#400: The Temptations, "Anthology" (1995)

In graduate school, a common seminar move was to say, “I think we need to talk not about [singular noun] but about [plural noun]”not sexuality, but sexualities; not the public, but publics, etc. In that spirit, I think we ought to speak not of the Temptations’ Anthology, but of Anthologies. The Temptations’ Anthology exists in three different iterations: a triple LP from 1973, a double CD from 1986, and a revised two-CD package from 1995. The three versions have different artwork, different formats, different contents. Five post-1973 songs were added in 1986, and the 1995 set switched out about 25% of its content. My hunch is that the listmakers at Rolling Stone did not carefully collate the various editions but simply chose the one that was currently available.

Their inclusion of Anthology (an Anthology) acknowledges the greatness of the Temptations and lets them bow in the direction of Motown, a label that produced scores of immortal songs but no memorable albums before What’s Going On. (I see that Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ Going to a Go Go is ranked #273 on the big list, but I disagree.) We used to fret a lot in high school about whether Best-Ofs counted as “real” albums, but without such compilations a lot of hugely important and justly beloved music falls out of the canon. Even with compilations, the Rolling Stone 500 is missing much Motown: no “Money,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “Shop Around,” “My Guy,” “Dancing in the Streets,” “Shotgun,” “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “I Want You Back,” etc.

We need to speak of Anthologies, too, because the original Temptations Anthology in 1973 was part of a series of triple-album anthologies released by Motown after its sale and removal to Los Angeles. These were lavish affairs: double gatefolds with glossy booklets and generous song selection. (Sometimes too generous. Six sides are a lot to fill, and “lesser” artists who got only four sides sometimes benefitted.) The look was somewhat standardized. The covers all had the word Anthology at the top, with the group or singer’s name below it, encased in a lurid, oblong rainbow of green, yellow, red and purple. The covers were color coded: yellow for the Marvelettes, blue for the Four Tops, orange for Jr. Walker and the All Stars, etc.. I bought a few of the Anthologies, although it was usually easier to find cheap, used copies of the older Motown “Greatest Hits” LPs from the mid-sixties, which had less filler. The Temptations had two of these Greatest Hits: Vol. I (1966) and Vol. II (1970).

Thus we ought to speak not of Temptations but of Temptationses. The Temptations, too, existed in different versions, marked not (as Joni sings) by lovers and styles of clothes, but by producers and lead singers. There were the early, jaunty, lovelorn Temptations, with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks singing lead and Smokey Robinson writing and producing (e.g., “The Way You Do the Things You Do”). And there are the later, angry, socially conscious Temptations, with Dennis Edwards singing lead and Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong writing and producing (e.g., “Ball of Confusion”). There’s plenty of overlap, however, since Eddie Kendricks and his crazy falsetto straddle both periods, and Ruffin and Whitfield collaborated in the middle (e.g., “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”). There’s great music from all phases of their career, or at least from the first, golden decade of it, but it’s hard to find a through-line from “My Girl” to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”

Here’s a question we didn’t ask much in graduate school: how good is this work of art? How does the music of the Temptations[es] hold up? Is it better or worse than other music? These are questions that I sometimes waver on with respect to the Temptations and Motown more generally. I’m never quite sure if we undervalue or overestimate Motown. For certain rock critics, particularly Dave Marsh, Motown is the pinnacle of black popular music. When I discovered soul music in the early ’80s, however, I preferred the rawer, churchier Atlantic/Stax artists: Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, etc. The funkiness of the Funk Brothers was hard for me to hear, especially on those early, hand-clappy, finger-snappy, tambourine-happy Motown recordings like “Jimmy Mack” and “Baby Love.” And I was scornful of the subsequent Motown revival, sparked by The Big Chill soundtrack and the California Raisins, limited as it was to a few, overplayed songs. But there are riches in the Motown catalogueplenty (I suspect) that I don’t yet know about. And re-listening to the Temptations this past week, I was reminded that they have a deep and deeply soulful repertoire.

I’ll single out two songs. “Since I Lost My Baby” (1965) has an aching lead vocal from Ruffin and a clever, economical lyric from Smokey Robinson describing how a happy world looks through the lens of heartbreak: “But fun is a bore, and with money I’m poor.” The arrangement is stately, and the vocal is restrained but no less impassioned than anything Otis Redding recorded. Three years later, they released “Cloud Nine,” their first song with Dennis Edwards singing lead. It’s a crackling, taut recording with a fierce, communal vocal inspired by Sly and the Family Stone. It’s presumably an anti-drug song, only pretending to praise the singer’s escape from the pains of this world: “I’m doing fine / On cloud nine.” But unlike many later songs on this theme, it avoids preachiness; if the singer is deceiving himself, he is capable of deceiving me as well. And then when I go on YouTube and see their clothes and choreography, it makes me think I’d give all my Anthologies to have seen them perform it in person.

—Will Pritchard