It’s Hard Out Here for a Temp

Posted March 5, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Tough times continue to take its toil on our memory banks about Hitsville’s golden quartet

In spite of the high volume of film documentaries, journalistic pieces and random Google searches that now educate us, the long exhaustive story of one of America’s greatest singing groups seems to hardly get told enough. Often when it is told, it’s done in embarrassing fractions due to the excessive volume of information (or the lack thereof). Sometimes it’s misaligned with the kind of chatter that’s direct purpose is to tease the ears. It is obviously true that the Temptations – one of Motown’s greatest imports to the world of 20th century music – deserve the accolades and sweet-nothings that come with undaunted glory. At the height of their commercial peak, the beloved quartet was Top 40 gods with over thirty-seven hits in their pocket. Their majestic blend of tight harmonies, fancy footwork and polished stage presence, along with their infamous strategy to feature alternate leads proved to work its magic well beyond the comforts of R&B. Pop audiences wanted in on their soulful stuff as well, pushing Paul Simon to work with the Dixie Hummingbirds on “Loves Me Like a Rock” and the Rolling Stones to cover “My Girl” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” In 2010, Phil Collins dedicated a whole album to Motown’s big hits; four of them were from the Temptations.  It is without question that their influence proved to be contagious worldwide. Even when the Seventies rolled around, the Temps – now safely reconfigured under the auspice of ambitious songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield – were more than eager to make the necessary changes to stay relevant and contemporary. Plenty Motown legends fell off the gravy train by 1970, but thanks to the psychedelic direction of Whitfield on hits like “Cloud Nine,” “Run Away Child, Running Wild,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball of Confusion” and their ultimate jaw-dropping masterpiece “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” the Temps managed to stay alive.

They had plenty of reasons to cave in: David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick both left the group for solo ventures; Motown was moving west and closing a difficult chapter on the infamous Studio A formula; an ill Paul Williams had no other choice but to depart as a group member, then suddenly succumbing to suicide in 1973; drug and alcohol abuse ran rampant in the anthology, particularly in the lives of Ruffin and Williams. By the mid-Seventies, their shining star had practically faded from the conscious of pop music, limiting them only to black audiences. These well known facts about the Temptations provide us enough evidence on how easy it is for pop stars to lose their luster and to become a part of the forgotten.

For them, that social message song “Ball of Confusion” meant more than Vietnam protests; it became the soundtrack of their lives: “Fear in the air, tension everywhere,” Kendricks complains, before Edwards shouts that the only safe place to live “is an Indian reservation.” Most recently, the unsurprising deaths of Temptation alums Damon Harris and Richard Street opened up the prospects of what some have unofficially dubbed a Temptations’ curse. For those who knew Damon Harris well, his death felt more like a relief, knowing he had been suffering from prostate cancer for well over fourteen years. “He was in great pain for the last several months,” Erica Harris Outlaw, Damon’s eldest daughter, told CNN. Prior to his passing, word leaked that the 68-year old Harris was very ill and that family and friends were all soliciting the prayers of the public. Although Harris came aboard as Eddie Kendricks’s replacement, joining the fold in 1971, he managed to pull off the remarkable falsetto lines on that soul-stirring masterpiece “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” right before exiting the group in 1975. His passing on February 18 would be followed with the untimely passing of Richard Street just a few days later. At the age of 70, Street died from pulmonary embolism. Street’s legacy to the Temptations’ saga is a bit more staggering: He ended up replacing Paul Williams, while singing with the group for over two decades; he sung in Otis Williams’s group The Distants prior to joining the tempting elect; his handsome tenor documented the lead vocals of songs like “Papa,” the No. 1 r&b hit “Masterpiece” and 1990’s “Heavenly.” Street was also present when the group recorded their popular Reunion album in 1982 with the departed Ruffin and Kendrick. With punk funker Rick James on board, the group found themselves back on top with the Top Ten R&B hit “Standing on the Top.” The single missed the Top 40 by a few points, managing to climb to number 66 and 53 in the UK. But it signaled a positive change for a group that seemed like seniors living in the new unexplored universe of Nu Wave, synthy pop and post-disco. “He had a very colorful career,” said ex-wife Cal Gill Street of Motown girl group the Velvelettes, which recorded “Needle in a Haystack” in 1964. “It pleases me to say he was with the group during its very productive years.”

