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In Memory of Dennis Edwards, the (Other) Voice of the Temptations

An ode to one of Motown’s psychedelic soul stars

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“In my mind …”

The Temptations’ “Silent Night” is, technically, an Eddie Kendricks song. It’s also, kind of, a Melvin Franklin song, because of his iconic baritone in the second verse.

But with three simple words, Dennis Edwards turned a Christmas standard into a sermon, a black hymn. And just like that, as with so many other songs, the song was his.

Old-school R&B unfortunately doesn’t have the history of being passed down from generation to generation in the mainstream that rock music does. If anything, soul feels more like an oral history — either you were exposed to it or it’s as if it never happened. But for those who grew up on it, the voice of Dennis Edwards — who died Friday at the age of 74 — remains one of the most distinctive, passionate, and urgent in the history of music.

Growing up listening to black radio — because your black parent would tolerate only her black music in her car — you develop a knowledge of soul music that came before you were born. The more you learn, the more hip you get to understanding an era. And even though you may not know what an artist looks like, you know the difference between the Temptations and the Four Tops, the O’Jays and the Isley Brothers, Gladys and Diana and Aretha.

You weren’t around to see them perform and you know little to nothing about the way they live their lives, so what makes people stand out, more than anything, are those distinctive voices.

Edwards wasn’t even the most famous lead singer of the Temptations. That honor goes to David Ruffin. But when you grow up absorbing Edwards’s voice through a string of hits from their psychedelic soul era, you learn that he had a more permanent effect than Ruffin, and more than most that touched those nostalgic airwaves.

As a member of one of music’s most timeless groups, Edwards’s career was far from linear. Originally a member of a Temptations opening act, the Contours, it was Ruffin who told Edwards that the Temptations were looking for a replacement. In 1968, Edwards got the job, and his first performance became infamous when Ruffin crashed a stage in Pennsylvania during “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (to the delight of the audience). After some back and forth, Edwards became the permanent lead singer and, before the year was out, had his first hit with the group, fronting “Cloud Nine” and giving audiences the rare opportunity to embrace a classic group with a new sound.

Many of the preferred singers on black radio had pristine, clean voices. Even the singers who clearly came out of church choirs and could add an edge when the opportunity arose could also still turn it off. But when Dennis Edwards sang, the toughness in his voice never seemed to vacillate. Because when Dennis Edwards sang, it sounded autobiographical, like a mirror of the times. The grit and intensity and pure power of his voice made each tale sound as if it were lifted directly from his diary, from struggle and pain to joy and excess.

Listen to Edwards on “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” After more than four minutes of bass and strings, Edwards sings, “It was the third of September / that day I’ll always remember, yes I will.”

Out of his mouth, it sounds as if it were the day his daddy died. Edwards’s father actually died on the third of October, not September. But the recording session for this song was rife with tension — you can hear it in Edwards’s delivery, which is brash and fearless. In all of his songs, he had the unique ability to make every line sound factual and meaningful.

Dennis Edwards didn’t just begin verses. He attacked silence. Sometimes with a sentence, sometimes a simple phrase, and — as in his duet with Siedah Garrett, “Don’t Look Any Further” — with nothing more than a moan.

The mere sound of Edwards’s voice was a fanfare, and over time it has become canonical. If Eddie Kendrick’s sweet voice was the lighting of a fuse, Edwards was the cannon firing.

Just listen to him scream “ahhhhhhhhhhh great googa-mooga can’t you hear me talking to you” on “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today).” Even at that volume, and with that passion, he still wants assurance that you’re listening — because what he’s serving you is the real, every single time.

When he raps about segregation and alienation, you’re forced to understand that he means it. And that he’s mad. On “I Can’t Get Next to You,” there is a sense of urgency — he’s pissed that he can’t be adjacent to someone. When he sang about his car getting repossessed on “Shakey Ground,” you felt for him — how could someone be that convincing about a fictional event? That “Psychedelic Shack” that Dennis sang about — he sounded like a regular.

Hell, even in “Silent Night,” when Edwards sings about Jesus, it sounds like he knows him a little better than the rest of us.

Christ
The savior
Is born
Oh yes he is,
CHRIST

On paper, these are commonly used words, but out of his mouth, they take on the conviction of a preacher doing double duty as a civil rights leader.

But that made sense — in a way, he was both. His voice was both aggressive and flexible. Dennis Edwards was one of the great, authentic narrators of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Reading about 1968 during that tumultuous year’s 50th anniversary provides insight into a complicated time. But hearing “Cloud Nine” — the first Temps song to feature Edwards’s voice in the lead — puts you there, in the thick of it. Because it wasn’t just what Dennis Edwards sang about, it’s how he sang it.