Dennis Edwards, best known for his three stints as lead singer of The Temptations, sadly passed away last week aged 74, days before he was due to celebrate his 75th birthday.
Dennis Edwards, the legendary lead singer of The Temptations during their post-David Ruffin era died last Thursday, aged 74. Edwards had been taken ill last year following a performance with his group The Temptations Review, and had taken time out of the group to recover in May 2017. Sadly, he was unable to recover and passed away in Chicago. His wife Brenda confirmed that Edwards died as a result of complications relating to his illness.
Tributes have been paid the singer, including statements from Otis Williams, the last remaining original member of The Temptations, who posted on Twitter:
Very sad to learn of the passing of our brother, Dennis Edwards. He is now at peace, and our love and prayers go out to his family. We acknowledge his extraordinary contribution to The Temptations legacy, which lives on in the music. Temptations Forever~Otis Williams pic.twitter.com/ru7XZe0OJg
— Temptations (@Temptsofficial) 2 February 2018
Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, in a statement said that “Dennis was the perfect artist to join the Temptations at a critical time in the group’s rise. He epitomized their style — tall, dark, handsome — and a voice like no other.”
However, in recent days it has been reported that his wife had a restraining order out against her after she allegedly abused Edwards in his final days. An investigation in Chicago, where the couple had moved in order to seek better treatment for Edwards, is due to take place. Brenda Edwards has released a statement denying the allegations.
If these reports are true, it’s a sad end to the life of one of the greatest singers to have performed with The Temptations. Edwards was undoubtedly one of the titans of soul; his gruff, powerful gospel voice was the envy of singers everywhere. Faced with a seemingly impossible task in replacing the great David Ruffin in The Temptations, Edwards was able to carve out an impressive music legacy with the group, becoming known as a great singer in his own right, rather than merely being known as the man who replaced Ruffin in the group. He would also have a fairly successful solo career, the high point being his classic eighties jam with Siedah Garrett.
In memory of one of the finest Temptations, we take a look back at his life, career and music.
Like so many African-American singers, Dennis Edwards was raised with the sounds of the Church. Born near Birmingham, Alabama Edwards’ father was a preacher, and Edwards would soon find himself singing in his father’s church. The Edwards family would move to Detroit when little Dennis was just ten, but as a child he would continue to perfom in he church. As a teenager he was invited to perform in a gospel group called The Mighty Clouds of Joy.
Again, like many teenage singers, the temptation to sing secular music was almost too much to resist. Edwards, despite the protestations of his parents, searched for a career in R&B, singing with a group called The Fireballs and recording a few solo singles on Detroit’s small International Soulville Records.
With little success to point to, Edwards went to Motown in 1966 and secured himself an audition. He impressed the company enough for them to sign him on a retainer: Edwards wasn’t allowed to record or perform outside of Motown, but at least he got some pay. Then came his chance: Billy Gordon, the lead singer of The Contours, fell ill and Dennis Edwards was asked to fill in. Edwards impressed the Motown leadership during his time with The Contours, and caught the eye of Temptations members Eddie Kendricks and Otis Williams.
Deliver Us From Temptation: Dennis replaces David
By 1968 The Temptations were one of the hottest acts in America. They has crossed musical and racial boundaries by their now-classic recordings and energetic shows, and were second at Motown only to Diana Ross & The Supremes. However, despite this success, or perhaps because of this success, tensions in the group were reaching breaking point. The group consisted of Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin.
Ruffin, the group’s lead singer, had joined The Temptations a year or so after they formed, replacing Eldridge ‘Al’ Bryant. But he quickly assumed the position of lead singer in the group, helping to score the group a 1964 hit with ‘My Girl‘, written and produced by Smokey Robinson. While others in the group would sing lead, it was Ruffin who sang the majority of leads, and enjoyed being the group’s focal point on vinyl and on stage. But, the group’s success inflated Ruffin’s ego to the point where he believed himself to be above the group: he no longer travelled with the group (he had his own monogrammed limosine), he didn’t show up to recording dates and performances on time, and was generally difficult to work with. The final straw was when Ruffin, inspired by the name-changes of Diana Ross & The Supremes and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, announced that he wanted to change the group to David Ruffin & The Temptations.
Weary of letting their star-man leave the group, but aware that of their pact that no man was above the group, the other members of the group decided to sack Ruffin. It was a brave decision: without Ruffin, there was no guarantee that anyone would want to see or listen to future Temptations records and performances. Likewise, who was to replace Ruffin the group?
Enter Dennis Edwards.
Hearing rumours that he might be sacked and replaced by Edwards, Ruffin visited Edwards shortly before The Temptations made him a formal offer. Edwards was made to feel easier about replacing Ruffin, and accepted the offer once made. His first performance as a Temptation came in July 1968, and grew into the role as lead singer. Yet, Ruffin, fuelled by a cocktail of drugs and ego, kept appearing at Temptations concerts, jumping on stage and taking the mic off Edwards to sing his signature tunes. Edwards always denied that Ruffin would forcefully grab the microphone from him, instead he actually handed Ruffin the microphone during these instances.
Ruffin went from claiming he was The Temptations to pleading with the group to take him back: for a time, it looked possible, but Ruffin failed to hold his end of the bargain up, despite his assurances to the group. As a result, Edwards would remain as The Tempations lead singer.
Around 1968 the sound of soul, and music more generally, was changing. Funk was in, as was psychedelia, demonstrated by the critical and commerical success of groups like Sly & The Family Stone. Norman Whitfield, who had taken over the prime responsibility of producing The Temptations since his success with ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg‘ began to take note, and, along with collaborater Barrett Strong (he of ‘Money (That’s What I Want)‘ fame) began charting a new course for The Temptations.
With Edwards’ gruff, gospel tones Whitfield had found the perfect vessel for his new ‘psychedelic soul’. The Temptations first post-Ruffin single was ‘Cloud Nine’, a supposedly veiled message about drugs (although it was denied by Motown), was a surprise hit and won Motown it’s first Grammy Award. Hits in this new ‘psychedelic soul’ mould came quick and fast: ‘Runaway Child, Running Wild‘, ‘I Can’t Get Next To You‘, ‘Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World is Today)‘ and ‘Psychedelic Shack‘ were all hits, proving the naysayers wrong about the loss of Ruffin upon the Temptations.
Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone
By 1972, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams were on the verge of leaving the group too. Kendricks, encouraged by Ruffin, decided to leave the group after falling out with Otis Williams and tiring of Whitfield’s experimental sounds in soul. Paul Williams meanwhile had become an alcoholic. After several bad performances, the group hired Richard Street to perform with the group behind a curtain singing Williams’ parts, and, in effect, being groomed to eventually take the place of Paul Williams. Kendricks gave the group one last hit with ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)‘ before leaving, with Paul Williams leaving soon after.
That left Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin as the last original members. They recruited Richard Street and Damon Harris as replacements (Harris was second choice to Ricky Owens, who, after a couple of trial performances when he forgot the words to the songs, was promptly sacked). The new version of the group scored a small hit with ‘Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are‘, a not so subtle message to Ruffin and Kendricks.
Around this time Edwards began a love affair with the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. In his biography of Franklin, David Ritz notes that for a time Franklin was smitten with Edwards, and it’s been reported that Franklin had Edwards in mind when she wrote her classic ‘Day Dreaming‘. The song was released in 1972, and in an interview with Oprah she revealed that she liked Edwards “a lot”, and “I did write that with him in mind”.
Then, in 1973, the group scored their second Grammy Award with ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’. Another Whitfield production, the album cut came in at just under 12 minutes long; most of that was instrumental. The group initially rejected the song: it was too long, and featured too little of them. The Motown Legend has it that Edwards in particular hated the song as the lyrics about the third of September being a day to remember “because that was the day my Daddy died” as that was when his father had died (in fact, his father hadn’t). However, Whitfield did force Edwards to record numerous takes of the song, resulting in a rather annoyed Edwards delivering a bitter rendition of the song. The group as a whole, through bitter teeth, recorded what was to be their last mega hit, winning themselves another Grammy in the process.
Dennis leaves and returns, part one
From 1973 to 1977 Edwards remained with the group. The Temptations grew more frustrated with Whitfield – his latest offering, the Masterpiece album, had a 14 minute version of the title song on with only 4 minutes of The Temptations featuring (and Whitfield’s picture on the back of the album sleeve was bigger than that of the group). By this time Damon Harris had been sacked from the group, and replaced by Glenn Leonard, a dynamic tenor singer.
