Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Temptations and Serious Music

I grew up listening to the Temptations. I got lucky, I guess, because my High School library in Ithaca had records (no CDs) and we had a record player at home, and I was able to listen (Leo Strauss would emphasize that I did not transfer these records to audio-tape for listening later) to this music over and over. I was primed to know the artists because I listened to Ithaca College radio for hours, especially on Sunday afternoons where they had, from 10:00 am - 12:00 pm "Breakfast with the Beatles" and 12:00-6:00pm "Classic Rock Sunday." I listened every week, for years. IC was a center for training professional broadcasters, so this wasn't hippie ganja-smoking alternative dumpage but well-trained jocks spinning quality music.

So, I had a good environment (IC radio), experience (listening for hundreds of hours), and resource access (HS library, record player at home) for choosing among many different types of music. It was at this time that I fell in aesthetic love with Jethro Tull (and to a lesser extent with the other Flute-Rock dudes, Traffic), but primarily with the Temptations. I also had access to the Four Tops, and the two bands are often compared (and confused with each other). It's not hard to see why, superficially, this confusion exists: 4 vs. 5 young black men singing syncopated R&B and produced by the same label (Motown).

Even though I felt that musically the Temptations were just plain better than the Tops, I couldn't begrudge the latter's top tunes: "Standing in the Shadows of Love," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," "It's the Same Old Song," "Reach Out, I'll Be There," "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)," and "Bernadette." Yet, I gravitated to the Temptations who I subconscious appreciated on a greater level.

After years of listening, I realize one reason that I may have been attracted to the Tempts and not the Tops could be the inherent seriousness of the Temptations' songs and lyrics. Just now I did the research online and it's clear that there were main songwriting teams for each group, and they did not share, and that the crew behind the Tops (Holland-Dozier-Holland) wrote catchy love songs and the crew behind the Temptations, Norman Whitfield & Barry Strong, wrote serious deep music. To cite the Wiki:
[Whitfield/Strong wrote] the long line of "psychedelic soul" records by The Temptations, including "Cloud Nine", "I Can't Get Next to You", "Psychedelic Shack", "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)", and "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone",
Even without knowing that there were these distinct schools, just compare the themes of the top-scoring songs:

"Standing in the Shadows of Love" = The moment of realization when love goes sour
"Cloud Nine" = singer's faux-autobiography of poverty leading to drug abuse

"I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" = uh, the singer can't help himself because he loves his woman so much
"Runaway Child, Running Wild" = the sad fate of teenage runaways

"Bernadette" = a woman, named Bernadette, makes lovin' hard
"Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" = the difficult life of broken families and deadbeat dads.

"Baby I Need Your Loving" = The singer, speaking to his woman, whom he calls 'baby', states that he needs her loving, in fact he got to have all of it.
"Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)" = a plea for sanity in a world beset by war, poverty, and declining trust in institutions of leadership.

I could go on, but you get the pattern. True, the Tempts had they cheezy songs as well (e.g. "My Girl") but I could make a claim that were deeper, more soulful, than the others, but I won't bother with that direction - because the Tops did not have deep songs and the Temptations had dozens - even from artists other than Whitfield/Strong.

This insight struck me the other day and a little googling confirms the stunning pattern, and why I recommend their music with confidence. That even though they are best known for their flashy costumes and choreography (allmusic states in the first line of their biography: "Thanks to their fine-tuned choreography -- and even finer harmonies -- the Temptations became the definitive male vocal group of the 1960s;") their serious music is why they should be given the most respect.

Pic from here.

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