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Dennis Edwards Dennis Edwards: A Sunday Evening Forum with a Temptation's lead singer

Feb. 7, 2016

As a perfect segue for Black History Month, the Sunday Evening Forum has partnered with The Tucson Urban League to present a conversation with Dennis Edwards, one of the original lead singers with legendary Motown recording artists, The Temptations. Starting in 1960, the Temptations became the most successful act in African-American music during its nearly five-decade career. Mr. Edwards along with Otis Williams are the last original surviving members of the Temptations. Edwards joined as the lead singer for the Temptations in 1968 when David Ruffin left the group.

The master of ceremonies for this presentation was Mr. George Howard, local jazz legend, bandleader, and founder of the Tucson Musicians' Museum. The interviewers for the evening were: the Urban League of Tucson's leading human rights expert, the civil rights expert and author of From Within the Walls: A Journey Through Sexism and Racism in Corporate America, a former Woman of the Year, Ms. Daisy Jenkins. Also interviewing, an alumnus from the Arizona cooking college, from 106.3, the Groove, known as the "Rascal" on the Radio, philanthropist, Matt Condie. He is to hip-hop as Ryan Seacrest is to pop music.

Mr. Edwards sang lead on the songs, "Can't Get Next To You" and "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" which were Motown's first Grammy winning records. He has been inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall Of Fame. After introductions, the interview proceeded.

DJ: We are honored to have you here. I've been following the Tempations and Dennis Edwards for a long time. Actually, our birthdays are close.

Edwards: Don't tell nobody that! I've been doing this a long time. I feel so honored to be blessed to have--- four members and convinced David Ruffin, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin. I've been blessed to be able to keep the sound alive with the new guys with me. It's just an honor, thank you so much. DJ: Actually you started out singing gospel at two years old. You were a toddler. And then you sang with The Mighty Clouds of Joy.

I came from a very religious family. My mama wrote me a song and she said she knew that I was going to be an entertainer because when I got up to sing the song, I got me a chair and stood up on the chair to sing it. I wasn't scared. Every since then I've been entertaining.

MC: You've had the opportunity to sing in a few groups. You have also had a solo career. What are your thoughts on a solo career as opposed to a group?

Edwards: I've had a solo career, successful and all, but I started out at Motown. I became a member of the Contours. Then I became a member of the Temptations. You know probably if I had been a member of any other group, I would not have liked being in a group. The Temptations were the greatest group in the world. I really felt blessed. Being in a group is like being on a basketball team. Every member does a part. When it all works well together, you feel good. I felt like I was a part of this great, great institution, the Temptations. I may have had a chance to become a single artist. It is much different when you are out there by yourself. You got nobody to, well . . when you are with a group, I may not be feeling my best, but I've got five or four other guys to help me out. We always stuck together.

DJ: The Temptations were so big during the civil rights era and I know that Motown, Barry Gordy, really promoted a sound that transcended race. How was it like being a Temptation and traveling around?

Edwards: You have to go back when Barry Gordy first. whom I am so honored to be a part of Motown, when he first started Motown, he had a dream. There wasn't a lot of black entertainers. People don't realize, the door was cracked. It was not open. So, not only did we make music, we had a house across the street we called 'arms of development.' When we had a hit record, we had to go over there and meet with Maurice King. He would sit on the piano (stool) and teach us how to sing a hit record. He would teach us note to note, which was very important, but we didn't think so. He put us on stage in front of a mirror, make sure we had our arms the same way. Dennis EdwardsThere was another young lady who put us in a classroom and she would teach us about the facts of life which we really thought was silly. Taught us how to act in airports. How to dress, how to appreciate people, to be gentlemen at all times. It was so important that when we went on the road to different places and sometimes there would be a lot of racial things said of us, we were so trained until we knew if we stood tall and we were gentlemen, we would knock 'the door all the way open."

MC: When you got into singing, as a career, did you think that you would carry that burden? Or something extra that would transcend racism?

Edwards: As a young man in Detroit, in a racial environment, I never thought I would ever become a singer. I would sing in a church. There was no black industry. There were a few. There were the 'Arethas,' the Sam Cooks, but there wasn't an avenue for us. They told us how hard it would be and what we would have to put up with to make this work and because if we made this work, it would make it so much easier for everybody else. Well, we made it work. We opened 'the doors' the young have now, a chance to be whatever they want to be regardless of their color, regardless of their race because of what we did.

DJ: On February 2, 1969, I was right here in Tucson watching the Temptations with Dennis Edwards, on the Ed Sullivan Show. And we had this thing in the community, 'black folks on TV!' Tell me what did it felt like? Ed Sullivan was everything back then.

Edwards: Well you know on television, we did a couple of specials with the Supremes, Well, I'm going to tell you, I was scared to death! But you know it's such an honor to represent your people, when you represent them well. We always wore those shiny suits. Like I tell my guys now, we go through airports. Look like somebody. You may not be nobody, but look like somebody. That means a lot. Ed Sullivan, I remember when we first did his show. What you don't know is the secret with him. He would always forgot everybody's name. We went to rehearsal and we did a couple of our songs. He would come out and say 'ladies and gentlemen here's a new group from Motown, The Boys.' He forgot our names. From there we did a special called TCB with the Supremes. We did the Temptations special. It was so much that we did because of our training, because of our class. You know we wanted to be not only just a singing group, we wanted to be a good group. Not white, not yellow, just a good group. That's how we wanted to be represented.

