On December 2, 1972, the Temptations earn the last of their four chart-topping hits when “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” reaches #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Over the course of their storied career, the Temptations placed 38 hit records in the pop top 40. Beyond their quantitative achievements, the Temptations also embodied the original Motown ideal that the records mattered more than the people who made them—for good and for ill. Various intrigues, upsets and tragedies saw the Temptations’ lineup change almost annually during their heyday, but the turmoil went largely unnoticed by the record-buying public. Indeed, in an era when pop groups were coming to be known as much for the personalities of their individual members as for their music, the Temptations—a group in which all five members sometimes sang lead—remained essentially unknowable other than through their incredible records.
Formed in Detroit, Michigan, in the early 1960s when members of two vocal groups called The Distants and The Primes came together as “The Elgins,” The Temptations took on the name under which they became famous shortly after signing with Berry Gordy’s fledgling Motown Records in 1961. Even as personnel shifted due to internal politics and the untimely death of one original member, Paul Williams, by suicide in 1973, the Temptations kept churning out hits well past the era when Motown first became famous for creating “The Sound of Young America.”
Indeed, The Temptations were alone among the stars that emerged from “Hitsville U.S.A.” in successfully navigating the transition from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s. They evolved from the glorious love poetry of producer-songwriter Smokey Robinson on early hits like “The Way You Do The Things You Do” (1964) and “My Girl” (1965), to the funk-fueled social commentary of producer Norman Whitfield and songwriting partner Barrett Strong on later hits like “Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)” (1970) and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” which became their final chart-topper on this day in 1972.
The Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, but the deaths in quick succession of members David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and Melvin Franklin in 1991, 1992 and 1995, respectively, leaves Otis Williams as the sole surviving member of the original Temptations lineup.