The Temptations (a Biography) by Mark Ribowsky


Technically, the title of the book is The Troubled Lives and Enduring Soul of The Temptations – Ain’t Too Proud To Beg. No clue why the author decided to make the title so damn long, nor why my webmaster stuck me with a blog format that gave me such a finite character limit. I’ll have to talk to both of them about that later.

At any rate, I’d never heard of the author Mark Ribowsky prior to picking up this book, but there isn’t exactly a cornucopia of material (book-wise) out there on the subject of The Temptations, so I took a chance. I gambled and won. The book is outstanding. So much so that I finished it in record time, hardly able to put it down.

Ribowsky has a gift for storytelling, and his progression and pace of The Temptations tale was light and entertaining. Starting with Otis Williams, then Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks and Melvin Franklin (in that order), he spent just enough time introducing the players, with not a word too many. Each character was figuratively “woven” into the story chronologically, keeping it lively and interesting.

The book wound through the early years, as two groups – The Primes and The Distants – formed to become the precursor of the band we know today as The Temptations. By page 101, The Tempts original lead singer Al Bryant was out as quick as you can say Pete Best, to be replaced by the soon-to-be legendary (and more so notorious) David Ruffin. Three pages later The Tempts lineup known as “the classic five” were in the studio recording their first hit, “The Way You Do The Things You Do”.

Perhaps one of the most perfectly paced books I’ve ever tackled, the writer exhibits the skills of a master storyteller. Ribowsky moves effortlessly through the formative years, the hits, and a sprinkling of the inter-group drama without overdoing it. Even with all the infighting and Motown politics prevalent at the time, the author casually avoids any sensationalism, even when dealing with the infamous departure of Ruffin, replaced by former Contour Dennis Edwards in 1968.

Where the book excelled was in its portioning, giving each of the six primary Tempts virtually equal time. Slightly less to Dennis Edwards, but proportionate considering he was the sixth man in and perhaps a smidge more regarding Ruffin, but as the hottest of messes, this was likely necessary. Yet, Ribowsky was more than fair with Ruffin, something other biographies aren’t, particularly the suspect 1998 made-for-TV movie “The Temptations”.

I have very little critique, but much praise for Mr. Ribowsky’s writing style and tale-telling ability.  I’d might as well been told the story aloud by a master storyteller.

I do have several thoughts worth mention.  First and foremost was Ribowsky’s entertaining ability to switch to first person (a thing at which many biographers fail).  I felt I was along for the ride as he researched.  From one of Davis Ruffin’s family members literally asking for a cut, to the author’s occasional (and often skeptic) opine on something he had been told regarding an event, incident or individual, Ribowsky remained almost conversational throughout.

And then there is Ribowsky versus The Temptations made-for-TV-Movie and other silly fictions.  Kudos to the author for calling out as much fiction as there was in that sketchy TV serial, and for clearing Otis Williams of any fault involved in those fabrications.  Additionally, for doing a fine job of side-stepping nonsensical myths while even addressing others, pointing out their unlikelihood.

One little critique; I would have liked a bit more insight into Eddie Kendricks, but that may just be my being partial.

Sorry there aren’t any reveals or spoilers here.  It’s all there in the book, and as there aren’t currently an abundance of books on The Temptations, I felt lucky that one of the few that existed was written by such a skilled storyteller as Mark Ribowsky.  Read this book, it’s good.


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