The Agony and Ecstasy of Dennis Edwards, Temptations Lead Singer and Soul Legend

“It was Edwards’ approach that came to define the Temptations vocally throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s,” writes Stereo Williams of the late soul crooner.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Dennis Edwards, lead singer of the Temptations from 1968 to 1977, passed away on February 2 at the age of 74. Edwards famously joined the iconic Motown group to replace David Ruffin, the bespectacled vocal dynamo who’d been center stage on such classics as “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “My Girl” and “I Wish It Would Rain.” Stepping into such large shoes has never been easy, but Dennis Edwards would not only sustain the Temptations—he would amplify their musical legacy.

It was Ruffin who gave the thumbs-up for his friend Edwards to replace him in the group, even telling Edwards about the proposed hiring beforehand. He’d been performing with another Motown act, The Contours, and had been vying for a chance at stardom for years. Born in Alabama, Edwards moved to Detroit with his family when he was ten years old. He sang in his father’s church and eventually joined the gospel act The Mighty Clouds of Joy but was turned on by the growing soul sounds coming out of Detroit. And he was inspired by a legend who had crossed over.

“Sam Cooke was a gospel singer like myself and when he crossed over and started singing rock ‘n’ roll, it kind of gave me the green light to go ahead and do it,” Edwards told The News Times in 2004. “At that time, our parents thought it was a bad thing to do. Singing rock ‘n’ roll, they called it singing for the devil. But we all wanted an opportunity to compete in the music industry and that was the opportunity.”

After some false starts, Dennis landed at Motown and with The Contours. But replacing Ruffin in one of the world’s most famous musical acts was stepping up to another level.

Edwards made his Temptations debut on the 1968 single “Cloud Nine,” a song that would win the group its first Grammy (and Motown’s first as a label) and put them at the forefront of the burgeoning “psychedelic soul” movement. With producer Norman Whitfield now helming most of their hits (replacing the Tempts former main songwriter Smokey Robinson), the group was going into a more topical direction, with a funky, less ballad-driven sound that was heavily influenced by Sly Stone.

Edwards was more than ‘the other guy’ who stepped in to replace a legend. Edwards was one of the best gospel shouters in the history of soul music and one of the defining voices of the Temptations.

The Temptations’ commercial run continued into the 1970s—as did the personnel changes, personality conflicts, and drama. Mainstays Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams left; Damon Harris and Richard Street joined; and Dennis began to bump heads with long-running members Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams. The group departed Motown in 1977 for Atlantic after complaints with the label over money, but Otis Williams told Edwards prior to the label move that he was out. Williams had been growing frustrated with producer Jeffrey Bowen focusing too much on Edwards as lead vocalist; Bowen had replaced Whitfield (who departed Motown in the mid-‘70s to start his own label) and the Temptations’ commercial run dried up. To Williams, Bowen—and Edwards—was the cause.

Fame had the expected effect on Dennis and he’d fallen into some of the trappings. Aretha Franklin wrote her 1972 classic “Day Dreaming” about the Temptations singer. The two fell in love and were close to marriage but things came to a harsh end when Edwards began seeing Ruth Pointer of The Pointer Sisters. Edwards and Pointer would briefly marry but the two fell deep into cocaine addiction in the late-1970s. The drugs eventually played a role in Edwards’ dismissal from the Temptations. But he rejoined the group when they returned to Motown in 1980.

Drugs were a major part of Ruffin’s notoriety, and it didn’t help when Edwards began performing with ex-Temptations Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, who reunited with the Temptations for the Reunion album in 1982. The reunion eventually fell apart, as Ruffin’s addictions made him unreliable and, soon, Edwards began missing shows as well. He would be fired from the Temptations in 1984. Following a successful solo run (which saw Edwards release the hit 1984 duet “Don’t Look Any Further” with Siedah Garrett), he rejoined the group, only to leave again for a third and final time in 1987.

Over the years, notable Temptations passed on suddenly. David Ruffin would die from a cocaine overdose in 1991 following a tour with Edwards and Kendricks; Kendricks from lung cancer in 1993; and Melvin Franklin fell into a diabetic coma and died in 1995. Damon Harris died of prostate cancer in 2013. Richard Street died a week later of a pulmonary embolism.

“I never imagined I’d be one of the last ones standing, me and Otis,” said Edwards in a 2013 interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We really got caught up in the times, and how the heck did I make it?

“We dibbled and dabbled with alcohol and drugs. But it’s important for people to know if you change your lifestyle and wake up, there is hope. I had a mother who prayed for me, and prayer changes everything.”

In the popular 1998 NBC miniseries The Temptations, Edwards’ role in the group is given minimal attention as compared to the “Classic Five.” The only noteworthy moment depicted the infamous—and slightly apocryphal—argument between Edwards and legendary songwriter/producer Norman Whitfield over the opening lines of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.” The story goes that Whitfield had written the famous line “It was the 3rd of September” not knowing that Edwards’ father had really died on that day, infuriating the singer. In reality, Edwards’ father had passed in October.

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“When [Whitfield] wrote the song, I thought he was talking about my father. I was a little upset,” Edwards recalled in 2004. “I got kind of perturbed about that. But when I really found out it was just a coincidence and the record did so well, I let it alone.”

That bit of lore has lingered for decades, but Dennis Edwards was more than “the other guy” who stepped in to replace a legend. Edwards was one of the best gospel shouters in the history of soul music and one of the defining voices of the Temptations. It was Edwards’ voice that carried them through their most sonically ambitious period, and it was Edwards’ approach that came to define the Temptations vocally throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.

With his death, music fans lose yet another pillar of that legendary group. But that voice is part of the fabric of American music. Dennis Edwards was soul personified. The man was nobody’s “footnote.” He was always a headliner.