The Temptations' 25 greatest songs of all time, ranked

·19 min read
The Temptations
The Temptations

It's been 60 years since the Temptations made their first appearance on the Billboard R&B charts with their first release on Motown, "(You're My) Dream Come True," a soulful ballad written and produced by Berry Gordy.

That song peaked at No. 22, earning the Tempts a spot on Gordy's Motortown Revue and setting the wheels in motion for what even now remains one of the most successful singing groups the world has ever known.

Within a decade of releasing "(You're My) Dream Come True," they'd sent four singles to the top of Billboard's Hot 100 as their sound evolved from early hits as iconic as "My Girl" to the more ambitious psychedelic soul of such classics as "Cloud Nine," which earned Motown its first Grammy, and "Ball of Confusion."

Here's one unapologetically subjective countdown of their greatest songs, from the timeless appeal of the non-charting "I Want a Love I Can See" to their very funky team-up with guitarist Eddie Hazel on "Shakey Ground."

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25. ‘Psychedelic Shack’ (1969)

Never let it be said that the Temptations met the psychedelic '60s halfway. Their intentions are written all over this special-effects-laden relic of a very funky trip in dayglo paisley letters as they sing the praises of a place that's guaranteed to “blow your mind.” It's even got a neon sign outside that says "Come in and take a look at your mind." Producer Norman Whitfield co-wrote "Psychedelic Shack" with Barrett Strong, whose recording of “Money (That’s What I Want)” a decade earlier was Motown’s first hit single.  The Temptations were fully invested in bringing their vision to life with conviction to spare while the Funk Brothers supplied one of their more insistent psychedelic grooves. This one peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the R&B charts.

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24. ‘It’s Growing’ (1965)

That toy piano intro is sublime. Most people will be hooked before the first words escape David Ruffin's mouth as he tries to capture the extent to which his love for you is growing every day. And speaking of those lyrics, they could scarcely be more instantly identifiable as the work of a young Smokey Robinson, who co-wrote this gem of a love song with the Miracles' Pete Moore. Sample line: "Like the size of a fish that the man claims broke his reel, it's growing." Robinson was coming off a huge Temptations single, "My Girl." This one didn't do as well, but few songs have. "It's Growing" peaked at No. 18 on the Hot 100.

David Ruffin.
David Ruffin.

23. ‘(Loneliness Made Me Realize) It’s You That I Need’ (1967)

This richly orchestrated masterstroke was brilliantly produced by Whitfield, who wrote the song with Edward Holland, Jr. It also features one of Motown's most distinctive basslines. You could make a solid case for the extent to which James Jamerson out-grooves the competition based entirely on this performance. He even manages to groove on the opening verse without a drummer, who doesn't really make his presence felt until the second verse, where the other Temptations weave their way through Ruffin's desperate pleas, delivered in his legendary rasp, with an emphatic, extremely contagious refrain of "I need you/Baby, I need you." This one peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100.

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22. ‘Masterpiece’ (1973)

Written and produced by Whitfield, this one wears its sense of self-importance on its actual sleeve. The title tells you everything you need to know about what they were hoping to accomplish here. I believe the term for that would be a baller move. And the song length definitely follows suit. Thirteen minutes and 49 seconds?! It's pretty clear that Whitfield meant for this to be another "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," his chart-topping masterpiece of the previous year, adhering closely to the formula that made that record what it was. You're nearly four minutes into a sumptuous bed of orchestrated soundtrack funk before we hear from any actual Temptations, who rise to the occasion here with a heartfelt delivery of Whitfield's gritty portrait of how "nobody cares what happens to folks down here in the ghetto." This one topped the R&B charts, hitting No. 7 on the Hot 100.

21. ‘Don’t Look Back’ (1965)

Robinson produced this soulful gem, a song he reportedly wrote to shine a spotlight on the great and yet underutilized Paul Williams, their original lead singer, whose star had been eclipsed in the Temptations firmament by Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks. It was relegated to the B-side after DJs made their preference clear for the intended flip, "My Baby," with the red-hot Ruffin on lead vocals. "My Baby" outperformed it on the Hot 100 and the R&B charts. But "Don't Look Back" became a go-to track to close their live performances, its reputation growing through the years to where it now has more than twice as many streams on Spotify and has inspired countless covers, from Peter Tosh with Mick Jagger to Elvis Costello.

20. ‘All I Need’ (1967)

There's more than a passing resemblance to the effervescent rhythm that made the Supremes song "You Can't Hurry Love" such a chart-topping triumph the previous summer. And although this single didn't do what the Supremes did with a similar approach, the energy of "All I Need" is every bit as irresistible as it builds to its inevitable climax, Ruffin in the role of the unfaithful lover vowing to "undo the wrong I've done." All he needs is just to hear you say you forgive him. This one peaked at No. 8 on Billboard's Hot 100, doing better on the R&B charts, where it got to No. 2.

19. ‘I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)’ (1968)

Their final single to feature Ruffin on lead vocals was also their second consecutive single with lyrics by Rodger Penzabene. It took the Tempts to No. 1 on Billboard's R&B charts (much like that previous Penzabene single, "I Wish It Would Rain"). But this one only got to No. 13 on the Hot 100. Not for lack of being an exceptional recording. Ruffin clearly went out on a high with this positively tortured vocal. The intensity he brings to "On my bended knees, I'm beggin' you to stay here with me" is like a master class in desperation, underscoring the heartache of lyrics reportedly written as an open letter from Penzabene, who died by suicide before this single was released, to his unfaithful wife.

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18. ‘You’re My Everything’ (1967)

Eddie Kendricks' lead vocal here could not be smoother or more soulful as he pledges his devotion to his everything on one of the Temptations' most romantic ballads, setting the tone with "You surely must know magic girl 'cause you've changed my life." You'd be forgiven for thinking those lyrics were Smokey's, but this is the first of four Temptations singles with lyrics by Penzabene. Ruffin grabs the spotlight on the bridge, his grittier vocal a dramatic contrast that further sets that section of the song apart, and he returns to testify over the fadeout. This one peaked at No. 6 on Billboard's Hot 100.

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17. ‘Runaway Child, Running Wild’ (1969)

This was the Temptations' second psychedelic soul hit written by Whitfield and Strong with Whitfield handling the production, a change in direction inspired by Otis Williams turning Whitfield on to what Sly & the Family were up to. There's a definite nod to psychedelic rock in the fuzz on those guitar licks and the production is suitably trippy, pointing the way to early Funkadelic, while the lyrics represent another shift — into explicitly socially relevant lyrics. A cautionary tale aimed at the runaway, it finds them siding with the parents while painting a harrowing portrait of life on the streets. "You're in punishment 'cause your mother wants to raise you in the right way," Dennis Edwards tells the runaway. "But you don't care 'cause you already made up your mind you wanna run away." This one topped the R&B charts and hit No. 6 on Billboard's Hot 100.

16. ‘Since I Lost My Baby’ (1965)

This melancholy breakup song was written by Robinson and Warren Moore with Robinson producing. It opens with Ruffin contrasting his heartache to the sunshine of a beautiful new day over lush orchestration with Melvin Franklin, their bass singer, punctuating his lines with the lowest possible "Oh yeah." "But after I've been crying all night," Ruffin sighs, "the sun is cold and the new days seem old." There's a seemingly effortless grace to the melody and orchestration, resulting in one of the prettiest singles they ever recorded. This one peaked at No. 17 on Billboard's Hot 100, faring better on the R&B charts, where it peaked at No. 4.

15. ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ (1968)

The Temptations and the Supremes.  The Supremes, left to right: Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Cindy Birdsong.  The Temptations, left to right: Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams and Dennis Edwards.
The Temptations and the Supremes. The Supremes, left to right: Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Cindy Birdsong. The Temptations, left to right: Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams and Dennis Edwards.

The obvious choice for a lead single from their album-length collaboration with Diana Ross and the Supremes is a joyous cover of a Dee Dee Warwick hit written by Gamble and Huff with Jerry Ross and produced by Frank Wilson and Nickolas Ashford of Ashford & Simpson, who sang backup on the Warwick version. There's a playful chemistry between the groups that really serves the lyrics as Ross and Kendricks navigate the supple melody while taking turns vowing to make the other person love them. Kendricks sounds like he was born to sing that mile-high chorus (especially when he sings ‘And I’m gonna make… I’m gonna make you love me’ just before the fadeout) while Ross takes a more conversational approach to the lyrics to brilliant effect. It peaked at No. 2 on both the Hot 100 and the R&B charts.

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14. ‘The Way You Do the Things You Do’ (1964)

The playful lyrics started as a joke in the Miracles' station wagon on the Motortown Revue with Robinson and Bobby Roberts rhyming pickup lines to pass the time. In the opening verse, for instance, Kendricks rhymes "You got a smile so bright/you know you coulda been a candle" with the somehow more absurd "I'm holding you so tight/You know you coulda been a handle." America was smitten (for obvious reasons), giving the Temptations the breakthrough they desperately needed with only one low-charting R&B hit, "Dreams Come True," to show for their first seven times at bat. With Robinson producing, this one topped the R&B charts and hit No. 11 on the Hot 100, a peak they wouldn't top until three singles later with "My Girl."

