The Temptations on The Ed Sullivan Show

The revered Motown group appeared on famous TV show multiple times during its run. Here are some of the greatest moments.

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The Temptations on The Ed Sullivan Show
The Temptations - Screenshot: The Ed Sullivan Show

The Ed Sullivan Show was one of the most important shows on US TV throughout the 1960s. For musicians, a spot on the Sunday night showcase was confirmation that you had made it. For a select few like The Beatles, it could catapult an artist to superstardom. In 1964, The Supremes became the first group from Detroit’s Motown label to appear on the show. The Temptations had their first big hit, “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” that same year (on the Gordy Records subsidiary), though it wasn’t until May of 1967 that the Tempts did their first performance for Sullivan. This left The Temptations a backlog of popular numbers to expose to a larger audience, all of which had originally charted for them between 1964 to 1966. It’s no surprise, then, that their first appearance was a medley of some of their best to that point: “All I Need,” “My Girl” and “I Know I’m Losing You.”

Listen to the best of The Temptations on Apple Music and Spotify.

As the 60s went on, Motown changed in the same ways the country changed. The label was eager to stay relevant and Motown songwriter Norman Whitfield was excited to push The Temptations in a more socially conscious direction. Whitfield and Barrett Strong had co-written Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” and its success gave them the liberty to stretch out when writing for other acts on the label. Indeed, by 1969 the transformation of The Temptations was complete, with Whitfield and Strong collaborating on a trilogy of psychedelic Temptations albums Cloud Nine, Puzzle People, and Psychedelic Shack that would keep them artistically alongside what The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix were up to during the same period. All you need to do is take a look at some of their performances on The Ed Sullivan Show, with its brilliant lighting and set design, to see their transition to full mod and psychedelic color.

What follows is a run-down of some of those performances, a sampling of the best Ed Sullivan moments in The Temptations’ incredible run.

“Get Ready” – January 31, 1971

The Temptations "Get Ready" on The Ed Sullivan Show

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Behind the scenes of his show, Ed Sullivan had been bucking “prevailing wisdom” by providing more visual opportunities for African-Americans on television, going back to 1948. Ed had fought off sponsors who would have preferred the program be segregated… his answer; “They’re going on the show. If you want to get the hell out, fine.”* “The cat was hip,” said ’50s R&B raver Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. “Nobody else had tried it. Sullivan had the same instincts as Alan Freed… black, white, or purple, it didn’t matter. All these guys cared about was: will it draw.”

When The Temptations arrived at the show in 1971, only a few months before it left the airwaves, they still had a backlog of hits they hadn’t performed on the show. That’s why they had no problem digging into their early catalogue for a performance of 1966’s “Get Ready.” The tune was originally recorded when Smokey Robinson was still working closely with the group, and the rockin’ dance groover has a bass riff along the lines of what The Beatles were doing with “Day Tripper” and “I Feel Fine,” and similar to riffs The Rolling Stones used throughout “Satisfaction” – itself based on Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancin’ in the Street.”

“I Can’t Get Next to You” – September 28, 1969

The Temptations "I Can't Get Next To You" on The Ed Sullivan Show

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During the summer of 1968, Dennis Edwards of The Contours (“Do You Love Me”) replaced David Ruffin, joining with Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, and Otis Williams in a second rock-solid lineup of The Temptations. “I Can’t Get Next to You” was the lead track on their 1969 Puzzle People LP, a record where you could really hear the full influence of Sly & the Family Stone and Funkadelic on Norman Whitfield. By this time, Whitfield had now fully replaced Smokey Robinson as the primary writer and producer of The Temptations. The more aggressive sound and stark lyrical presentation was still very much The Temptations via the clear and expressive vocal arrangements… something the group had become one of the best in the world at doing.

Something to watch for here: The Temptations’ orchestrated dance moves. Originally put together in “street” fashion by group member Paul Williams, the group had gotten better and better with the help of choreographer Cholly Atkins. This sense of style was a perfect fit for Sullivan’s Sunday night showcase. Sullivan was an old-school entertainment reporter and had grown up watching vaudeville, so he undoubtedly appreciated the hard work that went into these routines.

“Cloud Nine” – February 2, 1969

The Temptations "Cloud Nine" on The Ed Sullivan Show

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Many will recall how, in 1967, the censors didn’t want The Doors to sing the word “higher” during their Sullivan performance of “Light My Fire.” When Jim Morrison sang the word anyway, the band were never invited back. The same type of censoring took place when The Temptations came to perform “Cloud Nine,” but the re-arranged version managed to turn on even more people to the song during controversial times on this mass, national scale. The establishment was hearing it. Those who simply enjoyed it for the first time on TV would be hearing the lyrics better on their local radio dial the next day.

“Psychedelic Shack” – April 5, 1970

The Temptations "Psychedelic Shack" on The Ed Sullivan Show

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In 1998 I had the opportunity to interview the owner of the actual “Psychedelic Shack,” which in reality was a nightclub called Maverick’s Flat on Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles. The Temptations played the club’s opening night in January of 1966. Founder John Daniels best explains the rising inter-racial egalitarianism The Temptations depict specifically in the song. “I had a good friend, Jim Brown, who was a superstar football player for the Cleveland Browns, and he put up part of the money for the club,” Daniels recalled. “He used his celebrity/superstar status to draw the Beverly Hills crowd in. Maverick’s was an instant success from the first night (with The Temptations). Steve McQueen used to love it. You’d find Marlon Brando here… Muhammad Ali, Jim (Brown) used to carry him around like he was a kid. Lew Alcindor, who became Kareem Abdul Jabbar, would be out in the middle of the dance floor, head almost touching the ceiling. Rosalind Russell used to love to come in and sit on the pillows. Then you had The Rolling Stones and The Mamas & The Papas… Norman Whitfield hung out here a lot. In fact, one of the songs he wrote was directly inspired by Maverick’s, ‘Psychedelic Shack.’ He stood right downstairs and told me one day, he said ‘Man… this is like, kind of a Psychedelic Shack!’”

“Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” – January 31, 1971

The Temptations "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)" on The Ed Sullivan Show

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Between “Psychedelic Shack” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” came a hit 45 “Ball of Confusion.” The song epitomized The Temptations’ style of social commentary during this Norman Whitfield period of the group.

The Temptations’ lyrics were always written and arranged vocally in such a way that it would be hard to ignore them, complemented by a hip form of interpretive dance. It is to the credit of The Ed Sullivan Show directing and camera staff that the lens always captured whatever individual happened to be singing a lead at any given moment, which changes often – even with “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).” The Ed Sullivan Show ended on March 28, 1971, long enough to capture this sterling performance of the song, which was released in January of 1971 and hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 that March.

Listen to the best of The Temptations on Apple Music and Spotify.

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