f the notion of the Temptations as a revolutionary force in psychedelic music seems a bit far-fetched to you, you’re not alone. To most of us, mere mention of the group calls to mind their biggest hit, the oh-so-innocent “My Girl,” with its popping bass groove, finger-snaps and those sugary-sweet vocals. It also induces hideous winces. You would be hard-pressed to find a song more robbed of its essential sweetness than “My Girl”; sheer overexposure alone has left the song at the point where it’s downright irritating. If writers Smokey Robinson and Ronnie White hadn’t been made filthy rich in the process, no doubt they would have due cause to sue – it ought to be worthless by now.
But as is so often the case, there’s much more to the group’s story than what the industry would have us believe – and it’s not just “the Motown Sound,” drug habits and suicides (though there’s that). The real story of the Temptations is during their most fascinating period, the “psychedelic soul” era, without which Marvin Gaye might never have made What’s Going On? The story of how an industry that would do anything to sell a record somehow, almost comically stumbled onto making some of the most genuinely brilliant, challenging records of their time – twelve minute orchestrated soul-epics about downtrodden life in the ghetto like “Masterpiece,” “Smiling Faces Sometimes” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
And this, as they say, is their story.
In an era when any twenty-something old white male with a record collection, a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, and an ego can run a modest independent record label, it’s almost hard to comprehend what a triumph Motown was in its heyday: a black owned and operated label with an all-black roster in the middle of the most turbulent decade in America since the Civil War selling more records than virtually anyone in the world.
But in defiance of one of the great myths in popular music the fact is that Motown wasn’t really breaking down barriers in the Sixties or carrying a message to the people at all – until, that is, people like Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke made money doing it. Much of what the label produced was classic, but little of it was as groundbreaking as you’d imagine – merely professional, romantic, memorable soul music. And forty years and countless classic hits later, we’re privy to what any artist on the Motown roster could have told you at the time: label-chief Berry Gordy was less a visionary—though he was that as well—than the shrewdest of businessmen. To Gordy, selling records was the name of the game, and so his love of music, while real enough, was also just another way to move product.
And among all the artists in his stable—the Supremes, the Four Tops, “Little” Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye among them—no one was more reliable in churning out that product than his Temptations. Since their first hit in 1964, “The Way You Do the Things You Do” (produced and co-authored by Smokey Robinson), the group had reliably recorded hit after hit for the label – live albums for old folks at the Copa, duets with labelmates, the Supremes, TV specials. The Temptations were a goddamned institution.
So it was perhaps unsurprising that by 1968 the overworked band was coming apart at the seams. Troubled tenor David Ruffin, the singer of the Tempt’s signature hit, “My Girl,” was ousted after a monstrous ego and substance abuse problems caused him to miss one gig too many. Paul Williams, once the rock of the quintet, was routinely showing up at shows too drunk to sing. And the group’s squeaky clean soulful pleadings were beginning to fall out of favor with a public that was becoming increasingly interested in music that was more reflective of the tumultuous times. Groups like Sly and the Family Stone were bringing their brand of street-corner doo-wop to the Fillmore, marrying it with the military precision of James Brown’s funk, the acid-drenched wail of Jimi Hendrix and an uplifting, compelling message of unification and hope.
Things were changing fast, though from the looks of Motown, you would’ve thought it was still 1965, as the label was still cranking out the same old ballads by the busload. It didn’t take a genius to realize that approach was most definitely on the way out.
So, by association, would have been the Temptations, were it not for the talents of writer-producer wunderkind, Norman Whitfield.
By 1969, Norman Whitfield had been with Motown for seven years as a songwriter and producer, but was still a mere twenty-six years old. His stock at Motown was at an all-time high, following the success of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a song he’d written with singer-lyricist Barrett Strong, and he proved to be a hard-charger. When Gordy refused to release Whitfield’s “Grapevine” production for Gaye, Whitfield hounded his boss mercilessly, ultimately giving the label one of its biggest hits.
Whitfield had assumed full-time production duties with the Temptations in 1967, and the collaboration began somewhat tentatively with a string of Ruffin hits, like “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep.” But with Ruffin’s firing, Whitfield realized he could indulge his taste in a tougher, rougher soul sound, typified by Ruffin’s husky-voiced replacement, Dennis Edwards.
