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Temptations lead singer recalls Motown’s heyday
Sunday, 16 September 2012 21:31

By JOHN NORTH

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Dennis Edwards, former lead singer of The Temptations and now a resident of St. Louis, was interviewed by the Asheville Daily Planet on Aug. 20, prior to the group’s Aug. 31 concert at Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin. 

Edwards, the father of Issa Pointer, whose mother is Ruth Pointer of The Pointer Sisters, began singing at age 2 in his father’s church in Birmingham, Ala. By 1961, he had organized his own group, Dennis Edwards and the Fireballs. Five years later, he joined The Contours, a recording group.

In 1968, he became the first to join the so-called “classic five” of The Temptations, when he was selected as the replacement for lead singer David Ruffin. He followed with a string of No. 1 records and Edwards was inducted —in what was called the “classic five-plus-one” — with The Temptations into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.

He was hired and fired by The Temptations three times. After a prolonged legal battle between Otis Williams, the group’s leader and sole survivor of the “classic five” Temptations, a settlement was reached allowing Edwards to tour under the name The Temptations Review featuring Dennis Edwards. Williams continues to tour separately with The Temptations.

Edwards’ group members include Paul Williams Jr., son of original Temptation Paul Williams; David Sea, Mike Patillo and Chris Arnold. 

 Following are excepts of that telephone interview:

ADP: Any opening comments?

EDWARDS: “It’s been quite a ride. We lost (from the ‘classic five’ lineup) Eddie, Paul, David and Melvin ... Otis (Williams, the lone survivor of the originals) and I are great friends.” Edwards said that he and Williams celebrated the 50th anniversary of the group together last year — the first time they had spent time together in decades. “You never know” — Williams and him might get together for a reunion tour or album sometime, Edwards said.

ADP: Famed Motown producer Brian Holland recently released “The Brian Holland Sessions” album, featuring Detroit vocalist MoZella, with all new songs intended to sound like they were straight out of 1965 Motown. Do you think the classic Motown Sound has a future — or are such project just a meaningless exercise in nostalgia?

EDWARDS: “He (Brian Holland) was a part of the classic Motown Sound ... What they’re missing is the Funk Brothers (Motown’s session musicians who backed most of the label’s songs from 1959 to 1972). You can’t reproduce it (the sound) without the Funk Brothers ... It’s like a pie — it takes all of the parts ... They’re great producers,” he said of Holland-Dozier-Holland (the Motown writing team of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Edward Holland Jr., who wrote many of the hits of Motown from 1962 to 1967), but it takes the complete sound to make it” authentic Motown. 

“We just had a family love of the music. You don’t get that now — it’s a corporate world” today. It was a magical moment (during Motown’s heyday.) Even when we (Motown Records) moved to California, we never recaptured that sound out of Hitsville (the original studio in downtown Detroit). It was a magical era— it’s hard to recreate a magical moment.”

ADP: What was your impression of the 1998 made-for-TV miniseries “The Tempations” based on Otis Williams’ book? Do you feel that you and other group members were depicted accurately, such as in the scene showing you talking to David Ruffin’s date (famed singer) Tammi Terrell — and a jealous Ruffin had his agent Flynn snatch her away from you?

EDWARDS: “I think it was done very well ... Of course, some of the incidents were dramatized and didn’t happen ... The main thing in the movie was David did drugs ... He also was a great person, too,” but Edwards said that part was not shown. 

Overall, Edwards said, “It (the miniseries) was done well ... I cried and cried” when he watched it. “There were so many good things that we did that should have been included,” but Edwards said drama and conflict instead were emphasized.

As for the scene with him and Terrell, he said firmly, “That never happened ... First of all, me and David were best of friends ... I was one of his best friends ... I watched him go downhill (on cocaine). He thought the drugs were helping him.”

ADP: You were friends with Ruffin — what qualities did you like about him? (In the miniseries, Ruffin was presented in a very negative light.” What did you think your your first Temptations concern as leader singer back in Detroit, when, at the end of the show (according to the miniseries), Ruffin grabbed the microphone from you to sing “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg?” Did that really happen? What about Ruffin allegedly saying to the group members who were angry with his unauthorized performance, saying about you, “He ain’t me! He ain’t David Ruffin! Without David Ruffin, The Temptations ain’t nothin’!” Given that you were closest to Ruffin in the group, did that particularly hurt? Were there other instances of Ruffin — after being fired from the group — jumping on the stage during concerts, grabbing the microphone and singing?”

EDWARDS: Contrary to the scenes in the miniseries, Edwards said that “it was always the last song of the show — ‘My Girl’— and David would come down (out of the audience) and sing it.” Edwards said Ruffin would dash onto the stage and he would voluntarily turn the microphone over to his good friend — “and the others guys (in the group) would get so mad” at both him and Ruffin.

