The Temptations - Biography
By Lee Hildebrand
The Temptations stand tall as the top vocal group in R&B history. Between 1965 and 1989, the all-male Detroit quintet chocked up a total of 43 Top 10 singles on Billboard’s R&B chart, 14 of them reaching #1. Although the group has gone through numerous personnel changes over the years, it is best remembered for the classic 1963-68 lineup comprising Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Otis Williams, Paul Williams, and Melvin Franklin. Otis Williams, the only original member from that period who is still living, remains with the group.
While growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Kendricks and Paul Williams were drawn to the gospel-infused sounds of Clyde McPhatter’s doo-wop act, The Drifters. The two dropped out of high school and started up a singing group with childhood friends Kell Osborne and Wiley Waller called The Cavaliers. They moved to Cleveland, Ohio at first, and later to Detroit, Michigan, in 1956, at the urging of manager Milton Jenkins. Waller dropped out of the group and remained behind, but the remaining trio of Williams, Osborne and Kendricks became known as The Primes. They were a choreographed group, and made waves locally, enough so that Jenkins recruited a female counterpart—The Primettes, featuring Diane (later Diana) Ross—to share local reengagements.
The Primettes emerged as one of Motown’s biggest female vocal groups, The Supremes, while Kendricks and Paul Williams joined up with Otis Williams (unrelated to Paul), Melvin Franklin, and Elbridge Bryant—all of them members of another Jenkins-managed group, The Distants. The quintet would soon be known as The Elgins, and upon signing with Motown in 1961, they were rechristened The Temptations. Bryant left in 1963 and was replaced by tenor David Ruffin, formerly of The Dixie Nightingales. This is the line-up that would break-through as one of the most renowned singing groups of all time, and help solidify the Motown sound.
The Temptations’ first two singles were issued on Miracle, an early Motown subsidiary, after which they were placed on the company’s Gordy label—named after Motown founder, Berry Gordy. It wasn’t until their seventh single, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” that they hit it big. The song was penned and produced by Smokey Robinson, and it reached #11 on Billboard’s pop chart while shooting up to #1 on the Cash Box R&B chart. (Billboard didn’t publish R&B charts between November 30, 1963, and January 23, 1965.)
“Don’t Look Back,” the b-side of 1965’s “My Baby,” was one of the rare Temptations songs to feature Paul Williams and charted at #15 R&B. The singer, born in Birmingham on July 2, 1939, crafted the group’s trademark dance steps, including the Temptation Walk, in collaboration with veteran choreographer Cholly Atkins.
“The Way You Do the Things You Do” was the first in a series of Kendricks-led hits for The Temptations, an accomplished list that includes “Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)” (1964), “Get Ready” (1966, #1 R&B), “Please Return Your Love to Me” (1968), and “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” (1971), which hit #1 on both the R&B and pop charts. The gossamer falsetto specialist Kendricks also shared leads with Ruffin on “You’re My Everything” (1967) and with Ruffin’s replacement, Dennis Edwards on “Cloud Nine” (1968), “Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down” (1969), “I Can’t Get Next to You” (which went to #1 on both R&B and pop charts), and “Psychedelic Shack” (1970). He would later sing with Diana Ross on “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (1968), which climbed to #2 on the R&B and pop charts.
Ruffin, whose intense, elastic tenor/baritone delivery reflected his gospel quartet roots, sang lead on such chart-topping hits as “My Girl” (1965), “It’s Growing” (1965), “Since I Met You Baby” (1965), “My Baby” (1965), “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (1966, #1 R&B), “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep” (1966, #1 R&B), “(I Know) I’m Losing You” (1966, #1 R&B), “(Loneliness Made Me Realize) It’s You That I Need” (1967), “I Wish It Would Rain”(1968, #1 R&B, #4 pop), and “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)” (1968, #1 R&B) before leaving in 1968 for what would be a spotty solo career. His most successful solo recordings were 1969’s “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)” and 1975’s “Walk Away from Love,” which went to #1 on the R&B charts. Both were on Motown.
Robinson served as The Temptations’ main producer through 1966’s Gettin’ Ready (Motown), after which Norman Whitfield was placed at the creative driving wheel. The arrival of former Contours lead Dennis Edwards, taking the place of Ruffin, coincided with a change in stylistic course. Having come under the spell of Sly Stone’s psychedelic soul sounds, Whitfield fashioned a more complex vocal web for the quintet and, in collaboration with Barrett Strong, composed such hits as the aforementioned “Cloud Nine,” “Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” and 1970’s “Psychedelic Shack.”
He also composed the #1 R&B chart-topper “Runaway Child, Running Wild” (1969), “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” (1970), and the smash hit, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (1972), which went to #1 on the pop charts. Without Strong, Whitfield wrote “Masterpiece” (1973) and the Edwards-led “Let Your Hair Down” (1973), both of which peaked at #1 on the R&B charts that year.
Kendricks left The Temps in 1972, having become displeased with what he called Whitfield’s “weird, funky sounds.” He went on to score three #1 R&B solo hits between 1973-1975—“Keep on Truckin’,” “Boogie Down,” and “Shoeshine Boy,” all on Motown’s Tamla label—before fading into relative obscurity. He died of lung cancer on October 5, 1992.