Still, no one could have predicted that Whitfield would throw the Temptations something as shockingly un-Temptations-like and altogether unprecedented at Motown as “Cloud Nine.” Aided by the label’s cream-of-the-crop session men like the Funk Brothers, the song was a stomping, psychedelic masterpiece, featuring stinging wah-wah guitars, ringing Hammond organ and a lyric unmistakably about pharmacological escape from the ghetto. “Cloud Nine” may have struck many as a shameless attempt to re-ingratiate the group with a public that was rapidly losing interest, but it was undeniable to all but the most hardened of soul fans and, thus, a hit.
And on the subsequent full-length of the same name, it was apparent that the gambit was paying dividends both artistically and commercially for Gordy. The first side of Cloud Nine would prove to be the first of Whitfield’s many suites that the Tempts recorded over the next six years. Comprised of the title track, the surprisingly brisk and robotic funk of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and the nine-and-a-half minute epic, “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” Cloud Nine expanded on the single’s innovations, featuring extended, orchestral funk arrangements, socially-conscious lyrics and, for a group that had always been viciously competitive about who sung what, shared lead vocals. Compared to their records of old, the contrast with Cloud Nine couldn’t have been starker.
Suddenly the Temptations—has-beens, only a few months earlier—were relevant.
Back on the charts, one only needs to look at the cover of 1969’s Puzzle People to get an idea how serious the Temptations were about continuing their new direction: paisley muumuus, headbands, tough street corner scowls – it was as if the group had purchased a Jimi Hendrix starter kit. Such shameless pandering ought to have produced the music crass, insincere bandwagon-jumping at its basest level.
Temptations!, member Otis Williams’ imaginatively titled memoir, would seem to reinforce that conclusion. In the book, Williams dubiously claims it was he who introduced a disinterested Whitfield to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance To the Music,” only for Whitfield to bring in “Cloud Nine” a few weeks later and admit “You were right” (though it should be noted here that much of Williams’ book involves the singer recounting the large quantities of women he’d laid over the years). Boasts aside, it is safe to assume that Gordy corporate staffers like Whitfield and Strong were keenly aware of what was playing with the kids by the time Williams came to them, though it may have been due more to business acumen than personal taste – after all, Strong’s greatest claim to fame by 1969 was the materialist classic, “Money (That’s What I Want).”
But look past the B-grade Johnny Bravo look and shameless pandering and you’ll find that Whitfield was continuing to reinvent the Temptations with increasing returns creatively. Though nearly all of the Temptations’ psychedelic soul records are laden with anonymous filler—as was every Motown record—each would prove a musical, lyrical and conceptual advancement over the last.
Such was the case with Puzzle People. The record featured the refinement of Strong-Whitfield's “message” songs, including the ominous “Message From a Black Man,” with its dialogue about the inevitability of racial equality between the Melvin Franklin's booming baritone and Eddie Kendricks' soaring falsetto over another distorted Hammond organ drone. With an endlessly repeating cotton-field coda, “No matter how hard you try/You can't stop me now” rendered a capella, the song had a steely power that sent an unmistakable message that the fight for civil rights had turned a dark, unsettling corner in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination.
Elsewhere Puzzle People found the group getting down with sociopolitical barbershop on “Don't Let The Joneses Get You Down,” but it was with the record’s furious closer, “Slave,” that the Temptations’ collaboration with Strong-Whitfield hit its stride. Over a backdrop that predated the afro-funk sound of Miles Davis' On the Corner three years later, “Slave” found Kendricks spinning a dark tale about doing time, punctuated by bleats from a wah-wah guitar before its drawn-out coda built to a ferocious Funk Brothers fuzz-guitar climax panning the speakers from left to right. Particularly given the rising tensions over the increasing control over the group's direction by Whitfield, (who was, in turn, flaunting his creative freedom before Gordy), “Slave” was a fascinating end to the album.
As a successful producer and songwriter, Norman Whitfield was using his considerable capital. And much to Berry Gordy’s delight, he was making it pay.
