Dennis Edwards, lead singer of the Temptations from 1968-1976 and again from 1980 to 1987 and Leon Ndugu Chancler, best known as the drummer on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, both passed away within two days of each other this week. The former at age 74, the later at 65. The interesting part of it was Ndugu passed away on what would’ve been Edwards’ 75th birthday-on February 3rd, 2018. Edwards was a singer, Chancler was a jazz session drummer. And it was still surprising to me the breadth of commonalities these two late musical figures have in common.
Dennis and Ndugu both hailed from the South. Edwards from Alabama, Chancler from Louisiana. They both left the South- Edwards for Detroit and Chancler for California. Both men studied their craft at universities in their adopted home towns. Their career paths differed-as Ndugu became a session player for artists ranging from George Benson to Kenny Rogers. And he was even George Duke’s main drummer for a decade or so. Edward’s became the lead singer of The Tempts during their psychedelic soul period. And the two finally crossed paths on the 1982 song “Money’s Hard To Get”.
Kerry Ashby’s synth bass provides the intro to a song-played in close unison to Stevie Wonder’s bassist Nathan Watts. Ndugu’s powerful drums then come in playing right in the the pocket. Along with Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin’s nimble rhythm guitar, that also comprises the refrains of the song. The chorus features Benjamin F. Wright Jr’s ultra funky horn arrangements-whereas those two sides of the songs are linked by a unison vocal passage with Ashby’s synth bass playing a more clomping style. After a bridge featuring a synth solo with the horns, an extended chorus fades out the song.
“Money’s Hard To Get” finds both Dennis Edwards and Ndugu Chancler at some of their very finest. Edward’s second tenure with The Tempts as at its peak vocal powers here-in a reunion with the seven then surviving members. His voice follows the emotional attitude of the song too-itself a classic soul tale of “love or money” somewhat in the vain of The Isley’s “Work To Do”. Chancler’s drummer, along the the horns, rhythm guitar and electric/synth bass fusion make this a terrific example of early 80’s post disco/boogie melding the live sounds of the 70’s with the electronic/new wave ones of the 80’s.
The Temptations had been a fixture at Motown for 20 years by the time the labels silver anniversary rolled around. They’d only left for a brief few years in the late 70’s. And returned with the mammoth uptempo hit “Power”,one of the few late in the day disco era songs with a tough political message. A year and a half later,the band did a reunion tour and album with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks. Neither former member of the (sadly) revolving door group stuck around very long. As messy as the Temptations personnel and personal situation continued to be,they continued on with their recording career.
1983 turned out to be a pretty big year for The Tempts. They had a memorable faux “battle of the bands” with the Four Tops,and also released two albums. While neither were a commercial success,both were very strong and contemporary musical statements. The first was the boogie funk/new wave influenced Surface Thrills,often criticized for sounding more like a solo album for lead singer Dennis Edwards. The second album was the more harmony laced soul ballad oriented Back To Basics. The album also reunited them with producer Norman Whitfield for songs such as “Miss Busy Body (Get Your Body Busy)”.
A heavily reverbed and echoed drum,heavy on the cymbal hits provide the basic rhythm to the songs intro. Soon a bass and higher synthesizer duet with a Vocorder before Edward’s voice kicks in with a classic Whitfield bluesy juke joint piano backing him up. On the choruses,the rest of the Temps join him along with a pounding funky beat and electric slap bass thumping away. A rhythm guitar accompanies bass singer Melvin Franklin before the second refrain of the song gets started. Just before the bridge,the Temps all rap in harmony before the closing chorus fades the song out.
“Miss Busy Body” is a song that surprised even me. Henrique and I both discussed about a year ago how hard and heavy this funk stop was. It was extremely hard for 1983,with the electronic elements being tangy and brittle. It would’ve been heavy in the early/mid 70’s too if the Tempts had recorded it with Norman Whitfield then. Dennis Edwards always comes in at his very best on the hard funk numbers,with his thundering husky soul wail. The mixture of electro/boogie funk with earlier 70’s harder funk sounds all come out at their very hardest here-perhaps the Tempts funkiest songs of the early 80’s.
Years of arguing with their producers and Motown finally convinced Otis Williams that the Tempts needed to rest a fuller creative control over their music. Most of their contemporaries from the label’s 60’s heyday were gone now. And had rested creative autonomy only after doing so. Add to that the fact most of the instrumental talent for the label had done the same thing? Otis,Richard and Glenn Leonard took over the writing and production for their final original run of albums for the Motown label.
“Why Can’t You And Me Get Together” is a bouncing,uptempo pop/funk number with a strong melody whose vocals are defined by very democratic unison vocal harmonies. “Who Are You (And What Are You Doing With The Rest Of Your Life” has Dennis leading with wonderful harmonies and bass vocal accents from Melvin Franklin on a song filled with bounding disco pass,a melodic high pitched synthesizer and a rhythmic clavinet solo on the instrumental bridge. “I’m On Fire (Body Song)” is a creamy,string drenched showcase for the elastically powerful falsetto of Glenn Leonard.
“Put Your Trust In Me” is a mid 60’s style Tempts uptempo shuffle with Dennis working out on straight up 12 bar blues breakdown on the bridge. “There Is No Stopping (Til We Ser The Whole World Rockin)” is a ferocious example of funk functioning as disco-with a heavy “people music” lyrical inclination straight out of the gospel joyousness. “Let Me Count The Ways (I Love You)” really goes for the Smokey style wordplay on a chiming shuffle rhythm love ballad while “Is There Anybody Else” is a slow crawling,slap bass and glassy electric piano drenched funk stomp. The album ends with the sweetly orchestrated Dennis sung ballad “I’ll Take You In”.
Having taken heavy control in the making of this album? This is probably the mid 70’s album they did that has the musical flavor of the classic Tempts sound of the 60’s-only with a contemporary instrumental production twist to it. All the songs are tremendously sung of course,and full of the transcendence melodies favored by the group. It’s mixture of slow and mid-tempo romantic ballads,uptempo pop/soul and stomping funk had all the ingredients for an epic comeback. Yet the Tempts dissolved their Motown contract during the making of this album in order to head off to their ill fated and brief Atlantic tenure. Motown apparently didn’t go too far out to promote this album and it isn’t all that well known as a result. But it’s actually one of the Tempts strongest albums of the 70’s. Perhaps in the Top 10 of their albums from throughout their career even.
Originally posted on February 3rd,2015
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Filed under 1970's, Dennis Edwards, Disco, Funk, Glenn Leonard, Motown, Motown Sound, Otis Williams, Richard Street, The Temptations, Uncategorized