Temptations' Dennis Edwards had 'star personality'
Dennis Edwards, whose gruff, heartbreaking vocals brought the Temptations into a whole new era with such classics as “Cloud Nine” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” died Thursday at a hospital in Chicago, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Edwards lived with his wife of 18 years, Brenda, in nearby Florissant, Missouri.
The 1989 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee was two days shy of his 75th birthday. He died of complications from meningitis, the newspaper reported, which he’d struggled with since last May, enduring several hospitalizations. His wife Brenda asked for prayers for Edwards on his Facebook page over the months.
“What a loss. What a talent, what a personality,” said Motown’s Paul Riser, who arranged and conducted the orchestra on “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone,” constructing the bed of strings that murmur ominously under Edwards’ anguished voice.
“His personality matched his voice. He had that star personality; he wasn’t shy. If you listen to his music, you can tell he’s not shy on the mic either. He knows he’s a star.”
Riser was shocked at the sudden turn Edwards’ health took in May 2017, when meningitis struck. Until then, “He was the picture of health, he had this energy about him.”
Edwards joined the Temptations in 1968, replacing original lead singer David Ruffin. After several years of psychedelic soul smash hits that all went to No. 1 (R&B), from 1969’s “Cloud Nine” to “Masterpiece” in 1973, Edwards left Motown — or was fired by Otis Williams, depending on the source — for Atlantic Records in 1977. He was in and out of the group several more times in the ensuing years.
In between Temptations stints, Edwards scored a hit duet, “Don’t Look Any Further” with Siedah Garrett, in 1984. Then he rejoined the Temptations in 1987 to replace Ali-Ollie Woodson, who had replaced him.
In the early ’80s, Garrett was an unknown demo singer in Los Angeles, and she recorded the demo of “Don’t Look Any Further” for songwriters Dennis Lambert and Franne Golde. Motown selected the song for Edwards’ solo album of the same name.
“They wanted it to be a duet with Chaka Khan, but, as fate would have it, Chaka was unavailable, and the company and Dennis agreed to use my demo vocal for the record,” Garrett told The Detroit News. “Once the single became a hit, Dennis asked me to do a club tour with him, and that was a fantastic experience for me.
“I feel his loss and will be forever grateful to Dennis for giving me my first shot, and I extend my condolences, prayers and gratitude to his family for blessing us with his very special talent.”
Over the years, Edwards toured with fellow ex-Tempts Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, although a project with them stalled after the death of Ruffin in 1991 and Kendricks in 1992.
After his final departure from the Temptations, Edwards formed his own group, Dennis Edwards’ Temptations Revue. The name led to litigation with Otis Williams’ Temptations, but a détente was reached, and Edwards was touring with his group up to last May.
The early years
Dennis Edwards Jr. was born Feb. 3, 1943, in Fairfield, Alabama. He started singing as a youngster in his father, Dennis Sr.’s, church in Alabama. The family moved to Detroit when he was 7, he told The Detroit News in 2010, and his father pastored at a church on the city's west side. As a teenager, Edwards idolized Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Marvin Gaye, Levi Stubbs, Kendricks and Ruffin — all stars he later befriended.
Edwards attended Cass Tech but graduated from Eastern High School. Despite his parents’ disapproval, he segued from fronting a gospel group to playing the clubs as Dennis Edwards and the Firebirds. They had a single on International Soulsville Records in 1961, “Johnny on the Spot.”
By 1966, he was singing in a club on Joy Road in Detroit, where he’d made friends with such Motown icons as Ruffin and bass player James Jamerson.
His friendship with Aretha Franklin also dates back to the mid-’60s — and they reportedly dated for a time. For her part, Franklin remarked cryptically to a reporter, “Dennis Edwards was 15 years too late.” Although it was widely believed that the song "Daydreaming" was written by Franklin with Edwards in mind.
“I’ve been knowing her a long time,” Edwards told The Detroit News in 2010. “My father’s church was on Canfield, her father’s church was on Hastings Street. I remember I went around to her church and saw her sing, and I fell in love with her then. We’ve always been friends ... and now, it’s such a respectful thing.”
Looking back, his daughter Denise Edwards of St. Louis told The Detroit News her father “would always love Aretha.”
“When we’d see her (on TV), even my mother would say, 'That was supposed to be your mother,’ ” Denise said.
Edwards joins Motown
One day Jamerson invited the singer to audition at Motown. Edwards sang Lou Rawls’ “Love is a Hurtin’ Thing” and impressed the boss, Berry Gordy Jr., enough that he was offered $500 a week just to cool his heels until they needed him.
That $500 a week went on for a year, until the Contours suddenly needed a singer, and Edwards joined the group. But he left the Contours after a year and was in fear of being cut from Motown when fate intervened. After years of internal turmoil, legendary lead singer Ruffin had resolved to leave the Temptations. The troubled singer visited Edwards at home late one night in June 1968 to tell him he was going to do it. An avid Temptations fan, Edwards tried to talk him out of it.
“They (the Temptations) were a man’s dream, to watch their routines, to spin that microphone around,” Edwards marveled in a 2010 interview with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “But they had differences, and he was concerned about not making enough money.”
Edwards was tall and striking, as a Temptation needed to be, so it was inevitable: Motown called the next morning and asked him to join the group. He said yes, with one condition: “I said, ‘I want to be accepted by Eddie, Otis, Paul and Melvin, and I want to let them know I could never be a David Ruffin, but I think I can sing.’ ”
That he could do.
scored with “I Can’t Get Next To You,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” “Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down, and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” catching a wave of psychedelic soul that swept away the choreographed, suited image of the mid-’60s.
The Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong number “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone” was a single by the Undisputed Truth first, but it was the Temptations’ 1972 version that has become one of Motown’s most enduring classics, a gut-wrenching, poetic piece of street art with Edwards’ voice the centerpiece.
Edwards moved to Los Angeles in 1972, when Motown left, but he regretted that later, telling The Detroit News he would have saved a lot of money if he’d stayed in Detroit.
After a brief marriage to Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters, which produced a daughter, Issa, he moved from LA. to St. Louis to be near his mother and never left.
In addition to his wife, Brenda, and daughters Denise Edwards and Issa Pointer of Rhode Island, survivors include Maya Peacock of Ohio and son Bernard Hubbard of Indiana.
In 2013, Edwards, Williams and the Temptations received lifetime achievement Grammys. The legendary singer will always be remembered as an integral member of the Temptations.
“At the time, he was the perfect replacement for David Ruffin,” said Cornelius Grant, music director and guitarist for the Temptations from the mid-’60s until the early ’80s. “We’ll miss him.”
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com.