The Temptations’ Masterpieces

The world was changing in the late 1960s, rock music changing right along with it. Encouraged by the psychedelic sounds of Jimi Hendrix, soul and R&B music began to turn in that direction as well. The first prominent band to blow our minds was The Chambers Brothers, whose early 1968 smash “Time Will Come Today” created a new sensation. By 1969, Sly and the Family Stone had twisted their music up as well, evidenced by “Sex Machine” from Stand! In between those two, another group did some mind-bending of their own, with great assistance from the Motown Funk Brothers and from the mastermind writing team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong.

The group was The Temptations, whose soulful music with David Ruffin had carried the band to the top of the charts numerous times during their great run on Gordy Records, one of the subsidiary labels of Motown. But Ruffin and the other four members — Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Otis Williams, and Melvin Franklin — had parted ways, and the lead vocalist from another Motown group, The Contours, joined the quintet; he was Dennis Edwards.

His immediate impact exploded all over radios in the form of “Cloud Nine,” a very different tale from The Temptations’ songs we were accustomed to crooning along with on the radio. This had true grit. The song made a huge impact, but it was another song from the Cloud Nine album that broke the mold, which would stay broken from then on.

The industry standard for groups such as The Supremes and The Temptations was a song length of two to four minutes, typically somewhere in the middle. The single that followed “Cloud Nine” was even edgier, “Runaway Child Running Wild,” and it too made a huge impact. Suddenly, however, on progressive soul stations of the time, there was a very trippy version of the song that clocked in at an unimaginable 9:36.

That did it. Each of the next seven albums had one or two long songs as well as shorter tracks that all followed the path to the psychedelic shack… and beyond.

We’re going to examine five of The Temptations’ finest “masterpieces.” An excellent source for all of this material is on a two-disk set titled The Temptations: Psychedelic Soul. Again, credit for these masterpieces is shared among the quintet, the writer/producers, and The Funk Brothers, that legendary “backing band” that helped make Motown Hitsville U.S.A.

A suggestion: the best way to examine these tunes is with headphones and a minimum of distractions. You will thank yourself later.

 

“Runaway Child Running Wild”

“Runaway Child Running Wild” begins with the single version through the first 4:30, Edwards’ voice raw in carving out the reality this child is about to face. Guitars, including the majestic wah-wah guitars of Dennis Coffey and Melvin “Wah-Wah” Ragin, electric piano, and Hammond B3 organ play over that signature Motown rhythm, bass throbbing and drums percolating.

You played hooky from school
And you can’t go out to play, yeah
Mama said for the rest of the week
In your room you gotta stay, yeah
Now you feel like
The whole world’s pickin’ on you
But deep down inside you know it ain’t true
You’ve been punished cause your mother
Wants to raise you the right way, yeah
But you don’t care

Cause you already made up your mind
You wanna run away, yeah
You’re on your way
Runaway child, running wild
Runaway child, running wild
Better come back home
Better come back home
Where you belong
Where you belong

Roaming through the city
Going nowhere fast
You’re on your own at last
Hey, it’s getting late, where will you sleep
Gettin’ kinda hungry
You forgot to bring something to eat
Oh, lost with no money, you start to cry
But remember you left home
Wanting to be grown
So dry your weepin’ eyes
Siren screamin’ down, neon light is flickin’
You want your mama
Ah there’s nothing for you
You’re frightened and confused I want my mama
But she’s much too far away
She can’t hear a word you say
You heard some frightening news on the radio
About little boys running away from home
And their parents don’t see them no more
You wanna hitch a ride and go home
But your mama told you never trust a stranger
And you don’t know which way to go
Streets are dark and deserted
Not a sound nor sign of life
How you long to hear your mother’s voice
Cause you’re lost and alone
But remember you make the choice

Runaway child, running wild
Better go back home where you belong
Runaway child, running wild
Better go back home where you belong

You’re lost in this great big city
(Go back home where you belong)
Not one familiar face
Ain’t it a pity
(Go back home where you belong)
Oh runaway child, running wild
You better go back home where you belong
Mama, mama please come and see about me
But she’s much too far away
She can’t hear a word you say I want my mama
You’re frightened and confused
Which way will you choose

Where the single version fades out, the album track continues, hitting a deep, deep groove. A moment later, a child’s voice cries, “I want my mama! I want my mama!” As that fades, The Funk Brothers pour it on. With a minute left, the quintet repeats this refrain:

Listen to your heartbeat, it’s beating much too fast
Go back home, where you belong

And trippy organ and powerful congas take the song out. DAMN.

 

The album Puzzle People, from September of 1969, yielded several memorable longer songs, including “Slave” (7:31) and “Message from a Black Man” (6:03), a worthy follow-up to James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” from earlier that year.

 

“Hum Along and Dance >
Take a Stroll Through Your Mind”

The title song from Psychedelic Shack clocked in at 6:19, although radio usually played a hacked-down version. This album, released in March of 1970, would also yield their version of “War,” which at least some people find superior to the hit smash by Edwin Starr. There is a rollicking version of “Friendship Train” (7:55), but the masterpiece here is actually a pair of songs: “Hum Along and Dance (3:54) > Take a Stroll Through Your Mind” (8:35). Eddie Kendricks sings over the mellow groove:

Ain’t no words to this song
You just dance and hum along

Melvin Franklin sings it, and it gets trippy as they all take turns. For the last 25 seconds of “Hum Along and Dance,” the soft chorus repeats:

Come on, man, take a Drag
Don’t be scared, it ain’t gonna hurt

Suddenly, all that stops as the bass takes a walk, and Kendricks starts the madness with, “One drag… is all it took… now I’m hooked,” and eventually “Take a stroll through your mind, you’ll be surprised at what you might find.” And for the next four minutes, there are odd lyrics over the stripped-down hipster bass and congas, truly cool. Guitars finally enter, and after a minute the drums fade up in the mix, Edwards killing on the vocals. The electric piano slips in, and then the drums really punch up the sound until the last 30 seconds, with Kendricks’ lone voice singing over the bass: “Take a stroll through your mind, you’ll be surprised at what you might find.”

