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The Man Who Replaced David Ruffin 

 

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Tuesday, 13 February 2018. 

 

There is perhaps no more daunting challenge in professional music, than to replace the beloved and iconic lead singer of a vocal group.  And this is what Dennis Edwards faced in 1968, after the firing of David Ruffin, the de-facto lead of what has been known as the “classic five” lineup of The Temptations.  Edwards, who died on February 1, 2018, two days before his 75th birthday, not only grabbed the mic with grace and aplomb, but helped preside over an era when The Temptations achieved their greatest success, including winning three Grammy Awards.

Born in Fairfield, Alabama -- right outside of Birmingham, and also the birthplace of new US Senator Doug Jones -- Edwards’s family was part of the post-World War II migration north, which landed his family in Detroit in the early 1950s.  The son of a Preacher Man, Edwards began singing Gospel music as a child.

A fan of Sam Cooke, the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, Edwards was among of generation of young Gospel singers who reconsidered their vocation, in the aftermath of Cooke’s move to the pop music charts.  As Edwards told the Boston Globe in 1984, “[Cooke] started a whole lot of us to stop singing spirituals," adding, "Singing spirituals was wonderful, but there was no money in it. You did it for love, but then there came a time when you had to have money to clean your clothes, too."

Edwards hustled around the fringes of the burgeoning Soul music scene in Detroit, spending sometime with The Contours, whose “Do You Love Me”, was one of the fledgling Motown label’s early success stories. David Ruffin, who Edwards eventually replaced in The Temptations, four years after Ruffin himself had replaced Al Bryant in 1964, was also working those fringes, which gives some indication of the sheer talent that existed in the city of Detroit.

Edwards eventually signed with Motown in 1966, and was more than ready when he got the call to join The Temptations, when Ruffin’s relationship with the other group members began to fray beyond repair. As Edwards recalled to the Sun Reporter (San Francisco) in 1973, “When I first came with the group, it was undergoing some changes in personnel. We had to work longer to pull together all the parts of the group.”

Ruffin’s final studio album with the group had produced two number-one R&B singles in “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)” and “I Wish It Would Rain”, the latter which also peaked at number-four on the Pop singles chart. As such, Motown slowly introduced Edwards to the fold, his first vocals appearing on the supergroup project Diana Ross & the Supremes Join the Temptations (1968), which accompanied the television special TCB, broadcast in December of 1968,  and the 1968 album Live at the Copa.  

When Edwards finally hit the studio in late 1968 and early 1969 to record an official Temptations recording, it was to a soundscape that had been gestating in the mind of producer Norman Whitfield, who had produced some of the group’s previous hits including “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Beauty is Only Skin Deep”, both from 1966 and  the aforementioned “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)” and “I Wish It Would Rain.”

Whitfield’s profile at Motown was on the rise with the departure of the production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, and with his work with Marvin Gaye on “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, which became Motown’s most successful single in 1968, a year after another version of the song also produced by Whitfield was a number-one R&B hit for Gladys Knight and The Pips.  

Whitfield was hearing the future of Soul music in the sounds emanating from the San Francisco Bay area via Sly and the Family Stone, and wanted to be on the forefront of that future. In Dennis Edwards, Whitfield found the voice that could realize that future, in a historical moment defined by radical disruption. If Ruffin, at his best was the most brilliant of late-night lotharios, what Whitfield had in Edwards was a certified Preacher Man-turned-Race Man, whose vocals were perfectly pitched for what Whitfield called “Psychedelic Soul.”

Beginning with Cloud Nine in 1969, and followed by Puzzle People (1969) and Psychedelic Shack (1970), which included a run of era-defining top-ten pop singles like  “Cloud Nine”, “Runaway Child, Running Wild”, “I Can’t Get Next to You” (which topped the Pop charts), “Psychedelic Shack”, and “Ball of Confusion” (included on a best of compilation in 1970), the rebranding of Motown’s flagship harmony group had been achieved.  But these trio of albums also included some of The Temptations most politically conscious recordings, with tracks like “Don’t Let The Joneses Get You Down,” and “Message from a Black Man” In retrospect, Cloud Nine wasn’t just the first Temptations studio album with Dennis Edwards as lead, it was a dramatic rupture with the classic Motown Sound.

