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.
Here’s a name you should know: Norman Whitfield. Whitfield, a Detroit native, went to work for Motown in 1959, when he was 19. He started out in the quality-control department, helping founder Berry Gordy decide which songs should be singles. Eventually, Whitfield started co-writing some of those singles. And in 1966, he hijacked the Temptations and turned the group into his own thing.
The Temptations had been working with Smokey Robinson, who’d co-written their transcendent breakout hit “My Girl.” Robinson was the group’s main writer and producer, but the Temptations’ hits were starting to dry up. In 1966, Robinson wrote their song “Get Ready,” and the single only made it up to #29. Gordy had told Whitfield, who was lobbying for the Temptations producer job, that he could produce a Temptations song if “Get Ready” didn’t make the top 20. So Whitfield co-wrote and produced “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” which made it up to #13 a few months later. (“Get Ready” and “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” it practically goes without saying, are both fucking incredible songs.)
Before Whitfield took over, the Temptations had mostly been known for singing ballads like “My Girl.” Whitfield changed that. He started playing around with harder soul and funk sounds: Squelchy guitars, horn stabs, heavier and louder drums. Eventually, inspired by psychedelic rock and by Sly & The Family Stone, Whitfield pushed the Temptations into the molten, hard-stepping sound that would soon become known as psychedelic soul. And that’s the sound that brought the Temptations back to #1, four and a half years after “My Girl.”
Partly because of Whitfield, Motown’s sound was getting deeper and heavier and more emotional. Whitfield and the first-wave Motown singer Barrett Strong had written Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” the song that, for a while, was the biggest hit that Motown had ever produced. And while Whitfield worked with other Motown acts, the Temptations really became the vehicle for his ideas.
Those ideas kept the Temptations relevant. By the time they hit #1 with “I Can’t Get Next To You,” which Whitfield again co-wrote with his “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” collaborator Barrett Strong, the Temptations had become the rare vocal group to continue thriving after losing their most visible member. David Ruffin, the brilliant raw-throated howler who’d sung lead on “My Girl” and on so many other Temptations singles, had come into conflict with the rest of the group and with Motown. He’d started demanding special treatment, wanting the group to be known as David Ruffin & The Temptations. He’d started sniffing coke and missing shows. Eventually, the rest of the group fired Ruffin and replaced him with the former Contours member Dennis Edwards. But Ruffin wouldn’t go quietly. He started following the Temptations around on tour, repeatedly evading security and jumping up onstage, snatching the mic away from Edwards, and singing lead on “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” Imagine being in the crowd for that.
And yet the Temptations only picked up steam, mostly because of where Whitfield was pushing them. I actually prefer Whitfield’s version of psychedelic soul to the Family Stone records that inspired him. Where the Family Stone were loose and wiggy, Whitfield was finding ways to incorporate tense percussion ripples and wah-wah guitar gurgles and bugged-out song structures into the context of the bulletproof Motown pop-song machine. A song like “Cloud Nine,” which peaked at #6 and which would’ve been a 10, says a whole lot about drugs and depression in black communities, but it also works as a party song. That’s not an easy thing to do.
“I Can’t Get Next To You” doesn’t make any societal points. It’s a song about a girl, plain and simple, but it still runs on the wild freedom of what Whitfield was bringing. As an arrangement, the song is just mindblowing. That crowd-applause intro and that slow piano suddenly, thrillingly explodes into a monstrous vamp. Drums and congas and tambourines shimmy away, and the guitar works as a drum, too, its fuzzed-out clicks working just like drum hits. All five Temptations trade off lead vocals, Eddie Kendricks’ falsetto yip giving way to Paul Williams’ miles-deep baritone, both of them sounding like special effects.
With adjustments, “I Can’t Get Next To You” could’ve been a hit years earlier, or years later. It’s got all the melodic rigor of those early Motown years, and it’s driven by the group’s chemistry, which, even after Ruffin’s contentious departure, was no joke. But all those production flourishes push it even harder and turn it into something truly special. Whitfield was still figuring out this whole sound, and he’s soon make some other Temptations hits that were even better. But “I Can’t Get Next To You” is still a hell of a thing — a best-case scenario for what happens when a mainstream pop institution absorbs a fringe-culture sound.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Wayne’s 2008 mixtape track “I,” which is built entirely around an interpolated sample of “I Can’t Get Next To You”:
THE NUMBER TWOS: The aforementioned Sly & The Family Stone’s euphorically nostalgic “Hot Fun In The Summertime” peaked at #2 behind “I Can’t Get Next To You.” It’s an 8. Here it is: