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.
In any genre of music, one of the most exciting times is the moment right before the genre realizes that it’s a genre. Case in point: disco. For years, disco wasn’t a genre. It was a place, a thing to do. In early-’70s New York, DJs would play records in gay clubs or private parties, and they would take people on journeys. Using expensive newfangled stereo equipment and obsessive care, these DJs would lovingly move from one musical idea to the next. At David Mancuso’s Loft, the prototypical club of the early disco era, dancers would sip LSD-spiked punch and lose their minds as Mancuso remixed records on the fly, tweaking bass levels or extending breaks. It must’ve been a hell of a thing to experience.
Mancuso’s tastes were famously all over the place. He’d play starry-eyed Beatles ballads, Astral Weeks deep cuts, African drum records. But Mancuso also played a whole lot of rhythmic soul records, and so did his early-DJ peers. They played records that flopped on the charts but sounded amazing when the evening was hitting its peak. And they played a whole lot of Eddie Kendricks. Kendricks eventually noticed, and he made at least a couple of records with those dancefloors in mind. And with “Keep On Truckin’,” he made the one that crossed over and spread the disco gospel to the rest of America, whether America knew it yet or not. That’s how we got “Keep On Truckin’,” arguably the first disco record ever to hit #1.
Before “Keep On Truckin’,” things weren’t going too well for Eddie Kendricks. Kendricks had been a Temptation for most of his adult life. He’d been a Temptation since before the Temptations existed. Kendricks had grown up in Alabama, where he and Paul Williams had sung in a church choir together. Kendricks, Williams, and some others formed a doo-wop group called the Cavaliers. They moved to Cleveland and then to Detroit, where they renamed themselves the Primes. (The Supremes started off as a Primes spinoff called the Primettes.) And when that group broke up, Kendricks and Williams joined forces with some other local singers and formed what would become the Temptations.
But after 11 years with the Temptations, Kendricks had had enough. He didn’t like the psychedelic soul that producer/songwriter Norman Whitfield was pushing on the group. He had problems with Motown management. He wasn’t getting along with the rest of the group. One night, Kendricks walked out on the rest of the Temptations when they were between sets at the Copacabana in New York. He decided that he was quitting. On the way out, he recorded the incandescent lead vocal on the absolute monster classic “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).” By the time that song hit #1, Kendricks had a solo deal with Motown.
But when he went solo, Kendricks couldn’t make a hit to save his life. For two years, none of his solo singles even charted in the top 50. And to compound his struggles, the Temptations came out with the 1971 single “Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)” — basically a diss track that went after Kendricks and his fellow ex-Temptation David Ruffin. (It peaked at #18 — not a huge hit but way more successful than anything that Kendricks was doing on his own at the time.) But even though Kendricks’ 1972 single “Girl, You Need A Change Of Mind” flopped commercially, peaking at #87, it turned out to be an important record, and it showed a way forward for Kendricks.
“Girl, You Need A Change Of Mind” is a silky stomper that stretches over nearly eight minutes. Producer Frank Wilson, trying to capture some of the excitement of Kendricks’ live shows, recorded it with Kendricks’ touring band rather than Motown studio musicians. It’s a monster record, Kendricks’ falsetto hovering above his band’s lush pulse. There’s a breakdown in the middle, where the music seems to stop and then all the instruments come back in, one by one. (Wilson had picked that trick up from gospel.) New York DJs loved the record, and they’d play it as the evening was peaking. Kendricks and Wilson didn’t make it for that audience; they were trying to make a radio record. But that audience found it, and then Kendricks and Wilson found that audience.
On “Keep On Truckin’,” you can hear Kendricks and Wilson doubling down on that sound, putting even more emphasis on the beat, stretching the groove as far as they could. As much as Kendricks didn’t like that Norman Whitfield psychedelic-soul sound, “Keep On Truckin'” is basically a weaponized version of that, a cinematic squelch extended toward infinity.
“Keep On Truckin'” really isn’t much of a song, but it’s a great groove. It’s structured more as a track than as a song. There are movements — a shivery xylophone solo, a wah-wah guitar zone-out, another one of those build-it-back-up breakdowns. Toward the end of the Temptations, Kendricks hated how Norman Whitfield would put all the emphasis on his own orchestrations rather than on the singers, making them supporting players on their own songs. The same thing happens on “Keep On Truckin’.” Kendricks’ airy falsetto sounds great, but it’s not really the star of the show. He’s just one more gorgeous element in the mix. Maybe it’s harder to be mad about that kind of thing when it’s your name and face on the cover of a #1 single.
Kendricks once said that he knew “Keep On Truckin'” would be a hit because of the title: “The old people used to truck when they were dancing. And I knew the trucking industry would embrace the record.” This was a few years before a weird little boomlet of movies — Smokey And The Bandit, White Line Fever, Convoy — made romantic heroes out of truck drivers. Maybe Kendricks saw that coming. Lyrically, “Keep On Truckin'” is a song about Kendricks pushing through any obstacle to get to his girl, and it’s full of dumb double entendres: “I’m the red ball express of lovin’ / Diesel-powered straight to you, I’m truckin’.” (There’s also a quick lyrical shot back at his old group: “In the old Temptations rain, I’m duckin’.”)
Those lyrics are almost an afterthought. What matters is that dizzy eight-minute groove. It’s not exactly a four-four disco thump, and we can argue all day over whether it’s a disco song. But “Keep On Truckin'” absolutely works as a taste of what was coming, and as a great dance record in its own right.
Kendricks would keep making solo hits for a couple of years, though he’d never get back to #1. In 1978, he left Motown, signing away his own royalties in an effort go get artistic control. This was not a good idea. Kendricks’ cigarette habit was already wearing his voice down, and he couldn’t tour or record the way he once had. For a brief period in the early ’80s, Kendricks and David Ruffin both rejoined the Temptations. A few years after that, Kendricks and Ruffin recorded an album together, and they also appeared together on a Hall & Oates live album. (Hall & Oates will, of course, eventually appear in this column.) But Kendricks and Ruffin never really managed a comeback. Ruffin died of an overdose in 1991. A year later, lung cancer killed Kendricks. But his name is still on the charts, in one way or another. Kendrick Lamar’s mother named him after Eddie Kendricks.
BONUS BEATS: 2001’s “Lights, Camera, Action!,” the one big solo single from Queens rapper and former Lost Boyz member Mr. Cheeks, is built around producer Bink’s sample of “Keep On Truckin’.” (“Lights, Camera, Action!” peaked at #14.) Here’s the video: