The Temptations were initially formed from two Detroit-based vocal harmony groups: the Primes (a trio of relocated Alabamans that included Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams) and the Distants (a quintet whose members included Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin and Elbridge Bryant). When the latter group lost its other members, Kendricks and Williams were invited to join the Distants, and the reconstituted quintet auditioned for Berry Gordy.
Not only were they signed to Motown, but after a couple of singles on its Miracle affiliate, a new label imprint (Gordy) was created with them in mind. Still, the Temptations had trouble establishing themselves in the beginning, and by the end of 1963 - much like the early story of the Supremes - they had only a string of non-charting singles to their credit. Then, singer David Ruffin entered the picture. Replacing Elbridge Bryant, Ruffin brought a raspy, gospel-style tenor and fervent showmanship to the Temptations, serving as a perfect complement to the group's vocal blend, which included Kendricks' high tenor, Otis Williams' middle tenor, Paul Williams' baritone and Melvin Franklin's deep bass voice. They liked to refer to themselves as "five lead vocalists."
This was the Temptations' classic line-up, lasting from 1964 to 1968. Their career upturn began with the Top Twenty success of the Smokey Robinson-penned "The Way You Do the Things You Do" in early '64, the first in a series of 37 career Top Ten hits. Both Robinson and Whitfield vied to supply the group with hit material. Backed by Motown's peerless studio band, a veritable in-house orchestra dubbed the Funk Brothers, the Temptations ruled the Top Forty at mid-decade with such milestones of Motown soul as "My Girl", "Ain't Too Proud to Beg", "Beauty's Only Skin Deep", "(I Know) I'm Losing You" and "I Wish It Would Rain".
After Ruffin failed to appear at a 1968 live performance, the other four Tempts fired him; he was replaced by ex-Contour Dennis Edwards, who could later look back on his lengthy tenure with the Temptations - which lasted through various comings and goings for 20 years - and note that he sang lead on more hits than Ruffin and Kendricks combined.
Edwards' arrival coincided with the onset of the Temptations' "psychedelic" period, a turn toward more contemporary sounds and incisive subject matter inspired by the likes of Sly and the Family Stone. This inaugurated the most successful run of singles in the Temptations' long career. During the years 1968-72, the group - under the continuing direction of songwriter/producer Norman Whitfield - turned out a dizzying array of timely, funky, relevant hits, including "Cloud Nine", "Runaway Child, Running Wild", "I Can't Get Next to You", "Psychedelic Shack", "Ball of Confusion" and their masterpiece of social realism and ensemble vocals, "Papa Was a Rolling Stone". Amid this onslaught of psychedelic soul, the Temptations also cut "Just My Imagination", a velvety, Kendrick-sung ballad that harked back to the days of "My Girl" and returned them to the top of the charts in 1971.
Kendrick left shortly thereafter to embark on a solo career, striking paydirt on his own with "Boogie People" and "Keep On Truckin'". One new member who came on-board in 1971 was Richard Street, who had belonged to the Distants.
During the Seventies, in the spirit of that album-oriented era, the Temptations recorded some of their strongest and most cohesive long players, including "Masterpiece" (1973), "A Song For You" (1975) and "The Temptations Do the Temptations" (1976).
In 1982, Ruffin and Kendrick rejoined the Temptations for the reunion album and a wildly successful tour. In May 1983, the Temptations' vocal duel with the Four Tops served as a highlight of Motown's 25th anniversary TV special.
In the years that followed, the Temptations continued touring and recording, although by the 1990s they were essentially an oldies act; only Otis Williams, who published his autobiography in 1988, remained from the original line-up. The intervening years were marked by tragedy.
After touring in the late '80s with Eddie Kendricks and Dennis Edwards as a member of the "Tribute to the Temptations" package tour, David Ruffin died on June 1st, 1991 after overdosing on cocaine; he was 50 years old. On October 5th, 1992, Kendricks died at the age of 52 of lung cancer, and on February 23rd, 1995, 52-year-old Melvin Franklin passed away after suffering a brain seizure.
In 1998, the Temptations returned with "Phoenix Rising"; that same year, their story was also the subject of a well-received NBC television miniseries.
As a testament to its staying power, the band has been the focus of seemingly endless anthologies, but the album "Lost and Found: You've Got to Earn It (1962-1968)", released in the summer of 1999, marks the group's most prolific stage.
When the new millennium rolled around, the Temptations were still on the road with the line-up of Otis Williams, first/second tenor; Ron Tyson, first tenor; Barrington Henderson, baritone; Terry Weeks, first/second tenor and baritone; and Harry McGillberry, bass. The LP "Awesome" was released in 2001, followed by "Reflections" in 2005. "Back To Front", which hit the R&B Top 20 album charts, was issued in 2007, and in May, 2010 The Temptations released their 49th album, "Still Here" to favorable reviews.
By 2012 The Temps, comprised of Otis Williams, Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, Joe Herndon and Bruce Williamson, were still touring, with dates booked across America and Europe. In March, they joined a class action law suit against Universal Music, seeking millions of dollars after allegedly being cheated out of revenue from digital downloads and ringtones. The Temptations continued to perform and record for Universal Music and received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2013.
Otis "Damon" Harris, who joined The Tempataions when Eddie Kendricks left in 1972, died of prostate cancer on February 18th, 2013 at the age of 62. He sang on the hits "Papa Was A Rolling Stone", "Take a Look Around" and "Masterpiece" and helpd the group win three Grammy Awards. A week later, Richard Street, who was a member of the Motown supergroup for 25 years, passed away of a pulmonary embolism. He was 70.
The Temptations will always be remembered as one of the most beloved groups ever to step up to the microphone. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked them at #67 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. In 2005, they were voted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends online Hall of Fame. Their classic recording of "My Girl" was selected as a Legendary Michigan Song in 2007.
For more, be sure to read Gary James' Interview With Otis Williams