We end the Motown series with the folks who put the Mo in Motown.
In 1960, The Miracles’ “Shop Around” hit the record stores, eventually becoming the first million-selling hit for a tiny Detroit label called Tamla, one of what would become several subsidiary labels of Motown Records. Throughout the 14-year run with the “classic lineup,” The Miracles scored twenty-six top 40 hits and became Motown’s most covered group of all-time. They paved the way for all the great names who followed them, and their influence on artists in multiple genres is enormous.
The general consensus is that The Miracles were the best of the Motown groups—on another plane entirely. When they went on the road to do the Motown Revues along with the entire stable of Motown artists, The Miracles closed the show. Quincy Jones called the group “The Beethovens of the 20th Century” for their unique songwriting talents. It was unique that they wrote songs at all. Most of the other artists relied on Motown staff writers for their material; The Miracles composed most of their own.
The Definitive Collection does a good job covering the peak period in chronological order. The Ultimate Collection has seven more tracks but thoroughly mangles the sequence. Buy whichever tickles your fancy: it’s impossible to go wrong with The Miracles, especially with the classic lineup of Smokey Robinson, Claudette Robinson, Bobby Rogers, Ronnie White, Pete Moore and guitarist Marv Tarplin. Backed largely by The Funk Brothers, The Miracles combined their gifts to produce some of the most distinctive songs in soul music history.
The group formed as The Five Chimes way back in 1955, changed their name to The Matadors (!) a year later, and finally settled on The Miracles in 1958. They had a couple of singles slip into the lower reaches of the Billboard 100, but real success eluded them until . . .
“Shop Around”: Released a few weeks before JFK’s election, this iconic hit was actually a remake of a version released in the Detroit area that drew quite a following. The rougher, rawer original is in a slightly slower tempo and the sax solo is more full-throated, like what you hear in early rock ‘n’ roll. It sounds marvelous after listening to the classic version, though I can understand how Berry Gordy felt the need to polish the edges for the general public. In the familiar version, Smokey’s lead vocal maintains its high-spirited enthusiasm but is a tad smoother; The Miracles’ vocal support is a bit clearer and mama’s advice seems more accessible. This is one of those great moments in history comparable to when George Martin told The Beatles to speed up “Please, Please Me.” The Miracles sound like a group who knows they’ve made their breakthrough hit: the performance bubbles with excitement.
“I’ll Try Something New”: Motown was still far from the smooth-running machine of its peak years, so The Miracles didn’t have a follow-up hit in the tape box ready to go. They released five singles after “Shop Around” that failed to make the top 30; this was the last of the bunch. The harp in the intro does not bode well for those hoping for something soulful, and what we have here is a rather limp Latinesque love song notable only because it shows Smokey’s early passion for simile play, which he would again display in his composition, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” The Temptations’ first real hit. At this point the listening audience had to be wondering whether or not The Miracles would flame out and join the ranks of one-hit wonders who died while swimming towards the mainstream. Fortunately, Smokey recovered his mojo just in time, thanks to Sam Cooke.
“You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”: Smokey heard Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” while on a trip to New York and, suitably and immediately inspired, wrote this song in his hotel room. With a stunning lack of foresight, this song become the B-side for a single led by “Happy Landing,” a song that could have easily been one of Sam Cooke’s happy-go-lucky tunes. The nation’s DJ’s staged a revolution and started playing “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” making it The Miracles’ second gold record.
Wow. Out of all the songs I’ve listened to during the Motown series, I played this one the most: I’d start my three-times-through bit and “You Really Got a Hold on Me” always got in the way of my progress. I’d go back and play this one song three, four, five times in a row to try to figure out exactly what they did to create a musical experience as close to perfection as you’re ever going to get. You have to begin with the decision to perform the song as a duet, with Smokey taking the high-register melody and Bobby Rogers the low-register harmony. That brilliant decision reinforced the complexity of the opposing emotions expressed in the lyrics by giving them two distinct voices: one soaring and hopeful; the other gritty and realistic. The laid-back arrangement disguises a fascinating complexity where Marv Tarplin’s guitar extends the melodic line beyond the written melody while subtly dropping in repetitions of the motif; meanwhile, the horns extend the melodic line vertically in between their blues-tinged growls. The Miracles’ harmonies support Smokey’s amazing melodic path through the “I love you and all I want you to do” line and it all comes together like a set of magic threads. Smokey’s flowing vocal, marked by the glissandi expressing the shivering desire to be held, is dramatically mesmerizing; the effect of bursts of emotion expressed by the insertion of the please-squeeze responses is stunning and climactic. In the end, all of these choices combine to give us a song so unforgettably compelling that it’s no wonder that so many other singers simply had to cover it. Double wow.
“Mickey’s Monkey”: Dance crazes dominated the early 60’s, and given America’s rising obesity rates, it might be a good idea to bring them back. The Twist is great for getting rid of those love handles, guys! And ladies, The Mashed Potatoes can increase your ankle strength so you can wear those 4″ stilettos without falling on your face! I’ve always found the music to most dance songs really boring, with the exception of Little Eva’s “Locomotion” and this contribution from Holland-Dozier-Holland. I don’t know why anyone would want to do a dance that requires you to look like a monkey holding two bananas; perhaps it was an early form of penis envy. What I love about the song is the party atmosphere, greatly enhanced by the guest list of performers: Martha & The Vandellas, Mary Wilson, The Temptations and The Marvelettes. Smokey does a great job as host, and The Miracles actually don’t sound silly at all singing “Lum de lum de la aye!”
“I Like It Like That”: One of the 60’s fad phrases resulted in two songs with the same title: the one by Chris Kenner popularized by the Dave Clark Five, and this top 30 squeaker by The Miracles. At a much slower tempo than “Mickey’s Monkey,” the opening exhortation to get everybody to clap their hands doesn’t quite ring true. The song has more of a gospel feel than a get-up-and-shake-your-fanny feel, which may explain its weak showing on the charts: the balloon deflates too quickly.
“Ooo Baby Baby”: There are slow dance numbers and then there is “Ooh Baby Baby.” My partner and I tried this out a few times and always wound up extending our gyrations to the bedroom (okay, we are a pair of horny bitches, but hey, we’re not sex maniacs!). The tempo almost forces you into someone’s arms and the sweet harmonies of The Miracles bring out all the tenderness you feel for your sweetie. When you’re holding your honey oh-so-close, you don’t care a fig for the lyrics until they get to the chorus: ooo baby baby. What else is there to say when the scent of your lover sends chills up and down your spine and you feel yourself melting into the other’s body, so warm and so responsive to your every move? Ooo baby baby!
“The Tracks of My Tears”: Smokey liked opening songs with a little taste of guitar from Marv Tarplin, and I adore Marv’s brief thematic intro here: so gently played, so disarmingly subdued. As it turns out, what we’re hearing is the match that lit the flame for Smokey Robinson; the song that follows was inspired by Marv’s ear-catching little riff. I also cherish the doo-wop harmonies that follow, especially when Claudette Robinson comes in with remarkable clarity. This is the first of two “Pagliacci songs” in this collection, where Smokey places himself in the role of clown, the archetype of façade; the man with the painted smile to disguise his inner sadness. Smokey plays his part perfectly, his voice expressing both deep longing and the knowledge that the woman he wants will always remain just beyond his reach. I’ve always believed that his greatest lyrical gift was his refusal to settle for an “okay” word to complete a rhyme. Smokey, like Flaubert, was in constant search of le mot juste, but in his case his criteria demanded that he find the word that fit best into the story and blended best with the melodic line. You hear this most remarkably on the ringing internal and ending rhymes in the last verse:
Outside I’m masquerading inside my hope is fading
I’m just a clown since you put me down
My smile is my make up
I wear since my break-up with you
Despite its obvious brilliance, it took two years for the record to achieve gold status. “The Tracks of My Tears” is a marvelously-constructed song enhanced by a deliberate and focused arrangement that amplifies the emotional impact. Unforgettable!
