THE TEMPTATIONS: Motown 50 Classic Interview Series - OCT 1992
Pete Lewis fondly recalls speaking in 1992 to The Temptations’ late founder-member and legendary bass-singer Melvin Franklin
The Sixties will be remembered as the era of the stand-up soul vocal group. The decade when, in the Northern cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago, the doo wop groups of the Fifties, moved from street corners uptown to appear on the local TV record hops. Sharply dressed in shiny matching suits, the tightness and accuracy of their vocal harmonies were matched only by the dexterity of their well-rehearsed choreography.
Such groups played a major role in the formative years of Berry Gordy's Motown Record Corporation, with some of its earliest million-sellers coming from legendary harmony outifts such as The Miracles, The Four Tops, The Supremes, and what were to become the biggest-selling male soul vocal group of all time, The Temptations.
Amazingly, after a tempestuous and somewhat stormy career, The Temptations are still happily signed to Motown. They released 'Milestone' - their 50th album for the company - last year; and 1992 has seen the quintet's career enjoying a resurgence in the UK with the Number Two success of their re-released 1965 classic single 'My Girl', some prestigious live dates, plus a big-selling 'Greatest Hits' singles compilation album.
One of only two surviving original members in The Temptations’ current line-up, famed bass singer Melvin Franklin reflects on the group’s amazing longevity: “I feel humble because of it - to think people have loved us that much that we could put out 50 albums!", he begins proudly: “I believe the hand of providence is truly with The Temptations. You know, we've had a number of personnel changes - yet folk still love us!"
Those changes have characterised The Temptations' line-up, which has seen no fewer than five different lead singers in their 30-year career. The group has also had a number of comebacks, producers, and even labels.
Despite this, the quintet still appeal to a diverse audience from teenage club-goers to parents who adored them back in The Sixties: “I feel that is a wonderful challenge", continues Melvin: "Every night we sing to sold-out audiences, everywhere we go... And the audiences are from children to middle-aged people! What we do is so entertaining it crosses all of the generations. It's like our music is a bridge through life. For example, on our new recording of 'Get Ready' (on said latest album) we got a little rap on there, though I'm not much for rap music myself - my kids drive me crazy with it around the house! But it's fresh and that's what the kids like - we're not just keying in on one audience."
Nevertheless, the success story of The Temptations has not been without its share of tragedy along the way, and the group were not without the drug excess which plagued many rock acts during the late Sixties/early Seventies. Which is why the sleeve of 'Milestone' bears a respectful dedication to two deceased former members of the group. Paul Williams, who committed suicide in 1973; and David Ruffin (one of the earliest and best-known lead singers), who tragically died last year following years of cocaine addiction: “Death is a path that's before ALL of us - all men born of women shall surely die", reflects Melvin profoundly, before adding: "But, as long as people can hear The Temptations music, a part of those two people will live on and on. Every time you hear 'My Girl' you hear David Ruffin. Every time you see a young, well-choreographed group a part of Paul Williams will live. He was the one that started us doing our famous choreography - it was born in Paul. And that's great, to have a legacy that influences people throughout the generations. I miss them very much, and I owe them so much. I went to David's funeral and I did a eulogy there for both guys. I wasn't able to deliver one for Paul at his funeral, because I was still too young and immature, and the pain of it overcame me. But with David, I'd grown and I was able to stand there and say some good things because the man's voice was one of greatest that's ever been. He helped to make us one of the greatest singing groups and we carry on in both their stead, keeping the world happy with our music."
Indeed, along with Melvin, the late Paul Williams was one of the founder members of The Temptations. Who originally formed in Detroit, Michigan as a result of two local rival groups merging together: "Otis and I were in a group called Otis Williams & The Distants. Meanwhile, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks and K.L. Osborne were with The Primes", remembers Franklin: "Otis called Eddie Kendricks and Paul over, and the first Temptations were Elbridge Bryant, Otis Williams, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, and Melvin Franklin. Bryant didn't stay long, and then David Ruffin came into the group. It was like the cream of both groups came together - and the sum total was greater than the parts!"
