b/w Slow Down Heart
(Written by Berry Gordy)
The Temptations’ first official release since the magnificent (You’re My) Dream Come True seven months previously, this might have come too late to capitalise on that record’s minor chart placing.
Indeed, of the Temptations’ early, pre-stardom records, for my money this is the one which least stands up to repeated listening nowadays. Which isn’t to say it’s awful, or anything, but… Well, it sounds like a case of one step forward, two steps back. Allow me to explain.
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, a group of clean-cut white doo-woppers led by a helium-voiced falsetto, had been busy racking up the hits for Vee-Jay in 1962, having hit chart gold first time out with Sherry that summer. Berry Gordy, never slow to latch on to a popular trend, had no similar bunch of white doo-woppers on his books (the Valadiers had all but split up by this point, and in any case they didn’t have a falsetto to match Frankie Valli), but he did have the Temptations, who’d picked up an R&B chart hit with their last release – and the Tempts had Eddie Kendricks, a handsome, sweet-faced falsetto, albeit a bit rough and untutored at this point, who’d sung lead on that chart hit.
And so it came to pass that, rather than continue down the path of experimental harmonies and general R&B boundary-pushing that had produced (You’re My) Dream Come True and its even more outlandish predecessor Check Yourself, the Temptations were pushed back into a more familiar, less challenging doo-wop setting and aimed firmly towards the pop charts. Berry Gordy himself – who’d written and produced both those previous Tempts cuts – did the same here, hustling the group into the studio to record his own pastiche of Sherry.
The result? A number 122 pop hit, and a reasonably faithful, largely-unimpressive Four Seasons tribute record, which is to say a pretty much complete waste of the Temptations.
Eddie Kendricks had turned in a superb lead vocal on (You’re My) Dream Come True, but that was very much an exception to the rule – that one shining example aside, Eddie’s early performances had been uniformly disappointing, his raw, undisciplined squeal threatening to ruin every single side he’d been involved with. Have a listen to the Temptations’ début single Oh Mother Of Mine, for example, and its horrendous B-side Romance Without Finance, where he takes the lead jointly with Paul Williams, Eddie’s ear-splitting squawks almost overwhelming Paul’s more restrained performance; or perhaps Mind Over Matter, the record Motown had released just the previous week under the name “the Pirates”, where he again goes too loud and too high for both his bandmates and the backing track.
He’s on similar form here, probably not helped by the presumably explicit instructions to ape Frankie Valli’s rooftop-skimming high notes. The appeal of Frankie Valli doing that particular falsetto schtick was his style; it wasn’t just a question of being able to hit ludicrously high notes, but also a nasal, whiny delivery that helped him both enunciate his lyrics and harmonise with much lower backing vocals (a delivery which Valli is still doing at the time of writing, if the live performance videos on Youtube are anything to go by, despite being in his mid-seventies) and an innate ability to stay in tune (and in key!) whilst wheeling around the upper end of the vocal spectrum. Eddie Kendricks would go on to be one of the all-time great R&B voices, but those are tools that he simply didn’t have – and his problem in 1962 was that he was pushing too hard, aiming for the top of his register too often and with too little regard for the needs of the tune. An instruction to try and copy Frankie Valli was probably the least helpful advice Eddie could have received.
Whatever the reason, the results are really not a lot of fun to hear; it starts off tolerably with Eddie harmonising wordlessly with the other Tempts (Melvin Franklin’s anchoring bass is again a joy), until the lyrics begin at the 25-second mark; from then on in, he’s on his own, paying no attention to either the band or the rest of the group. He misses his mark at the start of literally every verse, and the rest of his performance is difficult to listen to; there’s a good bit in the middle when he dials it down a little and gets back into harmony with the others – the Don’t wanna wake up, don’t wanna wake up group refrain at 1:25 – which briefly raises hopes, but it’s over all too soon, and then we’re back to the substandard Frankie Valli impersonation.
It’s a step forward in the sense that it sounds easily the equal of the Frankie Valli record, Eddie notwithstanding – the rest of the Temptations sound vastly better than the Four Seasons, and when Eddie’s just harmonising with the group, the mix is beguiling; meanwhile, the band are on fine form, and the whole thing is a very professionally-packaged record. Two steps back, because (a) Eddie’s lead performance is awful, and shouldn’t really have been encouraged, and (b) this wouldn’t be regarded as a one-off misfire, meaning the Temptations would waste a lot of time over the next year and a half being pushed down the packaged pop act road, releasing two underwhelming singles, I Want A Love I Can See and Farewell My Love, neither of which made any impression whatsoever on the charts. The group wouldn’t be treated to any high-quality new material that played to their unique strengths until Smokey Robinson took them firmly in hand in 1964.
This record seems to be much-beloved by Temptations fans, but I’m stumped if I can work out why. Easily the weakest of the various singles the Temptations had released thus far, this is ironically nowhere near as good as the group’s quickly-recorded “Pirates” novelty cash-in 45 from the previous week, Mind Over Matter (and certainly not up to the standard of its lovely B-side I’ll Love You Till I Die); even if Eddie had been note-perfect, this would have been a slight, enjoyable but largely forgettable doo-wop number. It’s still harmless enough fun, but scarcely more than that – and that yowling lead vocal knocks this down to a below par effort from the Tempts in my book. I do look forward to the disagreements.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
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“There He Is (At My Door)”
“Slow Down Heart”