Dennis Edwards & the Temptations: We Got To Love the Music. They Had to Live Through the Rest.
Dennis Edwards wasn’t the last Temptation when he died Thursday.
But we’re getting close, because now only Otis Williams remains from the 1960s Temptations, a group that on the stage defined style, elegance and musical exuberance.
And each time we hear more news like Dennis Edwards dying — of meningitis, at the age of 74 — it’s tough not to reflect on what a hard road wound its way behind some of the most sublime popular music of modern times.
The Temptations were sometimes labeled an R&B or soul group, but that was a marketing tag. No one who heard “My Girl” called it anything except a magnificent love song.
No one who heard “Since I Lost My Baby” failed to understand it synthesized vocal harmonies that had been touching the human heart for a hundred years with the smooth rhythm and melodies that were flowing like a mighty river from Motown Records in the mid-1960s.
Motown made music to be played on car radios, and no one made it better. “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” exploded from the speakers of the cool cars that Motown, the city, was serving up to America.
When the Tempts shifted gears after Edwards replaced David Ruffin in 1968, they carved out a trail into the raw and unsettling path that some of the best popular music was taking in the late 1960s, toward “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “I Can’t Get Next To You.”
At the same time, they could still deliver the haunting and pristine “Just My Imagination.” If there’s a better farewell than Eddie Kendricks delivers here, bring it on.
Musically, those years were prosperous. They were also fragile. For proof, look no further than the Temptations.
While the rest of us were cranking up the radio to “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep,” the men who made it were blowing apart.
Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin, the take-care-of-business anchors of the group, were increasingly pitted against Ruffin, who felt he should be featured by name since he sang most of the leads.
His prominence in turn bothered Kendricks, the other primary lead. Meanwhile, fifth member Paul Williams was getting into substance abuse and behaving so erratically that the group finally had to hire Richard Street, an old colleague of Otis Williams, to stand backstage at live shows and sing Paul Williams’s parts.
That quiet sleight-of-hand led Muhammad Ali at one point to exclaim that the Tempts had to be the greatest group ever, because they somehow had five guys and six voices.
They also had other substance abuse issues, a too-common side effect of pop music fame. And they were frustrated with how little of the money the Temptations generated made its way to the Temptations.
Ruffin was fired in early 1968, a move that left him in such shock he went to Edwards’s first show with the group, jumped on stage, grabbed the microphone and sang “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” himself.
It wasn’t disrespect. Ruffin and Edwards were friends. It was disbelief. Today we’d call it denial.
Ruffin would eventually score a couple of solo hits. Just not enough, or at least not enough for him to outrun his demons. Early on the morning of June 1, 1991, an acquaintance left him outside the door of a Philadelphia hospital, where he was pronounced dead of an overdose. He was 50.
A little more than a year later, on Oct. 5, 1992, Kendricks — a lifelong smoker — died of lung cancer. He was 52.
Not that they were the first Temptations to die. Paul Williams was found in a car on Aug. 17, 1973, dead from a bullet to the head. Official verdict: suicide. He was 34. Elbridge Bryant, who was in the original quintet until he got himself kicked out just before the group’s first hit record, died in 1975 from cirrhosis of the liver. He was 36.
Franklin, whose presence made the Tempts one of the last groups with a marvelous bass singer and whose “Old Man River” was a highlight of their live shows for years, died on Feb. 23, 1995. He was 52 and had suffered a series of debilitating health problems.
So by Temptation measures, Edwards didn’t have a bad run. In fact, he had a relatively normal lifespan, which is impressive for someone who also battled drugs along the way.
Edwards did a lot of battling. While he was legitimately the Sixth Tempt and he propelled a lot of hits, people around the group said he was always the latecomer, the new kid, never quite part of the core.
He left the group, came back, left it, came back, left it again. He toured with Ruffin and Kendricks as a trio of famous Temptations voices.
Despite his distinctive voice, intriguingly roughed up by years on the gospel trail, he never had real solo success.
What he did succeed in doing, and this should never be underestimated, was making music his life and career. In the process he also made the popular music of his era better.
That’s not a small legacy. Like his fellow Temptations, and way too many of his colleagues, he did not pay a small price to leave it.