The Temptations – Ain’t Too Proud to Beg (1966, Gordy Records)
Why It’s Perfect: The arrangement and the vocals. Seems ludicrously simple, something that could be said of any song, but in this case it’s even more true than usual. On the page Ain’t Too Proud to Beg is a strong track but not necessarily a great one, or even a standout given the volume of quality product rolling out of the pop assembly-line that was Motown Records in its prime. In fact, the Motown braintrust twice passed on the tune before the maniacally driven composer/producer Norman Whitfield finally struck true with the now-famous third recording. As virtually everyone who has ever reviewed this single likes to point out, you know it’s gonna be a great one within the first fifteen seconds. It’s like listening to a well-oiled steam engine readying to leave the station, wheels, axels and cymbals finding a steady rhythm before the whole apparatus inevitably chugs into snare-driven motion. Combined with that sleek, percussive piano riff and some horn stabs worthy of the JB’s, you’ve got a pretty sweet chrome chassis that is an absolute joy to ride. It’s the prototypical swinging Detroit soul rhythm. Ain’t Too Proud to Beg is a track consciously written in response to the revolutionary funky soul of James Brown, and of the Temptations only David Ruffin had the raw, edgy pipes to do such a propulsive track justice. Just listen to the grain in his voice on that first verse:
“I know you wanna leave me
But I refuse to let you go
If I have to beg and plead for your sympathy
I don’t mind ’cause you mean that much to me…”
The song works as a narrative because Ruffin sells what could be a bit of pantywaist mewling as strong, masculine need. If this were modern indie rock, the guy would just come off as crying into his latte because his girl left him for Connor Oberst. At best, it might be ironic. Ruffin though, straining a step above his range throughout, may be willing to say please, but you know he knows his girl ain’t going nowhere as long as he wants her. There is no question of a woman leaving a man this passionate. Credit producer Whitfield for realizing this and downplaying the other Temptations’ backing vocals, not to mention the swelling strings which skirt the edges of the sonic frame. It is only the close listener (and last.fm tells me I’ve listened to it 32 times in the past week, so trust me I count) who appreciates just what fine work the superb Motown session musicians (A.K.A. The Funk Brothers) do on the deceptively spare verses. There is some sexy little percussion (bongos?) and a quirky bass figure lurking under the pensive horn during the final verse, and the way it comes together to keep the foot tapping steadily between the ecstatic choruses… it’s just magic.
Defining Moment: The part where The Big Chill brought the song back to prominence, which (I would argue) lead directly to Rick Astley’s abominable 1988 cover version. Give that version a listen to see just what happens when you strip a good song of everything that made its original performance memorable. That amazing moment when our desperate gent howls “Let your friiiiiends laugh, even this I can stand”? Yeah, it is possible for that to suck.
Other Great Songs by The Temptations: Other great songs by, arguably, one of the top five soul groups ever? That’s like saying “I like the sun, are there any other stars you’d recommend?” Anyway, topping the list would be all-time classics like My Girl, Papa Was a Rolling Stone and Get Ready, but no household should be without at least a decent singles compilation. They’ve been called The Beatles of soul, and while that appellation isn’t really an accurate comparison they were at least similar in magnitude, which is a high compliment indeed.
(Also, bonus, this week’s Perfect Pop Singles has shattered my previous mark for egregious italics abuse (previous record holder: 12th grade history essay on Tsar Nicholas II). Blame Ruffin!)