Ironic though it may seem, the Temptations had more in common with another vocal group from their era than one might imagine. Already, with “Message From a Black Man,” the Temptations had strangely, if unintentionally, echoed the chant-song with which Brian Wilson was experimenting contemporaneously during the Smile-era recordings. But the similarities with the Beach Boys went well beyond the musical.
To catch up with the times, each were experimenting wildly—one cynically, the other voraciously—with psychedelia. Regardless of merit, the fit couldn’t have been more awkward for two groups who had come up in a time when smarter, more talented people told you what to do, how to sing, dance and dress. Back then, music with a good beat made them tons of money and didn’t hurt for scoring with chicks on the road. For the members, young and largely uneducated, there wasn’t much not to like about this kind of arrangement.
So when times began to change and tastes with them, most of the band members were less than enthusiastic about deviating from the formula. To both, psychedelia seemed by comparison pretentious, too dark and, above all, kind of phony. The Temptations—particularly Kendricks—wanted to go back to singing ballads, and the Beach Boys, well, they just wanted to go back.
But deviate from the formula they both did – much to their dismay. Such disdain would ultimately be a key component of what was becoming a fascinating musical tension within both groups, one in which the decidedly square doo-wop and barbershop of old was being fused onto arrangements most of the members never imagined or understood.
Neither did they understand or really accept the limitations of their gifts – that they were singers, nothing more. It was a reaction largely symptomatic of the times. Until the Beatles, groups in the Sixties were almost entirely at the mercy of their record labels. Few were used to having the option of any artistic control, much less artistic control itself. But with acts like Stevie Wonder and Ike Turner assuming increasing business and musical responsibilities in the latter part of the decade, it was easy to understand why the old guard like the Temptations might be at least mildly jealous of their contemporaries – to think that their experience in the industry made them somehow superior.
Unlike the Beach Boys, such hubris never resulted in the Temptations attempting to write and produce their own material. They knew full well they had no Brian Wilson in their ranks. But despite a revitalized career, charting singles and plenty of cash money flowing in, they were frustrated, and not everyone within the Temptations’ camp was thrilled by Whitfield, who was showing up hours late to recording sessions and increasingly pushing their voices into the background of his complex productions.
Still, most of the Temptations came to accept that they had become Norman Whitfield's band. The songs they were recording were his. The label liked the results. And with the contracts signed, that was that.
And really, Whitfield was only getting started.
As the Sixties drew to a close and the “hands-across-America” feeling with it, overtly psychedelic music was clearly on the outs. Still, that didn’t stop the Motown machine from squeezing one last nugget from the genre. And in typical Whitfield fashion, 1970’s Psychedelic Shack turned out to be one of their best. Opening with one of the group’s most enduring, if hamhandedly goofy singles, the supremely funky title track concerned a place “just across the track” with “bear skin rugs, tails and beads” where “you can learn the meaning of soul.” Strong’s “free your mind” rhetoric may have been laughably unconvincing, but with Whitfield’s steaming production and a chest-beating lead from Dennis Edwards, “Psychedelic Shack” would become another instant classic.
It was as if Whitfield-Strong were emptying their bag of hippie rhetoric tracks, with “Friendship Train” and the endless “Take A Stroll Through Your Mind,” all echoed vocal and walking bass. The latter’s lysergic ode even recontextualized “My Girl’s” “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day” in a way most probably hadn’t imagined.
At the same time, Whitfield had begun to refine a leaner, less overtly psychedelic approach, more reflective of more contemporary sounds and concerns, not unlike Curtis Mayfield’s debut album. Strong’s lyrics were sharper and less studied, incorporating sermon-esque tones straight from the church, while Whitfield was consumed with a sound that captured the tumultuous soul of the ghetto: angular, exploding string arrangements and wailing ensemble vocals, like those on “You Make Your Own Heaven And Hell Right Here On Earth.”
Best of all was the epochal non-album single, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today).” The song described a world hitherto discussed by no Motown act in such blatantly political terms:
Shooting rockets to the moon
Kids growing up too soon
Politicians say more taxes, will solve everything
And the band played on
With its topical, clever references (“Unemployment rising fast/The Beatles new record's a gas”), loping, persistent groove and irresistible hook, “Ball of Confusion” deserved its classic status, and once again reminded how squarely, bizarrely, placed the group was in the middle of the sociopolitical zeitgeist.
