The Number Ones

The Number Ones: The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”

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.

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The Temptations – “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”

HIT #1: April 3, 1971

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

Eddie Kendricks was done. Once upon a time, Kendricks, master of the feathery falsetto, had been the Temptations’ lead singer. But then David Ruffin showed up and sang lead on “My Girl” and everything changed. Even after Ruffin got kicked out of the Temptations, Kendricks didn’t become the leader again; instead, that role went to Dennis Edwards, Ruffin’s replacement. And Kendricks wasn’t the group’s behind-the-scenes leader, either. That was Otis Williams. (It still is Otis Williams, as a matter of fact. Williams, who controls the group’s name, still tours with the Temptations; he’s the only original Temptation left.)

By 1971, Eddie Kendricks did not want to be a Temptation anymore. The group had enormous success with producer Norman Whitfield’s psychedelic soul sound, but Kendricks hated it, and he wanted them to go back to singing simple, ornate ballads. He was pissed that Ruffin had been kicked out of the group, and he kept agitating for Ruffin to return. Kendricks also wanted the Temptations to go on strike from Motown, figuring they weren’t getting paid enough. Ruffin, who’d stayed friends with Kendricks, started telling Kendricks that he should go solo. And Kendricks started picking fights with the other Temptations. After one particularly bad fight at the Copacabana in New York, Kendricks stormed out between sets, and he didn’t come back.

This couldn’t stand. The Temptations and Eddie Kendricks agreed: Eddie Kendricks couldn’t be in the Temptations anymore. Kendricks left the group, and he signed with Motown as a solo artist. But on the way out, he painted his fucking Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Norman Whitfield and his regular collaborator Barrett Strong wrote “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” in 1969, but they sat on it. The Temptations were having a great chart run with their psychedelic soul sound, and “Just My Imagination” didn’t fit with what the group was doing at the time, no matter how much Eddie Kendricks might’ve wanted to sing a song like that. Eventually, though, the Temptations’ single “Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite the World)” topped out at #33, an unacceptable failure for a group like that. That’s a pretty great song, but the Temptations were clearly repeating themselves, so Whitfield decided that it was time to pivot away from that psychedelic style, back to just plain soul. So “Just My Imagination” got its shot.

To hear Otis Williams tell it, the Temptations were delighted when Whitfield brought “Just My Imagination” to them. Whitfield’s song was already done. He’d recorded the original instrumental track with the Funk Brothers, and then he’d brought in film-score arranger Jerry Long and a few members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to layer delicate strings and French horns all over it. That instrumental track is already a masterpiece, soft and lush and dreamy. All the Temptations had to do was record their vocals, and they recorded the fuck out of them.

“Just My Imagination” is a song about dreaming that you’re with someone while knowing that it’s not true. The song’s lyrics are simple and direct, the way so many great pop songs are. And Eddie Kendricks breathes life into them, turning them into something tangible and heart-wrecking. The things that Eddie Kendricks does with his voice on this song absolutely destroy me. His falsetto is a soft and delicate murmur, the sound of a man singing to himself, getting lost in his own daydreams.

As the song opens, we think we’re hearing Kendricks singing about a lover: “Each day through my window, I watch her as she passes by / I say to myself, ‘You are such a lucky guy.'” But then the turn comes, devastating and inevitable: “But it was just my imagination, running away with me.” Kendrick sells that turn subtly, letting just a hint of hurt creep into his tenderness. He spends the whole song imagining a whole life with this woman, getting married and having kids, worrying about another man stealing her away. And then, sounding smaller and less certain than ever, he forces himself awake: “When her arms enfold me, I feel a tender rhapsody / But in reality, she doesn’t even know me.”

“Just My Imagination” wasn’t a psychedelic song, and it could’ve probably been a hit at any point in the Temptations’ evolution. But there’s a heavy cinematic grandeur to Whitfield’s production anyway. It’s like he figured out how to use all those busy layers of sound in service of something simpler and quieter. There are so many things going on within the song’s mix: The string rondos, the slow welling-up horns, the other intricately arranged backing vocals from the other Temptations. But they’re all muted and unshowy. They aren’t there to be heard. They’re there to prop up Kendricks, to give that destroyed dreamer of a narrator all the support he needs.

“Just My Imagination” was the last Temptations single to feature Eddie Kendricks. It was his parting gift. He’d make hits on his own, and the Temptations would make hits without him — they’ll both be back in this column. But it still signifies an era ending. And as it turns out, “Just My Imagination” would also turn out to be the parting gift from another Temptation.

Eddie Kendricks sings lead on all of “Just My Imagination” except for one line. On the bridge, we hear another voice, pained and hoarse, sing a single bar: “Every night, on my knees I pray.” Then Kendricks take over again. The voice on that one line belongs to Paul Williams, another original Temptation. Paul was having hard time, his body wracked by sickle cell anemia and alcoholism. Some nights on tour, Paul would lip-sync while another singer, the Monitors’ Richard Street, hid behind a curtain and sang his parts. Some nights, Paul couldn’t perform at all, and Street would step in. The other Temptations would constantly look for Paul’s liquor bottles, dumping them out whenever they found them.

Paul Williams quit the Temptations soon after Kendricks; “Just My Imagination” turned out to be the last Temptations single to feature either Eddie Kendricks or Paul Williams. The Temptations kept paying Paul while he was away, and the idea was that he’d return to the group when he was well enough. It never happened. Two years after he left the group, Paul Williams shot himself and died. He was 34.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Rolling Stones’ scraggly, playful version of “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” the only cover that the band included on the classic 1978 album Some Girls:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a 17-year-old Mac Miller rapping over a sample of “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” on “Just My Imagination,” a song from his 2009 mixtape The High Life:

(Mac Miller never made the top 10 as a lead artist; his highest-charting song, last year’s “Self Care,” peaked at #33. Mac did, however, guest on Ariana Grande’s 2013 single “The Way,” which made it to #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s John Talabot and Pional’s lovely 2012 dance track “So Will Be Now…,” which samples “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Marvin Gaye’s searching, personal, soul-wrecked protest song “What’s Going On” peaked at #2 behind “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).” It is one hell of a 10.