Whitfield left Motown in 1974 to start his own label with Warner Bros., and the move was thought to be a blow to The Temptations’ steady chart run. However, The Temps hit the top of the R&B charts twice later that year with “Happy People” and “Shakey Ground” from the funkier A Song For You album (1975 Motown). Both tracks featured Edwards and were produced by Jeffrey Bowen and Berry Gordy Jr.
Leaving Motown in 1977, The Temptations made four singles and released two albums for Atlantic in 1977 and ’78—Bare Back and Hear To Tempt You, which had Louis Price featured as a member in the place of the recently departed Dennis Edwards—neither of which were very successful. They returned to Motown in 1980.
Ruffin and Kendricks briefly rejoined The Temptations for a 1982 reunion album and tour. They also appeared on that year’s “Standing on the Top,” featuring guest Rick James, nephew of bass singer Melvin Franklin. The funk star had used The Temps a year prior as backup singers on his Motown hit “Super Freak.” As a duo, Ruffin and Kendricks had two minor hit singles in 1987 and 1988.
Ruffin had a long history of drug abuse and died under mysterious circumstances on June 1, 1991. Sadly, Paul Williams suffered from depression, sickle-cell anemia, and alcoholism and spent much of the final two years as a Temptation dancing with the group as he lip-synched parts sung from behind a curtain by Richard Street, formerly of The Distants. Williams left The Temps in April 1971 and died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on August 17, 1973.
Richard Street became an official Temptation in 1971 and was the featured lead singer on the 1973 #2 R&B pop hit “Hey Girl (I Like Your Style).” He remained with the group through 1992. Theo Peoples took his place through 1998, the year he led The Temps on “Stay,” a #1 hit on Billboard’s adult contemporary chart. Peoples was replaced by Barrington “Bo” Henderson, who in turn was replaced in 1997 by G.C. Cameron. The former Spinners lead left in 2007, and his duties were assumed by Bruce Williamson.
Kendricks’ successor as the group’s first tenor was Ricky Owens, formerly of The Vibrations, but his tenure lasted only a few weeks. The part was subsequently sung by Damon Harris (1971-75), former Unifics member Glenn Leonard (1975-83), and former Ethics and Love Committee member Ron Tyson (1983-present).
Edwards was in and out of the group during the ’70s and ’80s, but his alleged unprofessional behavior and undependability led group leader Otis Williams to fire him on three separate occasions. Edwards tenures ran from 1968-1977, 1980-1984, and 1987-1989. The vocalist launched a rival group, originally known as Dennis Edwards & The Temptations, in the early 1990s but changed the name to The Temptations Review (sic) Featuring Dennis Edwards following a drawn-out legal battle with Otis Williams.
Edwards’ role as The Temps main lead was filled by Louis Price from 1977 to 1980 and by Ali-Ollie Woodson from 1984 to 1987 and again from 1989 to 1997. Woodson was featured on his own composition, “Treat Her Like a Lady” (1984), as well as on “Lady Soul” (1986), which went to #4 on the R&B charts. He shared the lead with Rod Stewart on “The Motown Song,” a 1991 Warner Bros. single by Stewart featuring The Temptations. “The Motown Song” was the final Temptations recording to reach the Top 10 on either the pop or R&B chart.
Terry Weeks took Woodson’s place in 1997 and has remained a member of The Temptations.
Melvin Franklin, who was born as David English in Montgomery, Alabama, on October 12, 1942, anchored The Temptations’ harmonies with his deep, richly resonant bass voice from the beginning. Ill health forced him to stop touring in 1994 and he died the following year after suffering a brain seizure. In 1995, his spot in The Temptations was filled by Harry McGilberry, and later by Joe Herndon, formerly of The Spaniels, in 2003.
Otis Williams, who was born Otis Miles in Texarkana, Texas, on October 30, 1941, remains The Temptations’ leader and spokesperson. His book, Temptations (1988), was used as the basis of The Temptations, a four-hour television drama first broadcast in 1998 by NBC and subsequently issued on VHS and DVD.
The Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. At the ceremony, they performed “Don’t Look Back” in tribute to the late Paul Williams.
Ten of the group’s albums placed in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Top 200 pop chart: The Temptations Greatest Hits (1966 Gordy) peaking at #5, Temptations Live! (1967 Gordy) at #10, The Temptations with a Lot O’ Soul (1967 Gordy) at #7, Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations (1968 Motown) at #2, TCB (1968 Motown, also with The Supremes) at #1, Cloud Nine (1969 Gordy) at #4, Puzzle People (1969 Gordy) at #5, Psychedelic Shack (1970 Gordy) at #9, All Directions (1972 Gordy) at #2, and Masterpiece (1973 Gordy) at #7.
The Temptations recordings have been anthologized in many different configurations, including the 109-song, five-CD Emperors of Soul (1994 Motown), the 45-song, two-CD Anthology: The Best of The Temptations (1995 Motown), the single disc, 21-song The Temptations: The Ultimate Collection (1997 Motown), and the double disc, 36-song The Temptations: Gold (2005 Motown). is His