45 Years Ago: The Temptations Get Serious With ‘Puzzle People’
One of the Temptations' strongest late-'60s efforts, 'Puzzle People' finds these Motown legends moving further into a modern sense of social consciousness -- even if their album-opening lead single settled for age-old hip-shaking goals. In truth, the titanic 'I Can't Get Next To You' (a well-deserved No. 1 pop and R&B single in 1969) provided few hints about how seriously the Temps were about to get.
'Message from a Black Man' (with its anthemic refrain no matter how hard you try, you can't stop me now), 'Slave' (linking issues in the prison system to historic injustices) and 'Don't Let the Jones Get You Down' (a treatise about greed) took on contemporary issues with a tough explicitness, as producer Norman Whitfield continued remaking this classic R&B vocal group into topical hitmakers. "To me," author David Ritz said of Whitfield in 2008, "he gave Motown another 10 years of life by coming up with this new attitude."
If some of the production (wah wah? distortion? check! then-cool panning from left to right across the stereo field? you bet!) feels as dated as shag carpet, the subject matter itself couldn't be more relevant in a modern age. Dubbed "psychedelic soul" at the time, the studio trickery is the only thing -- well, besides a completely needless cover of the Beatles' 'Hey Jude' -- that holds 'Puzzle People' back.
We find the Temps trading the mic between Dennis Edwards and the group's four other singers, a new twist from an act that before would typically focus on a single voice. And their muscular narratives (often written by Whitfield and Barrett Strong) were bolstered by a Funk Brothers backing group at the very top of its funky, funky game.
This new sound was, despite the message-based successes heard elsewhere, best exemplified in the girder-shaking 'I Can't Get Next To You.' "We each had different lines to sing. For example, Paul (Williams) sang the first line ("I can make the gray sky blue") and Melvin (Franklin) sang the second ("I can make it rain whenever I want it to"), and so on," Otis Williams said in his autobiography 'Temptations.' "For all intents and purposes, the Temptations were Norman's group now, which was fine. He had great material and really exploited our potential as singers by trying different things with us."
'Puzzle People,' released on September 23, 1969, went to No. 5 on the Billboard album charts, a feat the Temps only bested two more times. It was an R&B chart-topper for some 15 weeks, as well.