Dub der-nern, dub der-nern… That little guitar lick is not remotely emphatic. It’s not loud, not heavy. There is nothing about it that is gimmicky, and it uses just two notes of a major scale. Yet the moment you hear it, you just know what the song is. It’s “My Girl” – and it’s wonderful.
A keystone soul song
“My Girl,” written by Smokey Robinson and Ronnie White from The Miracles, and introduced by that beautiful guitar phrase from Motown session player Robert White, is one of the keystone soul records of the 60s. It made The Temptations, a gifted vocal quintet that had been cutting records since 1961, major stars. Before “My Girl,” the group had scored just one placing in the US singles Top 20. After “My Girl,” they scored a further 23. It was their first single to feature David Ruffin as lead vocalist, who had joined the group in January 1964.
The Temptations’ founder and last original member, baritone singer Otis Williams, remembered: “Our real big one, our first million-seller, was “My Girl,” which came out in ’65. The way that came about was that we had recently appeared at the 20 Grand [nightclub] in Detroit, and Smokey Robinson of The Miracles saw David Ruffin sing a tune by The Drifters [“Under The Boardwalk”] and he was astounded by the way he handled himself when it came to the lead vocal. So Smokey came up with a tune, ‘My Girl’.”
A song that had hit written all over it
Smokey saw Ruffin as an untapped major resource for The Temptations. He wrote “My Girl” as a kind of answer record to his own song “My Guy”, which had been a smash for Mary Wells in 1964, and its lyrics were inspired by his wife, Claudette, who also sang in The Miracles.
Their song had “hit!” written all over it, and there was a chance Smokey could have kept it for his own group, but he took it to The Temptations. He already knew how well they handled his material, having written for them since 1963, and their biggest hit so far, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” was written by Smokey and another Miracles member, Bobby Rogers.
“We were at the Apollo in New York and Smokey came and ran the track down and we rehearsed it,” recalls Otis Williams. ‟At the time when he ran the track down, I said, ‘That sounds like it might be something.’ But it really didn’t hit me until we came all the way home [to Detroit], recorded it, and then Smokey put the strings on it. We sat there listening to the playback, and it really sounded like a No. 1. But, you know, it’s very seldom that you can predict a No.1 tune. But at that time, we really felt it would be more of a record that would be a No. 1 than the songs we had recorded before then. And luckily enough, it was.”
Great tenderness, controlled power
Robinson’s understanding of what David Ruffin was able to deliver was key to the song’s success: capable of great vocal tenderness, yet with impressive controlled power, “My Girl,” released on December 21, 1964 enabled him to deploy both aspects of his singing talent. Billboard rated the song as the tenth biggest hit of 1965, and it was a pivotal track on group’s magical The Temptations Sing Smokey, their second album and an all-time Motown classic.
“My Girl” was far from done. Otis Redding gave it a rawer approach and his version made No. 11 in the UK. The Rolling Stones cut it in 1965 in a version released on 1967’s Flowers compilation. Al Green tackled it on his first album for the Hi label, Green Is Blues (1969). The Whispers scored a hit with a disco version in 1979. These are serious artists, and there are more than 150 other recordings of the song, but the poise and soul of The Temptations’ version still reigns supreme. Otis Williams’ original assessment of “My Girl” was right. It really is something.