Covering The Temptations

The Motown icons' music found new life thanks to Bruce Springsteen, Dee Dee Bridgewater and others.

by Jake Cline

The music of The Temptations has proved irresistible for more than 60 years. Fans pushed 53 of the Motown group’s singles onto Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, with 15 of them appearing in the Top 10 and four reaching No. 1. Broadway producers couldn’t help but bring The Temptations’ songs and story to the stage, resulting in a Tony Award-winning musical that will play the Arsht Center May 9-14. And almost from the beginning, the Detroit-born group’s fellow musicians began recording and performing their music, with the best covers taking the songs to new and unexpected places. Here are some of our favorites.

1. “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” by The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger is front and center, as always, on this It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll track, the first of the Stones’ two Temptations covers (the other, “Just My Imagination,” surfaced four years later, on Some Girls). Jagger sounds appropriately desperate here, to keep his lover from leaving him, yes, but also to not cede the spotlight to drummer Charlie Watts and guest keyboardist Billy Preston, whose playing closes in on the singer until he has nowhere left to go but inward and down. How does the song compare to the original? It doesn’t. It’s its own thing.

2. “(I Know) I’m Losing You” by Rod Stewart. Decades before he entered his human jukebox phase, and when the singer’s voice still had as much grit as gravel, Stewart recorded this roadhouse version of the Temptations smash for his 1971 solo album, Every Picture Tells a Story (the one with “Maggie May”). The song burns, not least because Stewart is accompanied by his Faces bandmates Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones, fire starters all.

3. “My Girl” by Otis Redding. “Going back to the olden days,” Redding, already sounding eternal at 25 and obviously unaware that he wouldn’t live past 26, says when introducing this performance of the then 2-year-old Temptations/Smokey Robinson-Ronnie White masterpiece to a Paris audience in the winter of 1967. It’s a funny line, but the joke fades as soon as he begins to sing. There are no yesterdays in an Otis Redding song or performance. Everything — every ache, every hurt — that has happened to him is happening now, and will happen again. His girl? She’s there, but he remembers when she wasn’t. What can make him feel this way? The more difficult question is: What can’t?

4. “I Can’t Get Next to You” by Dee Dee Bridgewater. “I can change anything from old to new,” Bridgewater sings on this 2017 version of the late ’60s hit, and it’s no empty boast. The jazz singer and Tony Award-winning actress amplifies the frustrated yearning of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s lyrics and points the song south, from Motown to Memphis, where Al Green first moved it in 1971 and, with the help of producer Willie Mitchell, got lost, gloriously, within its layers of despair. Bridgewater’s confident, winking take offers a way out: “I can’t get next to you” — for now.

5. “Cloud Nine” by The Upsetters. Oddball reggae genius Lee “Scratch” Perry recorded this hazy, understated “Cloud Nine” with his studio band The Upsetters only two years after The Temptations began dosing their music with flower power and topicality, a trip that would last until at least Psychedelic Shack, an album the group released in 1970, where it remains.

6. “Just My Imagination” by Little Beaver. The stage name of Miami-by-way-of-Arkansas guitarist Willie Hale, Little Beaver recorded this winding, low-lit rendition of The Temptations ballad in Hialeah studio T.K. Productions for Black Rhapsody, his 1974 instrumental album. Original Temptation Otis Williams told The Guardian newspaper in 2012 that the song was a response to fans asking the group to return to “classic ballads” in the midst of its “psychedelic soul” phase. The Temps met them halfway. The song, released in 1971, is, after all, about a hallucination: In the lyrics, Williams explained, “a guy is expressing his desire for a girl (‘her love is heavenly’), but only towards the end do you realize it's all in his dreams.” Three years later, Little Beaver was still riding the buzz.

7. “I Wish It Would Rain” by Bruce Springsteen. The newest song on this list, Springsteen’s version of the 1967 hit appears on last year’s Only the Strong Survive, a love letter to soul and R&B classics by artists such as The Four Tops, Jerry Butler and Ben E. King. Springsteen is faithful to the original, but this is no act of mimicry. The singer is all there, and his performance suggests the song has always been there for him. “I Wish It Would Rain,” after all, isn’t that much older than “Spirit in the Night.” And that Springsteen falsetto? We don’t hear it often enough.

Pictured: The cast of Ain't Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations by Emilio Madrid.


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