TRACK-BY-TRACK: THE TEMPTATIONS SING SMOKEY

The Temptations Sing Smokey (1965)
The Temptations

Continuing with the in-depth presentation of my 20 favorite Vocal Albums. I’m up to #5 (And 1965, which is going to be a very big year for this concept):

Any list of competitors for the not-so-imaginary title of Greatest Rock and Roll Vocal Group doesn’t need your toes to count: The Everly Brothers, Beatles, Beach Boys, Mamas & Papas, Impressions, Spinners, Four Seasons. You can argue all day long about who’s #2.

There’s no argument about #1.

Close harmony might belong to one of the white groups (white musicians tend to prize order). But the Temptations, who were better than fine with close harmony, could do more of everything else and do it better while the Motown machine assured they would never lack for first rate material. If White America–well, the crit-illuminati anyway–hadn’t been so stuck on the auteur theory, developed for film but lying handy and transferable to anything, and been averse, consciously or subconsciously, to the idea that Black America could do more than dance and snap its fingers, the Tempts’ early albums (which I wrote about here) would have been treated as seriously as contemporary efforts by the Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys.

Since this was their tribute to Smokey Robinson, who may or may not have once been called America’s greatest living poet by Bob Dylan, but fit the bill in any case, it was the best material they ever got. Although the album was assembled from a putative hodgepodge–a hit from their debut album combined with material Smokey had written for himself, the Tempts and/or other acts–it coheres like a concept LP because Smokey was a conceptual artist and because this is the rare, possibly unique, “tribute” album where the subject of the tribute is producing it himself.

Call it their Rubber Soul….unless of course it makes more sense to call Rubber Soul, released nine months later, the Beatles’ natural answer to The Temptations Sing Smokey.

“The Way You Do the Things You Do”–Berry Gordy had been trying to break the Temptations (previously the Primes–the only better name change was the Primettes becoming the Supremes) for a while and finally gave them to his best friend with the instruction to “get some hits on these guys.” This was the breakout, with Smokey switching the emphasis from Paul Williams’ gravelly baritone to Eddie Kendricks’ ethereal tenor, and then using one of Marvin Tarplin’s indelible guitar lines and the Tempts’ own clever harmony arrangement (beefing up every other line in the verses, call and response alternating with close harmony in the chorus) to get Eddie within range of a Smokey Robinson lead. In the fifty-five years since, it’s never been off the radio.

“Baby, Baby I Need You”–One of the last sides recorded with original member Al Bryant just after Robinson took over the reins but before David Ruffin replaced Bryant. Did I mention they were just fine with close harmony? This is the closest the album gets to their doo wop roots and gorgeous.

“My Girl”–Smokey was determined to get a showcase for Ruffin. He got it. This is one of those records that’s now so deeply embedded in the culture it feels like it must have been breathed into being rather than composed but what’s really miraculous is how complicated the simple arrangement sounds. It fills the ear the way “I Get Around” fills the ear, but it’s devoid of spectacle, all nuance and shading. Well, maybe except for that opening guitar line (from Marvin Tarplin again).

“What Love Has Joined Together”–A straight remake of one of Smokey’s own hits with the Miracles. Not even Eddie Kendricks could match the purity of Smokey’s tenor, but he gets inside the song all the same and with the others answering in the background I’m sure no woman receiving the message was heard to complain.

“You’ll Lose a Precious Love”–Notable for David Ruffin using his tenor voice, bleeding into falsetto on the choruses. It was as beautiful as his rough baritone and hints at roads not taken. Tantalizing.

“It’s Growing”–Here, Ruffin, already firmly established, does something even Smokey couldn’t do, sliding from tenor to baritone to blue falsetto with miraculous ease, matching the movements to one of Robinson’s most trenchant lyrics. The group’s “Hey, hey, heys” would have stolen the moment from anyone else. Another hit.

“Who’s Lovin’ You”–Another remake of one of Smokey’s own hits. Here Ruffin, a Mississippi native who lived in the South until he was sixteen and whose family gospel group shared bills with the likes of Mahalia Jackson, shows why he could have cut it on the southern soul circuit. The others had all been born in the South, too, so they had no trouble keeping up. Gently, though. Gently. That’s the Smokey influence.

“What’s So Good About Goodbye”–Eddie takes on Smokey’s original again but this time the backing is stronger, more distinctive. If you can remove the memory of Robinson’s version (one of his most spectacular leads), this is beautiful on it’s own terms. The Tempts and their producer both knew how to play to their own strengths.

“You Beat Me to the Punch”–Paul Williams, the quiet man displaced by the spectacular Ruffin, accepts his assignment and gives it his special touch. The others were capable of reaching melancholy as required. Williams lived there, even on upbeat material like this, a hit for Mary Wells, who Smokey had already gotten a bunch of hits on.

“Way Over There”–Here Kendricks uses the rougher part of his voice to fine effect. The Tempts push hard, like a gospel group aiming for the charts. Good thing, because it took a might effort to get within ver-r-r-r-y close calling distance of Smokey’s original.

“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”–Poor Eddie. This was Smokey’s signature tune at the time, and the Beatles had done a superb cover. Everybody decided to take it easy, not to compete with the intensity the song had brought out of the lead singers in its two already famous versions. In context, though, it works, a setup for the close.

“(You Can) Depend On Me”–A coda, which nonetheless delivers. One of Smokey’s earliest efforts (so early Berry Gordy helped out with a co-write–a reminder that the Boss was no small genius as a music man), it floats where his original soared, but it’s a beautiful closer. Makes you want to start over…..Hey Marvin, what’s that guitar line again?

 

Note: The Temptations Sing Smokey, barely noticed by White America in 1965, spent 18 weeks at #1 on the newly instituted Billboard R&B album chart, a record that would not be surpassed until Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life spent 20 nonconsecutive weeks at #1 in 1976-77. Stevie’s record would stand (though tied by Rick James’ __ in 1981) until Michael Jackson’s Thriller arrived in 1983 and changed the game forever. Thriller struck deep, but new marketing techniques would soon allow LPs to spend a year or more at the top of the Pop or R&B album charts without leaving a mark on the culture crumbling around them. I don’t consider the inability/unwillingness to grant the final degree of creative license even to Smokey Robinson and the Temptations in their moment and the ensuing collapse the least bit coincidental. And throwing awards at those who survived to old age doesn’t make up for any of it.

Another of rock and soul’s many lessons for those who come after.

TESTIFIER (Dennis Edwards, R.I.P.)

Dennis Edwards was one of the last great soul men–and, perhaps because he replaced another legend in the greatest call and response vocal group of the rock and roll era (there’s competition among the harmony groups, where they’re also in the running)–one of the least appreciated.

Like a lot of soul singers, he was the son of a preacher man. Very few brought as much raw gospel power to the world stage. He turned every venue into a revival, every microphone into a pulpit. If you need a measure of his quality, consider only this. The Temptations survived the departure of David Ruffin (whom Edwards replaced). They survived the death of Paul Williams. They survived the departure of Eddie Kendricks.

When Dennis Edwards left in 1977, they were finished as a major force in American music. By then, he had helped extend their legacy by nearly a decade. Shouting all the way, from his first mighty hit (which kept them firmly at the forefront of the changing times)…

to his (and their) last.. which might have been his (and their) mightiest.

Higher ground tonight brother. Every inch earned.

THE TEMPTATIONS SCATTER…BECOME PROPHETS IN THE WILDERNESS (The Rising: Third Memo)

TEMPTS1BY1

 

The Temptations were one of those miracles only Berry Gordy could have wrought. At least three guys who were good enough to be stars in their own right ended up in the same vocal group with a couple of sterling backup singers (including a world class bass-man) and the cream of the Motown machine devoted to their success. Nothing quite like it ever happened before or has certainly ever happened since. Naturally it had to end some time and likely well before its time.

It did.

David Ruffin started the unraveling when he insisted on going solo in 1969 (evidently after Gordy, supported by the other Tempts, refused to give him the name billing Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson were by then enjoying with the Supremes and the Miracles.

It might have been a ploy for solo-dom on Ruffin’s part anyway, but in any case he got it (to be replaced by Dennis Edwards) and over the next few years, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams followed suit. Some years later, Edwards gave it a try as well.

There were varying degrees of success with Kendricks enjoying the most, Ruffin a distant second and the others having little luck at all.