Breaking from Whitfield, they sought out other producers, including Jeffrey Bowen who produced the A Song For You album that feautured writing contributions from a young Lionel Richie, and musical backing from the rest of the Commodores. The album was an artistic triumph for the group: Edwards’s take on Donny Hathaway’s ‘A Song for You’ is just exquiste. But this happy colloboration didn’t last long: Motown put out an album of outtakes by the group, angering Otis Williams, and the group’s follow up, Wings of Love, angered Williams further as it featured Edwards on all the leads and featured the rest of the Temptations less and less.
And then, by 1977, Edwards had, in a similar manner to that of David Ruffin, developed bad habits and his relationship with the other members deteriorated the point that Otis Williams sacked Edwards for his poor behaviour. The group replaced him with a young singer Louis Price, and also left Motown for Atlantic Records.
Edwards remained under contract at Motown, but he couldn’t crack a solo career. Fortunately for Edwards, The Temptations fared even worse at Atlantic than at Motown: their take on disco was decidedly un-hip, and their new lead singer was struggling to fill Edwards’s shoes, despite him being an incredibly talented singer.
Edwards meanwhile was struggling to get his material released by Motown. The singer claimed that “Motown said that if I came in with a good album, they were going to give me a million dollars. They reneged on giving me the money, so I wouldn’t sign the deal“.
As a result, by 1980 The Temptations were back at Motown, and Dennis Edwards was back as lead singer. The group released one of their most underated albums, the delightful Power. The song was about the abuses of power by politicians, feauturing an incredible bass vocal by Melvin Franklin, and a masterclass from Edwards. The song was co-written by Berry Gordy years earlier, but had sat on it because he claimed he wanted The Temptations, with Franklin and Edwards, to sing the parts he had created. Yet, the song was deemed to provocative, especially in the light of the Miami riots, and was taken off radio schedules.
The Temptations Reunion, and Dennis leaves (again)
In 1982 Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin rejoined The Temptations for a tour and album aptly titled Reunion. A reunion had been on the cards for a while, and while it was an opportunity for the group to reassert themselves as a force in music, but it was half-hearted at best.
The album started well: Rick James, Motown’s latest star, was brought in to produce the album’s first single ‘Standing on the Top’. James crafted a rich, funk gem on which Edwards and Ruffin shined (Kendricks’ voice was shot, sadly, by this point). But the rest of the album was largely forgettable. Ruffin was given one lead, Kendricks none; and most of the tracks featured Edwards singing lead.
On stage, Ruffin failed to show to the tour’s first performances, costing the group as their contracts allowed for promoters to deduct money from their fees per Temptation missing. By the end of the tour it was decided the pre-Reunion tour Temptations line-up would go on without Kendricks and Ruffin.
Then, by 1984 Dennis Edwards was on the verge of leaving. Again. Glenn Leonard had gone, replaced by Ron Tyson, and this new line-up performed at the Motown 25 televised special. They took to the stage for a “Battle of the Bands” performance with the Four Tops, each jostling and trading lyrics: Edwards was on fire, his eyes cold and steely, his vocals gruff and powerful. It was one of his career highlights.
But relations within the group down, again. Edwards was fired once again, and this time replaced by Ali Ollie Woodson, a versatile singer who would go on to become a legendary lead singer of the Temptations also.
Don’t Look Any Further
Out of the group, Edwards sought to re-ignite his solo career. Unlike after his first firing from The Temptations, Edwards was more successful with his second attempt. He hooked up with producer Dennis Lambert, who had produced The Temptations’ Surface Thrills album, who told him he had a song for him – and that he wanted Chaka Khan to perform a duet with him. Edwards, in an interview with Jim Bagley, recounted that “I met the producer Dennis Lambert who said “we have this one track… we want to get Chaka Khan to do it with you, but we can’t find her. We have this girl Siedah Garrett who is already on the demo”. After I heard it, I said “well if you can’t get Chaka, we can leave this girl on there. She’s great.” I just added my part and it was an immediate hit.”
Yet, Edwards was still looking for his million-dollar deal, and no such deals were forthcoming.
Dennis returns part 2, and leaves, part 3
By 1987, after the recording success of ‘Treat Her Like A Lady‘ and smaller hits such as ‘Lady Soul‘ and ‘Do You Really Love Your Baby‘, the Temptations’ recording career effectively stalled. Chasing hits, the group tried to modernise their sound, but it largely backfired. Combined with this, Ali Ollie Woodson was sacked from the group for alleged unprofessional behaviour. Otis Williams claimed in his autobiography that Edwards was sought out, and begged to rejoin the group. For his part, Edwards was glad to rejoin, but equally annoyed that he was to be a salaried employee of the group rather than earning a percentage of earnings, like the other members.
