Soul Serenade: The Temptations, “My Girl” at 50

Written by Ken Shane's Soul Serenade, Music

An American classic turns 50 on Sunday

Soul Serenade - My Girl at 50

I saw the classic Temptations lineup at a local college in 1967. My date was a pretty girl named Mary who took the train all the way from Long Island to New Jersey in order to go to the show with me. She wasn’t my girl, and never would be, but I remember wishing that she was.

It was a remarkable show. There they were, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, and Otis Williams, resplendent in their shiny gold suits. Their vocalizing alone would have made them legendary, but they could also move. These were not some fragile balletomanes. They were big men, handsome and strong, and they moved as one, effortlessly. Seeing them on television hadn’t prepared me for the grace, beauty, and power that I saw and heard that night. I remember it still, nearly 50 years later.

Of course they sang “My Girl” that night. I doubt that they’ve ever done a show that didn’t include it since the record was released in 1964. There have been a lot of Temptations over the years, only Otis Williams lives on from the classic lineup, and every one of them has sung “My Girl” at every tour stop for the last 50 years. “My Girl” has moved well beyond mere hit record status at this point. It is deeply ingrained in the world’s consciousness. It is a part of all of our lives.

The Temptations

Where did it all begin? You know by know that the song was written by Miracles Smokey Robinson and Ronald White. Smokey’s inspiration was his wife Claudette, a sometime Miracle herself. “My Girl” was recorded in three sessions at the Hitsville USA’s studio A. The sessions took place on September 25, November 10, and November 17, 1964. As you might expect, Funk Brothers Robert White (guitar), James Jamerson (bass), and Benny Benjamin (drums) played on the record. It was White who wrote the indelible guitar riff the underlies the whole record. The strings were provided by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Motown released “My Girl” on its Gordy imprint on December 21, 1964, 50 years ago this Sunday.

The record was beautifully produced by Robinson and White, and arranged by Paul Riser, but I’ve never thought of it as a producer’s record, especially not since I first heard the a cappella version that I’ve included below. If there was ever any doubt about the capability of the Temptations as singers, it is all dispelled in those few minutes.

It was the first appearance by Ruffin as the lead vocalist on a Temptations single. Give Robinson credit for that. He was the one who heard something special in Ruffin’s voice and pulled him out of the background and into the spotlight. The song was originally intended for the Miracles, but after a great deal of lobbying, Robinson demurred and allowed the Temptations to record it. It was a decision that changed music history, and all of us, forever.

Tragically, four of those five Temptations are gone now, all far too young when they left us. If it’s any compensation, their extensive and stunning body of work remains for us, and everyone who comes after us, the very definition of immortality.

After the show, Mary and I got on the bus to go to Newark, where she would catch the train back to Long Island. I saw her again a few times after that, but then we both moved on, as people do. Wherever Mary is today, I’m proud that she was “My Girl,” if only for one night. Over the years I’ve thought of that moment many times and whenever I do, I’ve got sunshine, on a cloudy day.