“My Girl Has Gone”: Marv cues the group with a lovely intro on a 12-string that turns into a gentle counterpoint pattern to guide The Miracles through one of their best collective vocal performances. Claudette’s voice is especially pretty, and the solid, consistent bottom support from the men has a rather soothing, comforting effect. As good as Marv and The Funk Brothers were, I would love to hear an a cappella version of this track—Pete Moore apparently designed most of the group’s vocal arrangements, and it would be cool to study his choices in more detail. The intensely collaborative nature of this recording also stems from the act of creation: Smokey, Pete, Marv and Ronald White all get songwriting credit. This one’s often missed in recounting The Miracles’ list of contributions, but this is one of the great vocal performances by any group, anywhere, any time.
“Going to a Go-Go”: I love songs with a strong bottom, and the combination of Benny Benjamin on drums and James Jamerson on bass delivers the goods big time. One frequent Jamerson technique involved the use of two basses: an acoustic on the “ensemble” track and then a Precision Bass on a different track to add presence and depth. His personal precision was so extreme that you can’t spot the overdub, and on an instrument like the bass, where the low frequencies can expand like a mushroom cloud, that is one hell of a difficult feat. Of all The Miracle’s party songs, this one is my favorite—that relentless rhythm is so strongly punctuated that you can’t help but shake to the groove. The feel is almost as sexy as The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You,” and you all know how that song shatters my innate qualities of self-possession and decorum.
“(Come ‘Round Here) I’m the One You Need”: Well, nobody’s perfect. Either Smokey’s pants were too tight or he was trying too hard to make this song work. His vocal defines the word histrionic: he is so over the emotional edge here that I find it painful to listen to this track. Fortunately for his reputation, he did not write this turkey: Holland-Dozier-Holland proved they weren’t perfect either.
“More Love”: They are now officially Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and appropriately enough, Smokey Robinson wrote a song that only he could have written: a deeply personal expression of love for his wife Claudette within the context of unimaginably tragic circumstances. Claudette Robinson had stopped touring with the group in 1964 after a series of miscarriages; eventually she would have eight miscarriages, including a set of stillborn twins. Repeating that extreme cycle of hope and crushing disappointment once would be more than enough for any human being, but eight times . . . I don’t think I could have survived it, emotionally or physically. After one of the miscarriages, Claudette apologized to Smokey for letting him down, and he wrote this song for her to free her from any guilt and express his unconditional love for her. Smokey delivers the vocal with what I can only describe as sweet urgency: his voice expresses a deep concern that Claudette could ever feel that way and he is insistent on filling her soul with healing love. “More Love” is a beautiful expression of genuine concern for another, and Smokey Robinson’s ability to transform a personal tragedy into a song that speaks to our higher natures is deeply appreciated.
“The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage”: Marv opens this first single under the new moniker in a guitar style that sounds more folk rock than soul. The soul elements appear as the song proceeds, but Marv is there in the background and supplying the fills to give this track a special feel and flavor. The Miracles’ spot harmonies are gentle and very pleasing to the ear, and Smokey negotiates the melody with understated brilliance. One of the more melancholy songs in their catalogue, it’s also one of the loveliest, more of a golden autumn song than a pink-blossom spring song.
“I Second That Emotion”: Smokey had a gift for turning cliché phrases into catchy hooks, and when combined with a flowing melody with great vertical movement, a nice, easy groove and The Miracles spot-on harmonies, you have one of the strongest and most memorable songs in their catalogue. Jamerson is all over the fretboard on this song, as is guitarist Marv Taplin, and the combination counterpoint is simply fabulous. The punctuated moment of syncopation that breaks up the chorus is one of those intuitive-emotional choices that may not fit the strict logic of a tune but heightens the interest and the excitement. Diana Ross and Eddie Kendricks later teamed up for their own version of this song, but their version falls far short of the original.
“Yester Love”: In contrast to his work with The Supremes, James Jamerson’s work with The Miracles is generally more inventive and exciting, and this relatively minor song in the catalog would have made a great audition tape for Jamerson (not that he ever needed one, given his reputation in the music business). Marv Tarplin could have used his performance in a similar way, filling the space with quick and nimbly played fills with a blues flavor. Smokey’s love for word play is evident in the title, and I’m a little surprised that this song didn’t do any better than #31. The Miracles are great as usual, the song moves very well . . . hell, I can’t explain it.
