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The Day The Temptations Auditioned for Mowtown

Otis Williams, the one original member of a legendary soul group got to reminiscing one time about their pre-history. “We were the Elgins for two weeks, and there was another group called the Elgins,” he recalled. “We were standing outside with this fellow named Bill Mitchell, and we were kidding around with a name. Somebody said ‘The Temptations.’ I said, ‘That’s the one!’”

Williams had already fronted the late 1950s Detroit outfit the Distants, whose members also included Melvin Franklin and Elbridge “Al” Bryant. An audition was scheduled, after the addition of two members of the Primes, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, with Berry Gordy (already an admirer) at Motown Records. The new five-piece duly passed the test arranged by Gordy and wingman William “Mickey” Stevenson.

Otis told The Guardian in 2019 that fate had determined his own arrival in Detroit just as Gordy was getting his company off the ground. “It was happenstance,” he observed. “It was necessary timing and it was meant to be that God in his infinite wisdom put all of these producers, writers and artists together at that time and made such profound music.”

On July 24, 1961, with the fifth release on Motown’s short-lived Miracle label, the new group released their first single, the Stevenson-Williams copyright “Oh Mother Of Mine.” Its formative sound and mid-paced swing hardly epitomised the group sound that would take the label, and soul music, to unknown heights in the years to come. Lead vocals were shared by Paul Williams, the early group’s de facto leader, and Eddie Kendricks; instrumentation was by the studio maestros we would come to know as the Funk Brothers.

There was more of a birthmark about “Romance Without Finance,” recorded like its co-release in May. Its title may sound like a classic Smokey Robinson rhyme, but the song was actually a Stevenson-Kendricks composition, fuelled by pacy guitar and buzzing saxophone. Both sides were produced by Stevenson and yet another Williams, André, an eccentric R&B notable in his own right. He was known for his Top 10 soul hit of 1957, “Bacon Fat,” for later co-writes such as the Five Du-Tones’ “Shake A Tail Feather,” and as Edwin Starr’s manager, among other distinctions.

“Oh Mother Of Mine,” like many of the company’s releases of the time and all of them on Miracle, failed to trouble the national US charts. It was on release at the same time as the (still “no-hit”) Supremes missed the mark with “Who’s Lovin’ You,” although Motown was only a few weeks from the pop and soul chart glory of the Marvelettes’ August single, “Please Mr. Postman.” In 1999, “Mother” was added to the CD reissue of the 1964 debut LP Meet The Temptations, even though it predated that album by more than two and a half years.

Cash Box magazine did review the Tempts’ single in its September 2 issue, giving the flipside the lead and writing of “Romance Without Finance”: “R&B-styled songsters do an infectious job on the ditty, getting a strong combo sound for their setting.” Of “Oh Mother Of Mine,” the trade publication noted cursorily: “Another upbeat blues showing with an infectious way.” As an aside, another group called the Temptations rated a mention in Cash Box that year, they being the group backing one Cody Brennan, on the late 1961 Swan Records single “Am I The One.”

The first Temptations single may have gone nowhere fast, but the label stuck with them, and by November they were back with another release on Miracle, “Check Yourself,” produced this time by Berry Gordy himself. By the following March, now on the Gordy label and with Kendricks in the lead vocal role, they figured on the national R&B chart for the first time with “(You’re My) Dream Come True,” as their own dream indeed started to become reality.

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