13. ‘I Want a Love I Can See’ (1963)

Speaking of those early 45s that didn't chart, this song is every bit as irresistible as the hit that followed. It just didn't reach the audience it so richly deserved outside the Midwest, where it was a regional hit that went on to become a staple of their live show. It also introduced the winning formula that paved the way for "My Girl" as the first Temptations single written and produced by Robinson, whose lyrical genius is on full display, brought to life by a truly impassioned Paul Williams, who just wants a love he can see. "Don't want a love you have to tell me about," Williams sings. "That kind of loving I can sure do without."

12. ‘I Know (I’m Losing You)’ (1966)

That horn part is amazing, underscoring Ruffin's gritty testifying on the chorus hook as he pleads with the woman he knows he's losing and pulling back on the verses, finally taking the spotlight on a truly brilliant instrumental break. Whitfield's production of a song he co-wrote with Cornelius Grant and Edward Holland, Jr. is flawless, easing you into the horn-driven heartache with Grant on that classic guitar intro accompanied by tambourine until Ruffin makes his first appearance, sounding suitably bereft to let her know he knows her love is fading, the horns punctuating his pleas. This topped the R&B charts, hitting No. 8 on Billboard's Hot 100.

The Temptations in the mid-1960s
The Temptations in the mid-1960s

11. ‘Beauty is Only Skin Deep’ (1966)

Whitfield wrote this one with Edward Holland, Jr., saddling Ruffin with the task of sounding tender and romantic while telling a woman, "A pretty face you may not possess, but what I like about you is your tenderness." That kind of line could get a lesser man a handbag to the head, but this is Ruffin. When he sets his mind — and more importantly his voice — to making something sound romantic, it's a done deal. Whitfield also handled the production, revisiting the toy piano trick that yielded similarly heavenly results for Robinson on the previous year's "It's Growing.” This one topped the R&B charts and became their highest-charting entry on the Hot 100 since "My Girl" when it peaked at No. 3.

10. ‘Cloud Nine’ (1968)

The Temptations introduced a new lead singer (Dennis Edwards, in for Ruffin) and a new direction (psychedelic soul) in one fell swoop on this percussive triumph, a Whitfield production co-written by Whitfield and Strong. Edwards' vocals make it clear that he can sound at least as gritty as the legend he's replacing on an unflinching portrait of life "in the slums of the city," where he spent his childhood in "a one-room shack that slept 10 other children beside me" and "we hardly had enough food or room to sleep." This one had a Hot 100 peak of No. 6.

9. ‘Shakey Ground’ (1975)

This was their final hit to top the R&B charts, an outstandingly funky collaboration with Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel (who co-wrote the song) and Billy Bass Nelson (on bass, of course), inspiring a slew of covers, from disco legend Van McCoy to Fishbone. It also grooved its way to No. 26 on Billboard's Hot 100. Only one song they've released since then has charted higher on the Hot 100 — their collaboration with Rod Stewart on "The Motown Song," which hit No. 10. This is a much better record, with Hazel on guitar and a fiery lead vocal from Edwards, who tells the woman who put him down, "Girl, you better throw me a life preserver 'cause I'm about to drown in my own tears."

This 1966 photo shows the rhythm and blues group "The Temptations."  Clockwise from bottom left are David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams, and in the center, Eddie Kendricks.
This 1966 photo shows the rhythm and blues group "The Temptations." Clockwise from bottom left are David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams, and in the center, Eddie Kendricks.

8. ‘Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)’ (1970)

The trend toward more socially relevant psychedelic soul continued on "Ball of Confusion," produced by Whitfield, who co-wrote this classic with Strong. Edwards, Kendricks, Franklin and Paul Williams rap on, brother, as they navigate a laundry list of social ills, from war to politicians who "say more taxes will solve everything" and "unemployment rising fast," which for some reason rhymes with "the Beatles' new record's a gas." And this is all after setting the tone with "People moving out, people moving in/ Why? Because of the color of their skin." The production is great, making excellent use of harmonica and trippy guitar effects over a hypnotic bass groove that all but dares your body not to groove along. This one peaked at No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100, climbing one spot higher on the R&B charts.

7. ‘Get Ready’ (1966)

Robinson was on a roll, having followed the chart-topping "My Girl" with three consecutive Top 20 entries on the Hot 100 for Temptations songs he'd written and produced. "Get Ready" somehow didn't keep that streak alive, losing steam at No. 29 despite the fact that it's among the most contagious singles the Temptations ever cut. There's so much joy in Kendricks' lead vocal, rhyming "So, fiddle-ee-dee, fiddle-ee-dum" with "Look out, baby, 'cause here I come" in his sweetest falsetto as Motown drummer Benny Benjamin powers his way through the track with pure adrenaline while the horns add exclamation points. "Get Ready" topped the R&B charts, but Robinson had made a deal with Berry Gordy that if his song didn't crack the Top 10, Whitfield's "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" would be the next Temptation single. When "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" became a bigger single, Robinson was out as the Temptations' main producer, marking the end of one fantastic era and the launching of another.

6. ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ (1967)

From the mournful, gospel-tinged piano intro to the sound of a dejected Ruffin begging the sunshine and blue skies to "please go away" because his girl has found another, this melancholy ballad is among the saddest tracks they ever cut, co-written by Whitfield, Penzabene and Strong with Whitfield producing. Ruffin really taps into the pathos of the lyrics as his "eyes search the skies, desperately, for rain 'cause raindrops will hide my teardrops and no one will ever know that I'm crying, crying when I go outside." This one topped the R&B charts and hit No. 4 on Billboard's Hot 100.

5. ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)’ (1971)

This tender ballad topped the Hot 100 and the R&B charts, as it should have. Whitfield's production is suitably dreamy as Kendricks sets the scene with "Each day through my window I watch her as she passes by/ I say to myself, "You're such a lucky guy"/ To have a girl like her is truly a dream come true/ Out of all the fellows in the world, she belongs to me." The only trouble, as Kendricks goes on to reveal, is "in reality, she doesn't even know me." It's a brilliant premise for a song and everyone involved delivers, especially Kendricks, who had one foot out the door by then, as this was his final track as a Temptation.

4. ‘I Can’t Get Next To You’ (1969)

This was their first chart-topping entry on the Hot 100 since "My Girl" confirmed their growing reputation as a hit machine in 1964. It also spent five weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's R&B charts — for obvious reasons. The groove is undeniable and Whitfield's production makes full use of the entire range of vocal personalities at his disposal on yet another smash written with Strong. All five Temptations are given a chance to shine in the lead-vocal spotlight, handing off the mic at the end of each line on the verses with Edwards asserting his place in the group after Ruffin's departure on the strength of his impassioned vocal turns.

3. ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’ (1966)

This is the song that resulted in Gordy handing the Temptations off to Whitfield, who co-wrote and produced the track, when it out-charted Robinson's "Get Ready" on the Hot 100, where it peaked at No. 13. It's one of Ruffin's most impassioned vocals, from the opening line (an emphatic "I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go"), slipping into sweet falsetto to offset the gritty intensity in all the right place. Those lyrics are by Edward Holland, Jr., who wrote them to an instrumental track by Whitfield with a melody he purposefully wrote at the upper limit of Ruffin’s range to guarantee a sense of urgency. The finished production is an unrelenting bluesy dance track that opens on Ruffin accompanied only by a cymbal-heavy beat that never lets up, reinforced as the band kicks in by a staccato horn part and Eddie "Bongo" Brown on percussion.

2. ‘My Girl’ (1964)

A lot of people would've put this song at No. 1. I wouldn't blame them if they did. It's their signature song for a reason. This may be the best song Smokey ever gave away, a hopelessly devoted celebration of his special girl (the Miracles' own Claudette Rodgers), written in collaboration with another Miracle, Ronnie White. It's Ruffin's first appearance on lead vocals and he nails it, turning in a smoother vocal than what soon emerged as Ruffin's power alley. The Temptations topped the pop and R&B charts (staying longer on the R&B charts). Robinson's production helped, of course, from that classic guitar line to what may have been the most euphoric orchestration Motown would produce that decade. But the hook to end all hooks is the echoing "my girl" at the end of every chorus.

1.  'Papa Was a Rollin' Stone' (1972)

You're nearly four minutes into the practically 12-minute version of "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" as it appeared on "All Directions" by the time the singing starts, allowing Whitfield ample time to set the mood, which is tense and dramatic, with his orchestrated soundtrack. That wah-guitar could give a person flashbacks to the theme from "Shaft." Then Edwards grabs the mic, setting the scene on "the third of September." "That day I'll always remember, yes I will," Edwards continues, "'Cause that was the day that my daddy died." As the song goes on, we eventually hear from three other Temptations (Melvin Franklin and new members Richard Street and Damon Harris), creating the sensation that we're hearing from several children of a rollin' stone who spent most of his time chasing women and drinking and when he died, "all he left us was alone." Whitfield wrote the song with Strong and had already cut a very different, if clearly inferior, version with the Undisputed Truth. When that recording didn't hit the way he hoped it would, he tried again. And we're all better for it. The Temptations' version topped the Hot 100 and the R&B charts, going on to win three Grammys.

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: The Temptations' 25 greatest songs of all time, ranked