The Infinite Jukebox: The Temptations’ ‘My Girl’

Motown’s first breakthrough in Britain was with Mary Wells and ‘My Guy’, which I remember hearing, over and over, on the Light Programme on BBC Radio, whilst Mam did the housekeeping and I played with battalions of toy plastic soldiers, shooting them down mercilessly via a cannon that fired spent matches, the only good thing that came from two parents who smoked and who both died of cancer. I heard it enough times to be as familiar with it as I was any little kid’s song that was more of my metier then.
But ‘My Guy’ was one thing, smooth and pure, delicate and dedicated, but when I got to know it later I realised that it couldn’t hold a candle to Smokey Robinson’s answer to himself, ‘My Girl’.
The debate will last forever, for this is a quarrel in which neither side can be wrong, as to whether the best version of ‘My Girl’ was sung by The Temptations or by Otis Redding. You need only look to the head of this piece to see which way my vote swings, but that’s a choice made by fortune and familiarity. Had I heard Otis first, had I been more familiar with Stax soul instead of Tamla Motown, the choice would almost certainly gone the other way.
But Motown is Motown, and especially so in the Sixties, when it was like every damned thing they did was pure gold, and the Temps were the kings of the vocal groups, the smoothest, the sweetest, the sharpest dressed, the sharpest movers. It’s in everything they touched and in ‘My Girl’ it begins with that mounting bass-line that starts the song, that gets your hips twitching before that guitar begins piecing together the melody, those strings sweep into the sound, and they have not yet sung a note, not even a single ‘Hey, hey, hey’, in that unison that no-one else, not even across the whole of Berry Gordy’s operation, could equal.
The song was David Ruffin’s first lead vocal with the Temps, and Smokey wrote the words about his wife and fellow Miracle but he wrote it to be sung by Ruffin, because his voice had that combination of gruff and sweet that bent to the heartbreaking urgency of the words and yet could belt things out with power to supplement the aching heart. As love songs go, this has few peers and even fewer superiors.
And in the studio, Robinson had the wisdom to let the Temps themselves set and arrange the backing vocals, because there were none greater at such a thing, the ooh-oohs, the hey, hey, heys were theirs, and who could deny that this is a transport into a world that exists in love.
Which is perhaps where Otis Redding, for all his energy, for all the deep commitment and conviction of that voice, for all the deeper, purer soul of his sound, can’t compete. Redding injects more fire, more emotion into the words, but he can’t balance it with the sweetness of Ruffin, nor the interplay with the sounds of Eddie Kendrick, Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin and Paul Williams. He can’t inject the pop formality that the Temptations bring to a song that can’t be contained by soul. And brilliant and heartfelt though his version is, in the end it’s that layer of formality, that underlying tone of coolness, that ability to sing these words with the head and the mind, and not just the heart, that carries the group that little bit further into the Universe’s heart.
No-one disputes that ‘My Girl’ is Smokey Robinson’s signature song. Across the whole of the Earth, among peoples who don’t understand the words in English, they come together at the first sounds of that bass introduction, and they dance, and from David Ruffin’s voice they understand all they need to understand, and they know very well what is being said here, because when love is poured into a song, its language is universal.
Creatures from beyond the orbit of Arcturus will one day hear this song for the first time, and whatever they have for hips will begin to move and whatever they have for hearts will take this in as we did all those many years ago. And they will intuit The Temptations and their smoothest moves from just the sound of James Jamerson’s bass, and Robert White’s guitar and Smokey Robinson’s finest moment will go ever outwards, uniting us all.

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