Happy 45th Anniversary to Eddie Kendricks’ second studio album People…Hold On, originally released in May of 1972.
In his eleven-year tenure with the Temptations, Eddie Kendricks’ creamy falsetto was one of the distinctive hallmarks of the group’s first-class, debonair sound. His delightful buoyancy and tender vulnerability oozed firmly over timeless staples like “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Get Ready,” “You’re My Everything,” and “The Girl’s Alright With Me.” The Temptations’ mercurial standing as soul music’s definitive male vocal group couldn’t be denied either, as their sheer versatility and unrivaled impact was felt everywhere.
However, by the late 1960s, internal drama, personnel changes, and business pursuits that unfolded within the group began to take its toll on Kendricks, resulting in his exit to pursue a solo career. The Temptations’ 1971 hit “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” marked his swansong from the group that positioned him as a charming, sweet-toned heartthrob, while pushing his compelling voice to the forefront. For many observers and admirers alike, it all proved to be a bold, yet dubious move.
His aptly titled debut, 1971’s All By Myself was a classy, albeit guarded pop-soul effort, logically affixed on the Temptations’ signature pop-soul mold. Mature and supple, the album stretched the gossamer whispers of “Just My Imagination” across a soulful showcase of sumptuous come-ons (“Can I,” his grand cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We,” and “I Did It All for You”), weepy lovelorn stunners (“This Used to Be the Home of Johnnie Mae” and “It’s So Hard for Me to Say Goodbye”), and snappy proto-funk steamers (“Something’s Burning” and “Let’s Go Back to Day One”). It was the sound of a suave stylist searching for his footing and grappling with his imminent break from the Tempts.
While its intent for solidifying his solo career was abundantly clear, Kendricks and production demigod Frank Wilson weren’t acclimated to the stylistic transitions that were surfacing under Motown’s fold. Their approach echoed the fabled label’s “Sound of Young America” playbook, right during its final gasps in Detroit.
However, change was on the horizon.
As the early 1970s rolled around, the Black Power Movement moved to the center of the black political base, underscoring a period of determination and pride. It was a time when the politically active resisted the white gaze that dictated black possibility and fueled racial antagonism. They fought for their own freedom as well as demanded full acceptance and respect in society. The movement not only intensified political ideology, but style and art too. Many blacks withdrew their conservative styles, in favor of embracing their natural selves. Afrocentric fashion stood as a statement, reflecting blacks’ uninhibited pride and sociopolitical views. Black art voiced the political frustrations and complexities of the changing times through poetry, literature, stage, and dance. Black popular music was hugely impactful, with several artists using their music as a response to the shifts and turmoil that occurred on the national front.
Ambitious and deeply personal artistic statements heavily engulfed black pop in the early 1970s. Barely a year before Kendricks released his sophomore album, 21-year-old Stevie Wonder was breaking free from Motown’s pop machinations with Where I’m Coming From in April 1971, igniting his cherished adult period. A month later, Marvin Gaye encapsulated his personal struggles and societal philosophies in the immortal concept album, What’s Going On, captivating the world.
Kendricks struck a similar chord with 1972’s People...Hold On, exerting his tremendous inspiration and concern for the unprecedented promise and possibility unfurling in black America. The album’s provocative cover, shot by noted Philadelphia soul singer-songwriter Weldon Arthur McDougal III, reconceived the iconic, Eldridge Cleaver-shot portrait of Black Panther leader Dr. Huey P. Newton. Where Newton sat in a wicker chair, wearing a direct gaze into camera, with a spear and rifle in his hands, Kendricks sits on an ornate African-styled throne, gripping a spear. He wears a dapper tuxedo, with subtle calmness in his demeanor. On the back cover, Kendricks has his arms folded, with assured warmth. He’s surrounded by an array of beautiful brothers and sisters, wearing African attire with tribal percussion on the floor. The symbolism in these stunning photographs reaffirms one vital concept: the black experience is resiliently beautiful and interconnected, in all its glory.
On the album, Kendricks’ knack for employing varied emotionality in a song reaches a scorching height. Counterbalanced between delicate balladry and storming funk, he expands his position as a lover-man crooner, by dipping firmly into progressive conscious soul. His noted Washington, D.C.-based band, the Young Senators, also dominate the album, carving rhythmically complex, yet hard-driving grooves that burn with esotericism and exuberance.