 

We will save the 1971 album Sky’s the Limit for last. The classic “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today)” was a single-only release. And a word about Solid Rock, issued in early 1972. Edwin Starr’s followup to “War,” “Stop the War Now,” is a better song than “War.” The Temptations did a 12-minute cover on Solid Rock. All you need to know is that the track does NOT appear on Psychedelic Soul (yes, it’s trippy but not very good).

 

[Ed. note: I was unaware that Eddie Kendricks left the group and was replaced on subsequent recordings by Richard Street. Kendricks left to pursue a solo career that peaked with his hit singles “Keep On Truckin'” and “Boogie Down.” Remarks below have been corrected to reflect that.]

“Papa Was a Rolling Stone”

The second 1972 release, All Directions, contains the masterpiece most people know — and, for most, the only one of these they’ve heard — “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” This song was chopped up in so many ways for radio play: a short 4-minute take and several longer ones; the entire 11:45 rarely hit the airwaves, which is a shame. As it begins, bass > drums > shimmering strings > wah-wah > trumpet > harp > electric piano > WAH-WAH and hand claps. Dennis Edwards starts singing at 3:53:

It was the third of September
That day I’ll always remember, yes I will
‘Cause that was the day that my daddy died
I never got a chance to see him
Never heard nothin’ but bad things about him
Momma I’m depending on you to tell me the truth
Momma just hung her head and said, son

Papa was a rolling stone
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone
Papa was a rolling stone (my son, yeah)
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
And when he died, all he left us was alone

The song features three vocal stanzas with chorus, the remainder filled with spectacular music. The violins throughout the song give the song enormous depth. The breaks in between vocals include trumpets, violins, and more badass wah-wah guitar. And, toward the end, there is a classic vocal after the chorus sings, “Papa was a rolling stone,” to which Richard Street answers, “WELL WELL WELL WELL.”

“Masterpiece”

If you’re going to name an album after a song you title “Masterpiece,” you’d best be prepared to back that up. Strong was gone from the equation at this point; this is a 1973 Norman Whitfield production. And it has receipts. The introduction: violins > bass > percussion > French horns/oboes > guitar > horns. Again, vocals don’t begin until almost the four-minute mark, as Street sings over this narration:

Where I was born ev’rything was dull and dingy
I lived in a place they called the inner city
Getting ahead huh was strictly a nono
‘Cause nobody cares what happens to the folks
That live in the ghetto
Thousands of lives wasting away
People living from day to day
It’s a challenge just staying alive
‘Cause in the ghetto only the strong survive

Broken down homes, kids strung out
They don’t even know what life’s all about
Stealin’ cars, robbin’ bars
Mugging drugs, rat infested
And no one’s interested

Kids dodging cars for recreation
Only adds to a mother’s frustration
Breakings, folks comin’ home
And finding all their possessions gone
Oh it’s an ev’ry day thing, WELL WELL, in the ghetto
Oh it’s an ev’ry day thing, well in the ghetto

The vocals are again on point, and the last seven and a half minutes are all instrumental, that badass bass ever present. Electric piano yields to guitar; guitar duets with soprano sax, then with trumpet, strings swirling all around.

There are other great songs on the album such as the very trippy “Hurry Tomorrow.” At this point, Gordy had moved Motown operations to Los Angeles; this album was performed primarily by The Wrecking Crew, the brilliant L.A.-based studio band responsible for thousands of hit records.

 

The second 1973 album, Zoom, was the last to feature such a long track, the title, which talked about going to the moon, but it never really gets off the ground.

 

“Smiling Faces Sometimes”

Finally, back to Sky’s the Limit from 1971. Undisputed Truth had a smash hit with “Smiling Faces Sometimes” later that year, but The Temptations did it first. This is their definitive psychedelic masterpiece. The orchestration is truly titanic. Introduction: bass and oboe > strings > guitar and shaker. Kendricks enters at 1:15, and he is lead vocalist throughout. When you listen, you’ll understand why. After the initial stanza, guitar, bass, strings, and shaker take over, wah-wah wailing and strings swirling. Flutes and trumpets enter, layer upon layer. At 2:30, the congas kick in, and congas and bass propel the tune from here out. Muted trumpets are gorgeous.

When they get to the part about “Beware of the handshake… that hides the snake,” the maracas do the rattle. When the drums kick in, hold your seat. The production fades briefly as they sing:

The impossible task
Is to figure out which of the smiles is a mask

The orchestration fires back up until the end, as only the bass continues as they repeat this phrase through trippy reverbed mics:

The impossible task
Is to figure out which of the smiles is a mask

Talk about a triumvirate in all of these songs: the vocal magnificence of The Temptations, the brilliant arrangements and production and compositions of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, The Funk Brothers and The Wrecking Crew. There is simply no way to overstate the astounding contribution of the many players who made these songs explode in your earphones: bass, congas, guitars, keyboards, string sections, horns.

Masterpieces indeed.

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