When we last commiserated on the Lounge, I was bemoaning the loss of longtime Motown Records songwriter and producer, Norman Whitfield, who died last month at the age of 68. My original plan was to pay homage to his legendary career. However, after a lengthy interior monologue I realized that without The Temptations there would be no Whitfield. And Whitfield’s impact on the Temps was equally profound. It’s no coincidence that their artistic peak paralleled his artistic peak, so thus it is that I come to celebrate not one, but two careers.
10 GREAT MOMENTS FROM NORMAN WHITFIELD & THE TEMPTATIONS
Please note that it doesn’t say “best” or “greatest.” My plan is NOT to rank the ten best songs from the Whitfield/Temps marriage, let alone offer up something as predictable as a “Greatest Hits.” If you want that, there are plenty of collections from which to choose.
What I want to do is offer a 10-song snapshot that, taken together, demonstrate the depth and breadth of a producer-artist association with few peers. This, despite the lack of such heavyweight tracks as “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball Of Confusion,” and “Just My Imagination.” The hell you say? Sure, each of those is a landmark recording, I wouldn’t argue otherwise. But, if you’ve been a Lounge Lizard for any length of time, you’ll know that I like to mix in the deep cuts with the tried and true. When all is said and done, you may be tempted to dig deeper in the group’s catalog. That’s right, I said tempted.
1. Temptations – Ain’t Too Proud To Beg
The track that kickstarted the marriage of Norman Whitfield and The Temptations. As the story goes, in 1966, company policy at Motown was that the producer with the biggest hits on an artist became the main producer for that artist. They were also given preference with regard to the release of singles. Smokey Robinson’s stellar track record producing the Temps meant that his production of “Get Ready” was released before Whitfield’s “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” While both songs topped the R&B charts, “Get Ready” stalled on the pop charts at #29, with “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” jumping all the way to #13. While Berry Gordy, Jr. wasn’t quite ready to hand over the keys to Norman Whitfield, he let him take the group on a few test drives. Four consecutive top ten singles later, The Temps were Whitfield’s full-time.
You could make a case that “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” is the best Temptations song of all-time. It’s certainly the group’s gateway track, introducing a roughness to their sound that would be evident from that point forward. David Ruffin was already a very good singer, but Whitfield’s decision to have him sing slightly out of his range was a masterstroke. His pleading vocal isn’t just good, it’s James Brown/Otis Redding great. Meanwhile, perfect accompaniment is provided by the aptly named Funk Brothers, especially the core rhythm section of drummer, Uriel Jones, bassist, James Jamerson, and percussionist, Eddie “Bongo” Brown.
2. Temptations – (Loneliness Made Me Realize) It’s You That I Need
This one’s now kind of obscure, but it was almost as big a hit single as “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” (#3 R&B; #14 pop). Led by Jamerson’s slinky bassline, Ruffin and the Temps brilliantly weave their voices around and on top of a wonderfully orchestrated melody. The song actually sounds like something The Four Tops might’ve done. The traded vocals in the final verse, especially Eddie Kendricks’ falsetto, are why I love this group. A totally underrated gem in the Temps’ catalog.
3. Temptations – I Wish It Would Rain
An absolute classic, this has so many touches that work perfectly: Ruffin’s tortured vocal, especially when he goes falsetto on “Eases the pain”; the seagull and shoreline sound effects at the beginning and the claps of thunder at the end; “Such a lovely day!”; the way the backup vocals weave together with the orchestration; the way the vocals bounce off each other at “No one will ever know that I’m crying, crying”; the way the drummer rolls on his hi-hat to mimic the sound of rain and then adds snare cracks beginning with the third verse (“Day in, day out, my tear-stained face [POP POP]”); and the “Let it rain, ooh, ooh” vocals on the outro. Perfection.
4. Temptations – He Who Picks A Rose
Speaking of underrated, this burner is buried in the grooves of the Wish It Would Rain LP and that’s too bad. Ruffin gets after it, no doubt pushed hard by the band, especially the drummer (probably Uriel Jones, but possibly longtime Funk Brother, Benny Benjamin). Jamerson shines as usual, “Bongo” Brown provides great conga work, there’s great slashing guitar throughout (probably by Joe Messina), and you gotta love the sax swells and trumpet squeals.
