It was surreal. Here I was looking over at one of the giants of the music industry, a legendary singer I had admired for years. As he cued me, I took the shortest of moments to catch my breath and then let the music lead the piano man.
Leon Russell’s lyrics flowed from his mouth like champagne from the vine, each audience member launched in to a dream sequence of his or her own, while listening to a melodic narrator extraordinaire.
The heart of a true artist holds within it the capacity to transport a receptive soul. That was Dennis Edwards, my singing influence, my brother in spirit, my friend.
Last week the world quietly lost an icon of the music world. I had the privilege of touring with Dennis in the 1970s, when he sang with the legendary Motown group, the Temptations. I also worked with him in the studio and heard his performances up close and personal, accompanying him as part of the band. He was simply the best singer I have ever heard.
Mega producer-arranger-writer Benjamin Wright brought me on board with the group and put me together with those I aspired to be like. In Russell’s stirring “Song for You,” Dennis would convey the meaning as no one else could.
“And I know your image of me is what I hope to be…” Dennis achieved these words in real life, and I continue to strive to be able to someday say the same.
An unforgettable moment that took place in my hometown of Chicago occurred when at a concert Dennis and his fellow Temptations introduced my parents and asked them to stand. A simple gesture really, but so deeply touching in transmitting how true friends rise to family.
On one occasion, when racial tension reared its ugly head, my Temptations family surrounded me and safeguarded me from harm. No words were needed to solidify a lifelong bond.
Dennis was a lighthearted calming presence, who made the hard work of creating music look so very easy. I remember when he was in the studio, laying down a vocal track on a song of mine that he had graciously agreed to record. In order to put the musicians and engineers at ease, he made up some comedic lyrics as he acquainted himself with the melody. Music and laughter oftentimes have a beautiful common thread of joy, and Dennis knew just how to weave the tapestry.
The circle of soul widened as Dennis’s future wife, Ruth Pointer, showed what light looks like from the inside out. Together they hit all the right notes. Through Dennis’s generous nature, my musical opportunities extended, and I was able to work professionally with the Pointer Sisters and their brilliant young bass player at the time, Jaco Pastorius. One more humbling and unforgettable memory etched in ebony and ivory.
Dennis’s individuality as a singer sprang to a great extent from his Christian background. He sang as a child in his minister father’s Alabama church. After his family moved to Detroit, he became the church’s choir director. Because his parents forbid his participation in secular music, he pursued a religious vocal career path and as a teenager subsequently joined the gospel group, The Mighty Clouds of Joy.
In the late 1960s, around the time when Dennis was headed toward a solo career, the Temptations parted ways with their lead singer, and Motown Records reached out to Dennis to take the spot. Destiny on full display.
Dennis was one of two artists that dramatically altered the style of the Temptations and changed the history of modern popular music in the process. His contribution to the music world coincided with a sea change in the way the Temptations created records.
The metamorphosis of the group during this period was tantamount to when The Beatles recorded “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The powerful gritty gospel tones of Dennis had combined with an up and coming producer named Norman Whitfield, resulting in a new eclectic sound.
Dennis’s unmistakable voice was featured in a string of hit records that remain the personal favorites of so many to this day, including “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedelic Shack,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” and “Shakey Ground.” Two of these tunes, “Cloud Nine” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” were awarded Grammys. Quite a legacy.
I can see Dennis right now performing on Heaven’s stage with my fellow band members, famed bass player James Jamerson, Jr. and legendary guitarist David Williams, as the words of the song he sang every performance ring on into eternity:
“And when my life is over, remember when we were together, we were alone, and I was singing my song for you…”