Dennis Edwards, the Detroit singer whose gritty, electric vocals led the Temptations into a new phase of their career, died Thursday night in a Chicago hospital. He was 74.
Edwards, who joined the iconic Motown group in 1968 in the wake of David Ruffin's firing, was the prominent voice on enduring Tempts hits such as "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World is Today)" and "Cloud Nine." He remained a staple of the core group through the 1980s, and in the '90s formed a splinter act that eventually toured as the Temptations Review Featuring Dennis Edwards.
In later years, Edwards said he was appreciative of the audiences that kept him performing regularly, and he looked back fondly on his glory years with the Temptations.
"All of a sudden, here you’re a guy on the block and you’re singing with these legends," he told the Free Press in 2016 about joining the group. "Well, you had to bring your game up. I was just so proud."
A Motown Museum representative and others close to Edwards confirmed his death. Edwards, a graduate of Detroit's Eastern High School (now Martin Luther King High), mostly recently lived in the St. Louis area, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that he died of complications from meningitis, for which he was initially hospitalized last spring.
"My heart is very heavy," Martha Reeves told the Free Press. "I feel like I've been hit by a sledgehammer."
Reeves said she and fellow Motown alumni such as the Supremes' Mary Wilson had heard that Edwards was hospitalized, but that details had been hard to come by.
"We've been praying that he made a recovery," Reeves said. "We should all be in better communication with each other, because we're a family."
Former Motown songwriter and A&R chief Mickey Stevenson recently saw Edwards during an L.A. visit. The Temptations singer "was getting a cold," but otherwise appeared normal, Stevenson said.
Through the years, Edwards was defined by his boundless energy onstage and off, Stevenson said.
"Here's a guy who could jump up, sing and dance at any given moment, like there was no end," Stevenson said. "Which was a good thing. He was always trying to keep things on the up. He was energized and kept a smile on his face."
Born in Alabama, Edwards moved with his family to Detroit while in elementary school, and honed his singing skills at the church overseen by his pastor father. Against his parents' wishes, Edwards gravitated to secular R&B music as a teen, singing around town before landing a Motown contract in the mid-'60s.
With the firing of Ruffin — then a close friend — Edwards was enlisted for the Tempts alongside Otis Williams, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin.
"When you think about the Temptations back in the day, mostly you think about David Ruffin — he’d spin the mic around, jump up and down," Edwards told the Free Press in 2016, adding with a laugh: "I told them right away: 'Look, man, I’m not that kind of dancer. But I think I can sing.'"
Working with progressive-minded producer Norman Whitfield — and taking advantage of the rougher textures offered by Edwards' baritone voice — the group expanded into edgier, psychedelic-tinged territory.
“They were trying to figure out what kind of songs to give me that would suit my voice. We cut a couple of songs, but they wanted something in another vein," Edwards said. "So they came up with ‘Cloud Nine’ … It was different for the Temptations. It was like a real soul (song), with the multi leads. That won the very first Grammy Award for Motown, believe it or not.”
The Recording Academy, which runs the Grammys, honored Edwards in a statement Friday night, celebrating his three career wins and the Temptations' Lifetime Achievement Award.
"Dennis Edwards helped define Detroit soul in the late 1960s as the music of Motown acts was becoming more socially aware," read the tribute. "Edwards will forever be remembered as one of Motown's most celebrated vocalists. He will be dearly missed, and our thoughts go out to his family and friends during this difficult time."
The Temptations' hits with Edwards quickly piled up: "I Can't Get Next to You," "Psychedelic Shack," "Ball of Confusion," "Shakey Ground" and, in 1972, the epic track regarded as one of the era's masterpieces: "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone."
"It was just really magical," Edwards recalled of the song. "Even today, everywhere I go, that's one of the most well-received songs I do. Everybody knows it."
In its full form, "Papa" and its simmering funk ran for 12 minutes; even its edited single version clocked in at more than six. Still, the track was embraced by pop radio, topping Billboard's Hot 100 and earning the Grammy for best R&B vocal performance.
"We found out: If you have a quality record, they would play it," Edwards said.
As the Tempts' lineup began to shift, Edwards was twice dismissed from the group for brief spells — in 1977 and 1984 — before permanently leaving in 1989, the year he was part of the group's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A solo career landed him three hits on the Top 40 of Billboard's R&B chart, including 1984's "Don't Look Any Further" with Siedah Garrett, which just missed the No. 1 spot.
Edwards' career was mostly dormant when he got a call in the '90s to perform at a private Detroit function. Finding himself without a band or fellow singers, he turned to longtime Detroit music-biz figure Foody Rome for an assist; Rome rounded up members of the groups Five Special and Living Proof to join Edwards onstage for the night.
That was the start of the project that became known as the Temptations Review Featuring Dennis Edwards, a name he settled on after a rights dispute with founding Temptation Otis Williams. Edwards continued to perform under that banner for the next two decades, even during his recent health battles.
"Dennis was one of those Motown artists that always came with his A game — that was his favorite phrase," said Rome, who frequently booked gigs for Edwards at local venues such as Andiamo Celebrity Showroom and Freedom Hill Amphitheatre. "That early Motown training stuck with him through the years, so it always had to be with perfection."
Edwards' distinctive voice continued to serve him well in later years.
"He had that strong first and second baritone, and it held up very well," said Rome. "He could do a falsetto scream — you're looking at him, thinking, 'Where did that come from?!' His voice was very strong.”
You can watch Dennis Edwards' interview with WKYC in the player above