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“I got a song for you,” William “Smokey” Robinson, lead singer and staff writer for Motown Records, told David Ruffin of the Temptations after Robinson watched Ruffin sing Shout during a late summer show in 1964 at the Twenty Grand Club in Detroit. Ruffin was a current member of the many iterations of the group, which by this time featured Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin and Paul Williams.
Robinson was there to evaluate the group who by this time, were showing signs of breaking out of the Motown pack with two previous Robinson-penned hits, The Way You Do The Things You Do and I’ll Be In Trouble. “All of Motown’s staff writers and producers began trying to duplicate my success by writing songs for the Temptations, with Eddie Kendricks singing lead. I had to come up with something different. So while everyone else at Motown focused on Eddie, I sat down at my piano in Detroit and composed a song for David,” said Smokey. (1)
Smokey and co-writer, Ronnie White cut a demo track of the song in late September. During a period in early November when the Temptations and Smokey’s group, the Miracles were on the bill at New York’s Apollo Theater, Robinson and White met the Temptations in their dressing room between shows. Smokey switched on the portable tape recorder and had each member sing his harmony part to the music on the demo.
Smokey introducing My Girl in the Temptations dressing room
Photo courtesy of Getty Images
While the group liked the verses, they weren’t sold on what they heard. Otis recalled, “It was just another song to us. Nothing special. Maybe it was because it was just a basic rhythm track. I didn’t see what was so special about it.” (2)
Once Smokey played the song on a piano, the group gave it a shot. During a break in rehearsal for one of the Apollo shows, attitudes changed. “While David sang lead, the rest of the guys in the group began to add things. They made up their own background vocals, like “hey hey hey” and a series of “my girls” echoing David’s vocal. The Temptations were the greatest background maker-uppers ever [laughs]. When we were finished, they said they loved the song. I think they loved that I was having David sing the lead. There was no complaining or infighting. They knew that both David and Paul had great lead voices,” recalled Robinson. (3)
L-R: Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, David Ruffin, Otis Williams
Photo courtesy of Getty Images
Smokey returned to Detroit to produce the instrumental tracks with the Funk Brothers, Motown’s studio band whose members included Earl Van Dyke (piano), Robert White (guitar), Eddie Willis (guitar), Joe Messina (guitar), Benny Benjamin (drums) and James Jamerson (bass). Smokey has this to say about the September 25, 1964 My Girl session. “All of the Funk Brothers were so great at adding little touches, provided you had the music’s basics down. I came in with that pulse beat in mind. You just showed them what you wanted and they would come up with their own thing to enhance your music.”
“We did two run-downs of My Girl to get comfortable. At the start of the third run-down, Robert White (the song’s co-writer) stood up and started walking around the studio playing a guitar riff [the riff that comes right after the bass line starts and before the vocal]. But halfway in, Robert cut it off, saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ He didn’t think what he had was right. I said, ‘No, no, no, my butt. That’s going to be in the song.’ Now, of course, that line has become one of the most famous guitar riffs ever recorded,” remembered Smokey. (4)
On November 10, 1964, the Temptations came into the studio and laid down the vocal tracks. With David Ruffin’s lead and the background vocals of the other Temptations, Smokey had a song far beyond his expectations. A week later, Paul Riser added the strings of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as well as horns and a # 1 hit was born.
When Otis Williams, who initially showed indifference to the song, heard the final version, he said, “I was knocked on my ass. With the strings, the horns and the dreamlike quality of it, it just had a whole other daylight to it.” When he saw Robinson, he said, “Smoke, I don’t know how big a record this one’s gonna be, but it’s gonna be big!” (5)
Indeed, My Girl was big. Entering the Billboard Hot 100 on January 16, 1965 and peaking at #1 on March 6, the song stayed on chart for a total of thirteen weeks. (6)
There are a number of misconceptions regarding the song My Girl. One source claims Smokey’s wife, Claudette Rogers Robinson inspired the song. Another source claims the song was originally written for the Miracles but the Temptations pleaded with Robinson to let them record it. Smokey wrote the song specifically for David Ruffin.
Incredibly, the song wasn’t certified gold by the RIAA until 1997! Motown owner, Barry Gordy, signed his stable of stars to contracts that, among other stipulations, compensated each $6.25 per session and required the talent to pay for their own stage outfits. Gordy also had his own in-house management agency, ITMI, which was every Motown artist’s booker, banker, financial planner and lawyer with its services non-negotiable and subject to a 10 percent commission on royalties and box office proceeds. Other expenses such as studio time, manufacturing records, storage of master tapes and musicians’ pay were also charged to the artist without any itemization on paper.
The legendary artists never knew how much money they made as they were given no right to review their accounts or even to see tax forms that were signed blank and filled in later. They were given no bankbook and no authority to withdraw money. Today, Gordy’s financial abuse under the guise of the “Motown Family” would be considered a conflict of interest as well as restraint of trade. Otis Williams remembered, “For years, our money was held in escrow, whatever that meant. At that time, we all got the same kind of deal, it was take it or leave it, because no one was in position to say ‘Hey, wait a minute.’” (7)
My Girl was the first of four songs by the Temptations to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Along with other #1 hits I Can’t Get Next To You (1969), Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) (1971) and Papa Was Rollin’ Stone (1972), the Temptations placed 55 songs on the chart spanning from 1964-1991. They tallied fourteen #1 singles on the R&B chart and were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1989. (8)
The Temptations performed My Girl on Shindig on February 10, 1965.
1) Myers, Marc. Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop (Kindle Locations 1003-1005). Grove Atlantic. Kindle Edition.
2) Ribowsky, Mark. Ain’t Too Proud To Beg: The Troubled Lives And The Enduring Soul Of The Temptations. Page 110.
3) Myers, Marc. Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop (Kindle Locations 1013-1016). Grove Atlantic. Kindle Edition.
4) Myers, Marc. Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop (Kindle Locations 1018-1024). Grove Atlantic. Kindle Edition.
5) Ribowsky, Mark. Ain’t Too Proud To Beg: The Troubled Lives And The Enduring Soul Of The Temptations. Page 111.
6) Joel Whitburn, Billboard Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 703.
7) Ribowsky, Mark. Ain’t Too Proud To Beg: The Troubled Lives And The Enduring Soul Of The Temptations. Pages 57-58.
8) Joel Whitburn, Billboard Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 703-704.
L-R: David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams, Eddie Kendricks
Courtesy of the Motown Museum