A few weeks ago, New Yorkers were treated to an unusual sight: The cast of Ain’t Too Proud, the Broadway musical about the life of the Temptations, riding the subway with a camera crew. The idea was pure promotion — to maintain buzz for the Tony-winning show, which is now up for a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. Ephraim Sykes, who plays the volatile and tragic David Ruffin, admits he had a few trepidations about the idea. “At first, none of us were like, ‘Yeah, let’s go sing on the subway!'” he says with a laugh. “It could have been embarrassing. Some people were doing their best to ignore us, and sometimes I do that myself. Performers will get on, and I’ll turn up my headphones because I’m not in the mood.”
But once the quintet began singing — always the Temptations standard “My Girl” over the course of several hours and several different downtown and uptown trains — the mood usually brightened. “Once we got into it, we had fun with it, and it was cool to watch people’s reactions,” says Sykes, who takes the lead on that Ruffin-led song in the show. “We were performing it, and these three young high-school-looking dudes started singing along with me. Those dudes probably listen to everything but the Temptations, but they reacted to that song. It’s interesting to see how much reach that song has.”
That legacy will turn 55 years old on Saturday: Motown Records released the original single of “My Girl” on December 21, 1964. The song entered the pop chart the following month and made its way to Number One in March of 1965. “My Girl” has since become one the most enduring and beloved songs of the post-war pop era, ranking 88 on RS’ list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” “It’s a well-written and produced song and universally loved,” says Otis Williams, the lone surviving Temptation, who continues to tour with a new version of the group. “We’ve been doing it over 55 years, and people love it and appreciate it and sing along as if it was released today.”
Smokey Robinson, who penned the song, shares that viewpoint. “As a songwriter, ‘My Girl’ has become my international anthem,” he told RS in 2014. “We’re in countries where the basic language’s not even English and as soon as they hear [sings the opening guitar lick] ‘Bum-bum, bum, bum, bum, bum,’ they’re cheering! They don’t speak English, but they know the words to ‘My Girl.’”
Despite long-standing stories that Robinson intended the song for his own group, the Miracles, Robinson insists he always wrote “My Girl” with Ruffin in mind. “I wanted to write something sweet for David Ruffin to sing,” he said. “David had a very rough baritone tenor voice that I felt was a demanding voice: He demanded the girls love him. Many people have asked me: Do I wish I had kept ‘My Girl’ for myself? And no, I didn’t, because I loved being a part of my brothers’ and sisters’ careers — and especially if I could do something to better their careers.”
Williams himself recalls Robinson visiting the group backstage when the Temptations were performing at the 20 Grand club in Detroit in 1964. “He was marveling at our show and he looked at David and said, ‘I have a song for you,’” Williams says. “Us being young and cocky, we were like, ‘Bring it on’.”
With typical Motown efficiency, “My Girl” came together fast. Featuring a lineup of Motown stalwarts like guitarist Robert White and bassist James Jamerson, the basic track was cut at Motown’s headquarters in Detroit — in the legendary basement studio dubbed the “Snakepit” — on September 25, 1964. The Temptations weren’t around for that session, but a week later, on October 2nd, both they and Robinson and the Miracles co-headlined a week of shows at the Apollo in New York City. In a dressing room between sets, Robinson taught the song to the Temptations, and around November 10th, they flew to Detroit and added their vocals to the completed track.
Williams says he was happy with the song and performance. “It didn’t take us long to knock that out,” he says. “It was easy-peezy.” But when Paul Riser, Motown’s vital in-house arranger, added strings and horns to the recording, Williams comprehended what the group and Motown had on their hands. “I came out of the studio and Smokey was in the control room,” he says, “and I said, ‘Man, I don’t know how big a record this is gonna become, but there’s some magic in this song.’”
For Motown, “My Girl” was important on several fronts. It was the first Number One song for a male group on the label, and it was also the first number one for Gordy Records, the label’s subsidiary.
But Williams says he only fully realized its allure – with the group and its audience—when the Temptations briefly removed it from its set one night later in the Sixties. “[Late Temptations singer] Paul Williams said, ‘OK, it did what it’s going to do and I think we should take it out and move on to something else,’” Williams recalls. “I forget where it was, but when we didn’t do it, the audience let us know. They had very perplexed looks on their face like, ‘What?! Wait a second.’ They damn near called us every name. They let us know: We don’t care what you do — do not mess with ‘My Girl.’ Our manager said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again.’”
Williams, who turned 78 in October, takes that lesson to heart to this day when he’s touring with the current Temptations. “The guys today, I don’t care what mood they’re in — ‘My Girl’ will never, ever come out of the show,” he says. “It will always be a mainstay.”