A look back at a crown jewel of the band’s storied psychedelic era
Lyrically, it’s like something Smokey Robinson might have cooked up for the label mid-decade, an updated take on the standard “I Can’t Get Started,” a tale of romantic frustration expressed through a series of metaphors: I can do this, I can do that, I’m capable of just about anything, but your love is elusive. One line, “I can build a castle from a single grain of sand,” is practically a paraphrase of a promise Smokey made in “I’ll Try Something New”: “I will build you a castle with a tower so high. …” But musically, what producer Norman Whitfield does is bracingly contemporary, a variation on the approach (borrowed from Sly and the Family Stone) he took on the group’s game-changing “Cloud Nine” and follow-ups “Runaway Child, Running Wild” and “Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down.” Instead of featuring one lead singer, the record breaks the vocal into fifths, each Temptation taking a turn at center stage; the track is sizzling and strutting, with the attitude of what we’d come to know—a couple of years later—as the sound of Blaxploitation soul.
AUDIO: The Temptations “Don’t Let The Joneses Get You”
The single that preceded “I Can’t Get Next to You”—“Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down,” also on Puzzle People—was more explicitly sociopolitical, a lecture on envy and materialism, and it was a big R&B hit (#2), but just squeaked into the Billboard Top 20. With “I Can’t Get Next to You,” the Temptations had their first #1 pop hit since “My Girl.” It was also their first chart-topper with new lead singer Dennis Edwards, who replaced David Ruffin. But “lead singer” meant a different thing in the Whitfield era; the producer used the contrasting textures of all five members to create a zig-zagging dynamic, bouncing among the basement-dwelling bass of Melvin Franklin, the careening tenor of Eddie Kendricks, and the flexible voices of Otis Williams and Paul Williams. It made their records tremendously exciting, and, more and more, Whitfield gave the uncredited musicians the Funk Brothers room to stretch out. It was a creative development that the Temptations and Motown needed to stay current, even though Berry Gordy had serious reservations about the druggie lyrics of “Cloud Nine,” and tried to keep the label’s artists apolitical.
And Gordy wouldn’t go all in. He had traditional notions of what a career in show business meant, so while he was, no doubt, pleased by the Temptations’ revitalization with material like “Message from a Black Man” and “Slave” on Puzzle People. However, he just couldn’t help hedging his bets, so the album also had pointless covers of “Hey Jude” and “Little Green Apples.” Why anyone would want to hear the group sing both “Slave,” a scathing song about prison conditions that updates (and quotes from) Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” and “Little Green Apples” is one of the puzzles of Puzzle People, but that’s how Gordy’s mind worked. And the same day fifty years ago that Puzzle People came out, Motown released an album of Supremes-Temptations duets, Together, which had such tracks as Diana Ross and Eddie Kendricks sharing vocals on the Band’s “The Weight” and throwback Motown hits like “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and “I’ll Be Doggone.”
AUDIO: The Supremes and The Temptations “The Weight”
It was, overall, a wacky period. Dennis Edwards made his Temptations debut, right before “Cloud Nine,” on Live at the Copa, where the group mixed in their hits with nightclubby arrangements of “Hello Young Lovers” and “Swanee” (as soon as pop acts hit the Copa stage, they got Jolsonized). And soon after Puzzle People, the Supremes and the Temptations co-starred in a network television special called G.I.T. On Broadway, where the Tempts, in golden tunics, did a nine-minute medley of three songs from Fiddler on the Roof, which is as odd as it sounds. The group plays it all straight—wouldn’t it have been fun to do a mash-up of “If I Were a Rich Man” and the early Motown hit “Money (That’s What I Want)”?—and are good sports about having to perform “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” On “If I Were a Rich Man,” they try to try to spin through the “deedle-daidle-dum” parts as though this is shtetl doo wop, and bass singer Franklin rumbles the line about the phantom staircase “leading nowhere, just for show.” The medley is included on the stellar compilation Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations, where annotator Josh Kun insists, “It ends up being a testament to both the range of the Temptations and the flexibility of Fiddler.” That may be so, but it’s still a head-snapping transition from “If I Were a Rich Man” to the following year’s “Psychedelic Shack,” where a staircase leading nowhere might make more sense.
It kept whipping back and forth like that: the Psychedelic Shack album came out in 1970, and that same year Motown released the Temptations’ Live at the Talk of the Town. As a document of the Motown school of schizophrenia, it has no equal. For the audience at the tony London nightspot, the Temptations sprinted through old and new hits, opening, as was their custom, with Smokey’s “Get Ready,” doing “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Beauty is Only Skin Deep,” right up to the recent psych-soul numbers “Runaway Child, Running Wild” and “Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down.” The latter song ends, and the next number is Eddie Kendricks crooning “A Time for Us” from the Franco Zefferelli swoonfest Romeo and Juliet, followed by “I Can’t Get Next to You,” followed by Otis Williams’ spotlight number, “This Guy’s In Love With You.” They are pros at this, cum laude graduates of the Motown entertainment master’s program, so it’s all quite fun, but it feels like a last gasp of the old razzmatazz. In the early ’70s, soul went through a dramatic transformation, with Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, and Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia-International groups, and the idea of being all things to all audiences was becoming anachronistic. You didn’t need to play whatever the equivalent of the Copa was, or sing “Sunrise, Sunset” on prime-time television; even The Ed Sullivan Show, the holy grail for Berry Gordy’s acts, went off the air in ’71.
The Temptations continued to have hit records: the achingly lovely “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” (the farewell hit sung by Kendricks), the pulsating “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” But after 1973, they were no longer working with Norman Whitfield. Still, that run from “Cloud Nine” to “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” was a brilliant second act, with the Puzzle People album smack in the creative center of it, as Motown stepped into the future of soul while clinging to the middle-of-the-road with “Little Green Apples,” covering the Beatles, and quoting James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” And I haven’t even mentioned The Temptations Show that aired in the summer of ’69, where the group did “comedy” routines with George Kirby, sang with Kaye Stevens, and did the 1927 song “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” Which I suppose is kind of the message of “Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down.”
AUDIO: The Temptations Puzzle People (full album)