Lead singer of the Temptations whose gritty vocals brought urgency and drama to hits such as Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone and Cloud Nine
Sunday 4 Feb 2018
Though not an original member of the Temptations, Dennis Edwards, who has died aged 74 of complications from meningitis, was a member of the group from 1968 until 1977, a period during which they scored some of their most memorable hits. His gritty, urgent lead vocal was in dramatic contrast to the sweeter tones of the singer he replaced, David Ruffin, and was perfect for tough and funky songs such as Cloud Nine (1968), the apocalyptic Ball of Confusion (1970) and the 1972 US chart-topper Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.
After trying to launch a solo career, Edwards made several reappearances with the Temptations during the 1980s, and during the 90s he formed the Temptations Review Featuring Dennis Edwards, with which he continued performing until last year.
Edwards had been a member of the Motown group the Contours before the opportunity to join the Temptations arose. The Contours had often been the opening act for the Temptations, and when Eddie Kendricks and Otis Williams decided they had had enough of Ruffin’s erratic time-keeping, cocaine use and galloping megalomania (he wanted the group to be renamed David Ruffin and the Temptations), they turned to Edwards. “I had been hearing rumours about David and drugs and alcohol,” Edwards said in 2013. “One morning at 4am he knocked on my door. I said ‘David, it’s 4 o’clock’. He said ‘I’m leaving the Temptations, and they’re gonna ask you to replace me’.”
So it was that Edwards was officially introduced as the new Temptations singer on stage in Pennsylvania in July 1968. The first single featuring his raunchy lead vocal was Cloud Nine (it reached 6 on the US singles chart and 15 in the UK), which – under the auspices of the producer Norman Whitfield and influenced by Sly Stone – marked a departure for the Temptations.
Its tense, edgy beat and wah-wah guitar introduced a style known as “psychedelic soul”, and its lyrics about poverty and street violence served notice that the group, in tune with the turbulent times, was breaking away from singing solely about love and romance. The song won the band, and Motown, their first Grammy award.
The following year the group topped the US chart with I Can’t Get Next to You, and in 1970 were back in the Top 10 with Psychedelic Shack (US No 7) and the politically outspoken Ball of Confusion (US No 3). Edwards featured again on their 1972 classic Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, which won the band a second Grammy. In 1977, Edwards quit the Temptations after asking for a million-dollar contract and being refused. “I was young and mad,” he confessed later. Shortly afterwards, the Temptations left Motown to join Atlantic.
Edwards was born in Fairfield, Alabama; his father, Dennis Edwards Sr, was a preacher. When Dennis was 10, the family moved to Detroit, where he sang in the choir in his father’s church and became choir director. He joined the gospel singing group the Mighty Clouds of Joy as a teenager, and when he was 18 formed Dennis Edwards and the Fireballs, playing jazz and soul music.
In 1966, after he had completed a stint of military service, he auditioned for Motown Records and was placed on a retainer. Soon afterwards he was drafted into the Contours, whose lead singer had fallen ill. He left the group in 1967 and soon afterwards joined the Temptations.
He was back with them in 1980 when they returned to Motown, and in 1982 participated in a reunion tour which featured a comeback by Ruffin. The album Reunion reached 37 in the US, and a single, Standing on the Top (Part 1) made the Top 10 of the US R&B chart. Edwards was out of the Temptations again in 1983, and the following year reached No 2 on the R&B singles chart with Don’t Look Any Further, a duet with Siedah Garrett. An album of the same name also reached No 2 on the R&B chart. The single was subsequently sampled by several hip-hop artists including Eric B & Rakim, 2Pac and Junior MAFIA.
In the late 80s, he toured with Ruffin and Kendricks in a Tribute to the Temptations package tour. Then he hit the road as Dennis Edwards and the Temptations, which triggered a lawsuit from two of the original Temptations, Williams and Melvin Franklin. He was legally prevented from billing himself as a member of the Temptations, and thus the Temptations Review Featuring Dennis Edwards came into being. “Otis must have spent a million dollars trying to shut me down and I spent $800,000 trying to stay working,” Edwards said.
In 1989 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Temptations and in 2013 received a lifetime achievement Grammy, also as a member of the Temptations.
His marriage to Ruth Pointer, of the Pointer Sisters, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife Brenda, and by five daughters, Issa, Erika, Maya, Denise and Alison, and a son, Bernard.
• Dennis Edwards, singer and musician, born 3 February 1943; died 1 February 2018