The Temptations are an American vocal group that achieved fame as one of the most successful acts to record for Motown Records. The group's repertoire has included, at various times during its five-decade career, R&B, doo-wop, funk, disco, soul, and adult contemporary music.
Formed in Detroit, Michigan in 1960 as The Elgins, the Temptations have always featured at least five male vocalists/dancers. The group, known for its recognizable choreography, distinct harmonies, and onstage suits, has been said to be as influential to soul as The Beatles are to pop and rock. Having sold tens of millions of albums, the Temptations are one of the most successful groups in music history and were the definitive male vocal group of the 1960s. In addition, they have the second-longest tenure on Motown (behind Stevie Wonder), as they were with the label for a total of 40 years: 16 years from 1961 to 1977, and 24 more from 1980 to 2004 (from 1977 to 1980, they were signed to Atlantic Records). As of 2009, the Temptations continue to perform and record for Universal Records with the one living original member, co-founder Otis Williams, still in its lineup.
The original group included members of two local Detroit vocal groups: The Distants, which featured second tenor Otis Williams, first tenor Elbridge "Al" Bryant and bass Melvin Franklin; and first tenor/falsetto Eddie Kendricks and second tenor/baritone Paul Williams (no relation to Otis) from The Primes. Among the most notable future Temptations were lead singers David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards (both of whom became successful Motown solo artists after leaving the group), Richard Street (another former Distant), Damon Harris, Ron Tyson, Ali-Ollie Woodson, Theo Peoples, and G. C. Cameron. Like its sister female group, the Supremes, the Temptations' lineup has changed frequently particularly in recent decades.
Over the course of their career, the Temptations have released four Billboard Hot 100 number-one singles and 14 Billboard R&B number-one singles. Their material has earned them three Grammy Awards, while two more awards were conferred upon the songwriters and producers who crafted their 1972 hit "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone". The Temptations were the first Motown act to earn a Grammy Award. Six Temptations: Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Otis Williams, and Paul Williams were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Three classic Temptations songs, "My Girl", "Ain't Too Proud to Beg", and "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone", are among The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
Childhood friends Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Kel Osbourne, and Wiley Waller formed a doo-wop group called the Cavaliers in their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955. Reduced to a trio after Waller left the group in 1957, Kendricks, Williams, and Osbourne left Birmingham in order to break into the music business. After first moving to Cleveland, Ohio, they settled in Detroit. The Primes, as the doo-wop trio was now called, were well-known around Detroit for their meticulous performances. Group manager Milton Jenkins even created a sister group for the Primes called the Primettes, recruiting Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diane (later Diana) Ross, and Betty McGlown for the spin-off act. Eddie Kendricks was already becoming a local "Matinee Idol", and Paul Williams was known for his powerful baritone voice, having an adult style even as a teenager.
Otis Williams had moved from his native Texarkana, Texas to Detroit as a young boy, to live with his mother. By 1958, he was the leader of Otis Williams & the Siberians, a doo-wop group that included Williams, his friend Elbridge "Al" Bryant, James "Pee-Wee" Crawford, Vernard Plain, and Arthur Walton. This quintet recorded the single "Pecos Kid" backed with "All of My Life" for a label run by local radio deejay Senator Bristol Bryant. The single never took off outside the local Detroit market, and the Siberians changed their name to The El Domingoes shortly afterward.
At this time, more changes took place. Montgomery, Alabama native Melvin Franklin replaced Arthur Walton as the bass singer and Franklin's cousin, Detroit-born Richard Street, replaced Vernard Plain as lead singer. The group soon signed with Northern Records, run by Johnnie Mae Matthews, who renamed the group The Distants. The Distants recorded two singles for Northern, "Come On" (1959, featuring additional background vocals by the Andantes), and "Alright" (1960). Between these two releases, Albert "Mooch" Harrell replaced Pee-Wee Crawford. "Come On" was a local hit for the Distants, and the Warwick label picked the record up for national distribution. After the release of "Alright", Matthews appointed Williams the group leader, and the group was renamed Otis Williams & the Distants. Though Otis Williams had a pleasant, but unremarkable, lead voice, he organized the group and so became the defacto leader, as he would later with the Temptations.
Influences and colleagues
The Primes and the Distants were influenced by several Detroit groups, the most famous of which was the Miracles led by Smokey Robinson. The Miracles were known for their stage show, and their pop success was something for which both groups strived. Other important inspirations included the Cadillacs, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, the Drifters, and the Isley Brothers.
The various members of the Primes and the Distants, who would later become part of the Temptations, met a number of their future Motown bandmates, labelmates, and producers during the early part of their careers. Melvin Franklin had been a member of the recording group the Voice Masters, which also included among its ranks Lamont Dozier, David Ruffin (his cousin), and another cousin, none other than Jackie Wilson. The musicians at the recording session for the Distants' "Come On" included James Jamerson on bass, the Andantes on background vocals, and Norman Whitfield on tambourine.
Forming the Temptations
A promotional image of the original early 1960s Temptations lineup. Clockwise from top right: Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, and Elbridge "Al" Bryant.
Although "Come On" was a local hit in the Detroit area, the Distants never saw much of their share from the record sales, and the second single was not as successful. After receiving an offer from Berry Gordy of Motown Records, the group got out of its contract with Matthews and left Northern. At the same time, it lost Mooch Harrell, Richard Street, and the rights to use its name. Street would front a new group of Distants for the local Thelma label during the early 1960s.
The Distants were acquainted with the Primes, as both groups made the same types of talent shows, and concerts. The two groups were friendly rivals, with the Primes being the more polished and stronger vocal performers. The Primes disbanded in 1960 when Kel Osbourne moved to California, and Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams returned to Alabama. While in Detroit visiting relatives, Kendricks called Otis Williams who, desperately needing two more members for an audition for Gordy, offered Kendricks a lead singer place in the Distants. Kendricks agreed, with one condition -- that he could bring Paul Williams with him. Otis Williams happily agreed, and Kendricks and Paul Williams moved back to Detroit to join the new group.
The new lineup of Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, Elbridge "Al" Bryant, Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams took on the name The Elgins and auditioned for Motown in March 1961. Gordy agreed to sign the group to his Miracle Records label, as he was already familiar with Kendricks and Williams from background singing sessions they had done before Gordy had formed Motown, but he discovered just before signing that there was already a singing group called the Elgins. The quintet quickly began tossing about ideas for a new name on the steps of Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters and studio. On a suggestion from Miracle Records employee Billy Mitchell, songwriter Mickey Stevenson, and group members Otis Williams and Paul Williams, The Temptations became the group's new moniker. The "Elgins" name would re-surface at Motown in 1965, when Gordy renamed a quartet called The Downbeats as The Elgins.
The Temptations released two singles on Miracle, "Oh Mother of Mine" and "Check Yourself" featuring Paul Williams' powerful lead, before it was closed and merged with the Gordy label (to avoid confusion with the Miracles singing group). All seven of the Temptations' singles released between 1961 and 1963 failed to make it onto the U.S. Hot 100 pop singles charts; the 1962 single "Dream Come True" (which featured Eddie Kendricks' lead) made it to number 22 on the R&B chart. During that time the group became known as one of the most talented and versatile groups in the country. Paul Williams and Kendricks split most of the leads during this period, with Kendricks becoming the standard for all first tenor/falsetto singers, and Williams as an unsurpassed performer. Bryant, Otis Williams, and Franklin occasionally sang lead but the signature sound, both as leads and the core of the famous harmony was the Kendricks/Williams duo.
Many songwriter and producer teams had been trying to craft a hit for the Temptations, including Berry Gordy, Mickey Stevenson, Clarence Paul, and Norman Whitfield. They tried to take the group in several different directions, all in order to find the perfect sound that would put them not only on the U.S. charts (both Pop & R&B), but in the Top 20 as well. One song "Isn