“Special Occasion”: Smokey creates a cornucopia of similes as he searches for the perfect analogy to the experience of a constantly exciting lover. Actually, I think his best lines in this song are metaphor-free:
. . . and it’s hard to explain
How the same old touch from the same old hand
Can make me feel like a different man
I just can’t understand
But every time you touch me
It’s a real special occasion
The song is competently played but the arrangement is a bit too celebratory and the joyful feel of the song sucks the sexiness out of the lyrics.
“Baby, Baby Don’t Cry”: I’m immediately turned off by the spoken word intro, but I grit my teeth and appreciate James Jamerson’s superb bass or Marv’s more noticeable guitar licks . . . then Smokey starts speaking again. I’ve never liked that maneuver; it always feel like an interruption to me, and the truth is, most popular vocalists don’t have the acting skills to pull off the intended dramatic effect. Apparently the listening public didn’t mind the intrusions, as the song was a top 10 hit. Doesn’t do dick for me.
“Doggone Right”: At this point in his career, Smokey is seriously considering retirement, longing to become a family man and have a regular commute for a change. Here he follows a typical pattern of making a cliché phrase the basis of a pop song and the effort falls flat. It feels like he’s thinking of putting his feet up on that big VP desk of his and shouting a few orders into the dictaphone. A competent performance, but lacking fire.
“The Tears of a Clown”: There are several instances in popular music history when a song that was ignored on release becomes a hit after the performers have forgotten all about it. “Time of the Season” is a good example (The Zombies had broken up by the time it made its splash); another is the resurrection of “Got To Get You into My Life” during the disco era, ten years after Revolver. “Tears of a Clown” was a Stevie Wonder-Hank Cosby musical composition to which Smokey added the lyrics. The song made its way into obscurity on the 1967 album Make It Happen. The story is that Motown England (you can never control those overseas operations, as I know all too well, being the uncontrollable one!) was short of material, pulled it out of the scrapheap of history and made it a UK single. BOOM! #1! Motown America followed suit and BOOM! #1! Smokey then delayed his retirement for another two years and The Miracles hit the road in support of their unexpected success.
If you’re befuddled that the song languished in obscurity in the first place, join the club. This is clearly one of The Miracles’ best efforts, one of Smokey’s best set of lyrics (partially borrowed from a previous composition, “My Smile Is Just a Frown”) and one of the most exciting and innovative arrangements in their catalogue. James Jamerson’s bass work here is pure magic, beautifully alternating between almost harmonic runs and single-note picking to intensity the builds. Adding the horribly neglected bassoon to the mix gives the track a one-of-a-kind flavor, and the punctuation in the groove seems closer to rock ‘n’ roll than soul. Nothing like ending a compilation on a strong note!
My everlasting impression of The Miracles is that when it came time to make music, they were the ultimate pros. They took great care with every arrangement and each executed their parts with commitment and professionalism. In a world where some elitists consider sloppily played, melodically-challenged records an advanced art form, it’s so very wonderful to spend some time listening to genuine musicians who refused to settle for sloppy. The discipline they displayed did not drain the life, emotion or excitement from their work, but made it possible to play with intentionality and bring those spirit-lifting facets of music to the fore. The Miracles were simply too good, too professional, too committed to their music to make excuses and go sloppy. Whatever happens to music in the future, people will always return to groups like The Miracles to hear how real professionals make real music.
Wanna fuck me?
Measurements: 5’4″, 115 lbs, 34C-25-35 (metric = 162.56cm, 52.163kg, 90D-63.5-89). Firm, natural tits; great legs and a beautiful, firm ass perfect for love slaps! Skilled at many common and uncommon sexual techniques! I’ll even promise to keep the whips in the closet! Offer available to over-18’s of any race, gender, ethnic background, tit or dick size!
