The Class of 1971: The Temptations — ‘Sky’s the Limit’

In 1969, Norman Whitfield redirected The Temptations, Motown’s most successful male recording group, to expand their repertoire from the silky soul that earned them international acclaim to include more raw soul, given that David Ruffin had left the band and Dennis Edwards had joined. They also began to delve into psychedelic soul, the genre pioneered by Sly and the Family Stone, The Chambers Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, and others.

Here is a link to an overview of the best of those long psychedelic tracks titled The Temptations’ Masterpieces. During this stretch of the band’s career, they produced eight fine albums:

1969  Cloud Nine
1969  Puzzle People
1970  Psychedelic Shack
1971  Sky’s the Limit
1972  Solid Rock
1972  All Directions
1973  Masterpiece
1973  1990

 

Sky’s the Limit turned 50 on April 22, appropriate for Earth Day. The Temptations at the time were: Dennis Edwards, tenor; Eddie Kendricks, tenor/falsetto; Paul Williams, tenor/baritone; Melvin Franklin, bass; and Otis Williams, tenor/baritone. This would mark Kendricks’ final album with the band.

The Temptations

Norman Whitfield was the producer and songwriter, and Barrett Strong was the lyricist. The incomparable Motown house band the Funk Brothers provided the instrumentation. Whitfield and Strong wrote all of the songs except “Throw a Farewell Kiss,” credited to Whitfield and Eddie Holland Jr. The album was issued as Gordy GS957; Gordy was one of the numerous Motown labels.

The lead vocalists are listed in [brackets].

 

Sky’s the Limit

SIDE ONE

“Gonna Keep on Tryin’ (Till I Win Your Love)” (3:59) [Kendricks] would count as a straight-ahead soul song were it not for the trippy guitar and piano, counterbalanced by the shimmery strings. This was originally an Edwin Starr tune but much better suited to Kendricks’ stylings.

“Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” (3:48) [Kendricks & Paul Williams] was a silky as silky can get, and the song became The Temptations’ third number one song, following “My Girl” and “I Can’t Get Next to You.”

Like the opening song, ”I’m the Exception to the Rule” (3:27) [Kendricks & Edwards, spoken introduction by Otis Williams] was an older song, originally by The Velvelettes from 1964. Kendricks, Edwards, and the chorus pump new life into the song about a man able to resist a temptress.

Undisputed Truth had a smash hit with “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (12:43) [Kendricks & Edwards] 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

 

SIDE TWO

“Man” (2:41) [Kendricks] is a very simple song with an incredibly powerful message:

Awakened by the daylight, man starts his busy day
Eight hours occupy his mind ’cause the bills gotta be paid
Will he take a moment and give thanks before he’s on his way?
Everybody wanna go to heaven
Don’t nobody wanna pray

Man has made everything, this we can’t deny
Invisible highways in the sky so safely his iron bird can fly
Hooray for man for he has finally conquered the moon
But when asked when will the fightin’ end? He only answers, “Soon”

Man won’t rest until events are being had
When you think about it, it’s really kinda sad
Man is no longer in need of a friend
With no love for his fellow man
This could only mean the end

“Throw a Farewell Kiss” (3:11) [Edwards] is another old Velvelettes song resurrected. The treble-y guitar and deep bass line belie the old-school nature of the song.

“Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)” (4:31) [Edwards & Franklin] was released as a single in 1970, the first by The Temptations not to hit the Top 30. The title is a Swahili translation of the English. the positive message here makes this a photo-negative of “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today).” Franklin’s bass here sounds so good juxtaposed with Edwards’ pleading tenor.

One more psychedelic track closed the album: ”Love Can Be Anything (Can’t Nothing Be Love But Love)” (9:23) [Edwards, Kendricks & Franklin]. Edwards’ opening vocal is heavily reverbed, as are Kendricks’ and Franklin’s later in the song. The screaming guitar and blaring horns punctuate the song. The positive lyrics continue the message from “Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World).” There is a fine wah-wah guitar solo at the heart of the very uptempo track, another fine showcase for The Funk Brothers.

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