Soul Revisited: Remembering Melvin Franklin

It has been two decades since the passing of legendary Temptation and bass singer Melvin Franklin, but his musical legacy continues to shine.

“You could travel all over the world, stop at any door and ask about Melvin Franklin. You couldn’t find anyone to say anything bad about him. He was the type of person that when he walked into a room, if it was dark, it would light up, and if it was lit up, it would become brighter.”

Berry Gordy, Motown founder.

It has been over five decades since The Temptations were first founded and in that time there have been twenty-two different members of the group, but it is the ‘Classic Five’ (and the post-Classic Five, Dennis Edwards) line-up that most fans consider the best. Central to that line-up was the incredible bass voice of Melvin Franklin, dubbed by the group and by their fans as ‘the world’s greatest bass singer’. It’s our opinion that they’re probably right.

Originally born in Montgomery, Alabama as David Melvin English, Franklin took his stepfather’s surname when they moved to Detroit, becoming Melvin Franklin. On moving to the Motor-City the young Franklin began singing locally with people such as Lamont Dozier and later-era Temptation Richard Street. In 1958 schoolmate Otis Williams asked Franklin to join his then singing group The Siberians, which transformed into The Distants. The group included both Williams and Franklin, along with Richard Street on lead and Elbridge ‘Al’ Bryant and released the brilliant R&B gem ‘Come On’. Soon afterwards The Distants split, with Williams, Franklin and Bryant joining forces with Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, from another local group called The Primes, and formed The Elgins. Pretty soon after The Elgins became The Temptations, and were signed to Berry Gordy’s fledgling Motown Records.

Between 1960 and 1995 Melvin Franklin, along with Otis Williams, held together the music and legacy of The Temptations as members came and went, continuing to devote themselves to their music and their fans. In particular Franklin is one of the best-loved Temptations for his incredible vocals, as well as his infectious smile and wonderful personality on stage. Those of us who never got the chance to see Franklin perform live on stage are blessed with the many live recordings of him at work, and it is safe to say that he was probably the greatest bass singer to have lived. Unlike Otis Williams, Franklin has escaped criticism for the constant changes in line-up of The Temptations and the group’s business decisions. Instead, Franklin has remained universally adored by fans and fellow Temptations, recognising that this was a seriously talented individual.

The story of Melvin Franklin is however tinged with sadness. Early on in his career with The Temptations Franklin was diagnosed with arthritis and was prescribed with cortisone that he could continue performing. Yet this weakened his immune system considerably, and he also developed diabetes in the 1980s to complicate his health further. Not wanting to leave the group and Otis Williams as the only original Temptation touring under the Temptations name, Franklin carried on performing, frequently touring with oxygen tanks to the side of the stage, which he would quickly use during performances. By the nineties Franklin’s health had deteriorated further, and during the recording of The Temptations’ excellent For Lover’s Only album Franklin’s leg began to bleed and the recording stopped. Sadly, Franklin was admitted to hospital after suffering seizures; he fell into a coma and never recovered, and sadly passed away on February 23rd 1995.

Unlike other Temptations who left, Franklin was the first (and so far the last) to die whilst a member of the group. More importantly, unlike those who had previously left the group, his shoes were perhaps the biggest to fill. Ray Davies was brought in to finish the For Lover’s Only album but became ill soon after forcing him to leave; after touring as a quartet the group went under a revamp in 1997 with Harry McGilberry brought into to handle Franklin’s bass parts; when he was sacked in the early 2000s Spaniels singer Joe Herndon was brought in and has done a fine job since. Yet no one could ever replace the voice or warmth that Melvin Franklin brought to The Temptations, and he remains, in our opinion, the most missed Temptation.

In honour of the great man we’ve picked out some of our favourite Melvin Franklin moments for you to enjoy.

 

The Temptations – Ol’ Man River, 1967

As with The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, Motown had The Temptations record an album of standards, which some have noted were made in an attempt to make these African-American artists accessible to whiter audiences. In retrospect Motown were probably both clever and stupid to attempt this, but like some of the other attempts The Temptations album In A Mellow Mood is pretty enjoyable, combining their five part harmonies with classic American standards. It also gave Melvin Franklin the chance to sing a rare lead on the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein classic ‘Ol’ Man River’ from the musical Show Boat.

The song tells the story of the African-American experience, contrasting the suffering of Black America with the flow of the Mississippi River. It is one of the most covered songs in history, with acts from Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys recording the song, but with Melvin Franklin singing lead, The Temptation’s version is stunning. Indeed the song became Franklin’s showcase during live performances, and was recorded on The Temptations Live! album. It is a simply stunning performance.

The Temptations – I Truly, Truly Believe, 1967

This song is notable for two reasons: not only is it another rare solo outing for Franklin, it also appears on the Wish It Would Rain album, the last to feature all five Temptations from the ‘Classic Five’ period. This song was released as the B-Side to the harrowing ‘I Wish It Would Rain’, written by Roger Penzabene whose partner had left him prior to writing the song; he would later commit suicide as a result of the break-up on News Years Eve that year. Indeed, given the greatness of ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ and it being the last lead David Ruffin would have as a Temptation until the 1982 Reunion album, ‘I Truly, Truly Believe’ sadly got a bit lost.

