

    Kendricks, Paul Williams, Otis Williams, Franklin, and Bryant formed the Elgins in 1961. Later rechristened the Temptations, this lineup recorded two flop singles for the Motown subsidiary label Miracle later that year ("Oh Mother of Mine" b/w "Romance Without Finance" and "Check Yourself" b/w "Your Wonderful Love"). In 1962 they had a #22 R&B single with "Dream Come True" (which featured Berry Gordy's then-wife Raynoma Gordy on harpsichord), but four more flops followed, including "Mind Over Matter" b/w "I'll Love You Til I Die," which Berry Gordy forced them to release under the name the Pirates.

    In late 1963, following his violent attack on Paul Williams, Bryant either quit or was fired. Among the singers considered as a replacement were brothers Jimmy and David Ruffin. David, who had created a big impression by jumping onstage with the Tempts unannounced and winning over the crowd, got the spot, and the Temptations' luck changed overnight. They began working with writer/producer Smokey Robinson, whose "The Way You Do the Things You Do" (#11 pop) launched an almost unbroken run of R&B and pop hits that extended into the early '70s. Their 1965 hits included the classic "My Girl" (#1 pop, #1 R&B), "It's Growing" (#18 pop, #3 R&B), "Since I Lost My Baby" (#17 pop, #4 R&B), "My Baby" (#13 pop, #4 R&B), and "Don't Look Back" (#13 pop, #4 R&B). The latter was one of the rare A-side leads by Paul Williams, who would remain the architect of the Temptations' style and sophisticated image.

    The next year the hits continued with Robinson's "Get Ready" (#29 pop, #1 R&B), following by the hard soul of producers Norman Whitfield and Brian Holland's "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" (#13 pop, #1 R&B). The first single featured Kendricks on lead, the second Ruffin. From that point on, however, the majority of A sides would feature Ruffin, as did 1966's "Beauty's Only Skin Deep" (#3 pop, #1 R&B) and "(I Know) I'm Losing You" (#8 pop, #1 R&B). Around 1967 Whitfield had become the group's sole producer, moving them more deeply into a rougher-hewn soul style. All the while, however, the group continued to perform and record standards (including Melvin Franklin's longstanding showpiece rendition of "Old Man River"). Other hits from 1967 were "All I Need" (#8 pop, #2 R&B), "You're My Everything" (#6 pop, #3 R&B), and "(Loneliness Made Me Realize) It's You That I Need" (#14 pop, #3 R&B).

    The year 1968 brought "I Wish It Would Rain" (#4 pop, #1 R&B), "I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)" (#13 pop, #1 R&B), and "Please Return Your Love to Me" (#26 pop, #4 R&B). But the most significant event of this period was Ruffin's departure for a solo career. Always a volatile personality, Ruffin had come into the group having enjoyed some limited success as a solo artist. In part, he was dissatisfied with the fact that Motown did not promote him as an individual in the same manner that it was priming Diana Ross as a solo act. Ironically, in terms of stature and image, the Supremes would remain the Temptations' "sister group" in more ways than one. After failing to show up for a concert, the four other members of the group (not Berry Gordy, as has often been reported) fired him.

    Initially, Ruffin's departure was viewed as an insurmountable blow. Dennis Edwards (formerly of the Contours) may have lacked some of the vocal polish of his predecessor, but his more aggressive approach perfectly suited the new Sly Stone–influenced, psychedelic soul-rock hybrid Whitfield and the group forged. "Cloud Nine" (#6 pop, #2 R&B) was the first of a series of hits that broached social and political issues (although Motown has long held that "Cloud Nine" contains no allusions to drugs, Gladys Knight and the Pips refused to record it for that reason), and seemed out of character given Motown's traditional conservatism. With "Cloud Nine" and the following hit singles —"Run Away Child, Running Wild" (#6 pop, #1 R&B) and "Don't Let the Joneses Get You Down" (#20 pop, #2 R&B) in 1969; "Psychedelic Shack" (#7 pop, #2 R&B) and "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)" (#3 pop, #2 R&B) in 1970 —the Tempts became one of the few Motown acts (including Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder) who got progressive FM radio airplay. Sandwiched between these releases were singles in the more familiar Tempts style: "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," a duet with the Supremes recorded before Ruffin's departure (#2 pop and R&B, 1968), the Robinson ballad "I'll Try Something New" (#25 pop, #8 R&B, 1968), and the five-lead workout "I Can't Get Next to You" (#1 pop and R&B, 1969).

    The year 1971 began with the last Kendricks-led hit, "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)" (#1 pop and R&B), which is perhaps second only to "My Girl" as the group's most beloved song. Kendricks quit to start a fitfully successful solo career. Later that year, Williams also left the group because of poor health. An alcoholic, Paul Williams had been performing with the group but with Richard Street singing his parts from behind the curtain. He remained involved with the group after his official departure, but personal demons and debt drove him to despair. Two years later he was discovered slumped in his parked car just blocks from Motown, dead, presumably from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

    With new replacements Damon Harris (ex-Vibration Ricky Owens was in and out of the group in just weeks and never recorded with them) and Richard Street (most recently of the Monitors), the Temptations continued moving away from ballads with "Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)" (#18 pop, #8 R&B, 1971), "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" (#1 pop, #5 R&B, 1972), "Masterpiece" (#7 pop, #1 R&B, 1973), "Hey Girl (I Like Your Style)" (#35 pop, #2 R&B, 1973), "The Plastic Man" (#40 pop, #8 R&B, 1973), "Let Your Hair Down" (#27 pop, #1 R&B, 1973), and "Shakey Ground" (#32 pop, #1 R&B, 1975). While the Tempts continued to hit the R&B Top 10 regularly, their singles rarely reached the pop Top 30. Throughout this period, however, they maintained a consistent record as one of the rare Motown groups that sold albums. Through 1976 every album of new material but their debut hit the album Top 40, and 10 were Top 10.

    Like many other Motown acts, the Temptations became dissatisfied with the label. Unlike most, however, the Tempts had retained the rights to their name and, by the time they left the label, had succeeded in writing and producing their own commercially overlooked but critically well received LP, The Temptations Do the Temptations. It would be their last effort under their original Motown contract. They moved to Atlantic, shortly before which Dennis Edwards left the group for the first of three times. With new singer Louis Price, the Tempts cut two disco-ish albums: Bare Back (coproduced by the Holland brothers) and Hear to Tempt You. These were unsuccessful, and with Edwards back in Price's place, the group returned to Motown at Berry Gordy's personal request. Gordy cowrote and produced their first hit single in seven years, "Power" (#43 pop, #11 R&B, 1980). The group seemed poised to reclaim its turf, but the Thom Bell–produced The Temptations missed the mark. Further releases were halted for the long-awaited Reunion Tour, which in 1982 brought Ruffin and Kendricks back into the fold. This seven-man lineup recorded Reunion (#37 pop, #2 R&B, 1982) and embarked on a mini-tour. The album's hit single, "Standing on the Top (Part 1)" (#66 pop, #6 R&B, 1982), was written and produced by Rick James (the Temptations provided background vocals for James' "Super Freak"). The reunion was a fan's dream come true, but talks to make it a permanent venture were scuttled amid intergroup tensions and problems between Kendricks and Ruffin and Motown.

    By that point, each of their solo careers had peaked. Ruffin's first single, the urgent "My Whole World Ended (the Moment You Left Me)" (#9 pop, #2 R&B, 1969), was his biggest solo hit. In 1969 he had two other Top 20 R&B singles, "I've Lost Everything I've Ever Loved" (#11) and "I'm So Glad I Fell for You" (#18). Ruffin and his older brother Jimmy (best remembered for 1966's "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted") teamed up for a 1970 album that produced a minor hit in "Stand by Me." David Ruffin soon hit hard times, however. "Walk Away From Love" (#9 pop, #1 R&B, 1975), produced by Van McCoy, was his only other Top 40 hit, though he did reach the R&B Top 10 with "Heavy Love" and "Everything's Coming Up Love" in 1976, and "Break My Heart" in 1979.

    After quitting the Tempts, Kendricks moved to the West Coast and began to build a solo career with Motown, which had just relocated there. His early solo recordings (on Tamla) were R&B hits: "It's So Hard for Me to Say Goodbye" and "Can I" (1971), "Eddie's Love" and "If You Let Me" (1972), and "Girl You Need a Change of Mind" and "Darling Come Back Home" (1973). Kendricks' jump to the top of the R&B and pop charts came in 1973 with the falsetto-topped "Keep On Truckin' (Part 1)" (#1 pop and R&B), followed by "Boogie Down" (#2 pop, #1 R&B, 1974). For the next three years Kendricks' songs were regularly in the R&B Top 10: "Son of Sagittarius" (#28 pop, #5 R&B, 1974), "Tell Her Love Has Felt the Need" (#8 R&B, 1974), "One Tear" (#8 R&B, 1974), "Shoeshine Boy" (#18 pop, #1 R&B, 1975), "Get the Cream Off the Top" (#7 R&B, 1975), "Happy" (#8 R&B, 1975), "He's a Friend" (#36 pop, #2 R&B, 1976). In 1977 he signed with Arista. His last single hit for Motown was "Intimate Friends" (#24 R&B, 1978). The move proved to be not as smooth as expected. Kendricks' only big hit for Arista was "Ain't No Smoke Without Fire" (#13 R&B, 1978), and in 1980 he signed with Atlantic.

