1968 was a pivotal year for both The Temptations and their label, Motown Records. When the group fired charismatic and popular frontman David Ruffin – whose sense of self-importance and ego-driven demands threatened to rip the vocal quintet apart – it seemed like a suicidal move in commercial terms, but the acquisition of replacement, ex-Contours singer, Dennis Edwards, eventually proved inspirational, and the group enjoyed even more success than they had before. But Edwards arrived at a time when the group’s producer, Norman Whitfield, who had begun tuning into the psychedelic movement and the late-’60s counterculture revolution, was in the process of rejecting the traditional upbeat Motown sound, and giving them a radical stylistic makeover that would alienate some of their fans who adored the group for their romantic balladry.
Grainy-voiced Edwards debuted on the single (and subsequent parent album with the same title), ‘Cloud Nine,’ in 1968, which officially marked a juncture in the group’s history denoted as their ‘Psychedelic Soul’ era. Sonically, it was tough, funky, fiercely contemporary, and uncompromising, and as the ’60s became the ’70s, Whitfield’s songs were more like socio-political sermons while his production was more grandiose and cinematic, defined by elongated grooves. The group’s ‘Psychedelic Soul’ period is vividly brought to life by the reissue of five Temptations’ albums (all remastered and served up in gatefold mini-LP replica sleeves) that followed in the wake of ‘Cloud Nine.’
1969’s ‘Puzzle People’ continued where ‘Cloud Nine’ left off, showcasing the group’s more pugnacious style. The driving ‘I Can’t Get Next To You’ – with all five Tempts sharing lead vocals, a Whitfield production trait – was the killer single from an album that mixed potent original material – ‘Don’t Let The Joneses Get You Down,’ ‘Message From A Black Man,’ and the 7-minute-long ‘Slave’ – with covers of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude,’ the Isley Brothers’ ‘It’s Your Thing,’ and Bobby Russell’s pop tune, ‘Little Green Apples.’ Even the inclusion of the latter song – one of only two ballads on the 11-track album – didn’t dilute the raw power of the Tempts’ new sound, whose righteous militancy struck a chord with African-American record buyers.
1970’s ‘Psychedelic Shack’ was arguably an even stronger, more ambitious, album, kicking off with a long version of the hit single of the same name, and including the politically-charged ‘War’ (a hit for Edwin Starr later the same year), the existentialist meditation, ‘You Make Your Own Heaven & Hell Right Here On Earth,’ and the filmic funk workout, ‘Hum & Along And Dance,’ where Whitfield’s production work eclipses the group’s vocals. Whitfield was also fond of having different acts under his command recording the same songs, so here, the Tempts serve up two songs that the producer had written with Barrett Strong and had cut first with Gladys Knight & The Pips – ‘You Need Love Like I Do (Don’t You),’ and ‘Friendship Train.’
Despite the toughness, anger, and virility of The Temptations’ music during this period, it’s ironic that the second biggest single of their psychedelic soul period was a wistful romantic ballad from 1971 called ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),’ spotlighting Eddie Kendricks’ seraphic falsetto. Its parent album was ‘Sky’s The Limit,’ an underrated gem in the Tempts’ canon, which also included the message song ‘Unzenga Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)’ and an epic 12-minute version of ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes,’ an ode to paranoia that Whitfield later re-cut for his protégés, the Undisputed Truth.
By the time that The Temptations released their next Motown album, 1972’s ‘Solid Rock,’ Eddie Kendricks had left and Paul Williams had retired due to ill health. In their places came falsetto specialist, Damon Harris, and Richard Street. There were still socially-aware pieces – exemplified by the slow-building anti-Vietnam diatribe, ‘Stop The War Now’ and more strident ‘What It Is’ – but overall, the mood was less intense than previous albums. Highlights included the upbeat ‘Smooth Sailing (From Now On),’ ‘Take A Look Around,’ and the Dennis Edwards-led ballad, ‘It’s Summer,’ which reprised the sweet soul balladry of ‘Just My Imagination.’ The album’s most successful single was the funkafied ‘Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are),’ a stinging riposte to ex-Temptations, Ruffin and Kendricks, who had purportedly been critical of the group after leaving.
After ‘Solid Rock,’ The Temptations’ next album (1972’s ‘All Directions,’ not reissued here) yielded one of their most iconic Whitfield-era songs in the shape of ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone.’ Their next hit was ‘Masterpiece,’ whose parent album is the final CD in this set of reissues. The album version is an immersive, widescreen soundscape arranged by Paul Riser that is built on a simple bass line and last 13-minutes (the vocals don’t enter until almost four minutes into the track but are only heard for three minutes). It’s undoubtedly one of the best songs that they cut with Whitfield at the helm though some of the fans decried the group’s minimal involvement and apparently The Temptations, themselves, weren’t totally happy with their reduced role in the producer’s grand scheme. Other great cuts here include ‘Law Of The Land,’ and ‘Plastic Man,’ while controversially, the dreamy closer, ‘Hurry Tomorrow,’ featuring Damon Harris’ sweet falsetto, seems to condone the taking of hallucinogenic drugs.
While some of the key singles from the Norman Whitfield epoch are familiar to many soul fans, some of the albums they came from are not and so this clutch of well-produced reissues from Elemental is well worth investing in, especially for those wanting to explore the Temptation’s psychedelic soul period in more depth.