Avid readers know that I require future partners to go through background checks, health screenings, personality testing and all kinds of red tape before they get a whiff of my pussy. My lifestyle and aversion to safe sex practices requires a cautious approach. But now, for the first and only time, I’m going to reveal a secret: there’s a shortcut to my sweet spot! Follow these simple instructions and I guarantee you the time of your life:
1. Buy a copy of The Temptations: The Definitive Collection or equivalent in CD format or a digital copy for the iPhone/iPod and keep it with you.
2. Go to Paris, France. I live in one of the apartments there.
3. Ring the buzzer, wait for the click, enter the building, find the apartment and either my partner or I will let you in. She’s the brunette, I’m the blonde. You’ll want to fuck her too, but that’s another procedure entirely.
4. Ask if you can borrow my audio equipment to play me a song. I will grant your request.
5. Play the song “I Can’t Get Next to You.”
By the end of the opening piano run, my clothes are on the floor. By the time you hear the first falsetto, so are yours, probably in shreds. After I get down on my knees and turn you either rock hard or dripping wet, I’ll throw you on the bed halfway through the second verse. If I have to strap on a dildo, I won’t get to the fucking until the instrumental break; for men, expect me to start riding you on the second chorus. When you hear Eddie Kendricks rise in falsetto to sing, “And I . . . Oh I . . . ” you’ll see an evil twinkle in my eyes; then after they sing, “CAN’T GET NEXT TO YOU!” I’m either going to fuck you until your dick breaks or extend the depth of your vagina by several centimeters. Sound like fun? Hey, it may be the last fuck you ever get, but it will be one for the ages!
No song in the history of music activates my libido like “I Can’t Get Next to You.” Just listening to it three times in preparation for the review required tension relief assistance from my partner, who possesses the most talented tongue in the world. When my mojo cools a bit—it never cools entirely—I can listen to the song and appreciate the perfect blending of five marvelous voices and the superbly wrought tease-and-build pattern of the structure. But it’s the sum of the parts that matters, and this song makes me fucking drip, grind and percolate with a vengeance.
Excuse me, I need some relief. Back in a sec. Here: watch the video.
Ah, that’s better. Shit, now I have to review the rest of the album. Oh, well, after a shot of vodka and a cigarette I should be sufficiently rational to accomplish my task. Excuse me.
The Temptations had one hell of a long run in the public eye, largely due to the diversity and blending of their individual vocal talents. There are times when listening to The Definitive Collection I can hardly believe that the group doing the song I’m listening to now also did the song just before it. The Supremes always sounded like The Supremes, but The Temptations varied sound and style with ease. They also seemed to get better and stronger up through the early 1970’s, even as their musical style diversified and expanded and even while dealing with changes in the lineup. Like The Supremes, they had the gifts of perseverance and Berry Gordy’s patience, releasing six singles that went absolutely nowhere before joining the hit parade right around the time The Four Moptops first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, with a song called . . .
“The Way You Do the Things You Do”: The origins of this song lie in a uniquely American experience: making up games to help you pass the time on a long road trip. I remember playing The Alphabet Game, The License Plate Game and The Fast Food Game and my favorite, First Name Baseball, on road trips with my parents. Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers of The Miracles used their play time on bus trips a bit more productively, engaging in simile-and-metaphor challenges. The lyrics for this song sprouted from those poetic games . . . some more punningly painful than others:
You’ve got a smile so bright, you know you could have been a candle
I’m holding you so tight, you know you could have been a handle
The way you swept me off my feet, you know you could have been a broom
The way you smell so sweet, you know you could have been some perfume
Smokey was frigging brilliant at developing the hooks that pulled everything together, and the refrain, “Well, you could have been anything that you wanted to/And I can tell: the way you do the things you do” is an uplifting and validating message for women. Yes, it’s a feel-good song, but what the fuck is wrong with feeling good? The groove is fabulous, and the syncopated delay at the start of the chorus is a masterstroke. And, man, could these guys sing! It’s not just the rich harmonies and timbres you can create by having falsetto soprano, tenor, baritone and bass at your disposal, but the little touches that each of the group members throw in from time to time when they’re feeling it. The Temptations were tight but never monotonous or robotic; they never lost the feel of a song. Kudos to Eddie Kendricks for grasping the playfulness of the lyrics and shading his lead vocal accordingly.
