The Best of What's Around: The Temptations and "My Girl"
Celebrating the extraordinary collaboration of songwriters Smokey Robinson, Ronnie White, and the Temptations, particularly the great David Ruffin.
NB: If you do not play this video you will miss something great!
Motown bass guitarist James Jamerson’s three repeated bass notes opening “My Girl” by the Temptations are one of the most familiar song introductions in popular music. The Temptations came together from two Detroit groups: the Primes, with Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams and the Distants with Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams. Motown founder and mastermind Berry Gordy changed the name of the Primes to the Temptations. “My Girl’s” lead singer, David Ruffin, was the last to join the group in 1961. He became a Temptation partly at the insistence of his brother, Jimmy, also a singer.
Jimmy Ruffin said:
David didn’t want to join that group and they didn’t want him in the group. I was like David’s manager by proxy, him being the younger brother. I suggested that they should have David join the group, because I had been trying to get David signed with Motown and they didn’t want to sign him.1
“My Girl” was one of a string of hit records for the the Temptations. The group, with 35 Top 40 hits in 11 years beginning in 1964, had more hits than any other Motown group, except the Supremes.
The Temptations persuaded Motown legend Smokey Robinson and his fellow Miracle and writing partner, Ronnie White, to let them record “My Girl” instead of Robinson and White’s group, the Miracles. Robinson, who knew or at least suspected that the song would be a hit, made a shrewd artistic decision: for “My Girl” he elevated his role as a songwriter over his role as a member of the Miracles. Ruffin’s powerful and urgent voice would balance the song’s sweetness—“a sweeter song than the birds in the trees”—in the words of Robinson’s lyrics.
The song was recorded over two months in the fall of 1964 and released on December 21, 1964. Gordy, ever the capitalist, gave Motown songwriters a $1,000 bonus for Number One songs. Robinson and White collected their bonus: “My Girl” reached the top of the R&B and Pop charts in early 1965.
David Ruffin, born in 1941 in Whynot, Mississippi, became a compelling singer and a mesmerizing dancer. Kendricks, Franklin and Paul Williams had been the lead singers on earlier Temptations songs, but Robinson saw something special in Ruffin. He said:
But I knew David was in there, man. He was like a sleeping giant. So, if I could get a hit on him, man, they would be multi-faceted. I had also used Paul Williams’ voice on a few things. In fact, the first record I ever recorded on them was a thing called “I Want a Love I Can See,” and I used Paul Williams’ voice. But “My Girl” was written specifically with David Ruffin in mind.2
The video shows the Temptations working on “My Girl” in Studio A, the basement of Hitsville U.S.A., the round-the-clock recording studio that Gordy established in a rowhouse on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard. Hitsville is now the center of the fascinating Motown Museum.
More information about the museum is available:
The video shows the cherub-faced Robinson in headphones and a turtleneck conducting in the background and some of Motown’s accomplished session musicians, the Funk Brothers, including legendary bassist Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin. A 2002 documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, describes the Funk Brothers and their essential, but not widely appreciated, contributions to Motown. Information on the movie is available:
Motown provided session work to a wide variety of musicians. The video also shows a nattily-attired string section that could be musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and a full horn section.
The latter part of the video shows the Temptations performing before a live audience and contains scenes of their remarkable choreography. The group practiced for two hours a day or more under the direction of dancer and choreographer Cholly Atkins of Motown’s Artist Development Department. Their signature move, the Temptations Walk, and their glides, dips, spins and hand movements, emphasized the story line of each song with precise coordination. The Temptations in performance were an aural and a visual experience.
“My Girl” is great art. The song seems inevitable and obvious and it is neither. Surely, almost anyone could write a song in a “My Girl’s” stately waltz tempo about a lover whose beloved provides, “sunshine on a cloudy day.” It took Robinson and White to do it. Their artistry, and that of Ruffin and the others at Motown who made “My Girl,” conceals itself—a sign of high artistic achievement. There is a controversy over whether Bob Dylan actually called Robinson, “America’s greatest living poet,” but the idea is worth thinking about.
Here is critic Dave Marsh on Motown’s remarkable ability to combine diverse talents to generate musical masterpieces like “My Girl”:
Once you begin to delve into the depths of the Motown story, what impresses you most is the delicious particularity of each of those records. If Motown is as much the story of Jamerson’s bass lines and Eddie Holland’s lyrics as it is of Diana Ross’s vocals and Smokey Robinson’s songs, it is more than anything the product of the moments when several of those distinguished components came together. Just listen to the opening seconds of the Temptations’ “My Girl” in which the archetypal Jamerson bass line sets up the perfection of Robinson’s rhymes within the rasping ache of David Ruffin’s voice. Which is not to slight gorgeous harmonies the rest of the Tempts provide, or Benjamin’s driving drum rolls, or some of the sharpest finger pops in the history of recorded sound. By the time Ruffin gets ‘round to declaring, “I’ve got all the riches, baby, one man can claim,” the listener feels as wealthy as Ruffin.”3
Yes, that’s it.
Motown: The Golden Years by Bill Dahl, Krause Publications, 2001, p. 162.
Ibid; p. 163
The Motown Album, St. Martin’s Press, 1995, p. 240.