The eighties may have brought changes in soul and R&B, but Motown music remained a favorite among baby boomers (the success of 1983's The Big Chill film and soundtrack proved this fact). In 1982, the Temptations returned to their original label, Motown, after a brief tenure with Atlantic; to celebrate, the then-current members reunited with three former lead singers: Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, and Dennis Edwards. Looking to make a comeback, the group teamed with a seemingly unlikely producer: Rick James, the "punk funk" artist who was then at the peak of his popularity. What emerged from this collaboration was the album Reunion and the single "Standing on the Top," a near-ten-minute funk workout that successfully updated the Temptations' sound for the 1980s generation.
James was tapped to produce the new album not only for his hitmaking prowess, but for his unique Temptations connection: he was the nephew of original member (and bass voice) Melvin Franklin. In addition, the group served as his backup singers on James' biggest hit, 1981's "Super Freak." After penning his ode to funk for the Temptations, James called them into the studio; unfortunately, the session was not without problems. As he told Musician magazine in 1983,
I gave [the Temptations] all vocal lines. I went out and sang the vocal parts of "Standing On The Top" and they took the stuff home (a cassette with Rick singing the vocals) and a couple of them came back the next day and didn't know anything. They hadn't even listened to the tune. And I was very upset. I had to give them a long speech about how this was their careers and I'm already rich and I don't need this aggravation. I get very hurt when people don't give me a hundred percent. They've sold over eighty million records and in their minds they're really big stars; they thought they could just come in the next day and knock it out, but it didn't go that way. I demand what I want, not what they want. They ended up giving me what I wanted.
While the recording session may have been difficult, the results were unmistakable. James' unique brand of funk brings out the Temptations' grittier side; indeed, this single departs sharply from the romanticism of early cuts like "My Girl" thematically and sonically. Edwards steps up to the mic first, encapsulating the song's main message. "When you're on the top / There's no place you can really go but down, down, down," Edwards snarls. In his trademark falsetto, Kendricks adds a typical pitfall of the music business: "Your agent's never there / Your manager has ripped you off and gone somewhere." As the Temps repeat the title phrase, James emphasizes the key theme, yowling the phrase "on the top getting down." Next comes the most exciting section: Ruffin assumes the lead vocal, sounding just as good as in his 1960s heyday. Considering his own sad downfall due to hubris and drugs, his rough voice delivers the lines especially convincingly: "When you're on the top / Everyone you meet they wanna be your long lost friend / They say how great you are, a superstar." So-called friends ask for handouts, Ruffin says, but once "you're on the low," these people vanish.
The rest of the track involves the Temptations responding positively to James' proclamations that "funk is here to stay," declaring "we want the funk, and nothing but the funk!" Horns blare as the bass pulses, with James' clavinet lending a dirty air to the track. These elements add up to a thoroughly fun funk workout, with James perfectly updating the Temptations' sound for a new generation. The accompanying music video further stresses the feel-good mood, with the Motown legends executing flawless choreography.
The nine minute version (available on James' album Throwin' Down) is not to be missed for its extended horn parts and fun ad libs from the Temps (specifically Kendricks). All together, "Standing on the Top" successfully argues that funk is definitely here to stay.