For the last few years I have been crossing the bridge to write the column at the Newport Public Library every Wednesday. Today I arrived at the library to find a sign on the door saying that it was “closed for staff development.” So I’m writing this from an alternate, though beautiful, seat at the Newport Shipyard. Hopefully I’ll be able to get through this.
I’ve written a lot about David Ruffin. If you’re a regular reader of the column you know that in my opinion he was the greatest soul singer who ever lived. But Ruffin was not the only member of the classic Temptations lineup to have solo success. Eddie Kendricks left the Tempts to have a pretty good career of his own.
Kendricks was one of the co-founders of the Temptations, and he was one the group’s lead singers for 11 years, between 1960-1971. If you’re reading this column I don’t have to tell you that it was Kendricks’ voice leading the way on smash hits like “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Get Ready,” and “Just My Imagination,” among others. In other words, his was the voice associated with some of the most memorable records in the soul music canon.
Eddie Kendricks was born in Union Springs, Alabama in 1939. When he was a child his family moved to Birmingham. The move proved to be propitious because it wasn’t long before Kendricks was singing in a church choir in Birmingham along side a new friend by the name of Paul Williams. In 1955 Kendricks and Williams enlisted three other guys and formed a doo-wop group called the Cavaliers. Two years later the group moved to Cleveland in search of better opportunities.
In Cleveland they met Milton Jenkins who became their manager, and before long the Cavaliers and Jenkins moved to Detroit. With the new location came a new name. The Cavaliers became the Primes. All together now — the Primes spun off a female group called the Primettes who eventually became the Supremes.
The Primes had some success around Detroit, but when one member moved to California, the enterprise was folded. At the same time there was a group called Otis Williams and the Distants which also featured Melvin Franklin. When three members of that group quit to form the Elgins, Kendricks and Paul Williams joined Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams, became the Temptations, and signed to Motown. Whew!
I’m not going to trace the entire glorious and tragic history of the Temptations here, but it’s worth noting that in addition to his distinctive falsetto vocal stylings, Kendricks served other important roles for the group. He was their primary vocal arranger, he wrote or co-wrote some of their songs, and he was their wardrobe manager. The Temptations called him “Corn” because of his love for cornbread.
By the early ’70s Norman Whitfield was producing the Temptations and Kendricks wasn’t as fond of the new psychedelic stylings that Whitfield brought to the group as he was of the romantic ballads they recorded when they were working with Smokey Robinson. Other things that had been bothering Kendricks for at least five years began to come to the fore. By then Paul Williams was deep into the problems that would end his life and often didn’t appear for performances. Kendricks wasn’t getting along with Franklin and Otis Williams. He rekindled his friendship with departed Temptation David Ruffin, who convinced him to leave the group.
He was already working on his first solo album when he recorded one last single with the Temptations. By the time “Just My Imagination” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April, 1971, Kendricks had signed a deal with Motown’s Tamla subsidiary to record as a solo artist. That same year his first solo album, All By Myself, was released.
It took a few years for Kendricks to find success as a solo artist. His records got some airplay, and had some R&B chart success, and they became fixtures on the playlists of DJs in the early disco scene. But it wasn’t until 1973 that Kendricks had a smash of his own with a record called “Keep On Truckin’.” The record was #1 on the pop chart, sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold record.
Kendricks scored again with “Boogie Down” in 1974. The record reached #2 and again sold a million copies. Other charting records of the era included “Son of Sagittarius,” “Shoeshine Boy,” and “He’s a Friend.” Kendricks was unhappy with the lack of creative and financial control that he had a Motown however, and he left the label in 1978. The cost of his release included the signing away his royalties.
Kendricks moved on to Arista Records, and then Atlantic Records, but his popularity was in decline. Even worse, the years of chain smoking had caused him to start losing his voice. In 1982 Kendricks and Ruffin got back together with the Temptations for a reunion tour, but there were reports that Kendricks was having trouble hitting the falsetto notes for a reunion album. The vocal problems caused Kendricks to consult with a doctor who found a small amount of cancer on one of Kendricks’ lungs. Vanity got the better of him though as he refused chemotherapy over fears that he would lose his hair.
In 1985 Kendricks and Ruffin joined Hall & Oates for the Live at the Apollo album, which was a benefit for the legendary theater. They also appeared with Hall & Oates at Live AID in Philadelphia, and on the MTV Video Awards. Three years later Kendrick (the ‘s’ mysteriously gone from his last name) and Ruffin united again for an album and tour.
In 1989, Kendrick was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the rest of the Temptations. That led to a tour and record that included Dennis Edwards, who had replaced David Ruffin in the Temptations. The project was known as Ruffin/Kendrick/Edward, Former Leads of the Temptations. The project was cut short in 1991 when Kendrick was diagnosed with full blown lung cancer, and David Ruffin died of a drug overdose.
In late 1991 Kendrick, by then living back in Birmingham, had one of his lungs removed in an attempt to stop the spread of the cancer. He continued touring into 1992, but fell ill and was hospitalized that summer. On October he died at the age of 52.
Eddie Kendricks will also be remembered as a member of the Temptations. His distinctive falsetto was one of the group’s defining features. His death at an early age is a sad part of the group’s tragic legacy. I had two opportunities to see Kendricks perform, one of them as a member of the classic Tempts lineup in 1967, the other while he was on tour with Ruffin in the late ’80s. They are two occasions that I will always treasure.