No group that Motown produced exemplified the Motown sound better than the Temptations.
Throughout the decade of the 1960s, the Temptations dominated the charts with their deep, soulful rhythms, the near-perfect blend of their harmonies, and most of all their mesmerizing choreography. Those guys could dance, and if you saw them either live or on television, they made you wish you had just half the moves they did.
They started, of course, in Detroit, the combination of two rival singing groups: Otis Williams, Elbridge “Al” Bryant, and Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams & the Distants, and Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams of the Primes. Motown founder Berry Gordy knew about these groups because he was good at scouting local talent, and in 1961 he signed them to a contract. Because of previous recording contracts, Gordy told them to get a new name.
The group considered various designations and took suggestions from Motown staffers. The name that stuck was the Temptations, and Gordy approved.
Despite their obvious talent, their success was not assured. They released various singles from 1961 to 1963 without much impact. But somehow, Gordy knew that if their talent could be developed, it could be overwhelming. Al Bryant, for one, couldn’t see that and grew sullen and frustrated at the group’s lack of success. At the end of 1963, following an altercation with others in the group, he quit (or was fired).
David Ruffin, a young Mississippian (shown here in the caricature on the right), had been following the group around, hoping that one day he could join them. Bryant’s leaving gave him his chance. He had a raspy baritone that had developed in the gospel singing churches of the deep South, and he carried that power to the North. In January 1964, the Temptations recorded “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” a song co-written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers, and by April the group had broken into the top 20 on the pop charts.
Subsequent recordings were not as big, but Robinson had listened closely to the group — especially to David Ruffin — and thought he could write the perfect song for him. In December 1964, the group recorded “My Girl,” another co-written song by Robinson and Ronnie White, and by March 1965, the Temptations were at the top of the charts again.
That song became the group’s signature piece and ushered them into what is called the Temptations’ “classic period.” They had hit after memorable hit, including “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” and “You’re My Everything.”
By 1967 the Temptations, to the outside viewer, appeared to have everything going for them. Inside the group, it was a different story. Ruffin had taken the lead on so many of their hits that he felt he should get special billing and lobbied Berry to change the name to David Ruffin and the Temptations. Ruffin regularly missed practices and was becoming increasingly dependent on cocaine. Ruffin had taken up with Motown star Tammi Terrell, and his abusive behavior toward her was no secret.
By June 1968, the group had had enough and got together and fired Ruffin. In his place they hired Dennis Edwards, but Ruffin began showing up at their concerts, coming onto the stage, and grabbing the microphone from Edwards. This stunt was repeated several times until Ruffin realized that he was not going to be able to rejoin the group.
With the addition of Edwards, the Temptations ended their “classic” period and shifted to what they called “psychedelic soul,” and they continued to produce hits such as “Cloud Nine” and “I Can’t Get Next to You.” The group also had a number of successful collaborations with Diana Ross and the Supremes.
Throughout the years, the Temptations have continually changed styles and personnel, but their essential brand — highly charged music, close harmonies, and precision dance moves — has remained constant. The original Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.
See these previous posts about Motown:
Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye asked What’s Going On?
Berry Gordy began Motown with an $800 loan from his family
Martha and the Vandellas: Heat Waves, Quicksand, and but always Dancing in the Street
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