In the classic era, Top 40 radio could be frenetic—crowded with jingles and commercials, and with high-energy jocks shouting over and around the hits. Every once in a while, however, a record would come along that demanded a pause in the chaos. Such records would often stop time entirely for as long as they took to play. One such record hit the Billboard charts 40 years ago this month.
It begins with a quiet, echo-kissed guitar figure, followed on by bass guitar and strings before the singers come in, wordless. A soft xylophone rises up out of the mix, as if to pull a curtain back for the lead singer, who does not seem to sing so much as to sigh: “Each day through my window I watch her as she passes by/I say to myself, ‘You’re such a lucky guy.'” “Just My Imagination (Runnin’ Away With Me)” was performed by the Temptations on The Ed Sullivan Show on January 31, 1971. It debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 dated February 6, and entered the Top 40 two weeks later. It was a departure for the group, who had been recording producer Norman Whitfield’s uptempo acid-soul with great success for a couple of years, but who wanted to return to the soft soul style they had pioneered from the days of “My Girl.” And in April, “Just My Imagination” would join “My Girl” and “I Can’t Get Next to You” at Number One in Billboard.
But after “Just My Imagination,” the Temptations would never truly be the Temptations again. There’s an argument that this had already happened in 1968, when the gifted-but-troubled David Ruffin was fired, but the group had achieved some of its greatest successes (“I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Psychedelic Shack”) with Dennis Edwards in Ruffin’s old slot. By the end of 1970, a disgruntled Eddie Kendricks was on his way to a solo career, and “Just My Imagination” was recorded with the full knowledge that it would be his last hurrah with them. It also marked the end for original member Paul Williams, whose declining health was not helped by his dependence on alcohol. He was let go at the same time Kendricks left, but not before he sang the first line of that breathtaking bridge in the middle of “Just My Imagination”: “Every night on my knees I pray.” Richard Street had already been brought in to cover for Williams on stage, singing Paul’s parts from the wings while Paul stood behind a disconnected microphone, and he became an official member. Kendricks was replaced at first by a singer named Ricky Owens, who was fired after only two shows, and for good by Damon Harris. The Temptations would maintain a presence on Top 40 radio for two more years and bag another Number One single, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” but would fade after 1973 into a lengthy afterlife that continues today.
The story of “Just My Imagination” and the rest of the Temptations’ tempestuous career is told in Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: The Troubled Lives and Enduring Soul of the Temptations by Mark Ribowsky, who has also written biographies of the Supremes and Stevie Wonder. Written with the assistance of surviving original member Otis Williams, but not an officially authorized biography, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg is a highly worthwhile read for Motown fans, shedding light on the strange workings of the label, and how the Temptations, an aggregation of pure soul singers, fit into Berry Gordy’s quest to erase the line between black and white pop. It also provides a look into the lives of the individual Temptations, whose stardom was often far less glamorous than we might imagine.
“Just My Imagination” is on my Desert Island list, and if I were to put that list in numerical order, there’s only a song or two that would rank as high. I heard it in that first spring of musical discovery just as I described it above—as an arresting oasis in the general rush of WLS. As the lament of a man in love with a woman who doesn’t even know he exists, it spoke to me throughout my adolescence. And today it remains a prime example of just how glorious the Temptations were, of the brilliance of Kendricks and Whitfield, and how a song can continue to shine in our lives for as long as our lives may last.