Thanks to their fine-tuned choreography — and even finer harmonies — the Temptations became the definitive 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 lineup formed in Detroit in 1961 as a merger of two local vocal groups, the Primes and the Distants. Baritone Otis Williams, Elbridge (aka El, or Al) Bryant, and bass vocalist Melvin Franklin were longtime veterans of the Detroit music scene when they came 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. (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, and he was impressed by both 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. Only one, the 1962 effort “Dream Come True,” achieved any commercial success, however, and in 1963, Bryant either resigned or was fired after physically attacking Paul Williams. The Tempts’ fortunes changed dramatically in 1964 when they recruited tenor David Ruffin to replace Bryant; after entering the studio with writer/producer Smokey Robinson, they emerged with the pop smash “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” the first in a series of 37 career Top Ten hits. With Robinson again at the helm, they returned in 1965 with their signature song “My Girl,” a number one pop and R&B hit; other Top 20 hits that year included “It’s Growing,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” “Don’t Look Back,” and “My Baby.”
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 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 with “Cloud Nine,” their first Grammy-winning recording. As the times changed, so did the group, and as the ’60s 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 wound 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 Rollin’ Stone,” winner of two Grammy awards. 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 ’70s 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 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 reentered 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 then-current Temptations. A tour followed, but problems with Motown, as well as personal differences, cut Ruffin’s and Kendricks’ tenures short. In the years that followed, the Temptations continued touring and recording, although by the ’90s they were essentially an oldies act; only Otis Williams, who published his autobiography in 1988, remained from the original lineup. Although the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, the intervening years without new studio recordings were marked by tragedy. After touring in the late ’80s with Kendricks and Edwards as a member of the “Tribute to the Temptations” package tour, 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 Franklin passed away after suffering a brain seizure.
In 1998, the Temptations returned with Phoenix Rising. Their history was also the subject of a televised mini-series, The Temptations, based on Williams’ autobiography. Although it was well-received and nominated for several Emmy Awards, numerous parties, including David Ruffin’s family, filed lawsuits. Meanwhile, the group continued to perform and record. Ear: Resistible followed in 2000 and won a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance. Although Awesome and Legacy, released during the next few years, became the group’s final Motown studio recordings, the Temptations kept their label affiliation intact. Reflections, issued in 2006, featured covers of classic Motown numbers. Another all-covers set, Back to Front, followed in 2007 with Issac Hayes and David Porter, Skip Scarborough, and the Bee Gees among the farther-reaching crop of tributees. After three years of steady touring, the group returned with Still Here, a set of new material issued on the eve of their 50th anniversary. Dennis Edwards died on February 1, 2018 at the age of 74. Three months later, still led by Otis Williams, the group released All the Time, which combined original songs with covers of hits recorded by the likes of Michael Jackson, Maxwell, and the Weeknd.