“My Girl”: There are so many reasons why Smokey Robinson is on my short list of favorite songwriters, and this collaboration with fellow Miracle Ronald White is a big one. The lyrics were written with his wife Claudette in mind, but the music was specifically designed for David Ruffin’s “mellow but gruff” voice, which Smokey thought was a natural hit maker. Smokey also produced the song, but let The Temptations figure out their own backing parts, “because they were so good at it.” The result is one of the great balladic odes in music history, one that has been covered many times but never with the same breakthrough feel of the original. David Ruffin’s lead vocal melts me like butter and the background vocals more than live up to Smokey’s expectations. I wish Smokey would have been hired to produce all the Motown hits that feature strings, because he showed much more restraint than others and never let the strings drown the vocals or the groove. Here’s a two-song video featuring both of these first hits in reverse order . . . with a snippet of Raquel Welch finishing up a song. I had no idea she sang, but jeez, what a bod!
“It’s Growing”: Smokey Robinson wasn’t infallible, and this song has too many echoes of “My Girl” and too many players in the mix to float my boat. In addition to The Temptations, Motown backing group The Andantes are enlisted to fill every bit of an already crowded soundscape. I do like the opening with the toy piano, though.
“Since I Lost My Baby”: Ah, that’s better. When you’ve got The Temptations, give them plenty of room to do their thing! Melvin Franklin’s bass touches are marvelous and I love how his voice is so prominent on the harmonies. A fab slow dance song, perfect for a flickering tongue in your lover’s ear.
“Don’t Look Back”: The compilers of this collection make an interesting choice here, taking the B-side over the A-side (“My Baby”). I’m glad they did! I think “My Baby” is a bit too close to the “My Girl” formula and this song gives Paul Williams a chance to sing lead (only fair since he was the original lead singer). I love his baritone: it has the rough feel of the great blues singers with depth to match. You can certainly hear the gospel influence in his phrasing and in the way he holds the notes: this man was imbued with the spirit! I’m aghast that this song didn’t get the attention it deserved at the time, but thrilled to have it in my collection. Thanks again to Mr. Robinson and Ronald White for another wonderful song.
“Get Ready”: This was the first of four #1’s in a row . . . on the R&B charts. Its “failure” got Smokey Robinson bounced as The Temptations’ producer and was the last song he would write for them. What the fuck? I always thought this was one of The Temptations’ best up-tempo numbers, full of verve and excitement. Eddie Kendricks is as smooth as silk here, and the rest of The Temptations are on fire. Why it only made it to #29 on the pop charts is a mystery for the ages. Rare Earth would resurrect it and make it to #4 in 1970, but I’ll take this version any time.
“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”: Motown politics and corporate structure provide the backdrop for this song, repeatedly rejected at the weekly Quality Control meetings by Lead Inspector Berry Gordy. The Temptations trudged back to the studio and the new producers decided to raise the key to the utmost limit of David Ruffin’s range. Otis Williams said that Ruffin was “drowning in sweat and his glasses were all over his face” at the end of the session, and you can definitely hear the strain in his vocal, in stark contrast to the smoothness of “My Girl.” He sounds vulnerable, and we chicks love men when they’re vulnerable, especially when they’re singing delightfully submissive lyrics:
If I have to sleep on your door step all night and day
Just to keep you from walkin’ away
Let your friends laugh, even this I can stand
‘Cause I wanna keep you any way I can
Sweet humiliation! Lick my boots while you’re down there, honey! My man!
“(I Know) I’m Losing You”: The compilers wisely excluded the pop hit, “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep” from this collection, a song that I always felt was way too cute for this group. This is a much stronger piece, with exceptionally strong background vocals, a tight horn section and rock guitar sharpening the groove. The one benefit of the move away from Smokey Robinson as producer was that it allowed The Temptations to move into harder, rougher territory, where they could display their full range of vocal talent.
