Thursday, October 21, 2021

EUR Review: ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ and the Weight of Lead Singers!

Aint too proud - temptations stage show

*Last night (09-15-18) I went to see the play “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. It was a very entertaining performance; the cast and orchestration were superb. I applaud award-winning playwright and native Detroiter Dominique Morriseau.

Being a native Detroiter myself, I was glad to see such an eclectic ethnic audience really enjoying and appreciating the Black music that we grew up on. However, the story was too predictable as in, it was still told through the lens of lone surviving group member Otis Williams. Somehow the history of the “tantalizing five” is being locked in to the perspective based on Mr. Williams’ book, and the popular TV miniseries that was based upon it.

In an interview printed in the program, Morriseau said, “Being able to tell this story from a generation removed allows me to see it from my parents’ lens, the Generation X lens, and through the Millennial lens.” Unfortunately, those lenses are fogged and blurred, and someone needs to get the story right. As former band leader Cornelius Grant once said in another setting, “I wish they would focus more on the talent than the personalities.”

Williams is to be commended for keeping alive The Temptations’ legacy, but where he chose to camp on the weight of his role as group founder and decision-maker, he failed to show the weight placed upon the prominent lead singers – he himself not being a lead singer.

temptations

Paul Williams’ and Eddie Kendricks’ lead vocals carried the group in the early days on songs like “Check Yourself,” “I Want A Love I Can See,” and “Farewell My Love.” After the Tempts broke out with “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” Eddie became the focus of every writer/producer at Motown that yielded songs like “(Girl) Why You Wanna Make Me Blue,” and “The Girls Alright With Me.” The B-side of “The Way You Do The Things You Do” was a churchy call and response “Just Let Me Know” with Paul on lead. Paul also did a show-stopper “Don’t Look Back” on the B-side of “My Baby.”

David Ruffin joined the group in time to be on the recording of “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” He had already had local success as a solo artist with songs like “Action Speaks Louder Than Words,” and “Bus Driver.” He was also a member of The Voicemasters who recorded a song titled “Free” led by Ty Hunter who became a member of The Originals. “Free” was conceptualized after Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang.”

Smokey Robinson (more later about the disservice to him) who became the Tempts’ primary producer, had the foresight to write songs fashioned for Ruffin’s husky, world-weary voice similar to Sam Cooke’s style. It was timely – Sam Cooke died December 1964; “My Girl” with Ruffin up front began climbing the charts the next month January 1965. The baton was passed. The weight was on Ruffin to fill the void and he delivered with songs like “It’s Growing,” “Since I Lost My Baby, and ”My Baby” (where he really sounded a lot like Cooke). That was under Smokey as writer/producer. Under producer Norman Whitfield, Ruffin continued as the Tempts’ principle lead singer with blockbusters “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep,” “I’m Losing You,” and “I Wish It Would Rain.”

Bass singer Melvin Franklin gained huge popularity with “Truly Truly Believe” (among others) which was the B-side of “I Wish It Would Rain.”

Now can you imagine the weight, the work of traveling from city to city, gig to gig, night after night singing all those songs – expected to deliver and give the audience their money’s worth? Mr. Williams (not diminishing his role) was cool and secure in the background, while the lead singers had to sell! It’s not told – by Mr. Williams own account in his book – how Ruffin sweated so hard recording “Ain’t Too Proud” that his glasses were steamed. Can you imagine singing those songs over and over again? I recently read where Sam Moore of the dynamic duo Sam & Dave said he’s tired of singing their hit “Hold On I’m Comin’.”

I think the play “Ain’t Too Proud” is superb as I said, but let’s not gloss over the history. Those voices meant a lot more to us during those turbulent 1960’s than to highlight the failures. Talk about (for instance) all the Black boys at the time who wanted to wear glasses because of Ruffin’s positive influence; or how every pre-puberty boy wanted to sing like Kendricks. It wasn’t all about the failures. When I went to Detroit to attend Ruffin’s funeral, I went to the Motown Museum where the late Esther Gordy Edwards gave me a personal tour. She said, “David was envied by a lot of people; not only the Tempts; because while every one would be out partying and having a good time, David was in here working on his craft!”

larry buford (headshot)
Larry Buford

Larry S. Buford is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Author of “Things Are Gettin’ Outta Hand” and “Book To The Future.” His CD “One More Time” is also online. E-mail: [email protected]

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