This uneasy working relationship came to an inevitable end in 1989 when Edwards left the group for the final time. However, Edwards did record an album with the group during his third tenure with the group, the aptly titled Together Again. Like much of the group’s seventies and eighties output, the album was so-so but it did feature one exquiste ballad, the fabulous ‘I Wonder Who’s She’s Seeing Now’. The song even featured Stevie Wonder on harmonica, but faded away after a lack of promotion from Motown.
Edwards was then once again gone, his relationship with the group was broken, and it would take over a decade before he and Otis Williams would be on friendly terms.
The Original Lead Singers of The Temptations
In 1989 The Temptations were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Usually, the group’s original members are inducted – replacements are usually excluded. Fortunately for Edwards, it was decided that his contribution to the group warranted his induction into the Hall of Fame, alongside the “Classic 5” era of David, Eddie, Paul, Melvin and Otis. The ceremony, as Edwards recounted, was tense, especially when Otis and Melvin came along with the current line-up of The Temptations.
But the groups brief reunion that night led to a promoter offering Edwards a contract to perform with Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin. Edwards would claim that “[w]e were so successful and actually better than Otis’ Temptations. We were even able tot alk David out of doing drugs for a while.”
Yet, “The Original Leads Singers of the Temptations” (as they were billed), came to a premature end in 1991 after a long tour of England. Edwards and Kendricks returned to America, but Ruffin stayed behind so he could get paid in cash. On his return to America Ruffin fell back into drugs hard, and died of an overdose. His body was allegedly thrown out of a limo naked in front of a hospital.
Edwards and Kendricks decided to carry on, but this was cut short once Kendricks was diagnosed with cancer, and had a lung removed to stop the spread of the disease. But in 1992, a year after the death of David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks too passed away.
The Temptations Review
On his own, out of the group he helped develop and persist, Edwards decided to form his own version of The Tempations. However, after being billed as ‘Dennis Edwards and The Temptations’ overseas, word reached Otis Williams, who by this time was leading the The Temptations (Melvin Franklin would be ill for much of the early nineties and died in 1995), and sued Edwards for breaching his trademark (Williams and Franklin were the sole owners of ‘The Temptations’ name).
Williams and Edwards battled in court, with both sides spending near a million dollars each on legal fees. Edwards decided to settle, and offered Williams an agreement that he would tour as ‘The Tempations Review featuring Dennis Edwards’, and wrote into future contracts with promoters that if they used ‘The Temptations’ name and branding, the would be liable to Otis Williams.
The group consisted of Edwards, and longtime members Mike Patillo, Chris Arnold and David Sea; Paul Williams Jr, son of original Temptation Paul Williams, would also perform with the group, as would former Temptation Ali Ollie Woodson – meaning for a time Edwards’ version of the group would have two Temptation greats in, leaving Otis Williams with younger, newer members of the official Temptations. In an interview in 2000, when Williams was with his younger (albeit Grammy-Award-winning) line-up, Edwards said about his group that “had to wait but I’ve got the right voices now and to reproduce the ‘Temptations’ magic. I’m not talking about Otis but I don’t think [the Temptations] have got the voices now.”
However, his relationship with Otis Williams improved in recent years. In an interview from 2013 he said the two of them were in friendly contact, saying “he’ll call me to tell me he loves me, and I’ll call him to tell him I love him.” The two appeared together in 2013 when the Temptations won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy’s that year. But they would never perform together again, with Edwards and Williams continuing to tour seperately.
Dennis Edwards leaves an incredible musical legacy. He not only overcame the seemingly impossibly task of replacing David Ruffin as lead singer of The Temptations, he led the group to even bigger heights with his sound. His three tenures with the group were all exciting for fans. His cool, steely-eyed look on stage presented himself as a force to be reckoned with. His solo career, while not as successful as perhaps it should have been, nonetheless produced some great music. His years with The Temptations Review gave fans an opportunity to really appreciate his legacy and contribution to The Tempations.
He will be forever remembered for his incredible talent, and for creating some of the finest soul music around.