The Temptations – Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today), 1971

As David Ruffin left The Temptations and Dennis Edwards joined, the group embarked on a new sound dubbed ‘psychedelic soul’ inspired by Sly & The Family Stone, orchestrated by producer Norman Whitfield. Whitfield also began experimenting with the use of different singers on different verses and lines, giving The Temptations a unique sound, demonstrated on this choice. Here Kendricks, Edwards and Paul Williams all handle lead, but it is Melvin Franklin’s line ‘And the band played on’ that has gone down in musical history. If you haven’t noticed it before, have another listen.

The Temptations – Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone, 1972

Norman Whitfield’s artistic peak came with his creation of ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’: legend has it that Dennis Edwards at first refused to record the song because of the line ‘It was the third of September/That my Daddy died’ because his father had died that day. In reality his father had died on the third of October. This story aside, all The Temptations came together to craft this Grammy Award winning song, with all bar Otis Williams handling a verse: Edwards, Damon Harris, Richard Street and Franklin were all given a lead by Whitfield. As usual, it is Franklin’s voice that mesmerises the most, with his brilliant bass being an absolute delight to hear.

The Temptations – Ways of a Grown Up Man, 1975

This is definitely one of the more obscure Temptations tracks, taken from their largely forgotten album House Party, one of the worst in the Temptations’ back catalogue. The album was released in quick succession to the brilliant A Song For You album, no doubt in order to capitalise on its success. Yet the album was a mismatch of outtakes and poor songs; not even the Temptations’ vocal magic could rescue this album. Yet it did have a few decent moments, such as the very rare Otis Williams lead on the delightful ‘Darling Stand By Me’, and this one, another lead for Franklin. Certainly the song does not compare musically or lyrically to The Temptations’ finest, but it allows us to hear more from Franklin, which is in itself a rare treat.

The Temptations – Power, 1980

Towards the end of the seventies The Temptations had flirted with leaving Motown Records in search of a better record deal; things at Motown had gone stale, and after the decision to release House Party without the group’s approval, relations between the two sides had deteriorated. They finally left in 1976 and a year later reappeared on Atlantic Record with two disco-inspired albums with then-lead singer Louis Price. Neither In Our Lifetime nor Bare Back did very well, and Price left the group allowing Dennis Edwards to return as lead singer. They then resigned to Motown having been persuaded by Berry Gordy himself to re-join the company. Gordy handed The Temptations this song ‘Power’ claiming that he had sat on it for the group because he wanted Franklin’s bass vocal on the introduction of the song.

Gordy was right: Franklin’s bass vocal combined with Dennis Edwards’ incredible performance make ‘Power’ one the best songs The Temptations ever recorded. Yet at the time of release in 1980 race riots had sprung up across America, and radio stations, as well as Motown, thought the lyrics would inspire the rioters and contribute to further violence. Sadly for The Temptations ‘Power’ never became the hit it deserved.

Rick James – Give It To Me Baby, Ghetto Life & Super Freak, 1981

The Temptations and Rick James have a long history together, based in part upon the fact that Melvin Franklin was Rick James uncle. James produced the group’s 1982 single ‘Standing on the Top’, but the group, or at least Otis Williams, Richard Street and Franklin, appeared as backing vocalists on Rick James’ masterpiece Street Sounds the year before. They feature most prominently together on ‘Super Freak’ when James yells ‘Temptations sing!’; but Franklin in particular is prevalent on ‘Give It To Me Baby’ and ‘Ghetto Life’. At first you might not notice him, but take another listen and hear Franklin’s wonderful bass with the King of Punk-Funk.

Teena Marie – The Ballad of Cradle Rob and Me, It Must Be Magic & 365, 1981. 

Once again The Temptations were called upon by James protégée Teena Marie to perform on her final Motown album It Must Be Magic. The album finds Marie finding her own direction after being produced by James, but James continues to appear as well as the Stone City Band. The Temptations – or at least Glenn Leonard, Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin – appear on these three tracks, but it is Franklin who once again shines. On ‘365’ Franklin is prominent and on ‘The Ballad of Cradle Rob and Me’ Marie name-checks Franklin during his vocal theatrics on the introduction. Given his ability its no wonder Franklin was such a sought after backing vocalist.

The Temptations – Life Is But A Dream, 1995

It was during the recording of the album For Lover’s Only that this song appears on that Franklin became ill. In fact he only recorded a few sessions with the group, and only this, along with ‘Melvin’s Interlude’, which made it onto the final album. The song is a cover of the 1955 doo-wop classic originally performed by The Harptones. The ever brilliant Ali Ollie Woodson handled the lead on this one, but Franklin’s vocals were given extra prominence by producer Richard Perry; even though he was gravely ill, Franklin managed to deliver a wonderful final performance, made ever more bittersweet given his death a few weeks after recording.

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George Haffenden
Written by George Haffenden
Brought up on a healthy diet of soul and funk, Haff's dream was to become the first British member of The Temptations. Realising that this dream could never be realised, he is now the curator of The Funk & Soul Revue.