“You’re My Everything”: Eddie Kendricks is in fine voice indeed, but this is a cliché-filled love song drowned in string syrup, not interesting in and of itself but much more so in the larger context. A tragic backstory begins here: staff writer Roger Penzabene wrote these words to express his love for his allegedly wonderful wife. As things turned out, his wife was cheating on him, the bitch. When I hear the happiness in Roger’s lyrics—as cliché as they may be—I get very angry about that. No one deserves to suffer from that kind of deception. Roger may not have been able to achieve originality here, but there is no doubt he felt happy and genuinely lucky to have found his true life partner. The next song continues the thread.
“I Wish It Would Rain”: Roger Penzabene now saw romance through a darker, cloudier lens. What he writes here expresses genuine pain and defeat, transforming the words to “You’re My Everything” into the wishful thinking they turned out to be. Sadly, Penzabene would commit suicide a few months later. David Ruffin delivers one of his most sensitive vocals, expressing sadness, confusion, isolation and the terrible loss of self and other that comes with a shocking end to a relationship. The backing group is equally sensitive with their vocal approach: subdued, soulful and empathetic, supporting the grief in Ruffin’s tone. The difference in the quality of the lyrics seems to be a human tendency: it’s much harder to write convincingly of happiness than sadness. Shakespeare’s tragedies are much more memorable than his comedies. As a twinned pair, “You’re My Everything” and “I Wish It Would Rain” form a moving statement about human relationships. I wish it had only been art instead of real life.
“Cloud Nine”: In one fell swoop, The Temptations swap David Ruffin for Dennis Edwards, change their sound from string-laden soul to Sly Stone psychedelic, and introduce socially conscious lyrics to the mix. There was no question that Ruffin had to go with his oversized ego demanding Diana Ross-type billing and his reliability in question. Dennis Edwards had been courted by The Temptations for about a year before the change was made, and this turned out to be a wise approach and an excellent choice. As good as David Ruffin could be, Dennis Edwards added a power and range better suited for the group’s edgier new direction. The guy who really shines on this track is Paul Williams, who belts out the verse about the shiftless, abusive father with genuine indignation. The song frigging rocks, thanks to a combination of The Temptations’ collective ability to get into the groove of the song and the sheer musicianship of The Funk Brothers. James Jamerson’s bass runs sound like the work of an accomplished jazz musician, which he was (as were many of The Funk Brothers). The Temptations claimed that the song is not about drug addiction, but Barrett Strong’s lyrics lead the objective observer to no other conclusion:
It was a one-room shack
That slept ten other children beside me
We hardly had enough food
Or room to sleep
It was hard times
I needed somethin’ to ease my troubled mind
After this song, The Temptations went into a weird hibernation, doing a Christmas single and peeling off group members for duets with Diana. When they regrouped, they came back with a vengeance.
“I Can’t Get Next to You”: Wanna fuck me? See instructions above.
P. S. Dennis Williams is irreplaceable on this song. David Ruffin simply didn’t have the power to do this number justice. And I was thrilled to learn that this most erotic song made it all the way to #1—and the fact that it knocked “Sugar, Sugar” out of the top makes it that much . . . sweeter.
“Ball of Confusion”: Dear Compilers of The Definitive Collection: Where the fuck is “Psychedelic Shack?” The song has historical significance both as a period piece and one of the first hits to rely on sampling technology! Harrumph! “Ball of Confusion” isn’t so much a protest song as a long list of all the shit that was going on in the world back then, including good stuff like “The Beatles’ new record’s a gas” (terrible timing, as they’d just broken up). It sounds like the people of the 1970’s were feeling terribly overwhelmed and that big problems that seemed solvable only a few years before now seemed like one big ball of crap. The Temptations give an energetic performance mirroring the frantic anxiety of the time, but the song is a little tiresome to people of the future who are dealing with the same old shit coming at us one hundred times faster.
