Multi-Part Harmonies And Seductive Grooves – The Magic Of The Temptations

When it comes to vocal groups, I can’t think of a more compelling example than The Temptations. Their perfect multi-part harmonies have impressed me from the very first moment I heard them sometime during my early teenage years. I was reminded of The Temptations’ mighty singing while listening to a Christmas playlist yesterday that includes their beautiful rendition of Silent Night. Since I’m a huge fan of great harmony vocals, I decided a tribute post was an order.

The story of The Temptations began in Detroit in 1960 when members of two other vocal bands formed a group called The Elgins: Otis Williams, Elbridge “Al” Bryant and Melvin Franklin of Otis Williams & the Distants, and Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams who came from a group called The Primes. Following an audition in March 1961, an impressed Berry Gordy signed the group to Motown imprint Miracle Records. However, there was one problem. The name Elgins was already taken by another band. According to Wikipedia, Miracle Records employee Billy Mitchell, songwriter Mickey Stevenson, Otis Williams and Paul Williams came up with the idea to call the group The Temptations.

In April 1961, the group released their debut single Oh, Mother of Mine. Co-written by Otis Williams and Mickey Stevenson, who also produced the track, the tune was not successful. Neither were the following seven singles The Temptations released. In January 1964, Al Bryant was replaced by David Ruffin, marking the start of “The Classic Five” era that would turn the group into superstars. In the meantime, Smokey Robinson had become their producer, and it was one of his tunes that became the group’s first no. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts: My Girl, released in December 1964. Every time I hear that song, I got sunshine, no matter how cloudy my day may be. By the way, that cool bass intro is played by the amazing James Jamerson. Feel free to snip and groove along!

While it would take The Temptations another four and a half years before scoring their second double no. 1 on the Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, they released plenty of other hits in the meantime, many of which topped the Hot R&B Singles. Here’s one of my favorites: Get Ready, another tune written and produced by Smokey Robinson. I was going to feature an audio clip of the track but couldn’t resist using the below footage instead, which was captured during a TV appearance in 1966. The song appeared in February that year. Even though none of the singing and music are live, just watching the dance choreography of these guys and the female backing dancers is priceless!

And then the era of The Classic Five came to an end after success and fame apparently had gotten to David Ruffin’s head. His behavior led to friction with the other members of the group, and The Temptations ended up firing him on June 27, 1968. The very next day, he was replaced by Dennis Edwards, a former member of The Contours. The new line-up became what some called the group’s “second classic line-up.” But more changes were in store.

Norman Whitfield took over as producer, and The Temptations started adopting a more edgy sound, influenced by contemporaries like Sly & The Family Stone and Funkadelic. The group’s four-year psychedelic soul period kicked off with their ninth studio album Cloud Nine from February 1969. The record climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard 200 and brought the group their first Grammy Award in the category Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. Here’s Run Away Child, Running Wild, a co-write by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. A shorter version of the tune was also released separately as a single and became another no. 1 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Here’s the full album version. That’s one hell of a hot funky tune!

Even though The Temptations had come a long way from their oftentimes romantic songs that marked their early years, the group did not entirely abandon sweet ballads. Here’s one of the most beautiful in my opinion, released in January 1971: Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me). Evidently, the public liked it as well. The song became the group’s third and last to top both the Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts. Interestingly, it was written by the same guys who penned Runaway Child, Running Wild. Perhaps appropriately, the track also appeared on an album called Sky’s The Limit. Damn, these guys could harmonize – it’s pure perfection and actually no imagination!

Writing about The Temptations’ psychedelic soul era wouldn’t be complete without including another epic tune: Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone, another Whitfield-Barrett gem. Initially, it was recorded and released as a single in May 1972 by another Motown act called The Undisputed Truth – something I had not known until I did some research for this post. While their original is pretty cool, I still prefer The Temptations’ version. Interestingly, it hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 but “only” peaked at no. 5 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Here it is in its full 12-minute glory!

By the time of the release of 1990 in December 1973, The Temptations had become tired of psychedelic soul and wanted to move back to their more upbeat style and lyrics of the ’60s. The album turned out to be the final record produced by Whitfield. January 1975 saw the release of the group’s next studio album A Song For You. Wikipedia lists a hodge-podge of producers, including Berry Gordy, Jeffrey Bowen, James Anthony Carmichael, Suzy Wendy Ikeda, Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford. The record was the group’s last to top the Billboard Hot R&B LPs chart. It also featured their two last no. 1 singles on the Hot R&B Singles chart, Happy People and Shakey Ground. Here’s the latter, a nice groovy tune co-written by Jeffrey Bowen, Alphonso Boyd and Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, who also played lead guitar on the track.

