The first time I met Dennis Edwards, I thought he stood 9 feet tall.
As I recall, it was 1977. Edwards, who died of meningitis in a Chicago hospital on Friday, a day short of his 75th birthday, strode into the Los Angeles offices of SOUL Magazine that day to give his first interview after leaving the Temptations. And I had assigned it to me.
Since replacing David Ruffin in 1968, Edwards had led the group through a period of groundbreaking creativity and commercial success that produced such iconic hits as “Cloud Nine,” (Motown’s first Grammy Award winner) “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Ball of Confusion” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” By 1977, though, the group was in a period of commercial decline, and Edwards was in a mood to dish dirt on the way out the door.
In our interview, he blasted founding members Otis Williams and the late Melvin Franklin as old guys too set in their ways to change with the times. I lapped it up as kittens do cream and published it under the headline: “Dennis Edwards and the Sinking of the Good Ship Temptations.”
Maybe a week later, Williams and Franklin requested a meeting. It did not go well for me. They hated the headline. And who was Dennis, two years younger than Otis and Melvin, to be calling them “old guys”?
I slunk out of there knowing they were right on all counts. Yeah, the headline was unfair. And I should have challenged Edwards’ cutting remarks more than I did. At a minimum, I should have given them a chance to rebut. That’s Journalism 101.
The only excuse I have is that I was 19. And it was Dennis Edwards. And he was 9 feet tall.
You have to understand that when I was a kid, there were three men I wanted to be: Little Joe Cartwright, Joe Mannix and Dennis Edwards. I loved them all for their sleek, masculine confidence, that sense they exuded of being always in charge, never unequal to any situation, ever cool.
But neither the TV cowboy nor the TV detective ever sang like Edwards did. When David Ruffin, he of the plaintive, anguished tenor, was banished from the Tempts in 1968, Edwards, a preacher’s son from Alabama, was the right man in the right place at the right time.
R&B;, like all other popular music, was at a pivot point, the starry-eyed sweetness of the early 1960s giving way to a sound that was harsher and more propulsive, driven by sharp congas, ropey basslines and angular, wah-wah guitars. Songs about boys meeting girls were largely replaced by songs about what it meant to be alive at a time of war, protest, assassination, drugs and sexual revolution.
They called it “psychedelic soul” and Edwards sang the hell out of it. He sang like his fists were clenched, sang like he had a grudge, his voice the sound of a rotary saw biting into hard wood. How many times did I nearly tear my untalented vocal chords to shreds trying to sound like that?
But music changes, and by 1977, people simply wanted to dance. The Temptations, like pretty much every R&B; act of their generation, adapted poorly. Sales declined, and Edwards, restless, took his leave.
Three years later, with the group’s sales now flat-lining and Edwards’ solo career stillborn, he returned to the group and delivered what is arguably his greatest single performance. It was “Power,” a hard-charging song about political demagoguery built around a hypnotic repetition of the hook by Franklin, the great bass singer.” “Power” wasn’t a hit — Williams says DJs feared to play it because it came in the wake of the McDuffie riots in Miami — but it is worth hearing for the way Edwards absolutely crushes the song. He sings with a fire and fury that seem to leap right out of the speakers to grab you by the collar.
In African-American lexicon, there is singing and there is “sangin’,” which is when the singer goes out of body and takes you with him. On “Power,” Edwards did some serious sangin’.
This second stint lasted until 1984 and included an abortive reunion tour and album with founding members Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick. That same year, Edwards scored a solo hit, “Don’t Look Any Further,” a duet with Siedah Garrett. He would have a third and final run with the Tempts in 1987-88. In 1989, he was inducted with them into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In his later years, he toured with a group he called The Temptations Review.
Now he’s gone. Williams, the last surviving member of the group’s 1964-1975 heyday, eulogized him in a written statement: “He is now at peace, and our love and prayers go out to his family. At this moment and always, we acknowledge his extraordinary contribution to The Temptations’ legacy, which lives on in the music. Temptations, forever.”
With apologies to Smokey Robinson, I second that emotion.
There was a period in the 1960s and 1970s when every red-blooded African-American boy wanted to be a Temptation. We wanted to sing like they did, wanted to float along with Eddie’s creamy falsetto, dig in the soil with Melvin’s coal-mine bass or blow things up with Dennis’ explosive tenor. We wanted to dress as they did, to go effortlessly from fearless pink flashiness to timeless, black-tie splendor. We wanted to dance as they did, to move with fluid grace and precision choreography sharp enough to cut yourself with.
But most of all, we wanted to be like they were, to embody that sleek masculine confidence, that wordless assertion of self. They were not the Spinners, not the Tops, not the O’Jays. They were, by God, the Temptations, and for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, no more need be said.
So the passing of Dennis Edwards carves a hole. He was one of the greatest voices in the greatest vocal group that ever was. And yeah, the first time I saw him, I did think he stood 9 feet tall.
I’m still not sure he didn’t.
— Leonard Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald.