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On This Day in Music... March 6, 1965: The Temptations' 'My Girl' Hits No. 1

One of Motown's most indelible songs, 'My Girl' gave the Temptations their first No. 1 hit.

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Source: MEGA

The Temptations in 1973, nearly a decade after 'My Girl' made them stars.

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The idea of picking a “signature” Motown song is nearly impossible. How could a single track possibly hope to sum up that inimitable explosion of musical greatness that flowed so freely from Berry Gordy's Detroit hit factory throughout the 1960s and '70s? You could pick any one of the Supremes’ No. 1 hits from the mid-1960s. A strong case could be made for the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” Maybe one of Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder’s auteurist ‘70s masterpieces is more your style? Something from the Jackson 5? Martha and the Vandellas? The possibilities are endless.

But if you were to pick the Temptations' "My Girl," which first hit No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart on this day in 1965...well, it would be hard to argue.

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Unlike so many of the label’s icons who were born-and-raised Michiganders — Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Levi Stubbs, Mary Wells, Wonder — the Temptations were Southern boys through and through. Hailing variously from Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, the five-man group was signed by Motown founder Gordy in early 1961, though they languished in purgatory for their first several years at the label, eventually earning themselves a nickname: “the hitless Temptations.” Frustrations over the group’s start-stop career eventually began to spill over into infighting, which reached a head when founding member Eldridge Bryant attacked bandmate Paul Williams with a beer bottle after an argument, soon getting himself booted from the group.

In his place, the Temptations recruited David Ruffin, a singer who had been kicking around Gordy’s orbit for long enough that he could claim to have helped built Hitsville USA. In his case, literally: he physically pitched in on construction for the house/office/studio hybrid at 2648 West Grand Blvd. that served as Motown's first HQ.

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Source: MEGA

Members of the Temptations, the Supremes, and Martha and the Vandellas pose together in 1965.

With Ruffin in tow, the Temptations finally ceased to be hitless in early 1964, courtesy of a song from Miracles frontman and all-around Motown ringer Robinson. Featuring Eddie Kendricks on lead vocals, “The Way You Do the Things You Do” hit No. 11 on the singles chart, finally getting the group some traction. After a follow-up single, "I'll Be in Trouble," was less successful, Robinson quickly decided to shake things up, writing a song specifically for the newest member of the quintet to sing.

“[Ruffin] was like this sleeping giant in this group because he had this…mellow, gruff-sounding voice,” Robinson later recalled. “And all I needed was the right song for his voice and I felt like I would have a smash hit record. So I sat down at the piano to write a song for David Ruffin's voice. I wanted to make it something that he could belt out, but yet make it melodic and sweet.”

That song was “My Girl,” a companion piece to Mary Wells’ No. 1 single “My Guy,” which Robinson had also written earlier that year. As catchy as Robinson’s composition might have been, and as inspired as his decision to delegate vocal duties proved to be, the song really took off once Motown’s crack house band, the Funk Brothers, got their hands on it. Not that they had to sweat it too much. The great James Jamerson needed exactly two notes to craft one of the most immediately recognizable basslines ever recorded. Guitarist Robert White came up with the song’s equally timeless intro guitar riff on a goof. As Robinson remembered: “Robert stood up and started walking around the studio with his guitar and playing. And he started laughing, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no.’ And I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no? Are you kidding? That’s on the record.’ It became one of the most famous guitar riffs ever, and he was just kidding around.”

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Source: MEGA

The Temptations returned to the top of the singles chart three more times after "My Girl."

Reaching No. 1 on the charts several months after its release, “My Girl” signaled the beginning of the Temptations’ classic period. However, undercurrents of strife began percolating before long. Ruffin sang lead on the Temptations’ next big hit, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and though Kendricks still had plenty of spotlight singles to his name, Ruffin started to envision bigger things for himself. Inspired by the Supremes’ name change to "Diana Ross and the Supremes," Ruffin began to suggest he ought to have similar billing. Understandably, this did not sit well with the group, nor did Ruffin’s increasingly diva-like behavior — including a mounting cocaine habit, a less-than punctual work-ethic, and a tempestuous relationship with fellow Motown star Tammi Terrell (to whom he was frequently abusive). Ruffin was finally fired from the group in 1968.

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While the Temptations would return to the top of the charts three times after Ruffin's departure, “My Girl” proved impossible to shake as a signature song. By the end of the 1960s, the song had been covered on record by the likes of Otis Redding, Wonder, the Rolling Stones and the Mamas and the Papas. In the decades that followed, it would be tackled by artists as diverse as Westlife, Michael Bolton and the Jesus and Mary Chain.

As the last surviving member of the Temptations, Otis Williams, said in 1994: “We tried years ago not to do ‘My Girl’ in the show. We would never do that again. We got cussed out, almost ran off the stage. It has such a universal appeal.”

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