As for the Temps, they basically function, as they often did, as the vocal equivalent of a horn section. Ruffin’s lead vocals are spectacular — especially when he jumps up to falsetto on “HE WHO” in the chorus — but Ruffin, Kendricks, Paul Williams, Otis Williams (no relation), and down-low bass singer, Melvin Franklin layer their harmonies with such effortless and funky brilliance, it’s almost like listening to the interplay of a top shelf second line New Orleans marching band. More on this in a bit.
5. Temptations – Runaway Child, Running Wild
1968 saw a tectonic shift in The Temptations as an increasingly erratic and (surprise, surprise) cocaine-addicted, David Ruffin, would be replaced by former Contour (“Do You Love Me”), Dennis Edwards. While Edwards was no Ruffin, that’s only because Ruffin was one of the greatest soul singers ever. But Edwards was a great gospel shouter and a perfect fit for the group, both vocally and professionally. 1968 was also important because it was early in that year that Sly And The Family Stone broke through the mainstream with their first hit, “Dance To The Music.” Dubbed “psychedelic soul” by the music press, Sly showed Whitfield a way out of Berry Gordy’s “teenage symphony” comfort zone.
Whitfield’s genius was that he did “listen to the voices.” He recognized that the Sly Stone philosophy was essentially “e pluribus unum.” From many, one. Stylistically, they were a throwback to Dixieland jazz bands, the way the various singers and instruments integrated their polyphony toward a common purpose, usually the main melody.
Whitfield knew that he could adapt the Sly Stone formula to his own purposes because he already had five of the best singers in the business, ones who already worked together like a veteran horn section. However, he also made the bold move of updating the group’s sound, moving the Temps from the audio equivalent of the suburbs — i.e. the “Motown Sound” that had proven so successful, but was now verging on at least partial irrelevance — to a hip brownstone uptown. While the Temps never completely left behind “My Girl,” that girl now had an afro and listened to Parliament-Funkadelic.
“Runaway Child, Running Wild” was the second single from the Cloud Nine LP, but it’s the 9 1/2 minute album version that really turned my head around on The Temptations. In terms of lyrical content, it was rarified territory. Years before Soul Asylum would hit with a song about runaways, the Temps tackled the subject, and did so with exponentially darker results. Musically, it’s all about the slow, creeping build, almost cinematic in its resolution. Earl Van Dyke‘s organ playing is particularly haunting, with the guitars of Messina and wah-wah master, Dennis Coffey, playing off each other in a way that mirrors the counterpoint vocals. In fact, this was the first Temptations song to have no proper lead singer, featuring instead traded vocal lines in Whitfield’s brilliant distillation of the Sly Stone philosophy. And when you hear Eddie Kendricks’ voice float in at the 8:50 mark, ethereally chanting, “Oh wah hey, ah oh wah hey,” that’s the aforementioned P-Funk influence rearing its head. The irony there is that a few years earlier, George Clinton actually moved to Detroit in order to audition (unsuccessfully) for Motown as leader of The Parliaments.
Funkadelic – Music For My Mother
6. Temptations – I Can’t Get Next To You
A hit in the summer of ’69, the Temps again feature traded vocals instead of a single lead singer. Also, while ostensibly a love song, “I Can’t Get Next To You” features boasting in the verses that clearly anticipate the self-congratulation so prevalent in hip-hop a couple decades hence:
Dennis Edwards: “I can fly like a bird in the sky.”
Eddie Kendricks: “Hey, and I can buy anything that money can buy.”
Paul Williams: “I can turn a river into a raging fire.”
Melvin Franklin: “I can live forever if I so desire.”
Eddie Kendricks: “Unimportant all these things I can do, ’cause I can’t get next to you, no matter what I do.”
