Truckin' to the Top
FRANK TALK ABOUT EDDIE KENDRICKS (AND LEONARD CASTON)
When in 1970 Motown updated its official Temptations bio, there was the usual PR puffery therein: “The assurance with which they perform, their seemingly effortless grace of movement, and the perfect interweaving of their voices carries an audience into total emotional involvement and spontaneous response.”
By contrast, when Eddie Kendricks’ exit from the group was announced the following year, he was crisp and blunt: “I’d rather make no statement if I can’t tell the truth,” he told John Abbey of Blues & Soul. “All I can say is that it was through no fault of mine that I am now a solo artist and not with the group.”
“The quiet one” (Motown’s description of Eddie in that same bio) anticipated this; he recorded his first solo material between the spring and winter of 1970. “I was dedicated to being a Temptation,” the 31-year-old declared to Blues & Soul. “I really lived the life of the group. But I was also aware of problems internally and I didn’t want to have all my eggs in one basket.”
To help spread the risk, Kendricks sought out producer Frank Wilson, who had boarded the Motown express in California some six years earlier. “I agreed to do [the album] after checking with, I think, Ralph Seltzer,” the late Wilson once told me, “and, I guess, Barney Ales, to make sure that they were actually going to promote it.” Seltzer and Ales were among the company’s most senior executives, and Frank by then fully understood the politics of Hitsville.
He also recognised the need to present Kendricks imaginatively. “We just decided we would try and do something that would show Eddie’s versatility as a vocalist, and try and do an interesting album – which meant I had to convince him to do stuff in his lower register as well as his falsetto.”
Wilson’s thirst for something different was already apparent from his work with the Four Tops (the Still Waters album) and the post-Diana Supremes (New Ways, But Love Stays). For the first Kendricks solo LP, All By Myself, the producer chose songs by Gloria Jones, Patrice Holloway, Pam Sawyer and Hal Davis, as well as a couple of copyrights by a writer well-known to Wilson from years before: Jimmy Webb.
But the centrepiece, without question, was “This Used To Be The Home Of Johnnie Mae,” a stunning, six-minute ballad, as lonely as the night, composed by Leonard Caston and Samuel Small, and arranged by David Van DePitte. “I loved the song, I loved the story,” said Wilson, “and it helped to set the pace for the rest of the album, because a lot of that song we had to do in Eddie’s lower register.”
A SONGWRITER SITTING IN THE HALLWAY
Nonetheless, it was another two years before Kendricks fulfilled his commercial promise, alone. “Having sung with a group for all those years, Eddie really had to be produced,” said Wilson, “especially when it came to convincing him about the lower register. I thought to listen to falsetto all the way through an album might be somewhat boring. Just getting his confidence up, number one, was the key thing to do, so he would actually try it. But he was very good to work with.”
Wilson’s partner in helping to bring Eddie “home” was the above-mentioned Caston, who had an impressive track record as a writer/producer for Chess Records. His mid-1960s credentials there included work with Mitty Collier, Little Milton, Billy Stewart, Laura Lee, Marlena Shaw and the Radiants.
“There was,” recalled Wilson, “this writer who was sitting out in the hallway [in Detroit], trying to get on with Motown, and Motown had decided that he was not useful.” Wilson felt differently: he invested in Caston through “This Used To Be The Home Of Johnnie Mae,” and through four songs on Kendricks’ second album, People…Hold On.
By the time of his third long-player, Eddie Kendricks, Caston was credited as its co-producer. More significantly, he was co-author of “Keep On Truckin’,” the vehicle which took Eddie from minor roads onto the freeway. “When Leonard and I would get together,” said Wilson, “we would look at just different pieces of grooves. Things would start musically, and if we really liked it, we’d work at coming up with the melody and the structure. Then we’d get with Anita Poree. She’d come up with the basic lyric idea, and we’d work together to completion in terms of making it what we believed to be a good song or a good record.”
“Keep On Truckin’” came out of this process. “We’d cut the tracks first,” Wilson continued, “and then get with Eddie and rehearse. Both Leonard and I could sing falsetto, so we could actually select a key and everything without him.” They worked in Los Angeles at the Motown studios and Crystal Sound Recording with a cast of unimpeachable session players. On acoustic piano was Caston himself. “Leonard played on all of the things he participated in as a writer,” said Wilson. For his part, Eddie recorded his vocals in Detroit, where he was still living.
'SOMEHOW WE LOST IT IN THE MIX'
Yet “Keep On Truckin’” was not chosen as the lead single when Eddie Kendricks was released on May 18, 1973. At the time, Wilson was acquainted with an up-and-coming Capitol Records attorney, a future bright light of the R&B business. “I remember having Larkin Arnold come by the house to listen, and the song we were really high on was ‘Darling Come Back Home.’ He said, ‘That’s a Number One record,’ and we loved it. But I guess somehow we lost it in the mix.”
On the album, “Keep On Truckin’” ran for a high-octane eight minutes. When drafted as a single, it was spread over both sides, with a 3:21 edit on the top. “In those days,” Wilson told me, “we just knew instinctively that AM radio was not going to play a song more than 3:30, 3:45.” The edit swiftly steered Kendricks to the peak of the Billboard and Cash Box pop charts that November – the first time he’d set foot there since leaving the Temptations. It also helped that some of his earlier solo sides had earned him credit at the nation's discos.
To maintain Eddie’s momentum, Wilson and Caston – no novices these – had “Boogie Down” tuned up and ready. “We were basically interested in making sure that we did not lose what we had gained with ‘Keep On Truckin’,” said Frank. “We knew that they were both club records. They were groove tracks with a gospel, churchy kind of background feel. We did an awful lot in terms of just letting the background ride over the vamp, so most of these songs were half-background grooves and the other half, of course, were leads.” In early 1974, the top of the Cash Box countdown again surrendered to Eddie, although “Boogie Down” was denied equal treatment on the Billboard Hot 100. There, it stalled one slot short of Number One.
We know now that this was the career peak for the quiet one. In liner notes for the perfect assembly of the singer’s solo work – a 1998 album, The Ultimate Collection – Frank Wilson told compilation producer Harry Weinger that Kendricks’ voice eventually paid the price for years of smoking and drinking. “His attitude wasn’t healthy either; he was questioning everyone’s motives.”
At one point in 1977, the singer faced eviction from his home, with little more than $8 in his pocket. Although such misfortune was reversed a few years later by a reunion with the Temptations, and by some success with David Ruffin under the patronage of Daryl Hall & John Oates, Eddie could not return to the mountain top.
“He is shy, soft spoken and tends to remain alone, particularly when he feels he is in a bad mood,” admitted the 1970 Motown bio, before returning to the obligatory upbeat tone. “He collects record players, and plans to have a huge sound system in his home. He hopes to house this some day in a big house that also has a large swimming pool. It’s hard to say what he wants the latter for, because Eddie can’t swim.”
Music notes: all of Eddie Kendricks’ solo albums for Motown are available on streaming services, as reissued on two CD sets in 2005-2006. So are his post-Motown albums for Atlantic and Arista, and Ruffin & Kendrick, his late ’80s reunion with David.