By 1971, however, the group was learning their songs’ grim lessons for themselves. Paul Williams’ drinking had gotten so dire that the group had replacement Richard Streets literally waiting in the wings of concerts, singing parts offstage while Williams stumbled around onstage with his mic turned down. He would soon be gone. And Eddie Kendricks, the sweet, high falsetto of the group, was becoming increasingly sickened by Whitfield’s psychedelic explorations and spent much of his time angling to bolt for a solo career in which he hoped he could indulge his taste in sugary ballads.
He would get that opportunity right before he left, however. “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” from Sky’s the Limit, would prove not only Kendricks’ and Paul Williams’ swan song but also one of the group’s biggest hits, the former’s delicate vocal awash in lush strings and bolstered by latter’s stirring gospel bridge – essentially the last melody either would sing with the group. Kendricks would leave for illusory greener pastures soon thereafter, essentially singing the same kind of music he sang with his former group to modest success. And within two years, founding member and soul of the Temptations, Paul Williams, would be found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Though “Just My Imagination” was Sky’s the Limit’s big hit, its gem was “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” a song that hit the charts for The Undisputed Truth, with whom Whitfield had been test-driving many of the Temptations’ cuts. In both versions, “Smiling Faces” was a brilliant cautionary tale about the allure of corporate power. But the Temptations’ take took on an added dimension: when Kendricks sang, “Beware of the handshake/That hides a snake” with a shaker imitating a snake’s rattle, it was almost as if Whitfield and Strong were mocking Gordy and the group’s blind allegiance to him. “Smiling Faces,” twelve-and-a-half minutes of an ever-building crescendo of dread, wah-wah guitars, orchestral flourishes, also laid the groundwork for perhaps the biggest hit of the band’s psychedelic soul era and quite possibly the Temptations’ most perfect song.
Though familiarity may have dulled some of its impact, “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” in its original edit, remains a powerful eleven-and-a-half minutes – shockingly so, really. Its production built from a sole insistent hi-hat to a soaring orchestral-funk workout, replete with echoed trumpet fanfare and dive-bombing strings, call and response vocals and syncopated handclaps drenched in reverb. Who knows if he had any idea of the song’s existence, but Lee Perry surely would’ve approved.
But if “Papa” was where Whitfield’s production reached its apex, it was Strong’s lyrics that made the song an enduring classic. Leaving long behind calls for climbing aboard the friendship train and dropping in at the psychedelic shack, “Papa’s” lyrics told a bleak tale of a family reunion in which brothers talk to their mother about their cad of a father who was never around. The brothers only knew him through rumors about him being a womanizing drunk who never worked a day in his life, hiding behind God, and, depressingly, choosing another wife and “outside children” over them. Witness:
Talked about saving souls and all the time leaching.
Dealing in debt and stealing in the name of the Lord.
As striking as Strong’s language is for its chilling content, what gives the song its resonance is their mother’s completely defeated response:
"Papa was a rolling stone, my son.
Wherever he laid his hat was his home.
(And when he died) All he left us was alone."
The song became an instant classic, though the group didn’t want to record it at first. Nothing was more telling than the story that Dennis Edwards initially refused to sing the song because “Papa” had died on “the third of September” – the same day his own father passed away.
“Papa Was A Rolling Stone” was so cutting edge—so real—it became a number one hit – the Temptations’ last.
By 1973, Norman Whitfield should have been sitting pretty in his massive afro. Only thirty, the songwriter producer had numerous hits and classics to his name, complete control over arguably the most popular soul band in the world, and publishing royalties that set him up for life. Sure, he had ruffled some feathers along the way, at one point actually replacing legendary Funk Brother, James Jamerson, when the Motown super-bassist refused to simplify his lines to the point of monotonous repetition. But it was hard to argue with the kind of success he’d had.
Still, the arrangement was beginning to lose its allure for the producer. Whitfield had continued using the Undisputed Truth as his laboratory for Temptations tracks to the dismay of both bands, who each wanted the material for themselves. It didn’t help that Strong had left Motown the previous year, leaving him without a writing partner.
