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Ruffin It on Disc

Still Tempting: Minus David Ruffin, the Temptations continue to harmonize.

A new Motown collection recalls the heyday of the Temptations and David Ruffin

By Nicky Baxter

IN THE SUMMER of 1968, when the news hit the streets that David Ruffin, the Temptations' co­lead singer, had been axed by the group, the neighborhood was abuzz with speculation. One rumor had it that the singer had become incapacitated by an alleged addiction to demon weed.

Other homies muttered knowingly that the Temptations' "brown-eyed and handsome" man had developed a bad case of swollen ego, demanding that the group's long-standing democracy be overthrown. The bespectacled and super suave singer had fanciful visions of blinking marquees that would read David Ruffin & the Temptations.

Instead, the quintet, arguably the premiere post­doo-wop outfit of the 1960s, would be Ruffin-less. It was, in a myriad of ways, the end of an era, for this was the lineup that had produced a welter of classic soul hits: "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "My Girl," "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "(I Know) I'm Losing You" and numerous other black gold nuggets.

Motown's two-disc The Best of the Temptations is an affectionate, if sometimes unnecessarily generous, glance back at the unit's Motown 22-year tenure with Berry Gordy's history-making label. The group signed with Motown in 1961 (although its first hit single wouldn't arrive until 1964). The "partnership" came to an abrupt halt in the mid-'70s, only to resume again in the '80s.

When considering the Temptations' classic period, 1964­1968, roughly speaking, at least a couple of significant factors cut through Motown's obsessive show-biz pretentions. First and foremost were those immaculately conceived vocals; in contrast to many singing units then and now, each member could hold his own on a solo turn. The Four Tops had their Levi Stubbs; the Miracles, Smokey Robinson; the Supremes, Diana Ross, but almost any one of the Temptations could pop a tune.

It wasn't just Ruffin (who joined the Detroit-based act shortly before "The Way You Do the Things You Do" broke). Nor was it all about Eddie Kendricks, either. Tenor Paul Williams, baritone Otis Williams and basso profundo Melvin Franklin could sing with the best of them. In fact, before Ruffin arrived, Williams handled the bulk of the lead vocal chores. And it was no mere coincidence that the Temptations' backing harmonies so effortlessly evoked the vast yet subtle range of emotions that romance--or its promise--elicits.

That said, the group's early successes came compliments of brothers Ruffin and Kendricks. Like almost everybody performing R&B at the time, Ruffin's velvet-and-vinegar style was rooted in the church. Unlike many of Motown's smoothed-out soul stirrers, however, the Mississippi native refused to bleach his African soul.

"My Girl," his debut as the Temptations' lead singer, came to typify a Ruffin vocal performance. Simultaneously honeyed and urgent, the singer makes it plain that he'd been paying close attention to Sam Cooke polished crooning--although Ruffin took it to the next level. Where Cooke made a conscious effort to check the churchier stuff at the recording studio door, Ruffin flaunted it as if every day was Sunday.

Situating Ruffin's anguished vocal inside Motown's lavish pop orchestrations was sheer genius on the part of the Temptations' producers. "I Wish It Would Rain" and "I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)" are almost cinematic in their emotional scope. By ironing out Cooke's curlicued vocal signature, Ruffin discovered his own wailing soul, in the process becoming a trendsetter himself.

As much as Al Green revered Cooke, a cursory listen to his early-'70s hits reveals Green's indebtedness to Ruffin. It may be coincidence that Reverend Al recorded a ponderous but intriguing version of the Temptations' 1969 hit "I Can't Get Next to You." True, the song was cut after Ruffin's acrimonious exit, but replacement Dennis Edwards' vocals are straight Ruffin. Nor were rockers immune to Ruffin's immeasurable gifts as a singer. Rod Stewart has long been a fan; his recording of "(I Know) I'm Losin' You" is a raucous but heartfelt homage to the Temptations' tenor.

As mentioned earlier, Kendricks' heaven-sent tenor/falsetto was a perfect foil for Ruffin's bedeviled soul-flexing. Somewhere between Smokey's throaty purr and Curtis Mayfield's wispy gospel trill, Kendricks' vocal repertoire was more versatile than either. On the Robinson-penned "The Way You Do the Things You Do" and "Get Ready," Kendricks' high tenor resonates with youthful optimism. On "I'll Be in Trouble," that optimism is tempered with the knowledge that everything, true love included, may pass. Here, Kendricks' brooding lead drops down a step, intimating that love's not all sugar and spice.

WHAT MADE these potentially banal exegeses on love's contretemps credible (besides consistently excellent singing) was the songwriting, which ranged from solid to sublime. This was particularly true of William "Smokey" Robinson's contributions.

Robinson was Motown's most prolific and gifted songwriters, churning out hits for his own group, the Miracles, as well as a slew of other acts. No one, not Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder or even Curtis Mayfield, could match Robinson's ability to transform the most mundane romantic motif into pop poetry. It was Robinson who wrote many of the Temptations' most famous numbers.

When, in the mid-'60s, Norman Whitfield assumed primary songwriting and production duties, the hits continued unabated. For better or for worse, it was Whitfield who, eager to get with what was happening at the time (the Haight love fest; the then-inchoate Black Power Movement) began refashioning the Tempts in his own image.

Penned and produced by Whitfield, tunes like "Cloud Nine" and "Psychedelic Shack" ushered in the Sly Stone­inspired funkdafying of the Tempts. While some fans, angry about Ruffin's dismissal, didn't want to go there, the posse eventually cultivated a "hipper," youth-oriented audience. It change marked the end of innocence and good old-fashioned romance and the beginning of the Afro-delic "message" era.

It would be untrue to suggest that the Temptations' legacy can still be heard in contemporary black pop. Particularly since the advent of hip-hop, a highly individualistic idiom, echoes of the group's "old-school" sound are at best, faint. Even today's messengers of the "soul renaissance"--Boyz II Men, Shie, Brand New Heavies--owe little to the Temptations' classic soul.

Instead, these artists and others check for individual artists from the past, like post-Impressions Curtis Mayfield, Prince, Marvin Gaye and other postsoul icons. Maybe it's just a fad, but it feels like forever. There's no telling when the "new-skoolers" are gonna really look back and scoop up the Temptations' communal sound that once seduced a nation of millions.

The Temptations and Tower of Power play Sunday (July 14) at 4pm at Villa Montalvo, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga. Tickets are $38.50/$48.50. (408/741-3428)

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From the July 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro

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