One evening, according to Edwards, the group decided to rehire Ruffin and to release Edwards, but Ruffin quickly created such a ruckus that he was fired and Edwards was rehired to rejoin the concert tour before he could fly out the next morning.

Regarding Ruffin, Edwards said, “David once told me, ‘You’re so liucky — you had a Mom and Dad. My Mom left me and Jimmy on the curb’” as kids in Whynot, Miss. 

(Research on Ruffin by the Daily Planet found a different story — one in which his mother died just months after his birth, and his father, a Baptist minister, remarried a schoolteacher, keeping the family together. However, Ruffin’s father reportedly was violently abusive. His father had Ruffin singing with his siblings and other family in a gospel group from a young age, which served as a launching pad for his career.

“He (Ruffin) was a hard worker. He was a nice guy,” when he was not on drugs. “He didn’t have a strong family structure — and lacked support,” Edwards said, noting that Ruffin was fired from the group for repeatedly showing up late for rehearsals, shows — and sometimes not showing up at all.

ADP: How do you feel about Otis Williams, the group’s founder and leader? In the miniseries, he referred to you as a “great singer — and a lot less trouble than David had been?” Yet, he hired and fired you three times from the group.

EDWARDS: “Otis, to me, was the glue of the group ... I love Otis. Even today, the fact that he and I are the only two (from the group’s glory days) left living” makes their relationship special. 

ADP: What about Berry Gordy, the former head of Motown Records — do you like him? What did you think about him moving Motown Records to Los Angeles and then selling the company? Some have said this was a betrayal of all that he had done in Detroit. How did you see it? What did you think about Motown’s shift from love songs to social-conscious message songs? Did you feel that was a bad move, too?

EDWARDS: “I think Berry Gordy was a genius.” He said most singers and musicians were not good businessmen. “We just wanted to sing.” As a result, early in the careers of many artists before they joined Motown, they sang under contract for 2-1/2 cents per song.

“He (Gordy) gave us that opportunity” to realize their dreams, while also making good money. “He had a great, great ear for picking talent. He wanted the music” to appeal to all Americans. “It’s not black music — it’s just music — and that’s what makes it great.”

Edwards spoke of his joy in singing lead on such Temptations hits as “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Shaky Ground,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Runaway Child, Running Wild” and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today).” (The group won Grammys for “Cloud Nine” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”)

“We thought (social consciousness songs had played their course,” so the group “came back to love songs with ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” Edwards said.

ADP: What was it like in the recording session, where Kendricks sang “Just My Imagination” and the soon-to-die Paul Williams sang the vocal knockout line, “Every night on my knees I pray ...?” What did you like about Kendricks and Williams?

EDWARDS: “I was honored to sing with Paul and Eddie” — and he said it was a terrific experience to record “Just My Imagination” with the group. “Paul had one of the richest voices I’d ever heard,” he said. “Eddie was the greatest roman tenor.”

ADP: Given that you won five Grammys, netted 14 gold-certified albums and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, what was it about you — and your voice — that helped The Temptations continue to make memorable music after the firing of the legendary David Ruffin? 

EDWARDS: “I guess I’m pretty good because I replaced my own legend.” Perhaps out of modest, he declined to analyze his own voice.

ADP: Was the miniseries scene accurate, just before the recording of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” between you and songerwriter-producer Norman Whitfield? Were the lyrics coincidental, as you were quoted in the miniseries — “It was the third of September, the day my Daddy died” — that that actually was the day YOUR father died? Or was Whitfield getting back at you for some real or perceived slight? In the same scene, did Whitfield really respond to your passionate anger by saying, “Use it. Ain’t that what artists do?” When you then asked what you ever had done to him, did he say, “You lacked passion” in your singing. “Now you’ve got some?”

EDWARDS: “My father was a minister and my mama was a churchperson. I had a good upbringing.” He said the lyrics struck him as “so ironic” because his father had died on the third of October, so Edwards felt the lyrics struck close to home — and what’s more his father was a good, steady, religious family man ... and anything but “a rolling stone.”

In truth, Edwards said, “Norman was an eccentric ... he just didn’t know.” 

ADP: What about the idea of “The Temptations forever” from the miniseries? How do you feel about the group now — and its musical contribution to America and to the world? What do you hope to achieve with Dennis Edwards and The Temptations Review?

EDWARDS: “I think our music will last forever.” As for his current group, “We make good music — and we try to bring back the classic” Motown Sound.

ADP: Are you seeing a comeback in the size of the audiences in your touring over the past year? Is the crowd predominately white, black, young, old? 

EDWARDS: With a laugh, Edwards said the audiences include a mix of people of all races — and “the kids are coming and the grandkids, too. Sometimes, we span five generations” in the audience. He said attendance of his group’s concerts continues to be strong.

