By Allen Michie
Temptations 60 celebrates the band’s 60th anniversary, and it strikes a careful balance between looking backward and staying grounded in the here-and-now.
Temptations 60, The Temptations
Ted Gioia recently made waves with an article detailing how old music is killing off new music. Record labels and radio stations are getting much better returns via catalogs of oldies rather than investments in new artists. There are many interlocking corporate, legal, financial, and aesthetic reasons for this. But while we’re waiting for the course correction to kick in, why not experience the best of both worlds and check out new music from the legacy artists? The Temptations are not shy about reminding us on Temptations 60 that they are an American institution to be treasured. They’ve been out there longer than the Rolling Stones. It’s impossible to imagine the history of R&B and pop music over the last 60 years without their impact and influence.
Temptations 60 celebrates the band’s 60th anniversary (actually, if you date the band back to their first incarnation as the Elgins, it’s their 62nd). It strikes a careful balance between looking backward and staying grounded in the here-and-now. The Temptations have never been content to be a nostalgia band playing the oldies circuit, despite their obligation to play from their deep book of 71 (71!) Top 40 hits in concert. The Temptations have their signature sound and style, and it’s proven to be a flexible and comfortable fit in the popular music of most every year since 1962. Much of the credit for this goes to Otis Williams, now 80 years old (damn, I hope I look that good when I’m 80), and the last original surviving member. He rarely takes the mic as lead singer, but he’s responsible for the artistic direction of the group, and he usually contributes to the vocal arrangements that are the unchanging collective fingerprints that make the Temptations the Temptations.
The Temptations are on a roll right now, which is a sign that there’s something right in the world. They are on tour (with peers The Four Tops on many dates), there’s a new three-part documentary series on YouTube, and of course there’s the Tony Award–winning hit Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud. If Temptations 60 ends up being the last Temptations album, or the last one with Williams, then it’s a fitting farewell in a triumphant year for the band.
Williams wrote the extensive liner notes, and I admit it has me worried. He gives an overview of the band’s history, noting the contributions of each key member of the group over the decades. Then he rightly thanks the many writers, arrangers, and producers that have made the success possible. But then he thanks by name the label A&R men, the marketing department, the legal team, the road crews, and others. By the time he thanks his ENT doctor, this starts to sound like a last will and testament. It casts a bittersweet aura around the record, and it compels you to listen carefully — even cherish — the best parts.
The opening track is a false start and is safely skipped. “Let It Reign” features the rapper K. Sparks, who checks off the expected clichés and formulas while the soulless looped drums and bass plod along behind. Ay yo, not on a Temptations album.
The real opening track is “When We Were Kings,” a fun overview of Temptations history. The “when” in the title implies that they’re no longer kings, which is perhaps an odd stance for a comeback record, but it’s a humble and honest one. There’s a lot of pride in the Temptations tradition here, but no showy braggadocio that’s often so tedious in much R&B. When you’re the real deal, you don’t have to flaunt it. The three relatively new singers (Ron Tyson, in the group for 38 years; Terry Weeks, 24 years; Willie Green, Jr., 5 years) pay tribute to the original five, plus some of the later Temptations singers through the ’70s. While the current Temptations lineup has no need to defend their legitimacy, it’s nevertheless moving to hear the direct lineage continuing so effectively.
The first single from the record is a treat: “Is It Gonna Be Yes or No” features a guest appearance by Smokey Robinson, the composer of The Temptations’ first #1 hit, “My Girl” (audiences today still cheer at the sound of that first iconic guitar note, and Williams is right in the liner notes that “it is still one of the most popular songs on the planet”). Amazingly, this track is the first time they have worked together in 55 years. It seems impossible, but Robinson is 83 this February, and he hasn’t lost one single thing since the similar “Cruisin’” in 1979. He doesn’t do all the lead vocals here, just a chorus or two. The combination of Robinson’s seductive high voice and Green’s woofer-rattling baritone voice is an effective contrast. “I wanna take you to where touching is heard” — not many singers could pull off a line like that, but Smokey has learned a few things in his 82 years. Use this one on date night when you need to employ the heavy artillery. (Pro tip: rearrange the track order to put “Calling Out Your Name” next, with guest Gerald Albright on alto sax. It’s the kind of pleading love ballad that David Ruffin would do back in the day. Be ready to commit once the strings and timpani come in near the end.)
“Time for the People” has a groove that moves, thanks in part to Melvin Davis, one of several killer bass players on Temptations 60. It’s a motivational song for the Black Lives Matter era, in the tradition of “Ball of Confusion” and the more political Temptations songs from the early ’70s. It’s maybe a bit too slick overall and could use some more raw anger to meet the moment — Maitland Ward’s brief guitar solo is a missed opportunity.
“Elevator Eyes,” like “Is It Gonna Be Yes or No,” is what we might call a “consent ballad” in the #MeToo era. With the leader of the group at 80 years old, it’s just as well that The Temptations try to sell the song from the position of grown-up gentlemen now, not randy David Ruffin-style ladies’ men:
I appreciate the gesture, but I’m not quite sure it works. The whole Quiet Storm/Adult Contemporary genre just can’t seem to keep up a woke feminism for very long before the return of passive/aggressive masculinity: “I inspect you like a general does his army / Close order drill, girl.” Oh well. This one can’t escape the gravitational pull of “Treat Her Like a Lady” (1985), about the gentle sexism of old-school chivalry: “In this world of liberation it’s so easy to forget / That it’s so nice to have a man around to lend a helping hand.” A woman does get a moment to speak for herself on the album: Keisha Morgan gives a spoken interlude on the calypso confection “I Want It Right Now,” but she’s just telling her clueless partner how to dance.
A much better love ballad is “My Whole World Stopped Without You.” I wish the credits listed who does the lead vocals: it’s either Tyson or Weeks laying it down here with brokenhearted inspiration. It’s a good example of how The Temptations can blend today’s and yesterday’s sounds. There’s the slow-dance-at-the-prom triplets on the drums with those tinkling piano arpeggios on top, with a touch of reverb-soaked guitar and street-corner doo-wop in the vocals. It doesn’t sound cheesy, though, and the nostalgia is in harmony with the lyrics. Who else but The Temptations could pull off 2022 lead vocals with 1962 background elements, and do it with consistency and authenticity? This one will make you miss the jukebox.
Similarly, “Breaking My Back” is an elegant combination of Temptations styles from across the decades. The introduction has the feel and tempo of “Just My Imagination,” a Temptations masterpiece. It subtly salutes the Philadelphia sound of arranger Thom Bell with bells and strings in a dramatic arrangement marked by heart-on-the-sleeve vocals. It’s a simple enough song on a casual listen, but there’s a lot going on in the music with swirling rhythm guitars, synth textures, and a range of dynamics in the background vocals.
Finally, there’s “Come On,” an up-tempo, gospel-influenced workout that will thrill fans of the Ain’t Too Proud Broadway show. Williams begins with a spoken introduction over snippets of past Temptations hits. He tells the tale of how Otis Williams and the Distants had a record called “Come On” with a small record label in 1960. The band was promoting the hit single at the Saint Stephen Community Center in Detroit. Then a kismet moment that would change American popular music for generations — in walks Smokey Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy. You know the rest. “So this is our 60th-anniversary album. I never would have imagined we’d get this far for so long. But you know how it is.… love can stretch a mile before it tears an inch,” Williams says. “God is always everywhere. And at that point in time, He was there for us to make history with you, Motown, and become part of something that will live on forever.”
Then, on the last track of what may be their last album, today’s Temptations tear into their remake of the very first hit of the proto-Temptations. It’s a joyful celebration.
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, TX.