Creative Team Building and Leadership Resources - In our Elements

Eddie Kendricks on Cloud Nine

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

This week’s Free Ride* muses on the legendary falsetto voice of The Temptations, the late great Eddie Kendricks, who would have turned 72 today. Kendricks, a co-founder of the Motown super group and one of its lead singers from 1960 – 1971, died of lung cancer in 1992 in his native city of Birmingham. For most of that decade, the music of Motown played an indirect role in the freedom movements that were sweeping the country. You won’t find civil rights anthems or black power songs or anti-war protests among their string of 60s hits. But the music had its own role, as the crossover appeal of Motown brought white and black youth together to sing and dance. Toward the end of the 60s, the Temptations signature style began to shift, as songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong brought an edge to the group, modeled somewhat after the funkier sounds of Sly and the Family Stone.

A perfect illustration is the 1968 album Cloud Nine. The album marks a shift for the band, from the more melodic and ballad centered repertoire toward the psychedelic soul sounds driven by the wah wah guitar. After a decade of hit after hit from Motown, it’s hard to believe that the title track from this album was the first song to win a Grammy for the label. It is also one of the first Temptations songs that directly references our theme of freedom. The singers take turns on lead, swapping lines on the chorus:

Eddie Kendricks: I’m doing fine
Temptations: On cloud nine
Dennis Edwards: Let me tell you ’bout cloud nine…
Temptations: Cloud nine
Paul Williams: You can be what you want to be
Temptations: Cloud Nine
Dennis: You ain’t got no responsibility
Temptations: Cloud Nine
Eddie: And every man, every man is free
Temptations: Cloud nine
Dennis: You’re a million miles from reality
Otis Williams: Reality

It’s a narrative song of the hard life experienced by youth who grow up in the slums, who learn life’s lessons the hard way, who experience family violence and leave home, and are unable to find work. In the face of this rat race and dog-eat-dog world, the despondent youth turn to “Cloud Nine” for escape. Many have seen this as a euphemism for tripping on drugs, but the songwriters have denied it. However you interpret it, the song and the album signaled the beginning of The Temptations’ move from mainstream pop and its themes of boy meets girl, into the musical world of psychedelia and lyrical themes of social protest. Eddie Kendricks was uncomfortable with the direction of the group, and left The Temptations in 1971 to follow a solo career. I think it’s a fair assessment that many of the fans left when Eddie did. With the exception of Papa Was a Rolling Stone in 1972, the group never recovered the popularity it enjoyed in the 60s, or had the same impact on the culture. Perhaps that first Grammy winning song was a sign – You ain’t got no responsibility on cloud nine. . . you’re a million miles from reality. Escape comes with a price.

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