Ali-Ollie Woodson

Just three years ago, Ali-Ollie Woodson, another beloved member of the Temp organization, also succumbed unexpectedly. His greatest contribution to the Temps’ legacy took place at the very start of his tenure with the group. The No. 2 r&b hit “Treat Her Like a Lady,” which missed the Top 40 at number 48, was co-written between Otis Williams and Woodson. It featured a stunning musical update led by Philly soul acolyte Victor Carstarphen. Woodson also played keyboards on the session, alongside important Earth, Wind & Fire contributors Al McKay and Ralph Johnson. Today, the song continues to reverberate on old-school r&b radio and is best remembered as one of the group’s treasured latter-day hits.

It feels a bit freaky knowing that the Great Orchestrator in the heavenlies would allow this procession of bad events to be bookended by a 35-minute documentary on TVOne’s praised ‘Unsung’ series about the life of Eddie Kendricks, who was often dubbed “The Thin Man” by the thousands and “Cornbread” to close loved ones. The special also aired on February 27, the same day Richard Street passed away in a Las Vegas hospital. The fast-paced made-for-TV doc usually rises to and beyond the occasion in packaging together a healthy presentation of facts and worthy talking points, celebrating the totality of an “unsung” musician. In the case of the episode surrounding Kendrick, who later added an “s” to his last name for reasons unknown which the show failed to discuss, the TVOne special barely met its quota of superior journalism. Although the episode featured in-depth details on Kendrick’s notorious cig addiction and a supporting cast of family members (Patricia Kendrick) and Motown stars (Martha Reeves, Mary Wilson, Dennis Edwards) who knew the singer better than most, it was void of childhood photos, a bit slacking of interview footage and barely scraped the surface of his solo career. Legendary Motown founder Berry Gordy has contributed to Unsung specials in the past (Teena Marie), but he failed to show up for on this one, for whatever reasons. Luckily, Dennis Edwards was in place to wrap a shiny red bow around the event. Despite only working with Kendrick for a brief period during the Tempts’ golden era and collaborating with him off and on during the “reunion” period up to his passing, Edwards’s sincere account about Kendrick’s last days spoke volumes. “I’ve never seen Eddie do drugs,” Edwards said. “Eddie’s bad boy was a pack of cigarettes. It got to the point where he didn’t want us to see him smoke.” While on a specialty tour billed as “Original Lead Singers of the Temptations,” Ruffin unexpectedly died from a drug overdose in 1991. Meanwhile, Kendrick’s health started to deteriorate rapidly. In October of the same year, Kendrick had his right lung removed and returned to a rigorous schedule of touring with Edwards. By the end of the summer of ’92, Kendrick retired for good in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala. until his dying day on October 5.

The special briefly tapped on Kendricks’s reasons of leaving the group. During a run at the Copa, tensions flared backstage between Kendricks and Otis Williams backstage for undisclosed reasons, according to Williams’s recollection. But Leonard Caston, a former musician at Chicago’s Chess Records who ended up becoming one of the important producers and songwriters during Motown’s transition era, tells a different side to the story. “The decision was already made and it was Eddie’s,” Caston remembers. “There was no real reluctance to make the move from the Temptations. He just wanted to do a project on his own. It was just the powers that be wouldn’t give him that [kind of] latitude and they gave him the ultimatum that said if you’re gonna do that, you can’t do both. Rather than being put in a box and being restricted and not doing what he his heart was really feeling, he said, ‘Okay, I’ll leave the group.’ He was prepared to leave and he was prepared to do whatever it took to be successful in his decision.”

