Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider My Girl, one of the greatest pop songs of all time. We will review the original by The Temptations, and covers of that song by The Mamas and the Papas and Otis Redding.
The Temptations and My Girl:
The Temptations were formed in 1960 from members of two Detroit-area doo-wop groups. Otis Williams, Al Bryant and Melvin Franklin of The Distants joined up with Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams from The Primes. The group bounced around the Detroit area for a while, gaining a reputation for their sharp harmonies, until in 1961 they were signed by Berry Gordy, and shortly after that changed their name to The Temptations.
Despite a strong reputation for the quality of their voices, for a couple of years the group was commercially so unsuccessful that they were known as the “Hitless Temptations.” However, everything changed for the group starting in 1964. First, the group fired Al Bryant and replaced him with David Ruffin. This resulted in what is now called the “Classic Five” lineup for the Temps.
Below is a picture of the “Classic Five” lineup for the Temptations circa 1970. Back row L to R: Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams; center Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks; front David Ruffin.
The next big step occurred when the group hooked up with William “Smokey” Robinson, who began to write songs for them. After their first big hit, My Girl, which we will hear shortly, the group’s fortunes skyrocketed, and for two decades they became Motown’s premier guy group. The Temptations continued to pump out hits for the next fifteen years, and in 1989 were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Berry Gordy ran Motown Studios essentially as a record-producing assembly line. The song-writers generally worked in their own area, separate from the musicians. Songs were written and musical productions were sketched out; then it was common for a song to be reviewed and re-worked, sometimes for long periods of time, before the product was deemed ready for the market.
Smokey Robinson was an exception to many of Gordy’s otherwise strict rules. The multi-talented Robinson wrote songs, was the lead singer for The Miracles, served as a record producer, and was also Gordy’s best friend. So Smokey had significantly greater influence over a much wider range than most Motown staff. Here is a photo of Smokey circa 1960.
In 1965, Smokey and fellow Miracles member Ronald White wrote My Girl in honor of Smokey’s wife and Miracles singer Claudette Rogers Robinson. Initially the song was intended for the Miracles, but Smokey then realized that the song might be perfect for the Temptations, and in particular with David Ruffin on lead vocals.
This was a radical notion, because until that time Ruffin was essentially providing backing vocals for the Temps’ lead singers Eddie Kendrick and Paul Williams. As usual, the genius Smokey Robinson was prescient. Not only was My Girl a smash, the first Temps’ song to hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts, but this became a breakout hit for Ruffin, who subsequently starred on lead for a string of subsequent Temptations hits.
My Girl is a near-perfect pop song; it combines relatively straightforward lyrics and melody, expressing a man’s love for his woman in simple but meaningful terms.
I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.
When it’s cold outside I’ve got the month of May.
I guess you’d say
What can make me feel this way?
My girl (my girl, my girl)
Talkin’ ’bout my girl (my girl).
I’ve got so much honey the bees envy me.
I’ve got a sweeter song than the birds in the trees.
The song features terrific vocals from David Ruffin, who sings at a pitch slightly higher than his normal comfort range, so that he has to stretch a bit to hit the high notes. The accompaniment by the Motown house band The Funk Brothers is similarly inspired. The song begins with a few pulsating notes from the great James Jamerson on bass, followed by the classic, simple guitar lick from Robert White (that’s an ascending octave on the pentatonic scale for you music majors). The strings are provided courtesy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Here’s a great live version from The Temptations. The group is sporting the trademark Motown sharp clothes and classy dance moves; David Ruffin gives a terrific performance; and you can really pick out Melvin Franklin’s bass in the Temps’ harmonies.
And here is the audio of My Girl. It’s worth adding this because of the fabulous production values on the record.
As noted above, My Girl was David Ruffin’s breakout hit, and made him the lead singer and star for Motown’s premier guy group. Alas, Ruffin’s stardom proved to be his downfall. On tour, Ruffin began traveling by himself in a mink-lined limo with his trademark black-rimmed glasses painted on the outside. When The Supremes were re-named Diana Ross and The Supremes to headline Ross’ individual talents, Ruffin pushed to re-name his group David Ruffin and The Temptations. This led to serious tension with his mates, and in particular with Temps founder Otis Williams.
Ruffin’s growing addiction to cocaine then caused him to miss rehearsals. When he began missing concerts, the group fired him in June, 1968, replacing him with former Contours singer Dennis Edwards. This led to enormous friction. In the first few Temps concerts that featured Edwards, Ruffin would frequently hide in the crowd, then jump onstage when the Temptations began one of the songs on which he sang lead, and take over the microphone.
The crowds, thinking that Ruffin’s sudden emergence was all part of the act, applauded wildly. Although the situation was tense for the Temps in general and in particular for Dennis Edwards, eventually the Temptations agreed to give Ruffin another chance. Unfortunately, Ruffin failed to show up for his first return engagement with the Temps, and he was permanently fired.
