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Posts Tagged ‘Dennis Edwards’

Edwin Starr – “War,” Pop #1, R&B #1

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Temptations had cut other political songs, such as “Message for a Black Man,” before they recorded the original version of “War” in 1969. Although the songs were generally well-received, they were closer to Norman Whitfield songs featuring the Temptations’ vocals than true Tempts cuts and rarely performed them in concert. Although Motown received several requests to release “War” as a single after it appeared on “Psychedelic Shack,” Berry Gordy feared ruining his group’s image with such a political number and resisted. Instead, he handed the number to another artist in Whitfield’s stable: Edwin Starr.

Prior to cutting “War,” Starr had been kept out of the studio for six months. His last big hit “25 Miles,” which reached No. 6, was 18 months old and long forgotten. Consequently, Starr was hungry when he was finally able to reach the mic. His pent-up energy added more charge to Whitfield’s already incendiary lyrics. Starr’s impassioned singing put Dennis Edwards and Paul Williams to shame on the now-placid Temptations reading.

Bolstering Starr’s vocals was a powerful horn riff, funky organ line and a smorgasboard of wah-wah guitars, fuzz bass, tambourines and nearly every other trick in Whitfield’s psychedelic bag of tricks. The production was Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound reimagined for the trippy, proto-metal flower child age.

Just over 15 years after its initial release, Bruce Springsteen took the song back into the Top 10 with his cover. Although no major U.S. conflict was brewing at the time, the song still packed a powerful punch. A little more than 15 year’s after the Boss’s version, “War” illustrated how far society had regressed when the song was placed on a list of “lyrically questionable songs” banned by the Clear Channel Communications corporation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The list also included “Imagine” by John Lennon and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” Sadly, it is hard to picture as political statement as powerful as “War” penetrating the airwaves again.

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The Temptations – “Ball Of Confusion,” Pop # 3, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Clocking in at over four minutes, “Ball of Confusion” was an epic by Motown standards. The arrangement and themes, however, were very much in line with the top-shelf, psychedelic social commentary songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield had been consistently turning out.

Sonically and thematically, “Ball of Confusion” doesn’t stray from the formula Whitfield developed for the Temptation in 1968 with “Cloud Nine.”

If Sly Stone were Martin Luther, this is how he would have delivered his 95 Theses. In a cadence cribbed in Bob Dylan’s delivery from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Dennis Edwards lists his grievances: “segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation, obligation.”

The arrangement is just as claustrophobic and frustrated as the lyrics, with nearly every instrument – electric organ, wah guitar, drums and vocals – threatening to strangle each other in the mix. Brief bursts of harmonica or horns provide the only moments of relief. Edwards handles the lion’s share of the singing, but once again the other four members tag-team lead duties. Bass singer Melvin Franklin memorably punctuates each verse with the adage of complacency – “and the band played on.”

“Ball of Confusion” isn’t exactly a fun song, but it is a lot of fun to listen to. The song was the Tempts’ second strong single of the 1970s, landing in the Top 5 on both the pop and R&B charts. It also marked their third straight solo Top 10 hit.

The complex number isn’t easy to replicate, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying. Shortly after the Tempts’ number had dropped in the charts, Berry Gordy handed the tune to another Motown group, the Undisputed Truth, to try their hand. A generation later, pop band Duran Duran and metal outfit Anthrax both released covers in the 1990s. The 21st century also saw a resurgence of interest in the song, with the Neville Brothers, Widespread Panic and Tesla all releasing covers.

The song also appeared as a centerpiece in the film “Sister Act Two: Back in the Habit” (featuring a young and then-unknown Lauryn Hill). It’s biggest distinction outside of Motown, however, is in kick-starting Tina Turner’s solo career in the early ‘80s. Turner’s reading appeared on a 1982 tribute album, it wasn’t a big hit in the United States or United Kingdom, but it did hook her up with the songwriters and producers who helmed Turner’s multi-platinum comeback effort, “Private Dancer.”

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The Temptations – “I Can’t Get Next To You,” Pop # 1, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Surprisingly, “I Can’t Get Next To You” was the first Temptations single to top both the pop and R&B charts since “My Girl,” five long years before. Although these Temptations featured 80 percent of that lineup – David Ruffin had been replaced by Dennis Edwards – the group had been handed off from Smokey Robinson’s smooth, straightforward approach to Norman Whitfield’s groundbreaking psychedelic arrangements.

In other words, just because they had the same name and most of the same members, the Temptations of “My Girl” were long gone by the time “I Can’t Get Next To You” reigned at No. 1.