The new sound created its own discord within the group, notably with co-lead singer Eddie Kendricks, arguably the most recognizable voice in the group, and whose classic falsetto could easily get lost in the mix. After the release of the throwback ballad “Just My Imagination” (from Sky’s the Limit), which topped the Pop charts, Kendricks and Paul Williams departed the group for a solo career, but not without the remaining members and producer Whitfield taking a shot at Kendricks and Ruffin on "Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)”.

The Temptations seemed to be at crossroads in 1972 when Whitfield, now focused on younger artist like The Undisputed Truth and the chart-topping Edwin Starr (“War”), when the producer brought them the song “Papa was a Rolling Stone”. Whitfield was famously confrontational in the studio, often trying to coax otherworldly performances from lead vocalists; he and Marvin Gaye nearly came to blows during the recording of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Such was the case with “Papa was Rolling Stone”, a song that few of the Temptations wanted to sing, and given the centering of a shiftless vagabond Black father in the song’s narrative, one that particularly offended Edwards, who own late father was the very antithesis of a “rolling stone”.

Almost 50 years after its release, “Papa was a Rolling Stone” is a definitive Soul music classic -- the genius of Whitfield's production, the string arrangements of Paul Riser and those opening bars from Dennis Edwards: “It was the 3rd of September,” which are as resonate as any lyrics in the Motown catalogue. The song won two Grammy Awards in 1973.

The group continued to record solid albums for the next few years with Whitfield at the helm of the production, but they would never be a force on the Pop music charts again. Though albums like Masterpiece  (1973) and the afrofuturist 1990 (1973), were a mishmash of styles, The Temptations were recording music that remained well received by so-called Urban audiences, like The Commodores’ penned “Happy People” and “Shakey Ground”, both from A Song from You (1975), their first album after the departure of Whitfield from Motown.  By 1977, Edwards had departed the group, and the group itself had broken ties with Motown, signing with Atlantic in what was the nadir of the group’s existence.

The Temptations would return to Motown in 1980, which Edwards back in tow as co-lead on albums like Power (1980),  a stellar Christmas album, which included one of the great Soul readings of “Silent Night” and Reunion (1982), which temporarily brought Kendricks and Ruffin back to the fold just in time for Motown’s 25th Anniversary celebration.  The Reunion album was anchored by the Rick James produced “Standing on the Top” in which Ruffin, Kendricks, Edwards, and co-lead Richard Street shared lead vocals along with James. The “reunion” was short lived; Edwards would depart the group to chart a solo career in 1984, with Ali-Ollie Woodson taking over the “chair” that Edwards once took from Ruffin.

At the time, Edwards expressed some trepidation at going out in his own, telling the Boston Globe in 1984, “I was frightened because I was leaving a legend like The Temptations. I've seen a lot of guys leave their groups and flop. But I waited a long time to do it, and I think I was ready and confident when it finally happened."  What finally happened was that Edwards recorded one of the great R&B tracks of the 1980s with “Don’t Look Any Further”, in which he was joined on vocals by Siedah Garrett.   

“Don’t Look Any Further” is mostly remembered these days for the odd and even zany music video, in which Edwards never stops chewing gum, no doubt the by-product of 40-year-old man having to navigate the then new medium of music video. According to Edwards,  "Jermaine Jackson wanted to record that song, but I beat him to it.” (Boston Globe, 1984). “Don’t Look Any Further” is arguably one of the few R&B tracks of the late 20th century that resonated across generations of R&B audiences, as evidenced by its use on Eric B and Rakim’s “Paid in Full”, only three years later, and on Tupac’s “Hit em Up” a decade later.

After a brief return to The Temptations in the late 1980, Edwards departed for the final time, and for much of the next thirty years toured as part of Temptations review, which included a brief reunion with Ruffin and Kendricks , before their respective deaths in 1991 and 1992.

If there is a performance that most defines Edwards contribution to the very tradition that allowed him to replace an iconic lead vocalist, it was the title track of The Temptations 1975 album A Song for You.  Written by the great Leon Russell, and recorded by a who’s who of Soul legends including Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway, Edwards’s version of “A Song for You” is at once his own claim to his place within that tradition, and loving gift to the audiences that embraced him after he was placed in a decidedly no-win situation replacing Ruffin seven years earlier.

Some might remember Dennis Edwards as the man who replaced David Ruffin, but he might be simply remembered as the voice of The Temptations.

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Image sourced from https://www.udiscovermusic.com


Obituary: Dennis Edwards of The Temptations

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