One of the most important acts to come out of the 20th century is the R&B/soul vocal group the Temptations. In terms of influence, the Temptations are often compared to the Beatles – what the Fab Four are to pop and rock, the Temptations are to soul and R&B. The Temptations are not only known for their vocal prowess and musical versatility but also for their choreography talents.
Two rival groups becoming one
The legendary group’s origins hailed in Detroit, Michigan. The Temptations were a formation of two (friendly) rival local groups, the Distants and the Primes. The Distants were composed of Otis Williams, Elbridge Bryant (aka El or Al) and Melvin Franklin — they recorded a handful of singles for the Northern label, a local imprint.
Meanwhile, another vocal group The Primes came to Detroit from their hometown in Alabama. They consisted of Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams (not related to Otis, by the way) and Kell Osborne. The Primes found some success, to the point that their manager even formed a four-piece sister counterpart of the Primes, the Primettes (which included three of the singers Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, who went on to form The Supremes).
The Primes disbanded in 1960 after Osborne quit and went to California. Following the breakup, Kendricks and Paul Williams returned to Alabama. Otis Williams needed two more members to audition for Motown, and Kendricks responded to the former’s call, with the condition that Paul Williams should go with him. Otis Williams agreed and so Kendricks and Paul Williams returned to Detroit and joined the new group, which also included Bryant and Franklin. They initially called themselves The Elgins, and finally changed it to The Temptations.
They eventually signed with Motown’s subsidiary label Gordy, and then released their first few singles. They finally broke onto the singles charts with 1962’s “Dream Come True” which peaked at #22 on the R&B singles chart. Bryant quit (or was fired) after engaging in a physical altercation with Paul Williams. Bryant was replaced by David Ruffin. Singer/songwriter/producer Smokey Robinson started to helm the group. After those changes, The Temptations’ fortunes had begun to turn around for the better.
Successful run on the charts throughout the 60s and 70s
In 1964, they achieved their first #1 R&B hit and first big pop hit “The Way You Do the Things You Do” which also went to #11 on the Hot 100. It was the first of the band’s string of thirty-or-so Top 10 hits.
Under Smokey Robinson’s direction, The Temptations rose to become one of the most successful groups during that era. They scored a bunch of big hits such as “My Girl” (#1 pop, #1 R&B), “It’s Growing” (#18 pop, #3 R&B), “Since I Lost My Baby” (#17 pop, #4 R&B), “My Baby” (#13 pop, #4 R&B), and finally, “Get Ready” (#29 pop, #1 R&B). Then the group went to a new breed of songwriters/producers Norman Whitfield and Brian Holland Jr. Since then The Temptations ditched the smooth sounds they had while they were with Robinson for something with a more hard-edge sound.
The Temptations continued to fly high on the charts with “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (#13 pop, #1 R&B), “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep” (#3 pop, #1 R&B), “(I Know) I’m Losing You” (#8 pop, #1 R&B), “All I Need” (#8 pop, #2 R&B), “You’re My Everything” (#6 pop, #3 R&B), “(Loneliness Made Me Realize) It’s You That I Need” (#14 pop, #1 R&B), “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)” (#13 pop, #1 R&B), and “Please Return Your Love to Me” (#26 pop, #4 R&B).
As the 1960s were drawing into a close, The Temptations attempted to adopt the psychedelic musical climate, and also tried to get their political messages across as well, with much success. In 1968 Ruffin was fired by the group, to be replaced by Dennis Edwards, former member of the Contours. It was evidenced by the singles “Cloud Nine” (#6 pop, #1 R&B), “Don’t Let The Joneses Get You Down” (#20 pop, #2 R&B). 1969’s “I Can’t Get Next to You” was their final #1 hit (on both pop and R&B) for the decade.
Final years at Motown
On to the early 1970s, The Temptations still kept their psychedelic/political songs on the charts with “Psychedelic Shack” (#7 pop, #2 R&B) and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” (#3 pop, #2 R&B). They still retained their ballads material such as the #1 pop and R&B smash in 1971, “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).” Soon, Kendricks and then Williams quit the group (Williams, 34, committed suicide through a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1973. He had been plagued by personal problems, health and alcoholism for a long time). Damon Harris and Richard Street came to replace the two former members.
Throughout the 1970s, The Temptations were still very much relevant on the charts, scoring hits. They include “Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)” (#18 pop, #8 R&B), “Take a Look Around” (#30 pop, #10 R&B), “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” (#1 pop, #5 R&B), “Masterpiece” (#7 pop, #1 R&B), “Hey Girl (I Like Your Style), (#35 pop, #2 R&B), “Let Your Hair Down” (#27 pop, #1 R&B), and “Shakey Ground” (#26 pop, #1 R&B), among others.
Harris left in 1975, to be replaced by Glenn Leonard. The following year The Temptations released their final album on Motown, The Temptations Do the Temptations. During their Motown stint, The Temptations had scored fourteen albums that topped the R&B album charts, and eight albums that went to the Top Ten of the Billboard 200.
In 1977, Dennis Edwards also left and was replaced by Louis Price, before the group signed to Atlantic Records, and released only two albums there: Here to Tempt You (1977) and Bare Back (1978), which showed their attempt to enter into the popular disco genre. However, Edwards soon returned to the lineup, leading to Price quitting the group.
Return to Motown, and the Temptations in recent years
In 1980, The Temptations marked their return to Motown with the single “Power” (#43 pop, #23 dance, #11 R&B). In 1982 Ruffin and Kendricks briefly returned for their “Reunion” tour; during the tour they also recorded a studio album also titled Reunion, which also featured the then-current Temptations members.
Since then The Temptations have been touring, now as an oldies/revivalist act. Only original member Otis Williams remained active in the more updated lineup. Ruffin died in 1992, Kendricks in 1995. In 2000, their album Ear-Resistible won them their third Grammy, this time for Best Traditional Vocal Performance. Under the New Door label, they released a couple of albums Reflections (2006) andBack to Front (2007); and their latest album to date Still Here (2010) this time on the 10/30 International label.
The Temptations — the classic lineup consisted of Edwards, Franklin, Kendricks, Ruffin, Otis Williams and Paul Williams — were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. They were also inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999.