Overall, Edwards said, “It (the miniseries) was done well ... I cried and cried” when he watched it. “There were so many good things that we did that should have been included,” but Edwards said drama and conflict instead were emphasized.

As for the scene with him and Terrell, he said firmly, “That never happened ... First of all, me and David were best of friends ... I was one of his best friends ... I watched him go downhill (on cocaine). He thought the drugs were helping him.”

ADP: You were friends with Ruffin — what qualities did you like about him? (In the miniseries, Ruffin was presented in a very negative light.” What did you think about your first Temptations’ concert as leader singer back in Detroit, when, at the end of the show (according to the miniseries), Ruffin grabbed the microphone from you to sing “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg?” Did that really happen? What about Ruffin allegedly saying to the group members who were angry with his unauthorized performance, saying about you, “He ain’t me! He ain’t David Ruffin! Without David Ruffin, The Temptations ain’t nothin’!” Given that you were closest to Ruffin in the group, did that particularly hurt? Were there other instances of Ruffin — after being fired from the group — jumping on the stage during concerts, grabbing the microphone and singing?”

EDWARDS: Contrary to the scenes in the miniseries, Edwards said that “it was always the last song of the show — ‘My Girl’— and David would come down (out of the audience) and sing it.” Edwards said Ruffin would dash onto the stage and he would voluntarily turn the microphone over to his good friend — “and the others guys (in the group) would get so mad” at both him and Ruffin.

One evening, according to Edwards, the group decided to rehire Ruffin and to release Edwards, but Ruffin quickly created such a ruckus that he was fired and Edwards was rehired to rejoin the concert tour before he could fly out the next morning.

Regarding Ruffin, Edwards said, “David once told me, ‘You’re so liucky — you had a Mom and Dad. My Mom left me and Jimmy on the curb’” as kids in Whynot, Miss. 

(Research on Ruffin by the Daily Planet found a different story — one in which his mother died just months after his birth, and his father, a Baptist minister, remarried a schoolteacher, keeping the family together. However, Ruffin’s father reportedly was violently abusive. His father had Ruffin singing with his siblings and other family in a gospel group from a young age, which served as a launching pad for his career.

“He (Ruffin) was a hard worker. He was a nice guy,” when he was not on drugs. “He didn’t have a strong family structure — and lacked support,” Edwards said, noting that Ruffin was fired from the group for repeatedly showing up late for rehearsals, shows — and sometimes not showing up at all.

ADP: How do you feel about Otis Williams, the group’s founder and leader? In the miniseries, he referred to you as a “great singer — and a lot less trouble than David had been?” Yet, he hired and fired you three times from the group.

EDWARDS: “Otis, to me, was the glue of the group ... I love Otis. Even today, the fact that he and I are the only two (from the group’s glory days) left living” makes their relationship special. 

ADP: What about Berry Gordy, the former head of Motown Records — do you like him? What did you think about him moving Motown Records to Los Angeles and then selling the company? Some have said this was a betrayal of all that he had done in Detroit. How did you see it? What did you think about Motown’s shift from love songs to social-conscious message songs? Did you feel that was a bad move, too?

EDWARDS: “I think Berry Gordy was a genius.” He said most singers and musicians were not good businessmen. “We just wanted to sing.” As a result, early in the careers of many artists before they joined Motown, they sang under contract for 2-1/2 cents per song.

“He (Gordy) gave us that opportunity” to realize their dreams, while also making good money. “He had a great, great ear for picking talent. He wanted the music” to appeal to all Americans. “It’s not black music — it’s just music — and that’s what makes it great.”

Edwards spoke of his joy in singing lead on such Temptations hits as “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Shaky Ground,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Runaway Child, Running Wild” and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today).” (The group won Grammys for “Cloud Nine” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”)

“We thought (social consciousness songs had played their course,” so the group “came back to love songs with ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” Edwards said.

ADP: Was the miniseries scene accurate, just before the recording of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” between you and songerwriter-producer Norman Whitfield? Were the lyrics coincidental, as you were quoted in the miniseries — “It was the third of September, the day my Daddy died” — that that actually was the day YOUR father died? Or was Whitfield getting back at you for some real or perceived slight? In the same scene, did Whitfield really respond to your passionate anger by saying, “Use it. Ain’t that what artists do?” When you then asked what you ever had done to him, did he say, “You lacked passion” in your singing. “Now you’ve got some?”

EDWARDS: “My father was a minister and my mama was a churchperson. I had a good upbringing.” He said the lyrics struck him as “so ironic” because his father had died on the third of October, so Edwards felt the lyrics struck close to home — and what’s more his father was a good, steady, religious family man ... and anything but “a rolling stone.”

In truth, Edwards said, “Norman was an eccentric ... he just didn’t know.” 




 



 


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