The song opens with canned applause and a barrelhouse piano roll that sets the song in an old parlor or juke joint before the chicken-scratch and wah guitars thrust the song into the future. Just as they did on the previous year’s “Cloud Nine,” the five Tempts trade lines, adding kinetic energy to the track. The guitars, electric piano and insistent drums and percussion make the song feel like a cousin to something Sly and the Family Stone would have cooked up. When Edwards finally erupts with the line “girl, you’re blowing my mind,” the song carries the same intensity and sexuality of James Brown’s hard funkin’ “Sex Machine.”

There was very little happening on Motown like this at the time. Ironically, the next act to incorporate this much funk was a group aimed at a younger audience, the Jackson 5. They Indiana quintet re-appropriated the bridge from “I Can’t Get Next To You” for their 1970 hit “ABC.”

One year after it’s mid-1969 release, Al Green transformed the song into a smoldering cry for love. Green eliminated the kaleidoscopic vocals and swirling arrangement, building the song around his voice and a slinky guitar line. The only element these versions hold in common is the lyrics. Green rode his arrangement to No. 11 on the R&B charts.

An unexpectedly versatile song penned by Whitfield and Barrett Strong, “I Can’t Get Next To You” was transformed into a jazz number by Woody Herman, converted to reggae by the Jay Boys and given the pop treatment by the Osmonds and Edwin McCain. Most recently, it was covered by Anne Lennox on her 1995 album “Medusa.”

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David Ruffin – “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me),” Pop # 9, R&B # 2

By Joel Francis

Former Temptation David Ruffin stuck pretty close to his old band’s template on his solo debut. The Harvey Fuqua/Johnny Bristol song was slated to be the Tempts’ next single, but Ruffin was able to sweet talk taking the song with him when he was fired. With backing vocals provided by the Originals, the song sounds enough like the Temptations casual listeners could be forgiven for thinking the news of Ruffin’s departure was nothing but a bad dream.

The lyrics also deal with the frequent Temptations theme of lost love. Like he did in “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Since I Lost My Baby,” Ruffin ruminates over how a promising relationship soured and what to do with the loneliness and ache.

A Top 10 pop hit that just missed the top spot on the R&B charts, “My Whole World Ended” was a promising start to Ruffin’s new career. Unfortunately, the problems that plagued him in the Temptations continued to haunt. Because he wasn’t a songwriter, Ruffin was dependent on others for material, and Ruffin’s erratic behavior and continued drug use didn’t endear him to many Hitsville songsmiths. Ruffin caused further problems when he started forcing his way onstage during Temptations concerts. Fans were ecstatic to hear the old singer deliver the hits, but the group, with new member Dennis Edwards, was less than enthused.

Despite these problems, Ruffin maintained a decent solo career. Although he never matched the success of “My Whole World Ended,” he had several minor hits peaking with another Top 10 smash on 1975’s “Walk Away From Love.”

There was a flurry of immediate covers after the release of “My Whole World” in early 1969. The Chi-Lites, Kiki Dee and the Spinners all recorded interpretations of the song within 18 months of its initial release.

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Second Emotion

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “I Second That Emotion,” Pop # 4, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

Smokey Robinson was Christmas shopping with fellow Motown songwriter Al Cleveland when Cleveland let slip the malapropism “I second that emotion.” Intrigued, Robinson penned a lyric about a man disinterested in flirting, fishing for long-term love. In other words, it’s the complete opposite of every Kiss song ever.

The arrangement and delivery is relaxed and easy. Never a forceful singer, Robinson lets the horns punctuate his pleas. His vocals are soft and comforting as a pillow, while Miracle Marv Tarplin’s guitar pulls the song over the unusually subdued percussion. There’s no climax or resolution to the number – the horn breakdown in the final moment is as close as we get. It’s almost like Robinson is auditioning the idea.

The song fades before we learn the woman’s reaction, but audiences were delighted, sending “I Second That Emotion” into the Top 5 and earning the Miracles their sixth million-selling single.

Less than two years later, Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations teamed up for a television special and album. “Diana Ross and the Supremes Join the Temptations” featured their interpretation of “I Second that Emotion,” which was a Top 20 UK hit (the single was not released in America). The album marked the debut of new Temp Dennis Edwards, who replaced the troubled David Ruffin. Miracle guitarist Tarplin reprised his role for the all-star revision. The song has a diverse cover life, with performances issued by Jerry Garcia, ‘80s synth band Japan, and “Stand By Your Man” country singer Tammy Wynette.

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