    Both his and Ruffin's careers seemed moribund. Then, in 1985 Daryl Hall and John Oates invited the two onstage for a recorded performance at the newly reopened Apollo Theatre. A Temptations medley reached the Top 20 on the singles chart and revived interest in Kendricks and Ruffin, who later in 1985 lent their voices to the star-studded Sun City album by Artists United Against Apartheid. A 1987 album Ruffin and Kendricks, spawned a #14 R&B hit, "I Couldn't Believe It."

    Kendricks next teamed up with yet another ex-Temptation, Dennis Edwards, for a 1990 single, "Get It While It's Hot," cowritten by Jermaine Jackson. Edwards had some solo success during one of his three hiatuses from the Tempts, including "Don't Look Any Further" (#72 pop, #2 R&B, 1984). Kendricks, Edwards, and Ruffin went on tour together; combined, they'd sung lead on virtually all the Temptations' '60s and '70s hits. In the late '80s, Ruffin, Kendricks, and Edwards began touring with a successful Tribute to the Temptations package tour. (In the mid-'90s, the Tempts sought to prevent Edwards from using the Temptations name [which Otis Williams and Franklin jointly owned]. In 1999 a judge issued a permanent injunction against Edwards, forbidding him to ever use the name in advertising for his performances.)

    Things seemed to be looking up, but on June 1, 1991, Ruffin, long plagued by drug addiction (he'd been convicted of cocaine possession in 1988 and entered drug rehab the following year), overdosed on cocaine after visiting a crack house. He lapsed into a coma and when doctors at a Philadelphia hospital failed to revive him, he was pronounced dead. He was 50. Michael Jackson paid for Ruffin's funeral, which was presided over by the Reverend Louis Farrakhan and attended by countless celebrities, among them the surviving original Temptations (Williams, Kendricks, and Franklin), who sang "My Girl." Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder also performed.

    The following year, Kendricks died of lung cancer at age 52. Again, the surviving Tempts attended his funeral, where Franklin eulogized his former group mate. Later Bobby Womack organized two concerts to raise funds for the singer's survivors.

    For the Temptations, however, the years following the reunion were marked by constant international touring and several surprise successes. Following the 1983 Motown 25 segment in which the Tempts and their friends the Four Tops performed a battle of the bands, the two groups took the show on the road. The T'n'T Tour, as it was called, ran for over three years, including a sold-out stint on Broadway, beginning in 1983. They continued cowriting and coproducing much of their more recent material, including 1984's "Treat Her Like a Lady" (#48 pop, #2 R&B), a collaboration between Otis Williams and latter-day member Ali Ollie Woodson. Other '80s singles include "Sail Away" (#54 pop, #13 R&B, 1984), "My Love Is True (Truly for You)" (#14 R&B, 1985), "Do You Really Love Your Baby" (#14 R&B, 1985), "Lady Soul" (#47 pop, #4 R&B, 1986), "I Wonder Who She's Seeing Now" (#3 R&B, 1987), "Look What You Started" (#8 R&B, 1987), "Special" (#10 R&B, 1989), "Soul to Soul" (#12 R&B, 1990), and "The Jones'" (#41 R&B, 1991). Williams penned his autobiography, Temptations, in 1988 with Patricia Romanowski. The Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, by Daryl Hall and John Oates, in 1989.

    For the Temptations, the '90s would prove a decade of profound loss and unexpected triumph. Melvin Franklin, who had been in poor health for a number of years due to arthritis, died at age 52 after suffering a heart attack following a brain seizure. At the time, the group was recording a collection of standards, For Lovers Only; his last recording was "Life Is But a Dream."

    The group's commercial comeback began in the fall of 1998, when NBC aired the two-part miniseries Temptations, based on Williams' book of the same name. (The book is slated to be republished in the fall of 2002.) Released about the same time, Phoenix Rising (#44 pop, #8 R&B, 1998) and its lead single, "Stay" (#20 pop, #28 R&B, 1998) brought the Tempts to a new generation. Produced by Narada Michael Walden, the album was a major coup for the Tempts, and their first album to be certified platinum. As always, the group continued to tour the world. Its followup, 2000's Grammy-winning Ear-Resistible, produced by Gerald Levert and Joe Little III, entered and peaked on the R&B albums chart at #16 (#54 pop).

    This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).