“Just My Imagination (Running Away from Me)”: After four pretty intense singles, it was time to dial it down a bit, and this was the perfect song for that mood. The opening has a Brook Benton feel to it: laid back and smooth. From the first gorgeous set of harmonies on the “ooh,” you get the message that this is a song about beautiful voices coming together in song, and that’s exactly how things turn out. Eddie Kendricks never sang as beautifully and The Temptations never harmonized as sweetly. The cascading harmonies on the “I” in the “I can visualize . . . ” line are particularly special. Giving Paul Williams a solo line for the last time was another brilliant move. People have called this a throwback song reminiscent of their earlier days, but I hear a great deal more sophistication and clarity in the vocal arrangement. Wherever it belongs, it belongs: “Just My Imagination” is a thing of beauty that will last forever.
“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”: After another long period of turbulence that saw both Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams exit the stage, The Temptations come back with an unusual long-form funk/soul song that proved to be both highly popular and heavily influential. Much of the credit goes to producer Norman Whitfield, The Detroit Symphony Orchestra and The Funk Brothers for creating the instrumental passages that dominate the song and supply The Temptations with a rich sonic texture to blend their vocal talents. This is the “short” seven-minute single version as opposed to the original twelve-minute opus, and I really wish the compilers would have included the original because it is a much more satisfying composition. Whitfield must have realized this was his crowning jewel, for he pushed the group hard during the recording process, an act of assholity that led to his dismissal. The lyrics are a greater expansion of the issue of the African-American father first mentioned on “Cloud Nine,” and in this case, the man is just a myth to the narrator, who never saw his father alive. In terms of capturing both the loss and confusion of the abandoned child and exposing the greater social problem, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” is a moving and brilliant work.
“Shakey Ground”: The compilers sacrificed “Masterpiece” for this song from 1975, perhaps to show that The Temptations were running out of steam. Their last Top 30 hit of the decade, coming out almost three years after “Papa,” is not one of their best efforts: a tired funk number without the discipline and quality of their other numbers.
“Treat Her Like a Lady”: Fast-forward to 1984! Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin still survive from the classic lineup, but the rest of the crew joined at various times in the early 80’s. Opening with a cappella harmonies on the title line, the song opens up to a typically overproduced 8o’s funk beat—a little bit of disco and a whole lot of engineering. The song protests the notion that chivalry is dead and that feminism has imposed too many artificial limits on guys just wanting to be nice to their ladies. Hmm. We’ll see about that! Here’s a line-by-line, blow-by-blow commentary on the suggestions for post-feminist etiquette:
Now I like openin’ doors (Why wouldn’t you do that for anyone, regardless of gender? It’s a nice thing to do, especially when someone’s struggling with a cup of coffee, an iPhone, a briefcase and a croissant!)
Pickin’ up her hanky off the floor (Yuck! What if she’s just blown her nose into that hanky? Wait—does anyone still use hankies?)
Light her cigarette if she smokes (I always have my submissives light my cigarettes, male or female. It’s a natural erotic moment with special meaning. The submissives light their own. This is like, “duh” to me.)
Even (Help her with her coat) (Again, that’s a nice thing to do, period. Are you afraid that if you helped a man with a bulky coat you would become a homosexual? Or that the coat-wearer would turn impotent?)
In this world of liberation/It’s so easy to forget/That it’s so nice to have a man around/To lend a helping hand (A debatable point. Penises can be handy, I admit, but I can outshine any handyman on earth. I don’t drive anymore, so I don’t need my oil changed. I’m trained in the martial arts, so I don’t need a man to protect me. What else ya got?)
“Stay”: Now it’s 1998 and only Otis Williams survives. I had no idea The Temptations did anything in the 90’s, but I was very relieved that this was not another cover of Maurice Williams. It is a copy of “My Girl,” right down to the bass part and the guitar riff. It sounds like a Temptations cover band that you might see in Vegas.
Last three songs aside, the experience of listening to The Definitive Collection was both pleasurable and revelatory: I knew The Temptations were good, but I don’t think I appreciated how good they really were. I have a passion for groups that change and grow while adhering to high standards, and The Temptations certainly feed that passion: they were superb at ballads, superb at hard soul, superb at funk. Most of all, they blended diverse talents into vocal performances par excellence.
Okay, I’m now waiting to give you the hump of your life. When are you going to get here? What? What do you mean you’re lost? I gave you directions!