In a 1991 interview for the syndicated TV show Urban Street, Kendrick echoed that point. “I did not really want to leave the group when I first left the Temptations,” he recalled. “I actually wanted to stay in the Temptations, make an album and push the album like people are doing now. I just wanted to be one of the first ones to do that, but it wasn’t allowed at that time.”

The TV special did hearken on one importance piece of Kendricks trivia: the Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park, located in the heart of Downtown Birmingham within the quarters of the historic 4th Avenue business district. Erected in his honor in 1999, the park features a Ron McDowell-designed bronze sculpture of Kendricks with an elaborate background featuring his hardworking sidekicks laid against a fine piece of granite wall. Despite the historical greatness that surrounds their humble beginnings in Detroit, the city of Birmingham, Ala. is also significant to the backdrop of the Temptations’ story, since Kendrick, born in Alabama’ Union Springs, was raised for the better part of his early life in the city. It is there where he teamed up with Birmingham native Paul Williams to form the Cavaliers before becoming the Primes and then migrating up north to Detroit seeking stardom as musicians. The Temptations’ first manager Johnnie Mae Matthews, who cut the Distants very first set of singles (“Come On, “Alright”), was also born in Birmingham.  Dennis Edwards, the group’s only living lead singer, hails from Fairfield, Alabama, a neighboring city eight miles west of Birmingham. The TV documentary rewarded Birmingham with a great sense of pride for their participation in making one of the world’s greatest institutions in pop music.

What the TV special failed to spend much of its time on was the wealth of content inside their celebrant’s catalog. The Number One pop hit “Keep on Truckin’” has been easily documented as one of the proudest achievements in the Motown database, but the solo contributions of Kendricks – even with his distinctive easy-breezy falsetto being far lighter than his peers – far exceeded any of David Ruffin’s solo stuff (Ruffin had three Top 40 hits; Kendricks had six). For the better part of his solo career at Motown, Kendricks leaned on the shoulders of record producer Frank A. Wilson and his newly-hired apprentice Leonard Caston to create the sound that would define his solo work. “I don’t know if he knew what kind of album he wanted as a solo artist,” Caston says. “All I knew is he wanted a successful product, and he trusted Frank to do that. And he had every bit of confidence in Frank to pull it off. They were good friends and he trusted Frank as a creative person and a person of integrity. When Frank started the whole process of collecting the material, Frank and I came together as writing partners. And because of the song that I did [“This Used to Be the Home of Johnnie Mae”] and because of my musical background, he began to defer to my musical expertise in a lot of cases. We were very compatible as a creative team.”

Thanks to 1973’s “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” Kendricks gave the burgeoning disco movement in New York something exceptional to boogie to.

1971’s All By Myself featured the beloved singer singing outside of his falsetto on the gospel-stirring ballad “This Used to Be the Home of Johnnie Mae.” The song made little noise, but Kendrick would find immediate success as a solo artist on his second LP, People…Hold On. Thanks to a revolutionary eight-minute proto-disco track named “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” Kendricks gave the burgeoning disco movement in New York something exceptional to boogie to. “It came about strictly as a line, a feel and then massaging that until you got a good musical composition,” recalls Caston. “Then I came up with a melody and then got a lyricist [Anita Poree] to…put the finishing touches on the story.”

“Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” which sprung to the Top 15 on the R&B Singles chart in the winter of 1973, proved to be a definite crowd pleaser in black and gay circles, particularly at David Mancuso’s The Loft. Inside Bill Brewster’s book Last Night a Disc Jockey Saved My Life, Frank Wilson prescribed the song after elements he gathered from the gospel church. “It’s not unusual in a church song to have a breakdown like that,” Wilson told the writer. But the effect struck a major chord with the disco scene, proving that America was primed and ready to dance to these tantalizing beats.  It also hardly sounded like anything that came from assembly line Motown material. “The only thing that I could’ve attributed it to was inspiration,” Caston politely asserts, while explaining the song’s unique origins. “It was just something that kinda came out. I don’t know exactly how it got to that level. There were some other things that I worked on that were reminiscent in that vein, but it wasn’t anything that I had the opportunity to unilaterally expose. With Frank being open to new stuff and going against the grain of Motown, he had more less something to prove. He had a goal set and he had an agenda. It was to let them know that he was not limited to what they were dictating he was.”

