I’ve been participating in an album draft conducted by fellow blogger Hans for his excellent blog slicethelife, in which I, along with he and eight other bloggers, have been choosing some of our favorite albums. The latest category was ‘greatest hits or compilations’. I have a lot of greatest hits albums in my collection, as there are a number of artists and bands who had several songs I love, but I didn’t want to necessarily buy any particular album of theirs. (I’ve purchased far too many albums because I loved a particular song or two, but then had to suffer listening to a lot of filler tracks, or else skip them altogether.) For those artists, a greatest hits compilation was the perfect choice for me, as I would then have all or most of their songs that I liked on one record.
My pick is “The Temptations: All the Million-Sellers”, which was released in 1981 by Motown as one of their series of ‘Motown Compact Classics’. While not necessarily my favorite ‘greatest hits’ album, I chose this particular compilation over others in my collection because it contains only 10 songs, every one of which I love and consider to be the very best by the Temptations. Frankly, many of the greatest hits albums I own still contain at least a few of what I feel are throwaway songs. With this compilation, there’s no need for me to skip over any tracks. I also like that the tracks are arranged in chronological order, which I think is essential for all ‘greatest hits’ compilations, as it gives us a better feel for how the artist or group’s music evolved over time.
- My Girl
- Ain’t Too Proud to Beg
- I Wish it Would Rain
- Cloud Nine
- Runaway Child, Running Wild
- I Can’t Get Next to You
- Psychedelic Shack
- Ball of Confusion
- Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)
- Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone
The Temptations are one of the longest-running music acts, active in one form or another since their origins in 1960! They were known for their precise choreography, stylish suits, distinctive harmonies, and the fact that they were a true ensemble, in which all five members’ vocals were prominently featured on many of their songs. Like the Beatles were for rock music, the Temptations were a major influence for many male R&B and soul acts to follow in their footsteps.
The group’s lineup has changed numerous times over the years, but their lineup during their early ‘classic’ period of 1964-68 consisted of David Ruffin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams (no relation to Paul), Eddie Kendricks and Melvin Franklin. Gruff-voiced vocalist Ruffin sang the first three hits listed above, but was kicked out of the band in 1968 due to his increasing cocaine abuse and numerous disagreements with fellow band members. He was replaced by Dennis Edwards, another gruff-voiced vocalist who sang lead on “Cloud Nine”, “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “Psychedelic Shack”, “Ball of Confusion” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”. Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams left in 1971, Kendricks to pursue a solo career and Williams for health reasons. Otis Williams is the last surviving founding member of the Temptations, and at 79 he continues to perform. He also owns the rights to the Temptations name.
I love their first big hit “My Girl”, but “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” is just so damn catchy. And you gotta love those smooth dance moves!
One of my favorites of their songs is “I Can’t Get Next to You”, which was their second single to reach #1, in 1969. I especially love the opening where we first hear clapping and yelling, then Dennis Edwards says “Hey everybody, hold it hold it, listen”, followed by a jazzy little piano riff before the song kicks in. I also like that all five members’ vocals are prominently featured.
Perhaps their most beautiful song is the 1971 hit “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”, which was their third #1 single. By the early 70s, many of the Temptations longtime fans were frustrated by all the psychedelic songs with social and political themes they’d been releasing, most notably “Cloud Nine”, which touched on the struggles of living in poverty, with oblique references to using drugs as an escape, and “Ball of Confusion”, which touched on a litany of social, political and environmental problems of the day, many of which are still applicable 50 years later. These fans longed for songs more in the smoother R&B style of the group’s early days. In a 1991 interview, Eddie Kendricks recalled that many Temptations’ fans were “screaming bloody murder” after the group delved into psychedelia, demanding a return to their original soul sound.
Songwriting duo Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong had written the lyrics to “Just My Imagination” in 1969, and finally decided to have the group record it in late 1970, with Kendricks singing lead vocals. According to Wikipedia, the song was recorded in the midst of a bitter feud between Kendricks and the Temptations’ de facto leader, Otis Williams. Dissatisfied and frustrated with Williams’ leadership, Kendricks began to withdraw from the group, and picked several fights with either Williams or fellow band member Melvin Franklin. This would be the last song Kendricks (and Paul Williams) would sing with the Temptations.
The group’s fourth and final #1 hit – and in my opinion their best song ever – is the darkly gorgeous masterpiece “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”. Somewhat of a return to the group’s psychedelic soul sound orchestrated by Whitfield and Strong, the song was both a musical and stylistic departure for the Temptations. Beginning with an extended instrumental introduction lasting nearly four minutes (a style pioneered by artists like Isaac Hayes, and used in later songs like Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby”), each of the song’s three verses is separated by extended musical passages, in which Whitfield inserted various instrumental textures in and out of the mix. It’s like a psychedelic R&B symphony, which is probably why I love it so much. That said, the Temptations were reportedly unhappy that Whitfield’s instrumentation was given greater emphasis than their vocals on the track.
Lyrically, the song is about a now-deceased father who left his wife and family to lead a life of debauchery and crime. It was originally written by Whitfield and Strong for soul group The Undisputed Truth, whose recording of the song failed to attract attention. They then had the Temptations record it, and it became one of their biggest hits. Four of the group’s members were prominently featured on vocals, each taking the role of siblings questioning their mother about their father. Her repeated response, sung by Dennis Edwards, was chilling: “Papa was a rollin’ stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home. And when he died, all he left us was alone.” For years, I’d assumed the falsetto vocals were by Eddie Kendricks, but I now know he’d left the band prior to the song’s recording, and those vocals were sung by Damon Harris.
Here is the long version of the song, with it’s extended instrumentals:
“My Girl”, “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)”, and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”, are included among The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll”. Rolling Stone magazine ranked the Temptations at number 68 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of all time.