That’s a pretty bold statement!
To some who follow and appreciate both, it may even be blasphemous.
How can you compare the likes of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr—all of whom were musicians and played their own instruments, to a group that were singers and dancers? Well, it’s not a perfect comparison, but I’ll offer up my analysis.
First, The Beatles, are hands down, my favorite artists! As far as I’m concerned, no one even comes close. What they did for music will probably never be repeated.
What I’m more interested in for this discussion, is the evolving arc of development over the course of a career. How does an artist go from “Baby It’s You” and “P.S. I Love You” to something like “A Day in the Life” or “Abbey Road” in such a small amount of time? Similarly, how does a doo-wop style of group go from “Check Yourself” and “You’re a Dream Come True” to such songs as “Cloud 9” and “Ball of Confusion?”
I’m not going to recap all of the changes that took place during that span of approximately eight years, 1962-1970, to instruments and recording equipment, as well as societal and political waves. There’s plenty written about those things, and if I wanted to write a book about them I would do so. That type of scope is too big for this article.
But the same factors that affected The Beatles were also affecting Motown Records—that R&B hit making machine from Detroit, Michigan, and in particular, The Temptations.
Surprisingly, both artists had similar career starts. And why not? The timelines are parallel. Otis Williams, a founding member of The Temptations who came out of Texarkana, Texas recorded a song called “Pecos Kid”—pretty standard fare for what was being recorded back then in Texas.
From there, Otis teamed up with two other members, Richard Street and Melvin Franklin, to record songs like “Check Yourself” and “All Right” as a singing group known as The Distants—the forerunners of The Temptations. (There was a short stretch where they were known as The Elgins and also The Pirates(?)!)
Once a new band name was decided upon, it was still a rough road until things started happening for The Temptations. As personnel kept shifting, the group released eight singles that pretty much flopped. It was rumored that insiders were referring to them as “The hitless Temptations.”
It wasn’t until Smokey Robinson began producing them as well as writing some of their songs, that they took off. And when they started to click, the hits were pretty much non—stop: “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,”
“Get Ready” “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and many others. This was known as the “Classic 5” era when the members were Otis Williams, David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, and Eddie Kendricks. The final stage of this lineup included their hit single, “I Wish It Would Rain”—one of the greatest songs ever recorded that included one of the greatest string sections ever recorded!
This was the song that opened my ears to the beauty of The Temptations and Motown! I remember a very wet stretch of weather during the summer of 1967 where it rained for several days straight—and I mean a lot of rain! As a kid in August, the last thing you wanted was a lot of rain when school was coming so close. Having no choice in the matter, I remember sitting on the upstairs steps at my parents house, looking outside wishing the rain would stop. And here comes this beautiful song on the radio hoping for the opposite! It didn’t matter. I bonded with the song and the group.
The Temptations would soon take things to an even higher level with even more greatest songs ever recorded!
David Ruffin was replaced by Dennis Edwards and Norman Whitfield took over producing and writing songs. The Temptations became edgier and showed it in their song selections and styles.
“Cloud 9” was the next jaw dropper. Dennis Coffey, with his wah-wah guitar, and drummer Spider Webb accenting the rhythm on his hi-hat, both drove the song with their unusual arrangement! I had never heard anything like it! I had just started playing drums, and it was stunning! Psychedelic Soul!!!
All of a sudden, it wasn’t The Beatles I was listening to. It was The Temptations!
I wore that record out! I couldn’t hear it enough! I even liked the fade out where the group resorted to its doo-wop roots! This was one of the few times the music establishment agreed with the public and rewarded both The Temptations and Motown with its first Grammy win!
The masterpieces kept coming: “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Ball of Confusion” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone!” All of these song kept The Temptations on the radio as they seemed to never run out of new ideas!
So that brings me back full circle to the reason for this article: The Temptations were Motown’s Beatles! They road the same waves and pushed the musical “envelope.” Sure, they had help. So did The Beatles (Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, and others).
But don’t forget that The Beatles were fans, too!
And let’s face it: The Supremes [Hall of Fame] didn’t do it. The Four Tops [Hall of Fame] didn’t do it. The Miracles [Hall of Fame] didn’t do it. All of these artists did have their own moments of social relevance and musical artistry but none of them pushed it like The Temptations!
Join me Monday night on “Prime Time Theme Attic” from 8PM-10PM ET as I induct The Temptations into my “Hall of Fame!”
Listen live: www.whfr.fm/images/stream_audio.html.
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