Collaborators Frank Wilson and Leonard Caston Jr. eschew the subtle pleasures that defined All By Myself and move toward a grittier, yet adventurous edge throughout People. It kicks off on a bright note with the album’s second single “If You Let Me” (US pop #77, R&B #35). The song retains a summery, mid-tempo groove that finds Kendricks jubilantly crooning in his mild tenor, devoting wondrous promises to his lover. The ultra-electric “Let Me Run into Your Lonely Heart” pushes the funk pulse into high-gear. Crackling with a neck-breaking backbeat, tantalizing trumpet charts, and swarms of off-kilter clavinets, Kendricks’ unique voice alternates back and forth between his laid-back falsetto and esteemed tenor. The sacred intensity of “Day by Day” puts you in the center of a Sunday morning church service, with its rousing piano and organ work, underscored by the conviction of Kendricks’ beautiful falsetto.
The album’s most recognizable number, “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” (US pop #87, R&B #13), is an expansive, seven-minute workout with proto-disco and funk sensibilities that predated disco by a couple of years. Powered by a gusty R&B groove, aided by the backing band, the Young Senators and Eddie Bongo Brown’s delectable conga work, “Girl” features biting commentary directed at the burgeoning feminist movements of the 1970s. Kendricks sings its most defining line, “Now I’m for women’s rights, I just want equal nights,” which would be deemed as a highly controversial sentiment if released today for its misogynist slant.
Several historians have cited “Girl” as a contender for the first true extended club single. There were records that were used in the past for underground gay and black clubs, but the structure of this song essentially set a blueprint for lengthier twelve-inch versions of songs that featured extended instrumental breaks and dubs in the 1970s and beyond. “Girl” has also been noted as a precursor to Kendricks’ signature hit, “Keep on Truckin’,” an irresistible funk and jazz jam that topped the charts in the autumn of 1973. Two decades later, neo-soul god D’Angelo famously covered “Girl” for the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s 1996 Million Man March-based film, Get on the Bus.
The sociopolitical motif of the album is embellished with the hopeful “Someday We’ll Have a Better World” and its esoteric counterpart, “My People…Hold On.” Where “Someday” is a mid-tempo soul number that finds Kendricks pleading for peaceful coexistence in a turbulent universe, “My People” is cut from a totally different cloth. Laced with heavy West African drums, simmering congas, and a low-key funk groove under a bed of overdubbed chants, “People” explodes with Kendricks’ fiery call for the downtrodden black community to rise up from its turmoil and unite. It’s stunningly avant-garde, in that it captures an artist bridging his cultural and musical language to its historical lineage, while manifesting those sensibilities in a daringly atmospheric epic. The song’s experimental and sociopolitical value caught the ears of several hip-hop and soul heads three decades later, when it was sampled by the likes of Madlib and Erykah Badu for her own “My People” from her 2008 politically-driven masterpiece, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War).
Romance takes on several colors and strides throughout the remainder of People. The jittery “Date with the Rain” skirts on swing jazz blending with an insistent dance groove. Kendricks’ timeless falsetto caresses the song’s complex chord changes, while he croons on the loneliness of a man after his lover has dumped him. The album’s lead single, “Eddie’s Love” (US pop #77, R&B #35), features an acid-drenched guitar lick anchoring the sunny side-up love fest, with Kendricks devoting his list of whimsical desires and promises to his lover. The cosmopolitan soul of “I’m On the Sideline” focuses primarily on the longing for love, while the reflective “Just Memories” flirts with sophisticated grandiosity in its orchestral arrangements and electronic ease from Cal Davis’ moog synthesizer gliding over the pop-minded melody.
Upon its initial release in the spring of 1972, People…Hold On charted moderately well, peaking on Billboard’s R&B chart at #13, while bowing at #131 on its pop chart (remarkably lower from the sturdy commercial showings of his debut album, All By Myself). Certainly the album helped raise the profile of Kendricks’ early solo career. Thanks largely to the underground success of “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” and “Eddie’s Love, it marked his ascension as an established entity in the soul landscape.
It also represented something of a departure that should’ve heralded a new artistic trajectory for Kendricks, but Motown didn’t supply the pop muscle for a monument of this stature and his storied career. The label itself was in transition, as its headquarters moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. Kendricks had no intentions for building on People’s bold sonic and musical instincts either. All of this resulted in Kendricks’ collaborators scaling back his sound with a slicker, heavily orchestrated style that greatly informed Philadelphia soul. It became a holding pattern for the remainder of his solo output going forward, as he would never cut anything as esoteric and progressive as People again. A year after its release, Kendricks struck pop gold with the aforementioned “Keep on Truckin’” and 1974’s “Boogie Down,” ushering in the forthcoming glitz of the disco era.
It’s startling that a forward-thinking masterpiece like People…Hold On isn’t mentioned in the same breath of equally vital soul landmarks from that era. While Kendricks never cut anything mediocre during his solo run on Motown, the freewheeling eclecticism and visceral insight on People towers above much of his work. Without a doubt, it’s his greatest album and one of the best things Motown ever released.
Let it blow your mind now and forevermore.