The Temptations

Anthology (Motown ’95) Rating: A
Motown’s slickest, grittiest, and most versatile vocal group, The Temptations could do it all. With five great, completely different sounding singers producing great harmonies and a brilliantly choreographed stage show, it was inevitable that The Temptations would become superstars. In truth, it took them longer than anyone associated with the band could have imagined, but once the hits started coming (1964) it seemed as like they would never stop. Early on the group showcased the sumptuous soprano of Eddie Kendricks, which was tailor-made for Smokey Robinson penned classics such as “The Way You Do The Things You Do” and “Get Ready.” Although Kendricks would continue as a vital cog and continue to sing some leads, eventually the gritty soul vocals of David Ruffin took center stage on classics such as the great “My Girl,” "Since I Lost My Baby," “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” and “(I Know) I'm Losing You” (for my money Ruffin's most riveting performance, later notably covered by Rod Stewart). The other original Temptations were Paul Williams, Otis Williams, and Melvin Franklin, and each played a role in establishing the group's special chemistry. They even took center stage from time to time, with Paul Williams lending an excellent lead vocal to "Don't Look Back" (I bet Southside Johnny was a big fan of that one) and Melvin Franklin's impossibly deep baritone dominating the live showstopper "Ol' Man River," which also highlighted the rest of the group's doo wop flavored backing harmonies. Other standouts from the first disc (including 27 songs) include charmingly slick Hendricks vehicles such as "The Girl's Alright With Me" and "You're My Everything" (a duet with Ruffin, actually), as well as Ruffin sung hits such as "My Baby," "Beauty Is Only Skin Deep," "All I Need," "(Loneliness Made Me Realize) It's You That I Need," and "I Wish It Would Rain." As noted in the useful liner notes, the classic latter song's lyrics ("sunshine, blue skies, please go away, my girl has found another, and gone away, with her went my future, my life's filled with gloom, so day after day, I stay locked in my room") showed a very public pain, the literal flip side to "My Girl"," as the group's work was gaining a greater seriousness and depth. Alas, by most accounts the success got to Ruffin's head (he wanted the group to be billed as David Ruffin and the Temptations, for starters), but when Ruffin’s overblown ego ensured his departure they didn’t miss a beat, replacing him with the also-excellent Dennis Edwards and coming up with more classics such as “Can’t Get Next To You,” a true group effort on which the members traded off vocals and joined in together on the chorus. Since the success of "Ain't To Proud To Beg," the group's direction had been overseen by songwriter-producer Norman Whitfield (along with Eddie Holland and later Barrett Strong), who, obviously influenced by Sly & The Family Stone, decided at this time to take the group into a harder, psychedelic soul-funk style on longer, darkly experimental tracks such as “Cloud Nine,” "Runaway Child, Running Wild," "Don't Let The Joneses Get You Down," "Psychedelic Shack," “Ball Of Confusion (That's What The World Is Today),” and especially the epic “Papa Was A Rollin' Stone.” These spectacular social critiques - which musically often featured wah wah guitar, ornate orchestrations, jaunty horns, and lots of traded off vocals - were a far cry from the group’s feel good beginnings. Even so, Kendricks still managed to lend his sunnier talents to a duet with Diana Ross and the Supremes ("I'm Gonna Make You Love Me") and the wistful, sublime ballad “Just My Imagination” before he too (like Ruffin) departed for a largely unfulfilling solo career; Paul Williams' alcoholism caused his departure from the group in 1971 as well (sadly, he committed suicide two years later). Eventually drugs, internal turmoil, group turnover, and a simple lack of top-flight material took its toll, and the hits dried up after the orchestrated soul of "Masterpiece" (1973). The past three decades has seen different incarnations of the group performing as a highly professional and much sought after stage act, and The Temptations remain the most revered group to have ever graced the Motown label. Since one compact disc isn't enough to sum up all of this group’s great accomplishments, I’m recommending the 2-cd Anthology, which chronologically covers all the essentials without going overboard (those who absolutely need more should proceed to Emperors Of Soul, an overly stuffed 5-cd box set). Sure, much of their early material sounds the same and the end of disc two runs out of steam somewhat, but disc two has some overlooked gems as well, such as "Hey Girl (I Like Your Style)," on which Richard Street bears an uncanny resemblance to Kendricks, "Shakey Ground," whose deep funk is enhanced by the presence of the great Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, and "A Song For You," a Leon Russell cover that possesses a stately elegance similar to the first disc's classy closer, "The Impossible Dream." All in all, Anthology is a must-have collection that admirably documents one of the greatest vocal groups of all-time. Update: For fans of the Whitfield era, I’d also highly recommend the stellar 2003 2-cd compilation Psychedelic Soul.

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