Oxford AASC: Temptations, The

Temptations, The

By: James Sellman
 Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition What is This?

Temptations, The

An African American vocal group that enjoyed its greatest successes during the 1960s and 1970s with a repertoire encompassing romantic ballads and hard-edged soul music.

The Temptations was one of the most successful groups in the history of black music. Over the course of twenty-five years, the group had forty-three Top Ten singles and by the early 1980s had sold more than twenty million records. The vocal quintet, initially called the Elgins, was founded in Detroit in 1961 by members of two local Rhythm and Blues (R&B) groups: Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams sang with the Primes; Melvin Franklin, Eldridge Bryant, and Otis Williams came from the Distants. In that year Berry Gordy signed them to his Detroit-based Motown Records and renamed them the Temptations. The group attained its classic lineup in 1963, when Bryant was replaced by David Ruffin. Many of the group's hits featured the contrasting leads of Ruffin's gritty baritone and Kendricks's crystalline high tenor and falsetto.

In conjunction with two gifted Motown producers—Smokey Robinson, 1962–1966, and Norman Whitfield, 1966–1975—the Temptations created memorable pop music. Robinson, a songwriter as well as a record producer, provided the group with several hits during 1965–1966. He cowrote the group's first number-one pop hit, “My Girl” (1965), an irresistible confection that set the Temptations' shimmering harmonies against a pungent electric-guitar line, with lush orchestral accompaniment that suggested classical music.

Whitfield continued the Temptations' success, encouraging performances of raw urgency that made it the only Motown group to match the harder Soul Music produced by Stax and Atlantic Records. The group also recorded “psychedelic soul music”—such as “Cloud Nine” (1968)—that reflected the influence of Sly and the Family Stone. On occasion, the Temptations even performed protest music such as “Stop the War Now” (1970). The group's most significant hit with Whitfield was the soulful and funky “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (1972), which won Motown its first Grammy Award.

By the mid-1970s, however, the Temptations had fallen from prominence. During 1976–1980, the group left Motown for an unsuccessful stint with Atlantic Records before returning to Berry Gordy's label. Personnel changes undermined the group's identity. Ruffin left in 1968; Kendricks and Paul Williams followed three years later. Although Otis Williams and Franklin continued with the group for more than thirty years, the Temptations became less a band and more a brand name.

By the late 1990s, all of the original, hit-making Temptations had died, except for Otis Williams. Paul Williams shot himself in 1973. Ruffin died of a 1991 drug overdose. In the following year Kendricks succumbed to lung cancer. Franklin died in 1995 of a heart attack. Following Franklin's death, Otis Williams told the Chicago Tribune, “I almost see us like a football franchise or a baseball franchise. People come and go, but [the group] still goes on.”

In 1998 the Temptations line-up included Otis Williams, Ron Tyson, Harry McGillberry, Terry Weeks, and Barrington Henderson. This quintet sparked a renewed popularity with the album Phoenix Rising (1998), which went Platinum. They followed with Ear Resistible (2000), a Grammy winner, and Awesome (2001). In June 2003 the group fired Henderson and replaced him with G. C. Cameron. Henderson responded by suing the group for millions of dollars in royalties. Notwithstanding, the Temptations “franchise” is still going strong after more than four decades.

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