The most versatile of Motown's vocal groups, and one of the most successful soul acts of the 1960's, The Temptations epitomized classic soul at its most urbane and graceful. Stop-on-a-dime choreography and classy elegance made the group a hit on stage; in the studio, their harmonies benefited from Motown's best songwriters and producers. The presence of several talented lead vocalists with distinct styles meant that they could play it both smooth and sweaty, and enabled them to adapt to progressive funk and rock trends better than most '60s soul stars. The original quintet of Temptations - Eldridge Bryant, Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams, Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin formed in the early '60s as a merger of sorts between Detroit groups The Distants and The Primes. Signed to Motown in 1961, they recorded seven singles that made barely any noise. In early 1964, two factors helped them break from the pack: the recruitment of David Ruffin to replace Bryant, and the concentrated attention of Smokey Robinson.
Robinson wrote and produced most of their mid-'60s hits, starting with 1964's "The Way You Do The Things You Do", on which the Temps' harmonies jelled with state-of-the-art soul production for the first time. It was "My Girl", however, that established The Temptations as household names. This 1965 single, which made #1 on both the US R&B and pop charts, was one of Smokey's most lyrically evocative compositions. With its swooping strings and unforgettable vocal trade-offs on the chorus, it remains one of Motown's signature tunes. The Temptations are usually remembered as one of Motown's more romantic and pop-oriented acts, an image reinforced by such lush ballads as "I Wish It Would Rain", "Since I Lost My Baby", "You're My Everything" and "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" (the last of which was a collaboration with The Supremes). Actually, these were balanced by a fairly equal number of dance floor fillers like "Get Ready" and "Ain't Too Proud To Beg". Wide appeal, and a certain diversity, were ensured by the splitting of lead vocal chores between David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks on the early hits (Paul Williams occasionally took lead as well, but not on the big singles).
Kendricks had the high, gliding tenor that almost went into falsetto; Ruffin had the coarser, more emotive style. Ruffin would give the group's most passionate, even angst-ridden, performance on "(I Know) I'm Losing You"; his delivery was closely studied by Rod Stewart (who covered that classic) and, most likely, Mick Jagger, who would eventually cover "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" with The Stones.
Starting in 1966, Norman Whitfield gradually poached Temptations production duties from Smokey Robinson. Whitfield was probably the first of the Motown principals to assimilate late '60s trends from the rock and funk worlds into the label's hit machine. The 1968 single "Cloud Nine" was a landmark for both Motown and soul, introducing a high degree of social consciousness into the lyrics and psychedelic guitar riffs into the arrangement. For The Temptations themselves, it was a different landmark of sorts: it was their first big hit after the departure of Ruffin, who was replaced by Dennis Edwards. (Ruffin had an intermittently successful but generally disappointing solo career.) The Temptations rarely wrote their own material, and in the late '60s and early '70s they became mouthpieces of sorts for Whitfield. With Barrett Strong (who had recorded the original version of "Money" in the early 60s), Whitfield penned message songs to reflect the complexity and confusion of the times, dressed up in arrangements heavily influenced by the rock-soul-psychedelic fusion of Sly & The Family Stone. "Cloud Nine", "Psychedelic Shack", "Runaway Child, Running Wild" and "Ball Of Confusion" were galvanizing hits, if a bit self-conscious in their lyrical references. The group never turned their backs on good old-fashioned romance, either, as the huge hits "I Can't Get Next To You" and "Just My Imagination" demonstrated.
Whitfield would continue to work with The Temptations through the mid-'70s. Indeed, the 1972 US #1 single "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" was a triumph for him, the group and Motown. With its throbbing, slow-burning rhythms and hard-hearted depiction of urban rootlessness, soul rarely sounded so foreboding and compelling. 1973's "Masterpiece" was their final US Top 10 pop hit. The Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.