The Temptations are among the greatest of the mid-century masters of Sweetness. Though many of their tunes have been Big Chilled into the innocuous background music of baby boomer middle-age, believe it or not, in those early years, their process headed, tight suit wearin’, lean, street dressin’ was as scary-sexy to older, middle class white (and even black) audiences then, as Hip-hop acts are today.
But unlike the current objects of mainstream fascination/repulsion, there was a subtle yet powerful tension created by the apparent paradox of their “fast-life” personae and their pleading, cajoling declarations of love lost and found.
The search for and promise of lifelong devotion – the “Dream Come True” – emanated from these men – the “New Negro” men of those times.
They had roots in the rural South with new lives in the industrial North, like the dudes on the corner of 12th and Pingree – mouth-rolling toothpicks, stingy-brimmed hats cocked “ace-duce”; with a new icy attitude called “cool“ designed to hide the stress and tension of a new kind of hard, urban life.
They were not at all like the previous generation of singers – say the Mills Brothers with their harmonic, wholesome crooning, or the Drifters’ doo-wop paeans to love. Despite Berry Gordy’s polishing and presentation, the Temps looked, on the one hand, like street-corner hustlers – hostile and inscrutable; and on the other, like stolid, dependable brotha’s hitting the clock on the afternoon shift at Chrysler.
Lead singer David Ruffin wore thick, gumpy glasses and STILL looked cool. Up to that time, most singers would rather go on stage stumbling half blind, rather than appear with specs – especially the thick, awkward frames of those times.
He doubtless proved a blessing to the optometry business in the ‘hood back then; my little brother was finally convinced that our genetic nearsightedness was not the end of the world, once the girls said he looked like Ruffin.
Paul Williams, who always felt, to us, like the “soul of the group”. He sang “Don’t Look Back” at the Michigan State Fair, and, in the audience, my Mom and I watched the tears run down his face with unabashed emotion on the “The Impossible Dream” – a lounge cliche when sung by others, but for him, it was a stirring Negro anthem for those hot-house Civil Rights days and times.
The cool, basso profundo of Melvin Franklin made us – kids of the sixties – accept “Old Man River” as more than an anachronistic river-boat song; but an ode to the South of our fathers, a remembrance of Delta days as Black men toiled in their new, Northern cities. Eddie Kendricks sang “like a woman” in his career falsetto, yet the songs he led were the fanciful poesy of black male loving that established the group from the beginning.
“The way you swept me off my feet, you know you could ‘a been a broom
The way you smell so sweet, you know you could ‘a been some perfume”*
In this song, “The Way You Do the Things You Do, written by Smokey Robinson, Eddie had a voice so limber that the word “feet” in the stanza above had five syllables. His voice was always gossamer, fairy light, and he was known to be a quiet, gentle man, yet he could look like the dude on the corner who might cut you, with his lean 12th street looks and brotha’ on the corner stance.
When I was a child, the Temptations and the kings and queens of Motown rode the streets of Detroit like a magic carpet, driving Easter egg colored Cadillacs, wearing suits in matching pastels.We’d see the Supremes shopping at J.L. Hudsons, or the Miracles at a school dance. I remember the Originals singing “Baby I’m For Real” at the Arcadia skating rink on Woodward Ave. Everyone had someone they knew who was “one of the Temptations cousins” or “my sister-in-law’s brother’s uncle’s friend”- or some other convoluted degree of Motown separation that was emblematic of Detroit’s connection to our homegrown heroes. The “made for TV” movie about the Temptations has become an urban classic, but it in no way does it capture the edgy, gifted complexity of the group, or the times.
The Temps had the look of both the hustler on the corner and the auto worker, sugar-sharp at a union hall cabaret. Kendricks and Ruffin, lithe and cold-blooded, the rest – and their replacements – proletarian thick and church deacon sharp. They were reflections of the new factory Black men – sweet enough to talk up on a woman, “game” enough to catch her – and with money enough to keep her comfortable, Detroit style – in a large brick home with two sharp cars.
Only years, faded memories, and mainstream acceptance have rendered the Temps’ music into innocuous the oldies of soft-bellied men. For they were saber-sharp back in the day, and behind the scenes a few were as edgy and difficult as many a rapper of today.
One does not have to dig deep into their discography for songs that have not been worn into tiresome oldies, but in addition to their many lush B sides and lesser known hits, there’s “Temptations in a Mellow Mood”, an unusual collection of show tunes and standards. One song on this unlikely album that I’ll never forget features Eddie Kendricks’ glistening lead on “Try to Remember” from – of all things – the musical “The Fantasticks”, which he turns into his own beautiful, wistful beckoning to remembrance.
All too many of today’s young Black men cannot experience the virture of “sweetness” and the musicality that came from an urban culture that had as its cornerstone the church, and the security – or at least the possibility – of a “good” job and a nice car to boot. There are few economic enticements to bolster their appeals to love. Unlike during Motown’s early days, the music of all too many of today’s young men does not allow for such vulnerability —there is no job at Ford (or Chrysler or GM – or anywhere at all, for many) in their future – in the same way that there was in those long gone Detroit days.
Today, pride, anger and machismo alone – morphing all too often into violence – must suffice as a facsimile of manhood, for all too many young men.
The Temptations and other sweet-singing groups of their times reflected a generation of young Black men freed from the defacto shackles of the Southern sharecropping life. Their new, quasi-affluence on the assembly-lines of urban Detroit permitted them the luxury of the glorification of romance. The end of that industrial domination marked the end of that sweetness.
Dennis Edwards, who lead the group in it’s first Grammy win, was the next inheritor of the lead voice after David Ruffin’s exit from the Temptations. Edwards can be said to personify the shift in not only the group, but the urban culture as a whole; for not only were love songs a part of his legacy but “Ball of Confusion” and “Papa was a Rolling Stone” exemplified the startling shift into the social tumult of the times.
After their early, prolific years and various personnel changes, the Temps emerged in the 90’s with “For Lovers Only” with a stunning lead singer, the late Ali Ollie Woodson. With “Some Enchanted Evening” the lead single, it was redo of American standards with a nouveau-Temptations treatment, befitting their maturity, longevity and stature. They were , for a new generation, the Grown Men of love.
The death in 2010 of the magnificent singer Ali Ollie Woodson marked the end to yet another incarnation of the Temptations; his replacement, the birth of another. They will doubtless sing on, with many – if not most – of their current audiences neither knowing or caring who is in the group, as long as they can sing the Temps repertoire. Nor, it seems, does it matter, for the Temptations exist as a phenomenon, an entity, regardless of personnel. Their music, though an expression of love eternal, was born of a specific – now gone – time and place; they are songs of Black, urban proletarian men, who, with their historically evolved blend of strength and sweetness, expressed love on behalf of an entire English-speaking generation.
All photos from Temptations albums.