No matter how much Motown might have insisted through the '60s that all the record label's artists were equally important to the Motown family, the fans knew some acts were more equal than others. It was no secret that the Supremes were a bigger deal than the Marvelettes or Martha Reeves and the Vandellas -- or, for that matter, that Diana Ross was seen as a brighter star than Mary Wilson or Florence Ballard.
Nowhere was Motown's private pecking order more apparent, though, than with the Temptations, who clearly were considered the company's classiest act. Even those who felt the Miracles had more sophisticated material, or that the Four Tops had a stronger front man (the incredibly soulful Levi Stubbs), had to admit that in terms of total presentation -- look, sound, content and choreography -- the Tempts towered over everyone else at Hitsville.
It's no wonder, then, that Motown decided to adorn its Temptations boxed set with a title as oversized as "Emperors of Soul" (Motown, five CDs). Not only did the Tempts make the transition from doo-wop to soul harmony, to psychedelic soul and to funk, but they kept cranking out hits the whole time. How many other R&B; acts can match that track record?
Yet as impressive as the group's overall achievement may be, "Emperors of Soul" is less a testament to the quintet's vocal skills than a document of its incredible mutability. What ultimately comes through in this 110-song set is that it was the Temptations' ability to convey the vision of its producers that ultimately gave the group dominion over the R&B; charts.
Not that there aren't hits aplenty here. All 37 of the Tempts'
Top-40 hits are included -- from the sweetly harmonized "The Way You Do the Things You Do" to the ultra-funky "Glass House" -- and every R&B; Top-10 single besides. Factor in such additional finds as "Come On," a 1960 single by Otis Williams & the Distants (the group that, after a few personnel shuffles, became the Temptations) as well as four new songs from the current version of the group, and "Emperors of Soul" seems an ideal introduction to the group's discography.
Listened to solely for the singing, the collection is a delight. Even if you don't have much patience for the overly dramatic doo-wop sound the group initially favored (it dominates the first dozen selections on the set), it's hard not to be impressed by the sheer power of the quintet's vocal range.
With Melvin Franklin's froggy bass croaking beneath the falsetto harmonies and a choice of three lead singers -- first tenor Eddie Kendricks, second tenor David Ruffin and baritone Paul Williams -- the Tempts brought a splash of Technicolor to the genre's limited palette.
However, it wasn't until Smokey Robinson took over as writer and producer for the group that the ideal application was found for its spectacular sonic range.
As a member of the Miracles, Robinson understood the dynamics of group singing, and knew how to make the most of backing harmonies behind a soloist. But what he was able to accomplish with the Miracles was a mere parlor trick compared to the magic the Temptations worked with "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Since I Lost My Baby," "My Girl" and "Get Ready." It hardly mattered whether the song called for sweetness, anguish, romance or red-blooded passion -- the Tempts always grasped the mood, and conveyed it to the listener.
But it was with Norman Whitfield that the Temptations truly found their avatar. Like Brian Wilson and Jack Nitzsche, Whitfield was less a producer than an aural dramatist, and it was he who got the greatest use from the group's vocal extremes. Listen to such tracks as "Cloud Nine," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" or "Glass House," and what comes across isn't just a matter of chorus and verse, melody and rhythm; there's also a story, a cast of characters, and a sense of community.
Better still, Whitfield's awareness of the latest trends in rock and funk kept the Temptations on the cutting edge of R&B; far longer -- and with much greater chart success -- than most of their contemporaries at Motown. Unfortunately, even he couldn't keep the group from splintering, and by 1978 Williams was dead, while Kendricks, Ruffin and even Dennis Edwards (Ruffin's replacement) were gone.
At that point, "Emperors of Soul" begins to sound pretty thin. Yet the set dutifully soldiers on, compiling non-hit after non-hit right up to the four more-or-less forgettable songs by the current set of Temptations.
And by that point, the Empire seems long gone.
THE TEMPTATION YEARS
To hear excerpts from The Temptations set "Emperors of Soul," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6178 after you hear the greeting.