Following A Song For You, success dried up. After the release of The Temptations Do The Temptations in August 1976, the group left Motown and signed with Atlantic Records. That didn’t change their trajectory, and after two albums, they returned to Motown in 1980. Two years later, they reunited with co-founder Eddie Kendricks and “Classic Five” era member David Ruffin for a tour, during which they recorded a studio album appropriately titled Reunion. Released in April 1982, the record marked a comeback of sorts, peaking at no. 2 on the Hot R&B LPs and a respectable no. 37 on the Billboard 200. Here’s opener Standing On The Top, a funk tune written and produced by Rick James, who also contributed vocals and clavinet.

While success has largely eluded them since Reunion, The Temptations have released 17 additional studio albums. The most recent, All The Time, appeared in 2018. Here’s Stay With Me, a cover of the beautiful pop soul tune by English songwriter and vocalist Sam Smith. In fact, when I heard this version for the first time, I thought it was Smith together with The Temptations, but apparently it’s not. The tune is credited to Smith, James Napier and William Phillips, as well as Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, following a legal settlement. After the song’s release, Petty’s published had noticed a similarity to I Won’t Back Down and reached out to Smith’s team.

Altogether, The Temptations have had an impressive 14 chart-toppers on the Hot R&B LPs, including eight in a row between March 1965 and February 1969 – I suspect this must be a record. The group also scored 14 no. 1 hits on the Hot R&B Singles chart and topped the Hot 100 chart four times. In 1989, The Temptations (Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Otis Williams and Paul Williams) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone has ranked them at no. 68 on their list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

The Temptations are active to this day, with Otis Williams remaining as the only original founding member. The other current line-up includes Ron Tyson (since 1983), Terry Weeks (since 1997) and Willie Green (since 2016). Next year, the group will embark on a tour through the U.S., U.K. and Germany to celebrate their 60th anniversary. This includes two dates in May in my area. My wife and I saw The Temptations once in the early 2000s at The Apollo in New York City, together with The Four Tops. We both remember it as a great show, so we’re thinking to catch them again. The current tour schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Temptations website; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Lil’ Ed And The Blues Imperials/Full Tilt

Lil’ Ed And The Blues Imperialsgood golly, Miss Molly, sure like to ball, to borrow a famous line from Richard Wayne Penniman, the dynamite rock & roll artist known as Little Richard! I don’t believe I had heard from Chicago blues slide guitarist Lil’ Ed Williams and his backing band until this morning, when my music streaming provider served up their eighth studio album Full Tilt as a listening suggestion. Released in August 2008, this record is nothing short but an invitation to party, and I couldn’t help to start grooving behind the wheel of my car. Did I mention I’m a passionate dashboard drummer? 🙂

Here are some excerpts from the band’s official bio: In Chicago, a city overflowing with unrivaled blues talent, world-renowned Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials have been standing tall for over 30 years. The band’s big sound, fueled by Lil’ Ed’s gloriously rollicking slide work and deep blues string bending, along with his rough-edged, soulful vocals, is as real and hard-hitting as Chicago blues gets…

…Lil’ Ed Williams comes to the blues naturally. His uncle, Chicago slide guitar king and master songwriter J.B. Hutto, taught him how to feel, not just play the blues. Nine albums and thousands of performances later, Lil’ Ed is now universally hailed as a giant of the genre. Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials —bassist (and Ed’s half-brother) James “Pookie” Young, guitarist Mike Garrett and drummer Kelly Littleton— have remained together for over 30 years —an extraordinary feat for any group—, the band fueling Ed’s songs with their rock-solid, road-tested, telepathic musicianship…

Lil' Ed And The Blues Imperials
The band’s current lineup (from left): James “Pookie” Young (bass, backing vocals), Mike Garrett (guitar, backing vocals), Lil’ Ed Williams (guitar, lead vocals) and Kelly Littleton (drums)

…Born in Chicago on April 8, 1955, in the heart of Chicago’s tough West Side, Ed grew up surrounded by music. He was playing guitar, then drums and bass, by the time he was 12. Ed and Pookie received lessons and support from their famous uncle. “J.B. taught me everything I know,” says Ed. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.” Ed and Pookie spent their teen years making music together, and in 1975 formed the first incarnation of The Blues Imperials…

…Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials released eight Alligator albums between 1986 and 2012. With each one, the band’s national and international stature grew as their fan base —known internationally as “Ed Heads”— continued to expand. With 2006’s Rattleshake, Ed and company reached a whole new audience. Die-hard “Ed Head” Conan O’Brien brought the band before millions of television viewers on two separate occasions. Success and accolades never stop pouring in…The group took home the Living Blues Award for Best Live Performer in 2011, 2012 and 2013. They won the prestigious Blues Music Award for Band Of The Year in both 2007 and 2009…

‘Okay, enough of the hype,’ you might think, ‘show me the goods!’ Ask and you shall receive. Why don’t we just start with opener Hold That Train. Written by Williams, the tune got my immediate attention. If you’re into electric blues slide guitar, how can you not love it?