He rose to the challenge with the brilliant Masterpiece and 1990 (both 1973) – the former perhaps his finest song cycle yet, free of filler with six extended songs of taut urban grit. Even though both records would find Whitfield excelling at what he’d done best with the Temptations, by then, innovation was giving way to refinement and sales were slipping. Perhaps the final straw with the band was when the back cover of Masterpiece featured a picture of Whitfield that was even larger than that of the band. Something had to give.
Soon after 1990, something would, and Whitfield departed Motown and the Temptations to start his own “Whitfield Records,” its logo essentially Motown’s upside down: an embroidered “W.” For one of pop’s great geniuses, Whitfield’s post-Temptations output wasn’t much more innovative than the logo; he would write and produce several albums and the kitsch-funk classic, “Car Wash,” for Rose Royce and disappear.
Meanwhile the Temptations themselves would sail back into the dinner-club circuit from whence they came for much of the ensuing two decades as the obligatory oldies act. Already having lost Paul Williams to suicide in 1973, by the mid-Nineties, Otis Williams would be the only original Temptation alive to ride the gravy train.
As with so many other bands, theirs was a slow, painful and depressing exit from the stage. And like those, it’s not a point worth considering very long. Far better to focus on the fact that, having made history once already under Smokey Robinson’s tutelage, the Temptations work with Norman Whitfield beat considerable odds in that they arguably participated in an even more important direction, one that spoke to an entirely different generation. Even with their eventual decline, it was enough to redefine the very notion of what a pop career, its direction and arc should look like.
The temptation to believe that it all happened more or less by accident only underscores how exceptional the Temptations’ moment truly was. It’s to Norman Whitfield’s credit that the successful producer took that opportunity not merely to net himself a few more hits, but instead to transform the group into a powerful, relevant hit-making machine that flouted radio conventions and chronicled America’s uneasy transition from the upheaval of the Sixties into the cultural stagnation that followed.
Sky’s the limit, indeed.
Thirty years on, amidst a soul-funk revival of sorts, it’s downright odd that the Temptations’ psychedelic soul period remains obscure and difficult to find. While lesser talents like Shuggie Otis have received what’s akin to a hero’s welcome upon their records’ reissue, there remains only one compilation of the band work with Whitfield from the era. What’s worse, Motown’s treatment of their catalog has been spotty at best. Though most are available on import two-fers (with Masterpiece appallingly edited to fit on one CD with A Song For You), two of the records, 1972’s so-so Solid Rock and the impressive 1990, remain completely out of print.
For starters, there’s Psychedelic Soul (Spectrum 2000), which compiles 18 songs from the era, but presents many of the longer tracks on which Whitfield truly excelled in an unfortunately edited form. But until there exists a comprehensive 2-CD collection with the original full-length versions, the collection presents as good an introduction to the era as exists.
Beyond that, you’re stuck with buying the records individually, which admittedly have a fair amount of Motown filler. It’s mitigated a bit by the fact that they’re mostly two-fers, the best of which is probably Cloud Nine/Puzzle People, featuring the unedited “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” the burning “I Can’t Get Next To You,” and a suitably flanged-out treatment of the Isley’s “It’s Your Thing.”
There’s also Psychedelic Shack/All Directions, which is the only place to find the full-length “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” and “Run Charlie Run,” with its memorable chorus “The niggers are comin’, the niggers are comin’!” as well as the aforementioned Song For You/Masterpiece CD, which mercilessly hacks the latter. With incredible polyrhythmic workouts like “Law of the Land” and “Hurry Up Tomorrow,” you’re best to find the vinyl or an import of Masterpiece alone.
Perhaps the best individual record available (albeit not filler-free) is Sky’s The Limit, which features not only the twelve-minute “Smiling Faces Sometimes” and “Just My Imagination” but also the ferociously swinging gospel of “Love Can Be Anything” and “Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite the World),” which includes monstrous fuzz-guitar power chords and a wailing harp.
Past these, there’s always our little friend called the Internet.
By: Matthew Weiner
Published on: 2003-02-03