Back in 1996, Gordy’s ongoing Corporation put together a double CD comp of the four singers’ solo work which by all rights should be about as inspired as that cover up there.

But time does change some things.

Four decades on from when most of this music was recorded, and two decades on from the comp being released, the shadow of what each man did inside the Temptations, mighty though it remains. doesn’t fall quite so heavy. It has become possible, almost imperative, for their solo efforts to be heard as what they are–further attempts by these superstars of Black America (whose names aren’t nearly so well known in White America, especially to later generations) to build some kind of bridge between their own ambitions and what the world was going through.

Heard in that context, these aren’t just honorable records, they’re illuminating. Especially since, as I may have mentioned before on here, we haven’t learned much in those interceding decades.

I always knew The Rising ran deep and the cost of ignoring it was and is steep.

Put simply, these men should have been much bigger stars. They should have achieved the kind of stardom worthy of men who were good enough to step out in front of the Temptations. There are a hundred reasons why they didn’t, not all of them avoidable. But we’re all the poorer for it just the same and while I mostly lament what used to get on the radio and no longer does, it’s also worth remembering what used to not get on the radio because one of those hundred reasons I mentioned is that the competition was incredibly fierce…Still:

And, oh yeah, all of it–the pleading, the preaching and the ignoring–was implied in the beginning, in David Ruffin’s first and biggest hit, which might as well have been sung to the audience he was about to be cut off from (sadly enough, by Berry Gordy himself, if nobody else stepped up to the plate…proving once again that no one is without sin):

BOOK REPORT SPECIAL EDITION (Outlaw Blues)

Thought this was worthy of its own review ahead of the monthly book report (which is running a little late). Thanks to Neal Umphred for reminding me of its existence and encouraging me to finally track it down. You might also read it as my R.I.P. for Paul Williams and a mea culpa, since I missed the news of his passing a couple of years back and certainly would have noted it here had I known:

OUTLAWBLUES

Outlaw Blues (Paul Williams, 1970)

If rock criticism had a “father” Paul Williams was it. There were a lot of young men (not, so far as I can tell, many young women or many of either gender who were other than young) trying to write about the effect rock and roll was having on them and the world in the mid-sixties. But Williams was the first to actually get a national magazine off the ground (Crawdaddy) while at the same time pioneering an open-hearted writing, editing and interviewing style that, just coincidentally, would end up, after the promise of the sixties had burned off, remaining forever at odds with the continuation of Standard American Business Practice as Usual.

Outlaw Blues is a collection of early Crawdaddy pieces and catches its moment–those ever-befuddling sixties–like very little else. If Williams didn’t turn out to be quite the businessman Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner was or quite the writer Lester Bangs was, he was nonetheless more visionary than either, and the person whose work effectively broke the ground those opposing spirits spent their lives tilling.

It’s worth remembering that Williams was aging from roughly 19 to 21 when these pieces were written. Naivete is a certain part of the book’s charm. An even greater part, pretty much inextricable from that naive quality, is the sense of being there, fully present at the dawn of our current confusion, at a moment when all things, good and bad, seemed possible, a moment Williams, to a degree few did then and nobody does now, invariably expressed in terms ranging from acute:

“Perhaps the favorite indoor sport in America today is discussing, worshiping, disparaging, and above all interpreting Bob Dylan.” (that from July, 1966)

to incisive:

“Rock gave Jim Morrison the freedom to slip ‘learn to forget’ into the middle of a seduction song.” (April, 1967)

to self-deprecating:

“Perhaps I don’t make myself clear. I only want to point out that if we found out tomorrow that Bob Dylan was a 64-year-old woman who’d changed her sex, and a proven Communist agent, we might be surprised, but the words to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ would not change in the slightest. It would still be the same song.