Are you ready for the next tune? Here’s Housekeeping Job, another fun track penned by Williams. Love that funky and soulful vibe. In addition to great electric slide guitar action, check out the tasty saxophone work by Eddie McKinley (tenor sax) and David Basinger (baritone sax). Damn, if this doesn’t make you move, I’m afraid you might be deaf or dead!

Okay, let’s slow things down to catch our breath with Check My Baby’s Oil. This track was co-written by Lil’ Ed and his wife Pam Williams. What I’m wondering is why would somebody want to hang out with a car. 🙂

First I Look At The Purse is speeding things back up. Co-written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers, the classic tune was first recorded by Motown act The Contours in 1965. Probably the best version I’ve heard of this tune is by The J. Geils Band and their fantastic “Live” Full House album from September 1972. But Lil’ Ed and his guys, whose dynamic playing style reminds me a bit of the ultimate party band, aren’t far behind.

Okay, all parties have to come to an end. Here’s one more, and yes, it’s sweet: Candy Sweet, another co-write by Lil’ Ed and his wife Pam.

After having listened to this album, boy, do I feel like seeing these guys live. And they are indeed on the road. The only problem is, none of the currently scheduled gigs is within reasonable distance from my house. The closest I can see is New Year’s Eve in Moon, Pa. While entering the 2020s with that kind of music sounds like a lot of fun, it would be a six-hour drive. Even for a music nut like me, that’s a dealbreaker. Perhaps instead, I’ll write a blues about it: Oh, Lil’ Ed, can’t you no see/Oh, Lil’ Ed, can’t you no see/Why can’t you play a lil’ closer to me

Sources: Wikipedia; Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials website; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: The J. Geils Band/The J. Geils Band

Ultimate party band’s studio debut went largely unnoticed

At first sight it’s somewhat puzzling. When The J. Geils Band released their eponymous studio debut in November 1970, they already had established themselves as a dynamic live act opening shows all around the country for top-notch artists like B.B. King, Johnny Winter and The Allman Brothers Band. Yet this dynamite album went largely unnoticed, barely making the Billboard 200 at no. 195, and not charting at all in other countries.

I was reminded how great this record is when Apple Music served it up to me as a listening suggestion. I also think this observation from their bio of the band is spot on: While their muscular sound and the hyper jive of frontman Peter Wolf packed arenas across America, it only rarely earned them hit singles. Seth Justman, the group’s main songwriter, could turn out catchy R&B-based rockers like “Give It To Me” and “Must Of Got Lost,” but these hits never led to stardom, primarily because the group had trouble capturing the energy of its live sound in the studio.

J. Geils Band 1970
The J. Geils Band (promotional photo from 1970)

The J. Geils Band started out as an acoustic blues trio in the mid-’60s, calling themselves Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels (clearly a ’60s name!) and consisting of J. Geils (guitar), Danny Klein (bass) and Richard Salwitz, known as “Magic Dick” (harmonica). In 1968, the band adopted an electric sound, hired Stephen Bladd (drums) and Peter Wolf (vocals), and became The J. Geils Blues Band. They completed their line-up when Seth Justman (keyboards) joined later that year. By the time they signed with Atlantic Records in 1970, the band had dropped “Blues” from their name and become The J. Geils Band.

Time for some music. Here’s the great opener Wait. One of the album’s five original tunes, it was co-written by Justman and Wolf.

Next up: Icebreaker (For The Big “M”), an excellent instrumental composed by Geils. Check out the cool guitar and harmonica harmony playing. This tune is cooking, even without Wolf’s vocals!

Hard Drivin’ Man is another terrific original track. It was co-written by Wolf and Geils.

I’d like to conclude this post with two covers by The J. Geils Band I’ve always liked. The first is called Homework, a tune co-written by Otis Rush, Al Perkins and Dave Clark. I believe the song was first recorded and released as a single in 1965 by Perkins and soul singer Betty Bibbs.

Last but not least, here’s First I Look At The Purse. Initially recorded by Motown act The Contours in 1965, the tune was co-written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers. It’s perhaps the example on the album, which best illustrates the above observation from the Apple Music bio. While it’s a great take, it feels a bit timid compared to the live version that can be found on the excellent Live Full House album from September 1972.

The J. Geils Band would go and record 10 additional studio albums and three live records, and release various compilations. Only one of their ’70s studio records, Bloodshot, charted in the top 10 on the Billboard 200 at no. 10. Ironically, shortly after the band finally hit commercial success with Freeze-Frame from October 1981, fueled by the singles Centerfold and the title track, The J. Geils Band started to fall apart.

Peter Wolf left in 1983. The band released one more album in October 1984, You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Odd, and called it quits the following year. The J. Geils Band has since reunited for various tours. In 2012, J. Geils who after the 1985 breakup had gotten into auto racing and restoration, sewed the other band members, charging they had planned a tour without him. He quit permanently thereafter and sadly passed away in April 2017 at the age of 71.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apple Music, YouTube