MC: Did you think you had to go above and beyond because of the racial divide in this country?

DR: Absolutely, Just like I tell the brothers now, you have to sell. It's a difficult thing to try to be as good or better than everybody else. Keep at it and someone will notice and your rewards will come.

DJ: What was it like joining the Temptations original five, replacing, I don't want to say replacing David Ruffin because you had your own thing 'Papa Was a Rolling Stone.'

Edwards: I was in the service. In a place called Dakar, Germany. Of all of the people who don't believe the holocaust happened, I guarded the crematorium over there. One of my buddies over there, his father happened to be over there too. Anyway, one of the records he sent over was "My Girl" and I heard it and I went 'wow' and just fell in love with the record. When I got back to the States I performed with a little group and I got a chance to meet David Ruffin. He was my idol. He's still my idol. God bless him. He came down to the place where I was working, He came down to sing with me. I was like a little kid. I loved him. I remember one night about three-thirty in the morning. He knocked on my door. He says I'm leaving the group. They want you to replace me. I can't throw that ____up in the air like that. I loved the group, the five of you. I thought 'you guys are a machine.' Then I got a chance to replace this guy. The next morning they called. I got the opportunity to be apart of it. Now, I was really scared because if you look at a Temptations show and you see all this chorography, all the arms are swinging, everybody's in tune and singing. They are a well-oiled machine. I'm a singer and you have to think about 'can I dance like this?'

I thought about girls and stuff. But then I found out it was eight hours of rehearsal every day. We would break for lunch, come back and rehearse until the night. I thought, "this ain't no fun!" For the first couple of weeks, it was learning steps, learning how to act, learning about precision. People don't know. It was a job! Learning how to be a Temptation. I was scared to death. As I got it, it became easier. I found out the business of being a Temptation and all the people who thought they could come up and do this, it's a difficult job. I'm still learning that stuff. It was so much an honor. And when I had my first record, "Cloud Nine." They told me it had won their first Grammy. I was so busy trying to learn routines, I didn't know what was going on. I didn't have time to enjoy because I didn't want their replacement to be a dudd. So, anytime you want to be good you have to work at it. Just remember, you gotta put in the work to be good.

Today I look at a lot of the industry. I see a lot of these good young groups, They take for granted, this gift we have been given. I told these young guys, you go on the stage and sing and somebody pays money and watches you. You should be serious about that. This is something we are blessed with and you have to appreciate the people who come and listen to you. Somebody is out there and they aren't even out of breath. They feel like we owe them something. It hurts me sometime when I see it.

DJ: That's what so awesome about you, the Temptations and your legacy.

Edwards: In 1989, I was looking in the paper. It said the Temptations have been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was so honored by this. That was the ultimate.

DJ: You belong there!

Questions were solicited from the audience.

Dennis Edwards Question # 1: Do you sing in the shower? If you do, what do you sing?

Edwards: My wife, we've been together for many years. She told me the other night that I never sing to her. She comes to the shows when I sing. I do not sing in the shower because when I'm at home, I'm a grand father and a father and a husband. My grandbaby doesn't care who I am.

DJ: You mean your not singing "My Girl" when you take out the trash?

Question #2: So many groups don't stay together. What do you attribute to the staying power of the Temptations?

Edwards: Here's the thing. You have five personalities. Everybody in the beginning is broke, hungry, and you have a reason to stay together. The problems come with success. When a group becomes successful, a couple of things happen. You've got something to do, you loose your heads, and personalities start to bump. You forget how you actually made it. You made it through hard work, rehearsal, and sticking together. It happens, you get to a point where you say you don't like them anymore. I want to be by myself. Every group has that. When you can find five guys who can laugh at themselves. Even with my guys, sometimes I hate to see them. Sometimes they hate to look at me. The thing is you don't hate it enough not to go to work. It can be ego. Everybody has problems being the leader. You can only have one leader. Every one of these guys are on the same floor as me.

Question #3: Where did the music go wrong? The Temptations were about love, politics, issues of the time. What has happened to the music?

Edwards: We had producers at that time. We had Norman Whitfield, Smokey Robinson, or Holland. They had very keen foresights in music. The Temptations music was about some of the more simpler things in the world. Most of the songs were about the love between a man and a woman. When we went into the psychedelic soul era, the country was in a bad way. Norman tapped into that. Our producers stayed with the times. Music now days, some of it I like. But whenever you degrade a woman, something is wrong with it. They are the greatest gift to man. You hear some of the music and they are calling women b-words and all of that, we sing clean music. We can work in any kind of environment. We don't want you to kill no body. The record companies used to teach you how to act. If you had a hit record, they didn't want you to get 'the big head.' They would teach you how to act. They don't do that anymore. I see a group of guys now who will not even sign an autograph. These people pay your living. If I don't sign an autograph, I'm either tired, old, or something.

The question and answer period went on for another ten minutes. Following the interview, Mr. Edwards remained and signed autographs for the fans. Later that evening, The Temptations Review with Dennis Edwards performed on the Fox Theatre stage.

Related articles:

Gladys Knight/The Temptations Review featuring Dennis Edwards - Concert review - Chicago, IL May 2014
Interviews with Johnny Mathis and the Temptations December 2006
The Temptations - Concert review - Waukegan, IL December 2006
Richard Street lead singer of The Temptations '71-'95 - Concert review - St. Charles, IL October 2005

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