n the late sixties, writer-producers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong began to create an entirely new musical environment for the Temptations, beginning with "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" in 1966. Instead of melodious tunes like "My Girl" or "Since I Lost My Baby," the group fell into a new bag of psychedelic soul, hard rock, and social commentary. Taking a cue from Sly and the Family Stone, they rapidly evolved their look and sound, putting a heavy emphasis on musical messages. Although they still sang love songs with their sister group, the Supremes ("I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," "I'll Try Something New"), they were strictly in a guest-starring role. In 1970 the Tempts, as they came to be known, really laid it on thick with "Psychedelic Shack" and "Ball of Confusion," two of their most topical records.
It was quite a shock then, in 1971, for the quintet to make another about-face. This time they went backward -- beyond their own earliest hits -- all the way to their streetcorner days in the fifties, as a Detroit doo-wop group.
Whitfield and Strong wrote "Just My Imagination" as a billowy showcase for the lilting voice of Eddie Kendricks, one of the three lead singers in the Tempts. The track appeared on the album Sky's the Limit, which reflected the changing political mood in America. There were still psychedelic tunes and social comments on the album, but it was clear that sixties revolutionary fervor was beginning to wear thin. "Just My Imagination" became the most famous song on the album, and a platinum single to boot.
The track was released as a 45 in February 1971, and took off right away. It peaked at number one in April, spending fifteen weeks on the charts. During that period, it sold in excess of two million copies.
By that time Eddie Kendricks was no longer a Temptation. He quit the group to embark on a solo career -- one that really didn't get off the ground for more than two years. Finally, in 1973, "Keep On Truckin'" became his first big hit; "Boogie Down" and "Son of Sagittarius" followed in 1974. In 1975 he hit again with "Shoeshine Boy," and in 1976, "He's a Friend."
Paul Williams also left the Temptations in March of 1971, but continued to draw a salary as an advisor. Williams was separated from his wife, said to have owed $80,000 in back taxes, and was being treated for alcoholism. Friends said Paul was putting away two fifths of cognac a day. On August 17, 1973, at the age of thirty-four, he committed suicide in Detroit. He was buried two blocks from the Motown offices where he and the other Tempts had cut their first record nearly ten years before.
As for the Temptations, they kept going with new members. Three hundred auditioned to fill Eddie's shoes (Damon Harris got the nod), while Richard Street replaced Paul Williams. Late in 1971, they made the Top 20 with an offbeat single "Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)."
In 1985 Daryl Hall and John Oates invited Kendricks and Ruffin onstage for a recorded performance at the newly reopened Apollo Theatre. A Temptations medley reached the Top 20 on the singles chart and revived interest in the two. Things seemed to be looking up, but on June 1, 1991, Ruffin, long plagued by drug addiction, overdosed on cocaine after visiting a crack house. He lapsed into a coma and when doctors at a Philadelphia hospital failed to revive him, he was pronounced dead. He was 50. Michael Jackson paid for Ruffin's funeral, which was presided over by the Reverend Louis Farrakhan and attended by countless celebrities.
The following year Kendricks died of lung cancer at age 52. Later soul singer Bobby Womack organized two concerts to raise funds for the singer's survivors. Otis Williams penned his autobiography, Temptations, in 1988 and the next year the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by longtime admirers Hall & Oates. Their Emperors of Soul box set was among 1994's best reviewed compilations. Melvin Franklin died of a complications following a brain seizure on February 23, 1995; he had suffered from various health problems since the late eighties. Williams continues to lead the Tempts into their fourth decade.
Despite the many personnel changes and conflicts, through countless triumphs and setbacks, the Temptations have endured, and will be remembered as the most consistently commercial and critically lauded male vocal group of the sixties and early seventies. In 1980 a tribute was made to the group by their own congressman, Rep. John Conyers, Jr., who spoke of their contribution to music in the 91st U.S. Congress' Congressional Record. "The Temptations' involvement is total and sincere," it reads in part, "and whether they are communicating with young people on the basketball court, the baseball field, by personal appearances or through their music, the effect has been inspirational to many, and appreciated by all."
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