“I will say, to dispel any doubts, that Mr. Dylan is not a 64-year-old woman or an agent of anything. I met him in Philadelphia last winter; he is a friendly and straightforward young man, interested in what others are saying and doing, and quite willing to talk openly about himself. He is pleased with his success; he wanted it, he’s worked for it honestly, and he’s achieved it. We talked about the critics, and he says he resents people who don’t know what’s going on and pretend they do. He named some names; it is my fervid hope that when this article is finished, and read, my name will not be added to the list.” (July, 1966)

to fervent:

“You know what I mean, that special feeling after the last words of a book, that goes on and on extending that book and yourself across forever into now, the sudden unexpected sense of the real, the flash of power and together, in your mind.” (on the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”–February, 1968)

or even to ecstasy, a near-religious euphoria:

“At this stage in its history, rock is bursting forth from restrictions placed on it in childhood, and I suppose we can say it is having a brilliant, though difficult, adolescence. It is discovering, in new ways every day, just what is really going on out here; and every new discovery is heralded as the final, unassailable truth. And perhaps (I hear it in the most recent music of the Kinks, the Who, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Dylan) rock is just now beginning to discover that there are no unassailable truths, there is only greater and greater awareness of the universe. And of oneself.” (February, 1968)

If Williams mostly saw the good in all that, he wasn’t exactly alone. And he had the excuse–sometimes the advantage–of his extreme youth. In that sense Outlaw Blues is both a gift to the future we now occupy, and (if you choose to read between the lines), a warning that we might not be able to do more than occupy it.

I mean, these days, if you want to write something like “there must be more going on than the obvious, stereotyped stuff, or why do I like it so much?” or even “The Beatles are unshakable, which certainly contributes no end to their position as culture heroes, though it may someday detract from their standing as artists.” you aren’t going to catch on at Rolling Stone and you aren’t even going to start a new version of Crawdaddy. These days, if you want to be that direct, wear that much of your heart on your sleeve, take that much risk of looking either prescient or foolish, about the best you can do is start a blog.

That’s in effect what Williams did in the mid to late sixties.

You might call that seeing around the corner.

In a sense, his specific concerns hardly matter. Besides the usual Dylan/Beatles/Stones trifecta, he was deep into the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors (who I like) and the Byrds and the Beach Boys (or Brian Wilson anyway) who I love. But after decades of living with them all, I found every interest (like/love/appreciation) rekindled as I was reading Williams’ long-ago, fresh takes from the front line.

I also found hindsight even more useful than usual.

I don’t know how much effort Williams or his publisher put into the book’s organization, but given his famous “essay into rediscovery” take on The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, an album that, half a generation later, affected my own life as profoundly as any album can, I’m guessing the overall effects of this book’s structure were not unintentional.

Which is another way of saying that placing his long interviews with the Doors’ producer Paul Rothchild and Beach Boys’ insider David Anderle near the end was a way of achieving maximum effect.

In one sense those pieces were the hardest to read, because Williams was giving over the space normally occupied by his unique voice to voices that were quite typical. This doesn’t lead to discord. They were all phoning from the same area code. But it does shift the emphasis from writer to interviewer and the insights from the personal to something more generational.

That said, the pieces are as vital as anything else and in some ways more enlightening. I had more trouble getting through the Morrison piece because I’m not as interested in the Doors as I am in the Beach Boys. But in both instances, I knew I was getting more insight into why Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson self-destructed in ten thousand words than in anybody else’s ten thousand pages.

Because that was part of Williams’ gift too. Getting people to talk. You get a sense of both the overwhelming charisma that the most gifted rock stars (meaning rock stars who are something more than “stars”) tend to project, and the tremendous fragility of egos being pressed to literally define the world for millions of people.

Not to mention the degree of free-floating sycophancy that was bound to attach itself and suffocate just about anyone who possessed enough life force to be in that position in the first place–an atmosphere Williams, at times, comes dangerously close to aiding and abetting.

Of course, it’s easy to judge such things from this distance. We know what happened to Jim Morrison and we know what happened to Brian Wilson.

But Williams could not have been entirely surprised. After all, in the moment itself, he saw far enough ahead to write this:

“Beware the baldersnatch, my son. Beware the confusion that comes at the top, that comes from thousands of people waiting for your new album, that comes from record companies standing in line for the right to spend money on you, that comes from fourteen-page magazine articles about how great you are. Remember that you are only you, remember that your prime concern should be doing what is most important to you, but that you have a responsibility, a very real responsibility to every person other than yourself who gets involved in the achieving of your personal goals.”

Few people who covered rock and roll for a living wrote like that then.

Nobody writes like that now.

Before and after he was anything else, Paul Williams was that good old distinctively American type: The Seeker. It isn’t only rock criticism that finds such folks in short supply these days.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBSEXMGhC6Q