Equally interestingly, the sister-group of the aforementioned Primes - The Primettes - later changed their name to… The Supremes! “Yeah, I remember these young girls. They were very determined, very dedicated to getting their harmonies right, and they’d ask us all kinda questions about music theory”, recalls Melvin fondly: “ln fact, the other night we were in Atlanta, Georgia and (original Supreme) Mary Wilson was on the show with us. And Mary and I actually stayed up till about three in the morning talking about it! I was like ‘Mary, you’re still doin’ great! And I know where it comes from - the same dedication we had when we were kids when we really wanted to make it!’. You know, our dreams and our hopes for our future were meshed together. Because, when we first started singing, we were barely making enough to get our cleaning done! But that was when it was just the pure love of doing it, and it took having friends that believed in the same thing that YOU believed in for you to CONTINUE to do it! Because at that time it was unheard of in the establishment! The norm was to stay in school, go get a job in the car factories in the Motor City… And here we were, we were gonna SING! So, we all helped each other believe in what we had to do. It was the kind of friendship that has to last through a whole lifetime. You know, we looked into each other’s soul and helped each other believe that we could do it!”
So how did The Temptations actually come to sign with the then-fledgling Motown Records? “I first recorded at a company called Northern Records with Otis & The Distants, and we were on a record hop. Smokey Robinson & The Miracles were on that same show”, recalls Melvin fondly: “Berry Gordy was managing and writing for The Miracles, we went on stage before they did, and we left the house shook-up! People were screaming and wanting more! As fate would have it, Otis and Berry Gordy both had to go to the men’s room, and there Berry Gordy told Otis he really liked us! He was like ‘I’m gonna start my own company. I’d love to have you guys!’… We became The Temptations when we went over to Mr. Gordy’s, and we started recording within the first week!”
Between 1964 and 1968, The Temptations established themselves in America and internationally with a string of pop and soul hit singles that featured either the high tenor of Eddie Kendricks or rasping baritone of David Ruffin on lead. These included ‘My Girl’ and “Get Ready’, both penned/produced by Smokey Robinson; while hits like ‘Ain’t To Proud To Beg’ and ‘(I Know) I’m Losing You’ were penned-produced by Norman Whitfield, a man who was later to play a major role in the group’s career.
By the end of 1968, however, David Ruffin had quit the group under acrimonious circumstances (he had wanted the band re-christened ‘David Ruffin & The Temptations’, which led to him being removed from the group by Motown).
Thus, with change in order, it was (Ruffin’s replacement) Dennis Edwards whose baritone featured on the group’s next single ‘Cloud Nine’. Produced by Norman Whitfield, it innovatively mixed the traditional Detroit sound with the then-emerging rock-funk of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix psychedelia. It became the first of a series of epic Whitfield productions that would catapault The Temptations to international superstardom from 1968 through to 1974, when the quartet expressed the ‘protest-soul’ movement of the early Seventies through the biting social commentary of Whitfield’s songs.
Meanwhile, they also quelled their own divisions as, for the first time, all group members took turns to sing lead. A shrewd move, which aided The Temptations’ longevity in the face of many personnel changes over the years and prevented any resurgence of ego: “We had a lot to do with that new sound. Because we performed before the public, we had our finger on the pulse”, explains Melvin: “There was this brand-new group coming out that was all the rage, called Sly & The Family Stone. We heard it, then we met with Norman Whitfield. We were like ‘Look, we need to come out with songs where all five of the guys participate in it. We want do some of the new stuff that Sly & The Family Stone are doing.’. Norman Whitfield came up with ‘Cloud Nine’, and all of us had parts in it. That’s why we came up with that diverse style - like not to just let one guy have it all. Because everybody was capable! And in turn that had a lot to do with stretching our career out too.”
