Not just your imagination: The Temptations hit Howard Theatre

WTOP's Jason Fraley remembers Dennis Edwards (Jason Fraley)

The Temptations’ second lead singer Dennis Edwards died Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 at age 74. He gave one of his final interviews with WTOP’s Jason Fraley recently in 2016. Listen below.

WASHINGTON — Generations have found themselves mesmerized by the heavenly harmonies and snappy dance choreography of The Temptations.

This weekend, Motown classics will bounce off the walls of Howard Theatre with The Temptations Review, featuring lead singer Dennis Edwards for two shows on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.

“That theater is so important to me,” Edwards told WTOP. “I remember back in the early days: I joined The Contours and my very first venue was opening up a show at the Howard Theatre for a group called The Temptations. That was my first dip in the water! … It’s like a homecoming for me now.”

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Edwards’ papa wasn’t a rolling stone, but rather a factory worker who moved the family to Detroit to take a factory job. He studied at the Detroit Conservatory of Music, but wasn’t allowed to sing secular music at home due to objections by his deeply religious mother.

Edwards was forced to grow up quickly after he enlisted in the military in 1959, serving three years in the U.S. Army, where he was stationed outside the defunct concentration camp in Dachau, Germany.

“I hear people saying there was no Holocaust. Man, I guarded the crematoriums,” he said. “They gave me a tour of the ovens. The first room was shower spigots where they would gas people. Then they would have three different sized ovens. It was so eerie. … It kind of grows you up. I wish some of these kids today could go through some of the experiences. They could appreciate life a little better.”

While the horrors of war were formative memories for Edwards, so was the music sent to the troops.

“While we were over there, one of the gentlemen who was in the service with me, his father worked for Berry Gordy,” Edwards said. “Berry used to send all of the latest Motown records over. One record in particular that I heard was a group called The Temptations. They were singing ‘My Girl’ with a guy named David Ruffin. It kind of gave me the itch! I could always sing a bit, so I formed a group.”

Before long, Edwards began performing off-duty in Munich, Germany, covering many of the very same Temptations songs he would one day sing as the new frontman of the group. Upon returning to the U.S., Edwards started his own group called The Fireballs, performing in small clubs in Detroit.

“We had to sing in ‘red-light parties’ in the basement,” Edwards said. “Sometimes they would give us $5, but we were just happy to sing. What people don’t know, there was no outlet for black music at the time. … We had the Aretha [Franklins] and Sam Cookes and Nat King Coles, but the door wasn’t wide open yet for black groups. Then of course, Berry Gordy came along with the dream he had.”

While Motown was Gordy’s dream, Edwards attributes his success to bass player James Jamerson.

“He is the guy that’s responsible for getting me in Motown: He set up an audition with Mr. Gordy,” Edwards said. “They didn’t have roster room for me, so they paid me a retainer for about a year for doing nothing. I’m a kid, so I said, ‘Wow! What’s going on with this?’ … Mr. Gordy kept me as a substitute. … Sure enough, I got the call to sing with The Contours; one [member] had gotten sick.”

This substitute gig brought him to the aforementioned gig at Howard Theatre, as The Contours sang hits like “Do You Love Me?” in an opening act for the “Classic Five” members of The Temptations.

“I practiced with them for one week, then I was on stage at the Howard Theatre, opening up for a group called The Temptations. Isn’t that ironic?” Edwards recalled. “I remember I was singing and I looked in the wings. There was David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks watching me. I’m like, ‘Wow!’”

At that point, the “Classic Five” Temptations — David Ruffin, Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks — had already rattled off a string of hits, including “My Girl” (1964), “Get Ready” (1966), “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (1966) and “I Wish It Would Rain” (1968). But in 1968, Edwards got a call from Ruffin, asking if he’d like to replace him as the lead singer of the group.

“They were the greatest group in the world,” Edwards said. “I loved the five of them, man. … I was so hurt when David told me he was leaving the group, because it was like a well-oiled machine and you just don’t want it to break up. But I was also happy that I had the opportunity to become a part of it! … I never in a thousand years thought I’d be singing with The Temptations. Even when I got the call … David said, ‘I’m leaving and they want you to replace me,’ and I’m like, ‘Get out of here!'”

