Turning points in music history are almost always more complicated than they appear at first glance. That’s exactly the case with the Temptations‘ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 3, 1971.
In a way, the history of the song goes back to 1969, when Motown producer Norman Whitfield and his frequent writing partner Barrett Strong penned it. At the time, though, it didn’t fit with what the Temptations were doing; it was a ballad perfectly set up for a dreamy, romantic orchestration, and the group had moved away from that sorta thing.
Under the sway of the times, and under Whitfield’s direction, they’d started to explore “psychedelic soul” in 1968.The shift had been successful, and in 1969 the hit single “Cloud Nine” netted them the first Grammy – for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental – ever won by a Motown Records artist.
By 1971, though, the bloom had started to fade from the psychedelic rose and, according to Temptations member Otis Williams, “people kept asking when we were going to go back to classic ballads.” So Whitfield broke out the one he’d written with Strong several years earlier, and suddenly the Temptations had a new old-school hit on their hands.
In another way, though, the history of the song goes back a lot longer than that, almost all the way to the founding of the group. This happened in 1960 in Detroit, when Williams, Elbridge “Al” Bryant and Melvin Franklin – then singing in an ensemble called Otis Williams and the Distants – teamed up with Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, who were singing in the Primes. (That group’s sister act, the Primettes, would go on to become the Supremes.)
This new five-man lineup was signed to the Motown Records roster in 1961 and christened the Temptations. Success was relatively slow to come to them, though, and at the end of 1963, Bryant – apparently driven by frustration with the group as well as a drinking problem – was fired for breaking a beer bottle over Williams’ head during an altercation. This led to the hiring of David Ruffin and coincided with the group’s recording its first real hit, the Smokey Robinson-written and -produced “The Way You Do the Things You Do” in 1964.
From there, the Temptations headed straight to the top. “My Girl” (also written and produced by Robinson) was their first song to reach No. 1, leading to appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand and to international stardom. By 1967, though, the perils of fame were already eating at the group. Ruffin, who had sung lead on “My Girl,” as well as other hits like “Ain’t to Proud to Beg,” and had become in the process the de facto frontman, was itching to start a solo career. He sued Motown for “economic peonage” in an (unsuccessful) attempt to get out of his contract and was eventually replaced by Dennis Edwards.
Listen to the Temptations’ ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)’
This lineup change coincided with Whitfield’s decision to move the group into psychedelic soul and also with continuing dissension and difficulty within the ranks. Despite the continued success this musical shift brought, Kendricks felt unsatisfied by it. At the same time, Paul Williams had started to drink heavily to combat the pain brought on by sickle cell anemia and was growing increasingly unreliable as a performer.
So, when “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” hit the charts in 1971, it wasn’t just a return to a sound that already felt like something of a distant memory, even thought it wasn’t even four years old; it also served as something of a swan song for the original group and, in particular, for Kendricks and Paul Williams. Both would depart soon after the song was released; two years later, Williams killed himself.
If anything, these tribulations heighten the ethereal, wistful sound of the song. The lyrics come from the point of view of a man looking out a window and watching a beautiful woman passing. He says to himself, “You’re such a luck guy / To have a girl like her is truly a dream come true.” Almost immediately, though, he admits this isn’t true at all. The girl isn’t his; it was “Just my imagination running away with me.” The song goes on like this: He imagines the life he might have with the woman – children and a house – and even tells us he prays on his knees every night for this to happen. But it never does.
Kendricks sings lead, and his performance is phenomenal – delicate and precise while also conveying the deep yearning and sadness of the story. The only other singer to come to the front is Paul Williams, who bursts in with the line “Every night, on my knees I pray,” his broad baritone setting off Kendricks’ moves into falsetto, the contrast giving added emphasis to the line and the depth of yearning it conveys. This isn’t just a fantasy; it’s something he needs with an almost religious passion.
Beneath all this runs an extraordinary arrangement. Guitarist Eddie Willis of the Funk Brothers – the Motown Records house band that plays on the record – opens the action with a simple, bluesy line. He’s followed into the melody first by a bass and then by orchestral strings. This leads to a harmony line sung by other members of the group and then finally into a gentle brass swell. (The strings and brass are provided by players from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra). These various lines interweave throughout the song and, combined with Kendricks’ elegant keening, give the song an almost celestial feel.
Like the best pop music, it’s a record that’s able to touch something beyond itself, to inspire a feeling more profound than a simple collection of voices and instruments should be able to. It’s a fitting tribute not just to Kendricks and Paul Williams, but to the Temptations as a whole and the complications of their long history.