Ruffin went solo and had a few hits, although nothing approaching his success with the Temptations. He briefly re-joined the Temptations in 1982 prior to the “Motown 25th Anniversary” gala, but his cocaine issues re-surfaced and he was once again dropped. In 1991, Ruffin died in Philadelphia from cocaine-related health problems.
The Mamas and the Papas and My Girl:
In early 1965, I attended a concert that featured a number of upcoming folk groups. As an aspiring but mediocre banjo player, I was particularly interested in The New Journeymen, a trio that featured Marshall Brickman on banjo. I thoroughly enjoyed their performance and thought that the group had a promising future. Well, the individual performers certainly did, but not in this particular ensemble.
Brickman, formerly with the folk group The Tarriers, left the New Journeymen in order to try screenwriting. Although Brickman played a mean banjo, switching to screenwriting was a great career move. In collaboration with Woody Allen, Brickman co-wrote the screenplay for such classic movies as Sleeper, Annie Hall and Manhattan. In addition, Brickman co-wrote the book for the Broadway play Jersey Boys.
Now back to the New Journeymen. The group was formed from the remains of an earlier group The Journeymen, a trio featuring John Phillips, his best friend Scott Mackenzie, and banjo player Dick Weissman. Phillips subsequently met and married Michelle Gilliam, and John and Michelle Phillips were the other two members of NJ. Here is a photo of the New Journeymen; L to R that’s John Phillips (believe it or not), Michelle Phillips and Marshall Brickman.
Once Brickman left the group, the Phillips’ replaced him with Denny Doherty, but the New Journeymen were unable to make a splash, as folk music was losing its following to rock music in general and the British Invasion groups in particular. The group then decided to switch to pop music. They added Cass Elliott, who had been a bandmember of Doherty in the group The Mugwumps, and adopted the name The Mamas and the Papas.
As the group’s autobiographical song Creeque Alley tells it,
John and Michie were gettin’ kind of itchy
Just to leave the folk music behind.
That’s a great opening line for a song, but it is rather inaccurate. John was extremely reluctant to switch from folk to pop, but was eventually persuaded by the other group members. Below, the Mamas and the Papas in London, 1967, L to R: Denny, Cass, John and Michelle. John is wearing what became his trademark Russian fur hat, while Denny appears to have donned the bedspread from his hotel room. Hard to believe that this photo was taken just two years after the New Journeymen photo above!
However, once he switched from folk to pop, John Phillips discovered that he had a real talent for writing and arranging. He was the musical genius behind the group, blending the four voices in novel and interesting ways, and combining this with innovative instrumental mixes. At their best, The Mamas and the Papas produced beautiful music together. Songs like California Dreaming and Monday, Monday brought a fresh new perspective to pop music and established the group as real superstars.
Here is the audio of the Mamas and the Papas cover of My Girl, which appeared on the group’s third album Deliver. The song is a classic Mamas/Papas arrangement, featuring Denny as lead vocalist. After a brief instrumental break, all four singers come in, apparently emerging from an echo chamber; initially the sound is very faint but builds steadily to a crescendo. Mamas Cass and Michelle provide lovely backing vocals throughout. Instrumentally the song features a bass line that drives the song forward, together with marimba in the background. Then Denny and Cass combine voices at about the 2:30 mark in the song, and it fades out at about 3:20. Enjoy!
Initially it appeared as though the Mamas and Papas might continue as pop superstars indefinitely. The Peter, Paul and Mary parody song “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” describes the group in this way:
They got a good thing goin’ when the words don’t get in the way
And when they’re really wailing, Michelle and Cass are sailin’
Yes, “Michelle and Cass are sailin’” on this tune, and there is no denying Cass Elliott’s powerful vocals. But Denny Doherty also possessed a lovely voice for pop music, and John’s arrangements were clever and innovative.
However, if the Mamas/Papas were a family they would be classified ‘super-dysfunctional.’ Unfortunately, the group had begun to unravel before they even became famous. The group’s personal saga would be considered too over-the-top even for a daytime soap opera. An initial jolt was Michelle’s affair with Denny, which began in 1965 and continued for quite a while before it became public. To make matters even messier, Denny was sharing a house with John and Michelle at the time. And worse still, Mama Cass had for a long time carried an unrequited love for Denny.
Although John and Denny managed to patch things up after Denny’s affair with Michelle became known, in 1966 John discovered that Michelle was having an affair with Byrds band member Gene Clark. For John this was the last straw, and he persuaded his fellow bandmates to expel Michelle from the band. For a short period of time Michelle was replaced by Jill Gibson; however, Gibson did not possess Michelle’s charisma and the group soon reverted to their original lineup. As a result it is still unclear whose vocals, Jill’s or Michelle’s, appear on various tracks on the group’s second album.
John then built a recording studio in the attic of his house, and began to do most of his work from there. However, his increasingly serious addiction issues meant that it took tremendous amounts of time to record their albums. Furthermore, the group members began to record their tracks individually, only mixing the separate vocals in later sessions.
As a result of their increasing isolation and personal issues, there are relatively few live performances available of the Mamas and the Papas. John and Michelle were the principal organizers of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and the group headlined at that festival, but their performance was considered sub-par. Their ‘performances’ on the Ed Sullivan Show were lip-synched.