7. Temptations – Don’t Let The Joneses Get You Down
8. Temptations – Message From A Black Man
I’m lumping together 7 and 8 because they both come from my favorite Temptations record, Puzzle People, and feature the kind of socially conscious lyrics that were hallmarks of this era of the group. “Joneses” is a screed against materialism and jealousy that, musically speaking, is straight outta the James Brown Book of Funk. “Message From A Black Man” also references JB, specifically his hit from the previous year, “Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud.” While the slow groove is more reminiscent of P-Funk, the themes of black pride and racial equality in the lyrics explicitly nod to JB. The song also features a great Eddie Kendricks lead vocal, especially in contrast to Melvin Franklin’s “voice of God” basso profundo. Seriously, how can you not love it when he intones, “Yes, your skin is white. Does that make you right?”
9. Temptations – Hey Jude
Another track from Puzzle People and, in my opinion, a total sleeper in the group’s catalog. It’s nearly impossible for any artist to cover a song so readily identified with a specific act and make it their own. When that act is the biggest band ever, fuggedaboutit. But, that’s exactly what Whitfield and the Temptations do right from the start. The first :20 features a cacophony of boogie-woogie piano, distorted guitar, press rolls, tambourine, and celeste. Even when the vocals come in, it’s a deft combination of the group’s now-familiar lead vocal trading and subtle harmony parts. Like the original, this one builds to the singalong climax, but the Temps take Jude to church. The interplay of vocals, horns, and multiple electric guitar parts on the outro is masterful, both in terms of arrangement and production. While it may be accidental, the Temps also pay homage to the Fabs when they namecheck their own songs (“Runaway Child, Running Wild” and “Don’t Let The Joneses Get You Down”). If you’ll recall, during the coda of “All You Need Is Love,” John sings a snippet of “She Loves You.” Clever, those Temps.
10. Temptations – Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone
Despite a number of obscurities on this list, it’s bookended by a pair of classics, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” up front and on the back end, the leanest, funkiest track to ever emerge from Motown Records. “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” is arguably The Temptations’ masterpiece, one of the Funk Brothers’ finest showcases, and the final collaboration between Whitfield and longtime songwriting partner, Barrett Strong. The weird thing about “Papa” is that there’s really not a whole lot to it. It’s like Spector kryptonite and I say that, not critically, but with the highest praise possible.
Think about it: There’s that memorable bassline, a prominent hi-hat figure, some wah-wah guitar chank, another guitar picking around the melody, trumpet giving way to harp giving way to swells of strings, syncopated hand clapping, and The Temptations. I defy you to find another track that does less is more better than this. In fact, listen to this song a few times and you’ll be amazed at the sheer amount of space between the notes. Of course, if you listen to it a few times, you’ll only wanna listen to it a few more times. Good luck with that. (For the record, in terms of Motown releases, I think “Superstition” is just as funky as “Papa,” but nowhere near as stripped-down).
“Papa” would herald the end of the Whitfield/Temptations dynasty. Whitfield left Motown the following year and enjoyed a brief renaissance in 1976 when Rose Royce rode his Car Wash soundtrack to phat city. Unfortunately, commercial relevance pretty much stopped there for Whitfield. But, with his recent passing, perhaps its time to reassess not only his legacy, but The Temptations as well. Both producer and artist had hits without the other, but there’s no question that they produced their best work together. To Whitfield’s eternal credit, he was smart enough to recognize the formidable vocal range of the group and he wrote (or co-wrote) songs with those voices in mind. He was also smart enough to know that the songs he wrote and the arrangements he envisioned could be reproduced by the ungodly talented Funk Brothers.
In some ways, Whitfield’s greatest legacy was simply getting the most out of the available talent. However, the fact that one guy was the brains behind a lean, funky machine like “Papa Is A Rollin’ Stone” AND a sprawling epic like “Runaway Child, Running Wild” AND a punchy, 2 1/2 minute R&B jam like “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” is a testament to his big picture vision and artistic bona fides. I don’t think it’s overstatement to say that The Temptations’ six-year peak run from 1966-72 stands with the best six-year run of any artist in postwar American music and Norman Whitfield was the table-setter of that run.