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The Temptations became the most progressive of Motown's big-name acts, but it happened against their will.  Since the 50s they had specialized in a form of post-doo wop harmonizing and became superstars on the heels of traditional fare like "My Girl" and "Get Ready," both produced by Smokey Robinson with his slick, accessible touch.

When Norman Whitfield was handed the Tempts' career as his first big assignment, it signalled a drastic change of direction for the group.  "Beauty's Only Skin Deep" retained many elements of Smokey's style, but starting with "I Can't Get Next to You" the group adopted a funkier orientation.  Deeply influenced by Sly Stone, Whitfield experimented with rockish arrangements, emphasized the bottom of the mix, added percussion and generally gave them a more identifiably black groove that would have been unacceptable had he not been producing hits.

The story of "Cloud Nine" illustrates the internal battle between Motown, Whitfield and the Temptations about their new image.  A song with clear references to drugs, it was definitely not the kind of material associated with Motown.  After Whitfield convinced them to record the song, Motown refused to issue it as a single until it became a hit in Europe.  Ironically, "Cloud Nine" won Motown its first Grammy award.

Emboldened by his success, Whitfield and lyricist Barrett Strong started piling on the issues; poverty ("Ghetto"), racism ("Slave"), wayward children ("Runaway Child, Running Wild), and politics ("Ball of Confusion").  Tensions between artist and producer boiled over when Eddie Kendricks departed for a solo career, citing the untraditional bag they had been forced into.

But Motown was always reluctant to tamper with a winning formula and continued to allow Whitfield to drive the Temptations' motor.  He responded with "Papa Was A Rolling Stone," which Dennis Edwards originally refused to sing because he felt Whitfield was putting his personal life on display.

He probably was, but as a symphonic soul masterwork, it was a watershed moment for all parties involved.  An instrumental suite opened the 12 minute composition and was so captivating that it won the Grammy for best instrumental, even more astonishing since "Papa" was a vocal number.  It anchored the All Directions LP and is one of their most requested songs.

By now, Whitfield had eclipsed the singers in terms of importance to their sound.  Using the studio as his personal playground, he had managed to keep delivering the hits despite frequent personnel changes (Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin and Paul Williams being replaced respectively by Damon Harris, Dennis Edwards and Richard Street). In fact, the Whitfield years were the most commecially potent of the Temptations' career.  He cemented his hold on the group with Masterpiece, where he pulled out his most advanced technical wizardry for what many consider the ultimate Temptations album.

Understandably the vocalists were tiring of being held hostage in their own group, and their relationship with Whitfield was over by the end of 1973. Norman took his funky vibes to the Undisputed Truth, where he cooked up songs even more warped than the Temptations' most outrageous tracks.  The Tempts struggled to come to terms with life outside of Norman's world, recording everything from heavyweight funk to MOR ballads and disco.

Oddly enough, they would not have a major hit until reuniting with Whitfield for 1983's "Treat Her Like A Lady."

Temptations' Deepest Grooves

I Wish It Would Rain (Gordy, 1968)

Cloud Nine (Gordy, 1969)

Puzzle People (Gordy, 1969)

Psychedelic Shack (Gordy, 1970)

Sky's the Limit (Gordy, 1971)
Eddie's swan song on "Just My Imagination" is the highlight.

Solid Rock (Gordy, 1972)

All Directions (Gordy, 1972)
Worth hearing if only for the full version of "Papa Was A Rolling Stone."

Masterpiece (Gordy, 1973)
1990 (Gordy, 1973)
The glorious run of pschedelicized soul comes to an end with these LPs. Masterpiece is one of their fan favorites; 1990 is one of their most obscure albums.

A Song For You (Gordy, 1975)
Would be remiss if this album was not mentioned.  Produced by funkophile Jeff Bowden and Funkadelic members Eddie Hazel and Billy Bass fire up the classic "Shakey Ground."

Copyright 2001 B.Graff.  All rights reserved.

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