In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“My Girl” is one of those moments when pop music becomes as great as it possibly can be, when everything works with everything else in ways that elevate all of it. It’s the type of song that can make you feel breathless when the trumpets come in. Everything is so precise, so mathematically arranged, and yet there is such enormous feeling within it. Looking back at the historical record, I’m amazed to see that it was only #1 for a week, for half the time that “This Diamond Ring” was up there. It shows the flaws of the charts; they just can’t measure the way a song becomes a part of people’s lives.
The Temptations had been around for a few years before “My Girl” landed in their laps. The group had formed when members of two rival Detroit singing groups joined forces. Even in the Motown system, they weren’t scoring any hits early on. Elbridge Bryant left the group in 1964, deciding that he’d liked his previous life as a milkman better, and he’d gotten himself fired for hitting Paul Williams in the head with a beer bottle during a backstage argument. So the group brought David Ruffin in as a replacement. Ruffin started out as one of the guys in the background, but Smokey Robinson heard enormous potential in his beautiful liquid rasp of a voice. And so Robinson and his fellow Miracle Ronald White wrote “My Girl” with Ruffin in mind. “My Girl” ended up being the first Temptations song to feature Ruffin singing lead. It would not be the last.
Ruffin does incredible things on “My Girl.” At the start of the song, he’s a pleading tenor. But as the song gets on, his voice gets looser and looser. It strains against itself, becoming bluesier, churchier. And the song just blooms around him. It starts out sparse, with just a few fingersnaps and that simple heartbeat bass riff from Funk Brothers virtuoso James Jamerson. But then open up: The insinuating guitar line, regal horns, the stabbing drum-rolls. By the time that bridge hits, when the strings from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra open up, it feels like sunshine punching you in the face.
“My Girl” was the beginning of a hell of a run. Over the next decade or so, the Temptations would go through plenty of turmoil, changing up sounds and members. But they were consistently brilliant, coming up with so many absolutely incredible songs. And yet “My Girl” still may have been the best of them.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Jesus And Mary Chain’s spare, elegant cover of “My Girl”: