The year is 1968, and The Temptations have a problem. They are one of the biggest groups in the world, but their lead singer is destroying himself, and taking The Temptations with him.
David Ruffin joined The Temptations in 1964, after the group’s previous tenor Elbridge “Al” Bryant was fired for a combination of poor work ethic and troubles with alcoholism. With Ruffin, The Temptations became stars. Unfortunately for The Temptations, that newfound fame came with seemingly unending personal issues.
Not long after breaking out with their hit “My Girl,” Ruffin became addicted to cocaine. Under the influence of the drug, his ego became severely inflated. It wasn’t long before Ruffin was missing rehearsals, and then performances. Between missing concerts, heavy drug use, and public episodes of domestic violence, Ruffin had become a black eye on the group’s public image. They needed a change.
Enter Dennis Edwards.
Dennis Edwards had been a friend of the band, including David Ruffin, for some time. He already had some frontman experience, filling in as the lead vocalist for fellow Motown act The Contours, but was unproven compared to his new bandmates. It quickly became apparent that he was exactly what The Temptations needed.
With their new frontman, The Temptations became bigger than ever. Under new direction from producer Norman Whitfield, the band shifted from their classic Motown sound to what would become known as psychedelic soul. Blending the funk style of Sly and the Family Stone with the psychedelic rock sound that was popular at the time, The Temptations completely reinvented themselves musically.
The first single released in the new era for The Temptations was “Cloud Nine”, a psychedelic soul anthem that featured the lead vocals of Dennis Edwards, as well as longtime band members Eddie Kendricks (falsetto), Paul Williams (baritone), and Melvin Franklin (bass). Edwards did most of the singing, but with the new way of doing things, all of The Temptations were singing lead parts. “Cloud Nine” went to number six on the Pop Chart, and won the group their first Grammy award. Not only was this a first for The Temptations, but for Motown Records as a whole.
Prior to the Dennis Edwards era, The Temptations had reached number one on the Pop Chart only once, for “My Girl.” In the first five years of Dennis Edwards’ tenure with the group, The Temptations hit number one three more times. Edwards managed to replace an immensely talented lead singer in one of the biggest groups in the world, and instead of slowing down, made them more successful than they had ever been.
From 1971, the lineup of The Temptations began to change more frequently. Eddie Kendricks quit the group to pursue a solo career, while Paul Williams was forced to retire due to health concerns. Edwards himself left the group several times to get his own struggles with addiction under control, before finally leaving The Temptations for good in 1989. The Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that same year, including both David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards.
The Temptations still exist to this day, still featuring bandleader Otis Williams, while the rest of the former stars of the group have passed away. Dennis Edwards himself died in 2018, after a storied career that included being the man who somehow replaced David Ruffin and only made The Temptations better.
2 thoughts on “How The Temptations’ Reinvention Made Them Bigger Than Ever”
Great read. Had no idea they switch lead singers so often.
I went to a Gladys Knight concert back in Aug with my mom. 1st time I ever saw her live. She talked about Motown, history and friendships. Was fantastic. Have you ever seen her perform?
Thanks for the comment — I have not seen Gladys, but I would love to. When I was younger, I had pretty much only heard “Midnight Train to Georgia” but I’ve come to appreciate a lot more of her catalogue in the last couple years as I’ve gotten more and more into soul music. I haven’t seen any of the artists I like in jazz or soul live, honestly — between budget and not wanting to go to shows alone, plus the majority of my favorites being long dead, I haven’t had the opportunity. I’m hoping to get to see Smokey Robinson before he retires.