By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Halfway into his band’s set Saturday night at Starlight, Otis Williams, the last living original member of the Temptations, dedicated the evening’s performance to the late Motown producer Norman Whitfield.
It was fitting. Whitfield wrote several of the hits showcased during the night, like “Cloud Nine,” “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” It also matched the unofficial theme of the night: honoring the contributions of the departed.
The absence of late Temptations frontmen Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin was obvious from the opening notes of “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” The group sounded good and the performance was strong, but something was missing.
Your verdict on the success of the show depends on how well you thought lead singer Bruce Williamson did filling some impossibly large shoes. It would be easy to cynically dismiss the night as nothing more than overblown karaoke, but it’s very hard to ignore the energy and delight they delivered to the crowd. The truth is these songs are so strong they sound good no matter who is singing them.
After opening with a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” the Temps plowed through their classic catalog for nearly 30 minutes without taking a break. Every song had everyone on their feet, singing along.
Backed by a 10-piece horn section and four-piece band, the vocal quintet nimbly hopped from the propulsive “Ball of Confusion” to the tenderness of “I Wish it Would Rain” and the frustration of “Can’t Get Next To You.”
The only time the band veered from their prime years was to deliver a couple ballads. They also spiced up the set by performing a couple lesser-known numbers from their early Motown years. By the time they rolled into “My Girl” near the end of their 90-minute set it felt like the perfect conclusion. Unfortunately the song was followed by “Can I Get A Witness,” another Marvin Gaye cover. Despite its gospel flavor, the anti-climactic number trigged an exodus for the parking lot.
The Four Tops kicked off the night with a one-hour set. Although they sported as many original members – one – as the Temptations, they did not fare as well. The retirement of longtime lead singer Levi Stubbs was accentuated by slick production that was more Branson than Motown. Save for a pair of medleys that bookended the set, the band’s 1960s heyday was bypassed for ballads that bogged the momentum.
A tour-de-force cover of Heat Wave’s “Always and Forever” that included a long spoken introduction and tender, affecting vocals from Stubbs’ replacement Theo Peoples, drew the quartet’s biggest applause.
Although Starlight was far from sold out – partitions blocked off the back seating section and plenty of other empty chairs remained – few fans seemed concerned by the new faces singing the old songs. The consensus seemed to be, if these guys weren’t keeping the music and memories alive, would would? It’s a good question that doesn’t have an easy answer.
Setlists: Four Tops – Baby I Need Your Loving/Bernadette/It’s the Same Old Song/Just Walk Away/Still Water/Something About You/Ask the Lonely/Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got)/Always and Forever/Reach Out I’ll Be There/Standing in the Shadow of Love/I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)
Temptations: How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)/The Way You Do The Things You Do/Ain’t Too Proud To Beg/Ball of Confusion/I Wish It Would Rain/Just My Imagination/Papa Was A Rolling Stone/Can’t Get Next To You/You Are So Necessary In My Life/Get Ready/Treat Her Like A Lady/You’re My Everything/The Girl’s Alright With Me/Cloud Nine/Psychedelic Shack/My Girl/Can I Get A Witness