Gazing at an uncertain future, The Temptations heard Sly & The Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music,” featuring multiple lead vocals by the band members. A light bulb went off for producer Norman Whitfield, who convinced The Temptations to take a similar approach with “Cloud Nine” (1969).

“It was laughed at; they didn’t want to release it, but guess what? It won the very first Grammy for Motown Records,” Edwards said, proudly. “It featured all five of us, which kind of set a precedent for something new. We were taking a hell of a chance, because you got this great lead singer [exit the group], and then the group comes out with this psycho-soul music. Are they gonna like it? It just so happens the country was going through that period at the time and Norman hit it right on the head.”

Thus, Edwards successfully ushered The Temptations into its beloved psychedelic, funk and disco periods, along the way expanding the group into greater social commentary than the early pop days.

This was no more apparent than in the hit single “Ball of Confusion” (1970), featuring lyrics like: “Evolution, revolution, gun control, sound of soul, shooting rockets to the moon, kids growing up too soon.” As the world turned, each verse was followed by the deep-voiced refrain: “And the band played on.”

“We just did a television show about the things that are happening [today] in the street with the policemen and the young men, and what they wanted to hear was ‘Ball of Confusion,” he said. “As I’m singing, I’m like, ‘Wow! This was done 40 years ago and it’s still prevalent today.’ … We were just trying to make good music, but some of those lyrics, you could take it to every inner city in the world.”

Of course, it wasn’t all political chaos. Edwards proved The Temptations could still slow it down.

“We had gone through the psychedelic thing, ‘The Joneses,’ ‘Ball of Confusion, ‘Psychedelic Shack,’ then all of a sudden, the trend changes,” Edwards said. “So Norman said, ‘Look, why don’t we sing a pretty ballad?’ We had one of the greatest tenor singers in the world at the time, Eddie Kendricks, so they came up with this beautiful, beautiful ‘Just My Imagination,’ and it became a smash.”

While “Just My Imagination” went straight to No. 1 in 1971, the group followed up with another No. 1 hit the following year with one of its best-known singles: “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (1972).

“When ‘Papa’ came out, we heard the track and we thought, ‘It’s nice music, but they aren’t going to play that,'” Edwards said. “You know how jocks are, they play three minutes. ‘Papa’ was like six-and-a-half minutes. And I had another problem with it. I came from a real religious background, my father was a minister. … My mama was like, ‘Your daddy wasn’t no rolling stone! He was here all the time!'”

Controversy aside, the record sold six million copies and won the group two more Grammys.

When the group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, Edwards was honored alongside the original five. Even on the induction website, Edwards’ era is equally heralded as the early days: Early hits such as “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” and “Get Ready” remain beloved classics, while later forays into funk and psychedelic music such as “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” were just as influential. 

Of course, The Temptations were always more than hits. They were a style, a class, a way of being.

“We made clean music, we dressed ourselves up, we got class about it,” Edwards said. “We learned how to not say four-letter words, to be classy, to act like gentlemen. All of that sometimes today gets lost. Back in our day, we had a censorship department. … They always told us that if you said a four-letter word, the kids would get it and it wouldn’t be good for the kids. A lot of things have changed.”

Still, Edwards admits some modern-day acts (i.e. Bruno Mars) channel the old Temptations appeal.

“I’m not knocking these kids’ music because they have some great music. They’re probably making more money than we made because they own their music,” he said. “I’m so glad they’ve cleaned the music up a bit; they don’t call women the b-word so much anymore. They’ve gotten a little class back.”

He says this classy reputation has ensured the group’s staying power for decades.

“You look at groups like The Temptations, The O’Jays and Gladys [Knight & The Pips], we’re still working because we work for all types of audiences,” Edwards said. “We work for audiences that you can bring your whole family to. You can sit there with your grand kids, your mom and everybody can enjoy a good show. We don’t come for nobody to fight, we come for you to go home and make love!”

If that’s the case, get ready for a wild night Sunday at Howard Theatre.

“If you remember The Temptations like you did in the ’60s and ’70s, that’s what you’re gonna get,” Edwards said. “We’re gonna do most of the hits. We can’t do them all; it would take about four hours. … Washington has always been a place that when you come there, you gotta come with it.”

Click here for ticket info. Listen below to the full conversation with Dennis Edwards and the on-air preview:

May 21, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with The Temptations' Dennis Edwards (Jason Fraley)
May 21, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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