In 1968 they began a European tour, but abandoned it as the group was clearly dissolving. The group patched together a final album or two in order to satisfy contractual arrangements, but the tracks were all recorded separately. Alas, messy love triangles, personality problems and addiction issues dissolved a once-brilliant partnership.
Following their breakup, the individual members of the Mamas and Papas tried to continue their musical careers while simultaneously dealing with their addiction issues. Cass Elliott had the most successful solo career, scoring a few hit singles. However, in 1974 while on a tour of London, Elliott died of a heart attack. Until doing research for this piece, I had always believed that Elliott had choked to death on a ham sandwich, but apparently that was simply a false rumor.
Denny Doherty pursued a largely unsuccessful solo career, but after returning to his native Canada he managed to secure acting parts in several TV shows. Doherty died in 2007 after suffering an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Michelle Phillips, the only surviving member of Mamas/Papas, had a solo singing career that also faltered, but she became quite successful as an actress and has appeared in several acclaimed movies.
John Phillips kept active singing, writing and producing, though his primary success came from producing records for other artists. He rejoined briefly with Denny Doherty and his daughter Mackenzie Phillips in an attempt to launch The New Mamas and Papas. However, his later work was severely hampered by his recurring addiction issues.
John Phillips stayed off heroin, but remained addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and pills, as did his daughter.
Mackenzie Phillips subsequently published a memoir which claimed that she had an incestuous relationship with her father for many years – ewwww! Mackenzie’s claims are still highly controversial; her half-sisters support her story, while her step-mom Michelle Phillips strongly denies this claim.
The Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. I will always remember their career as resembling a supernova, a blazing light that appears suddenly in the sky but subsequently fades out.
Otis Redding and My Girl:
We previously encountered Otis Redding in our blog post regarding his song Respect and the great cover of that song by Aretha Franklin. As you may remember, Redding was part of the great Stax Records studio, the Memphis recording giant that produced so many terrific rock and R&B hits in the 60s and early 70s. Here is Otis belting out a song, circa 1966.
Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (STAX = STewart + AXton) initially founded a record company that featured country and rockabilly music. However, once they were introduced to R&B by producer Chips Moman, they presided over a terrific, inclusive multi-racial effort in the heart of Memphis. Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, and Wilson Pickett were among the hit artists produced by Stax Records.
Like Motown, whose Detroit recordings were invariably backed by the wonderful Funk Brothers instrumentalists, Stax Records had its own ‘house band’ – Booker T and the MGs, together with the Memphis Horns. Keyboardist Booker T Jones was often commuting to my college, Indiana University, to earn a degree in music. Isaac Hayes would generally sit in for Booker T during his absences; Hayes also wrote and arranged several tunes at Stax. Steve Cropper was the guitarist for Booker T; but he also wrote, arranged and produced several songs.
At Stax, the vocalists and orchestra frequently collaborated on the arrangements, and would often work their way through several alternative takes while on the set. The net result was some brilliant, unforgettable recordings. Here are Booker T and the MGs performing in 1962. L to R: Booker T Jones, Duck Dunn, Al Jackson and Steve Cropper.
Here is a live performance of Otis Redding singing My Girl. The setting is an April, 1967 Stax/Volt Revue in Oslo, Norway. It’s great to see Otis with the tremendous backing of the Stax studios “house orchestra:” Booker T and the MGs together with the Mar-Keys on horns and woodwinds.
This arrangement of My Girl is very close to the Motown version from the Temptations. Listening to Otis Redding, it appears that Otis possessed many of the qualities that made Smokey Robinson suggest David Ruffin as the lead singer. Redding is able to combine R&B with a gospel-tinged voice that lends a particular poignancy to this song.
The 1967 Stax/Volt Revue tour of Europe must have been a real eye-opener to European pop music fans. The Stax/Volt artists were just coming into their own; although they had songs on the R&B charts, at that moment most of them had not yet hit the big time in pop music. So artists like Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, and Otis Redding would not have been known to that many European fans.
The Revue featured some great voices, with impressive backing from Booker T and the MGs. Each of the artists possessed terrific stage presence. One of Otis Redding’s great talents was his ability to segue effortlessly from soft ballads like My Girl to gospel-tinged R&B in Try a Little Tenderness, to high-octane, hard-rocking songs such as Satisfaction and Shake.
Alas, Otis Redding would die in December, 1967 in a plane crash in Madison, WI. His career had just taken off with his electrifying performance at the Monterey Pop Festival earlier that summer, and just days prior to his death he had recorded Dock of the Bay, which posthumously became his first #1 record. What a tragic, untimely loss!
Wikipedia, My Girl
Wikipedia, The Temptations
Wikipedia, The Mamas and the Papas
Wikipedia, Otis Redding
Wikipedia, Stax Records
A New PBS Special Revisits the Stax/Volt Revue’s 1967 European Tour; Jon Pareles, New York Times, Jan. 2, 2009