Then comes the onslaught of disco-heavy thumpers like “Keep on Truckin’” and “Boogie Down” and “Son of Sagittarius.” The hits kept coming and coming. And Kendricks showed bravery, even when Motown hardly cared about what direction he chose. In 1976, Kendricks went outside the Motown stable to hire the Philly soul hitmakers of Norman Harris, Ron Baker and Earl Young for his next record. Amazingly, the first tune to hit the streets from that association was “He’s a Friend,” a disco-friendly gospel song set to the pace of the salacious MFSB string-studded, four-on-the-floor machine. A gospel song coated with Philly soul helpings seemed laughable to the core of those who totally undermined Gordy’s company, but Kendricks proved skeptics wrong and wound up earning his fifth Top 40 hit. Kendricks would return to Caston for one more record, 1977’s Slick. Aboard the disc was the smooth Quiet Storm pleaser “Intimate Friends,” a song birth from the musings of Detroit writer Garry Glenn. “He had been trying his hand at writing. I came over to the house to see his older brother, Robert, and he said ‘I got this song I want you to listen to.’ He played it and I said, ‘Ah, that’s nice. I like to used it.’ He gave me a copy of it and I went in the studio to work on it. The bridge part – that was not originally in there. I wrote that and the little bass line leading to the chorus. But because Gary was a new writer, because this was his first song, I’m going to encourage him and give him the writers’ [credit] and I’ll take the production credit.” Decades later, the song would become samplers’ gold when Alicia Keys used the song in “Unbreakable” and Erykah Badu worked it in her “Fall in Love (Your Funeral).”

The Temptones with Daryl Hall pictured in back embrace their Motown inspirations.

Kendricks’ solo catalog was more vast and complex than “Keep on Truckin’” could ever hint at. ‘Unsung’ could have also explored the depths of his Live at the Apollo gig in ’85 with pop/rock superstars Daryl Hall & John Oates. Although the special briefly tapped on the career highlight, Both Hall and Oates were highly influenced by the Temps’ soul. With a little Inspector Gadget magic from their research team, Unsung could have unraveled another important document in music history. Unknown to most of the public, Hall (Hohl) once sung in a Philly-based white doo-wop/soul group named the Temptones. The Temptations eventually met the aspiring group backstage at the Uptown Theatre and later became friends with the young Hohl. Oates later joined the Temptones as their guitarist. Although the lifespan of the Temptones proved to be quite short, this important footnote in music history proved to be the nucleus behind the hit-making regimen of Hall & Oates. And how could anyone forget about the Temps’ 1989 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Footage from that special reunion, with Hall & Oates introducing them, could’ve easily landed upon the final cut. Considering the time factor, it’s almost impossible to squeeze all of these colorful details into a 35-minute special.

The life of a Temptation seems to be full of ups and downs. If not too careful, the outsider could easily augment the assumption that there have been more downers than uppers. For those who are impervious to dig into the vast consciousness of rock history, the lifestyle of a proud rock ‘n roller has never been easy. Certainly it comes with instant fame and a shitload of glamour, but it’s always been a hard knock life. For the Temptations, it’s been extra hard. But hard work usually pays off in the end. Sometimes it’s at the finality of life that the reward is made present. Whether it’s with an ‘Unsung’ special, or a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, or with one of those Lifetime Achievement tokens at those glitzy award shows or even with one of those memorial parks erected in your hometown, the Temptations are finally reaping what they sowed. Lucky for us, they’ve laid down a mighty good foundation for many a group to build off of.




Check out the full episode of the TV One documentary on the life and legacy of Eddie Kendricks

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine

One Comment


    Excellent article. As a big fan of The Temps, you did a great job!

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