Album: Cloud Nine
. . .
Despite — or maybe because — he was clearly one of the greatest soul singers in an era where there were a shitton of great soul singers, David Ruffin was enough of a fuck-up outside of the studio that he was Brian Jonesed from the Temptations a year before Brian Jones was David Ruffined from the Rolling Stones.
Given their ongoing commercial success — an the fact that he wasn’t the only person who had sang lead on their big hit singles — there was never any chance that Ruffin’s departure was going to break-up The Temptations, as they instantly replaced him with the perfectly serviceable Dennis Edwards, whose first recordings with the Temptations was on the relatively low-stakes mostly covers Diana Ross & the Supremes Join The Temptations, an album that was a tie-in with a TV special featuring the two groups.
The reason that it was low stakes was that the album really should have been called The Supremes Join the Temptations in Backing Up Diana Ross, as Miss Ross was the lead or co-lead vocalist on all of the songs, which made sense because at that time, she was well and truly the Queen of Pop.
In any event, Ruffin’s leaving made it easier for The Temptations to go in a new direction: following the trail blazed by Sly & The Family Stone’s epochal “Dance to The Music, an idea floated by crazed genius producer Norman Whitfield and/or lead Temptation Otis Williams, depending on the source. And while it could have been a disaster — maybe should have been a disaster — the initial result was “Cloud Nine,” which was the exact opposite: a song that had one foot in the past and one foot in the future, which made it sound exactly right for the insanity of 1968, one those years where it was hard to remember the past and even harder to see the future. The soul equivalent of Dylan going electric, only noone was going to yell “Judas” at them.
It probably also didn’t hurt that the lyrics of “Cloud Nine” were basically a Barrett Strong short story about a dude using drugs to escape from a shitty situation.
The childhood part of my life
It wasn’t very pretty
You see, I was born and raised
In the slums of the city
It was a one room shack that slept
Ten other children beside me
We hardly had enough food
Or room to sleep
It was hard times
Needed something to ease
My troubled mind
The music of “Cloud Nine” was basically four people: newly-minted Funk Brother Dennis Coffey on the wah-wah guitar, drummer Spider Webb — augmented by conga player Mongo Santamaria — riding his hi-hat like Tony Williams on “Shh/Peaceful” to the point where every time he hit his snare it sounded like a pistol shot. And holding it all together, his bass linking the wah-wah and hi-hat like a trans-oceanic fiber optic cable: James Motherfucking Jamerson. Because of course, James Jamerson.
Over all of this, Dennis Edwards, Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks traded lead vocals, and Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin helped with odd lines, backing vocals and even harmonies. The thing about “Cloud Nine” was that it was always switching up on you, so you basically had to stop trying to figure it out and ride out the slippery trippy music, which came to a head on the bridge, which later doubled as the outro.
You can be what you wanna be
You ain’t got no responsibility
And every man, every man is free
And you’re a million miles from reality
(Reality) I wanna sail upper, higher
Upper, up, up, and away
Because it was 1968, everybody in the Temptations camp denied that it has anything whatsoever to do with drugs — heaven forfend! — and that plausible deniability got “Cloud Nine” on the radio, where all the kids knew exactly what it was about, making it yet another top ten single, #6 pop and #2 R&B. It also won Mowtown its first Grammy Award, for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental, beating out such worthies as Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You” and Archie Bell & the Drells “Tighten Up.”
As a foray into new direction, “Cloud Nine” was a winner on every level. And once again, they were just getting going.
“Cloud Nine” live in 1969
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