Thanks to their fine-tuned choreography — and even finer harmonies — the Temptations became the definitive male vocal group of the 1960s; one of Motown’s most elastic acts, they tackled both lush pop and politically-charged funk with equal flair, and weathered a steady stream of changes in personnel and consumer tastes with rare dignity and grace. The Temptations’ initial five-man line-up formed in Detroit in 1961 as a merger of two local vocal groups, the Primes and the Distants. Baritone Otis Williams, Elbridge (a.k.a. El, or Al) Bryant and bass vocalist Melvin Franklin were longtime veterans of the Detroit music scene when they joined together in the Distants, who in 1959 recorded the single “Come On” for the local Northern label. Around the same time, the Primes, a trio comprised of tenor Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams (no relation to Otis) and Kell Osborne, relocated to the Motor City from their native Alabama; they quickly found success locally, and their manager even put together a girl group counterpart dubbed the Primettes. (Later, three of the Primettes — Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard — formed the Supremes).In 1961, the Primes disbanded, but not before Otis Williams saw them perform live, where he was impressed both by Kendricks’ vocal prowess and Paul Williams’ choreography skills. Soon, Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Bryant, Franklin and Kendricks joined together as the Elgins; after a name change to the Temptations, they signed to the Motown subsidiary Miracle, where they released a handful of singles over the ensuing months. In 1966, the Tempts recorded another Robinson hit, “Get Ready,” before forgoing his smooth popcraft for the harder-edged soul of producers Norman Whitfield and Brian Holland. After spotlighting Kendricks on the smash “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” the group allowed Ruffin to take control over a string of hits including “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep” and “(I Know) I’m Losing You.” Beginning around 1967, Whitfield assumed full production control, and their records became ever rougher and more muscular, as typified by the 1968 success “I Wish It Would Rain.” After Ruffin failed to appear at a 1968 live performance, the other four Tempts fired him; he was replaced by ex-Contour Dennis Edwards, whose less polished voice adapted perfectly to the psychedelic-influenced soul period the group entered following the success of the single “Cloud Nine.” As the times changed, so did the group, and as the 1960s drew to a close, the Temptations’ music became overtly political; in the wake of “Cloud Nine” — its title a thinly-veiled drug allegory — came records like “Run Away Child, Running Wild,” “Psychedelic Shack,” and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today).”After the chart-topping success of the gossamer ballad “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” in 1971, Kendricks exited for a solo career. Soon, Paul Williams left the group as well; long plagued by alcoholism and other personal demons, he was eventually discovered dead from a self-inflected gunshot on August 17, 1973 at the age of 34. In their stead the remaining trio recruited tenors Damon Harris and Richard Street; after the 1971 hit “Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are),” they returned in 1972 with the brilliant number one single “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” While the Tempts hit the charts regularly throughout 1973 with “Masterpiece,” “Let Your Hair Down,” and “The Plastic Man,” their success as a pop act gradually dwindled as the 1970s wore on.After Harris exited in 1975 (replaced by tenor Glenn Leonard), the group cut 1976’s The Temptations Do the Temptations, their final album for Motown. With Louis Price taking over for Dennis Edwards, they signed to Atlantic, and attempted to reach the disco market with the LPs Bare Back and Hear to Tempt You. After Edwards returned to the fold (resulting in Price’s hasty exit), the Temptations re-entered the Motown stable, and scored a 1980 hit with “Power.” In 1982, Ruffin and Kendricks returned for Reunion, which also included all five of the current Tempts; a tour followed, but problems with Motown, as well as personal differences, cut Ruffin and Kendricks’ tenures short. In the years that followed, the Temptations continued touring and recording, although by the 1990s they were essentially an oldies act; only Otis Williams, who published his autobiography in 1988, remained from the original line-up. The intervening years were marked by tragedy: after touring in the late ’80s with Eddie Kendricks and Dennis Edwards as a member of the “Tribute to the Temptations” package tour, David Ruffin died on June 1, 1991 after overdosing on cocaine; he was 50 years old. On October 5, 1992, Kendricks died at the age of 52 of lung cancer, and on February 23, 1995, 52-year-old Melvin Franklin passed away after suffering a brain seizure. In 1998, the Temptations returned with Phoenix Rising; that same year, their story was also the subject of a well-received NBC television miniseries. Earresistible followed in the spring of 2000.
— Jason Ankeny