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Dennis Edwards, a Temptation who stood nine feet tall

By Leonard Pitts Jr., Tribune Content Agency on

"The first time I met Dennis Edwards, I thought he stood nine feet tall.

As I recall, it was 1977. Edwards, who died of meningitis in a Chicago hospital on Friday, a day short of his 75th birthday, strode into the Los Angeles offices of SOUL Magazine that day to give his first interview after leaving the Temptations. And I had assigned it to me.

Since replacing David Ruffin in 1968, Edwards had led the group through a period of groundbreaking creativity and commercial success that produced such iconic hits as "Cloud Nine," (Motown's first Grammy Award winner) "I Can't Get Next to You," "Psychedelic Shack," "Ball of Confusion" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." By '77, though, the group was in a period of commercial decline, and Edwards was in a mood to dish dirt on the way out the door.

In our interview, he blasted founding members Otis Williams and the late Melvin Franklin as old guys too set in their ways to change with the times. I lapped it up as kittens do cream and published it under the headline: "Dennis Edwards and the Sinking of the Good Ship Temptations."

Maybe a week later, Williams and Franklin requested a meeting. It did not go well for me. They hated the headline. And who was Dennis, two years younger than Otis and Melvin, to be calling them "old guys"?

I slunk out of there knowing they were right on all counts. Yeah, the headline was unfair. And I should have challenged Edwards' cutting remarks more than I did. At a minimum, I should have given them a chance to rebut. That's Journalism 101.

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The only excuse I have is that I was 19. And it was Dennis Edwards. And he was nine feet tall.

You have to understand that when I was a kid, there were three men I wanted to be: Little Joe Cartwright, Joe Mannix and Dennis Edwards. I loved them all for their sleek, masculine confidence, that sense they exuded of being always in charge, never unequal to any situation, ever cool.

But neither the TV cowboy nor the TV detective ever sang like Edwards did. When David Ruffin, he of the plaintive, anguished tenor, was banished from the Tempts in 1968, Edwards, a preacher's son from Alabama, was the right man in the right place at the right time.

R&B, like all other popular music, was at a pivot point, the starry-eyed sweetness of the early '60s giving way to a sound that was harsher and more propulsive, driven by sharp congas, ropey basslines and angular, wah-wah guitars. Songs about boys meeting girls were largely replaced by songs about what it meant to be alive at a time of war, protest, assassination, drugs and sexual revolution.

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