The Temptations: “Law of the Land” (Masterpiece, 1973)
Last week, we lost both Richard Street and Damon Harris of the Temptations. Both were members of the group during the early 70s, when Norman Whitfield used them as one of his vehicles for psychedelic soul experimentation, and they can be heard trading lines on classics including “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)” and “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On.”
Harris was brought into the group to replace Eddie Kendricks, whose distinctive falsetto was a centerpiece of some of the Tempts’ biggest hits, and he stayed for four years, long enough to make a big mark. It must have been amazing for him-he’d started his career singing in a group called the Young Tempts, a Temptations tribute, and he was the kid of the group nearly ten years younger than the rest. He was born Otis Harris, but changed his name to Damon to join the group—Otis Williams wanted to be the only Otis.
Street joined in 1971, replacing Paul Williams, whose deteriorating health and spiraling addiction forced him out of music and to a tragic early death by his own hand. He’d been with Motown for a while by that point as a member of the Monitors and a staffer in Quality Control, and believe it or not, he was the first native-born Detroiter to sing with the Temptations. Everyone else had been born in the South.
While Harris’ tenure with the group was brief but brilliant, Street remained through 1993, staying through some of the group’s leanest years after joining them near their peak.
By most reports, the Temptations didn’t really enjoy singing Norman Whitfield’s message tracks—the longer-tenured members especially preferred singing harmony, and Kendricks left the group over the direction Whitfield took them in. You wouldn’t naturally guess that from listening to the way they attack storming funk numbers like “Law of the Land,” and this phase of the group’s career was arguably more influential than the pre-“Cloud Nine” string of harmony-laden hits they had in the mid-60s.
Harris had some minor success in the late 70s singing with Philly soul outfit Impact, then left music for a decade to go to college. He and Street were reunited in the 90s singing together in a Temptations revue that toured separately from the official group. Harris also founded his own cancer charity after being diagnosed with the prostate cancer that finally took his life last month. He was 62. Street was 70.