When most Motown fans think of the Tempts, they think of Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, the "Classic Five" whose tumultuous rise and 40 year Motown tenure was chronicled in the 2001 NBC mini-series bio-pic. However, some 22 significant voices have had the privilege of shaping and evolving the Temptations sound under founding-and now the only original surviving-member, Otis Williams. In addition to the legendary David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, esteemed solo artists such as Dennis Edwards, Ali Woodson, and G.C. Cameron have each altered the course and feel of the Temptations soulful sound. New lead vocalist Bruce Williamson follows this tradition by taking the group to red dirt churches and back-wood speakeasies in a baritone rolled in grit and glass on cuts like LTD's "(Everytime I Turn Around) Back in Love Again" and Barry White's "Never, Never Gonna Give You Up." Lead vocalists Ron Tyson and Terry Weeks, along with Williams and Joe Herndon on backgrounds, occasionally follow Williamson in choosing the raw and confident over the spit-shined and precise on songs like Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Coming" and the Staples Singer's "Respect Yourself."
Producers Steve "the scotsman" Harvey (of Donnie fame) and Benjamin Wright eschew gimmicks for a warm, live band sound. Through whistle-tight horn and rhythm sections and close to the vest backing vocals, the producers creating sound that feels both intimately full and deceptively compact. In these adept producers' hands, the Tempts incredibly strong voices are allowed to create a virile, seasoned sound as grown and mature as these men. The heaviness of these voices and tightness of the production beautifully explodes on the album standouts "Minute By Minute" (Doobie Bros.), "Let It Be Me" (Everly Bros.), and "Wake Up, Everybody" (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes), a tune which Williamson proudly nails with enough groin-pulling wails to start a revolution. On his leads, Terry Weeks does a yeoman's job on both "Minute By Minute" and another LTD classic, "Love Ballad." Likewise, Ron Tyson's does notably brilliant co-lead work on "Let It Be Me" who, along with the dynamic Keke Wilson, steals this emotional scorcher from every act that's ever covered this soul classic.
Clunker moments on Back to Front are few and more a matter of taste than skill. For me, Tyson's squalling on the closing on the otherwise fine Wilson Pickett's "I'm In Love" proved more a grating than loving declaration of amour. Despite the stellar band's effort at skillful flourish, the Temptations' delivery and tepid arrangements of the Bee Gee's "How Deep Is Your Love" and the Emotion's "Don't Ask My Neighbor" offer little that hasn't already been heard on dozens of these often recorded covers, making their inclusion on this set a real head-scratcher.
Nonetheless, Tempts fans will be glad to have those five open palms offer yet another fine music collection for the grown and sexy set. Back to Front demonstrates how the Tempts chameleon-like reinventions can keep even the most familiar tunes-and acts-fresh and compelling in satisfying ways. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson