By Daniel Garrett
The Temptations, Number Ones
Motown Records (Universal Music), 2007
I remember holding the small, brown transistor radio I received as a gift when I was a boy, and hearing “Just My Imagination” coming through it, a song written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and sung by the Temptations, one of the great songs from Berry Gordy’s Motown Records. Berry Gordy was a genius; a songwriter, a music producer, and the chief executive of Motown Records, his genius is evident in his work and the work he made possible as the foundation on which Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and other artists built careers. The Temptations were sharp! “My Girl,” written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White, and “Just My Imagination,” are two of the most charming and indestructible songs performed by the Temptations, the great male vocal group: originally, Elbridge (not Eldridge) Bryant, Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams, Paul Williams, and Melvin Franklin, with David Ruffin later replacing Bryant; and Ruffin would be replaced by Dennis Edwards. Motown artists did not have to choose between pleasure and pride, or between imagination and truth; and that is evident listening to their most popular songs, as in the Temptations anthology Number Ones. Motown did many things right, producing art and making money, so much so that some people are still confused by its success, wanting to explain it away with a crude formula. The fact is that Motown artists claimed their entire human inheritance, invested in themselves, and their work continues to pay artistic dividends. Intelligent people with healthy spirits simply enjoy the music.
The possibilities of the beloved’s generous self are affirmed in the Temptations song “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” a sweet song of infatuation with pretty harmonies, a ringing beat, and blaring saxophone. “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day,” declares the lead singer in “My Girl,” a song of both soft crooning and full-throated singing, of doo-wop and soul; a song that in its use of sound and silence, of melody and rhythm, may be perfect. (I think it is perfect.) Rhythm-and-blues, uptempo, with lyrics of romantic intention and allusion to a children’s story (“Jack and the Beanstalk”), the tune “Get Ready” is for the dance floor. The rough, masculine voice in the song “Ain’t Too Proud to Be” rises high, set next to a clapping beat and horns, as the singer declares what he is willing to do for love. “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep” offers a balance of gloss and grit, as did so many Motown songs from its classic era (1963 through 1973?); it is conversational and intelligent, preferring personality and true feeling over mere appearance. The perception of faithless love and the resulting paranoia is the subject of “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” in which the narrator states, “It’s all over your face—someone has taken my place.” Love provides a measure of security in the world, and when it seems uncertain, a man or woman becomes vitally unsettled. Many Motown songs show mastery of that subject, as well as assertions of transcendent love, as in “You’re My Everything,” in which the singer’s high voice issuing dedication and praise may have presaged the work of the Isley Brothers and Earth, Wind and Fire; and certainly musicians such as Michael Jackson, Prince, Terence Trent D’Arby, Brian McKnight, and Maxwell have found much to emulate in this assured, expressive music. Disappointment—with lyric and musical allusion to stormy weather—is the subject of “I Wish It Would Rain,” about loneliness after personal separation, in which a man admits, “Everyone knows a man ain’t suppose to cry,” but confides that crying eases his pain (and rain could disguise the tears). The confident expression of deep and sensitive feeling by the men in the Temptations is one of the admirable things about the group.
The Temptations, a group of handsome and talented musicians, combined style and content, passionate singing and precise choreography. The men were musical interpreters. They performed different forms of popular music, including rhythm-and-blues and soul, but some of their best music is beyond category. David Ruffin, with a deep voice, and Eddie Kendricks, with a high voice, were the quintet’s lead singers. Their important producers were Smokey Robinson, who wrote “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “My Girl,” and then Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. Over the years, the band went through various personnel changes, but its glamorous image remained—as did its best music: such as the albums Meet the Temptations and The Temptations Sing Smokey and The Temptin’ Temptations, Gettin’ Ready, With a Lot O’ Soul, Wish It Would Rain, Cloud Nine, Puzzle People, and Sky’s the Limit, as well as memorable single songs. (Unfortunately, David Ruffin died of a drug overdose in 1991; and Eddie Kendricks died of lung cancer in 1992.) It is wonderful when you can achieve great things before you discover the dark side of how human you are.
On the Temptations’ Number Ones, the man in the popular song “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” a duet between the Temptations and Diana Ross and the Supremes, is utterly in love: “I’ll sacrifice for you, I’ll even do wrong for you,” he sings in a voice that hardly could go higher in the song written by Kenny Gamble and Jerry Ross. Diana Ross’s voice actually enters the song lower, with a commanding sexiness, and becomes somewhat nasal as it grows higher and lighter, though it, and the song, remains transporting. The drama in such songs is theatrical, but it is also erotic and spiritual. Motown songs, through melody and rhythm, but also metaphor and described situations, were the kind that anyone could like: they were both accessible and sophisticated. In “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You),” a soulful declaration with an orchestral arrangement that is beautifully composed, both detailed and light, the metaphors refer to nature and give the lyrics a universal—a profoundly human—resonance. It is music that fulfilled not only the promise of a popular art, but was proof of greater social integration—with African-American talents being prized by African-Americans and recognized by the larger society.
The music was created in an imperfect world, a world of challenge, pleasure, promise, and trouble, in which progress occurred with advances and frustrations. Social consciousness is suggested by the song “Run Away Child, Running Wild,” with its focus on disaffected youth, willful and alienated from family principles, but it seems more the topicality of newspapers and social science rather than personal observation. The song’s tumultuous drama and foreboding is yet a reminder of the world’s dangers and demands. Yet, “I Can’t Get Next to You,” a return to romance, is masterful—really ferocious—in a man’s insistence on magical claims—he says that he can control nature and time; male bragging as part of seduction that is raised to a whole new level—but the man is at a loss due to his inability to make an impression on a desirable woman: “Girl, you’re blowing my mind, ’cause I can’t get next to you.” The song creates such a dynamic situation that it can withstand the dismissals given to ordinary romantic disappointments when there is so much else to think about. The turmoil of the late 1960s, in which areas of the American inner city and the rural south and beyond found change or transformation difficult, did affect some of the music: “Ball of Confusion” offers a list of troubling phenomena, including neglected values and social segregation, in which “the only safe place to live is on an Indian reservation,” an articulation supported by bass and keyboards in psychedelic funk music.
Observing a beautiful young woman, and imagining a deep connection with her, “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” has a cinematic richness, a spiritual depth: a young man, gentle, tender, passionate, imagines love and family, singing in a high voice, before conceding that it is all a dream. The same band, the Temptations, that performed that perfect composition also did “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” a drama, earthy and symphonic, with humor, sympathy, and outrage, about a father as an incorrigible bad boy, a trickster, a shiftless man with many children, within and outside of marriage, a man “dealing in dirt and stealing in the name of the lord.” Both songs were written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. Those compositions are two examples of great work. Of course, few artists can sustain such quality; and the remaining songs on the Temptations’ Number Ones are less charming, less formidable: “Masterpiece,” “Let Your Hair Down,” “Happy People,” “Shakey Ground,” and “Stay.” The song “Masterpiece” is about ghetto life—crime, filth, and despair—and, too narrow in its vision, it may be a soundscape more than a song. Well-intentioned, but possibly pandering to broad public concern, it is the kind of thing that Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder would do better. (Marvin Gaye excelled at many different kinds of songs, especially sex songs and social songs, and while his social songs were both personal and rhetorical I am not sure that anyone at the time did better. He made protest a seductive cry from the soul of a modern man.) “Let Your Hair Down” encourages listeners—especially the professional and powerful—to relax, to let duty go for a time; the kind of emphatic counsel that the music group’s best music did not have to give, accomplishing that very easily. “Shakey Ground,” dramatic and funky and grounded with details of bad love and bad times, is, possibly ironically, a creative resurgence. No doubt there is a lot of good music being made in the world—some of it by Adele, Beyonce, Build, Camera Obscura, Anthony Hamilton, Alicia Keys, Ray LaMontagne, David Lang, John Legend, Shelby Lynne, Aimee Mann, Rene Marie, Eric Reed, Sade, Jill Scott, Paul Simon, Spoon, Angie Stone, Vampire Weekend, Julia Wolfe, and Yeasayer—but there remains a place for classic Motown and the Temptations.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House. He has written on art, books, business, the environment, film, music, and politics as a member of professional staffs and freelance, with administrative experience as an editorial/production manager dealing with vendors such as photographers and print houses. “The best art embodies the best in humanity, and that is true of Motown and its music,” says Daniel Garrett, whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. Garrett has begun an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.