Nevertheless, the change in direction also brought about some lyrical controversy: “Lyrically those social comment songs we were doing at that time were about something I believed in”, asserts Melvin: “I felt very strongly about them. Like on ‘Cloud Nine’ we were singing about a euphoric state-of-mind; if I was on cloud nine I’d stay there forever! But at that time marijuana and banana peel smoking seemed to be the ‘in-thing’ at all the colleges, and programme directors didn’t want to play our record because they thought we were singing about drugs. Which we weren’t!”
Understandably, Melvin and the rest of the band were keen to disassociate themselves from this unsavoury slur: “Otis and I had to go all around the country and meet with programme directors everywhere and explain to them what we were doing! So in the end they were happy to play the record for us, and ‘Cloud Nine’ became the first Grammy-winner of ANY Motown act!”
In 1969, The Temptations went on to record a joint album with Diana Ross & The Supremes, with whom they also appeared on a joint TV special called ‘Taking Care Of Business’. Meanwhile, in 1970 their chart-topping single ‘Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)’ became another Grammy Award-winner, as did 1972’s bleakly atmospheric ‘Papa Was A Rollin` Stone’.
However, despite the fact that The Temptations/Whitfield partnership elevated the quintet to become the world’s undisputed Number One soul group during this period, the outfit were not without their critics. The Temptations were frequently accused of being mere studio puppets of a creative but overbearing producer: “Norman’s not a singer, he’s a PRODUCER!”, refutes Franklin: “We asked for him because we thought he had the capacity to bring out everybody’s talent instead of just one at a time! It was OUR decision, it was a great marriage! The records speak for themselves. He’d produced other acts, but he’d never produced another act to the height that The Temptations were blessed to go to! We were his best vehicle. It’s a two-way street; like a double- edged sword, it cuts both ways.”
Come the mid-Seventies, however, and The Temptations and Norman Whitfield went their separate ways. Which culminated in The Temptations leaving Motown in 1977 for a brief and unsuccessful stay with Atlantic Records. They returned to Motown in 1980: “At the time we left, the people running Motown were very dogmatic, telling us what we could and could not do. And we NEVER let anybody dictate to us what we’re gonna do!”, states Melvin bluntly: “Then Mr. Gordy took charge again. And, when he did, we came back. Because he dealt with us as MEN not as meat!”
In 1982, the group attempted a reconciliation with earlier members which saw an album and tour featuring David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks. The album - ‘Reunion’ - featured Rick James’ production and spawned ‘Standing On The Top’, a UK Top 60 hit. However, a clash of egos made the tour itself shortlived. While in 1983 the group went back to collaborating with Norman Whitfield, but this time without commercial success.
The Temptations’ current line-up, meanwhile, first came together in 1984, when they enjoyed the international hit single ‘Treat Her Like A Lady’. With Otis Williams and Melvin being the only two remaining original Temptations, Melvin appropriately brings our interview to a close by breaking down the other three members of the group today: “Richard Street was originally with us when we were called Otis Williams & The Distants”, he explains patiently: “He’s also my cousin, and in the Sixties was part of Motown’s Quality Control, the people who evaluated the records and picked the mixes that were gonna be heard on the radio. So he’s always had a good ear; plus he also sang with a (lesser-known Sixties Motown) group called The Monitors - he was their lead singer. When Paul (Williams) got ill in his last days with the group, Richard became his understudy and stood in naturally, because he’d been with us before. Then, after Paul died, Richard replaced him. Ollie Woodson, meanwhile, is the member we have today with the rough voice like Dennis (Edwards) and David (Ruffin) had. He’s just a wall of talent! While Ron Tyson, our current tenor singer, is the first voice I’ve sung with since Eddie Kendricks that is strong enough so that I - with my big bass voice - don’t have to back off! My voice is usually so much louder than anybody else’s. But, with Ron, I can sing full voice and he will match it!”
… Another decade rolls on, and so do The Temptations. It must be the way they do the things they do!!
As part of Motown’s current 50th Anniversary Celebrations, The Temptations’ album ‘The Definitive Collection’ is released January 26. The group’s DVD ‘Vol. 2’ follows March 16
Words PETE LEWIS