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"I also had the idea for 'I Wish It Would Rain' -- I sort of stole that opening piano melody from Dionne Warwick's 'Message to Michael' -- so I met with Eddie Holland, who was now the A&R director, and got a contract. And Norman Whitfield, who was a producer at Motown -- I'd known him for years -- asked me what I had cooking. I showed him 'Grapevine,' and being a very funky guy, he could hear where I was coming from. So he went in the studio, struck up the band, and cut the track. Then we sat down and wrote the lyrics. Same thing with 'I Wish It Would Rain,' but we called Roger Penzabene in to help us with the lyrics on that."
So you weren't just Norman Whitfield's designated lyricist? "No, I'm a keyboard player," says Strong. "I wrote lyrics, too, but it was all pretty much a collaborative process between Norman and myself. See -- and this is the thing that nobody really ever talks about -- we had great musicians. You could give them just a little idea, and they could make it a big idea. Earl Van Dyke, Benny Benjamin, James Jamerson, Eddie 'Bongo' Brown and all those other guys. That's who they should do a movie on. Those people. If it wasn't for them, you wouldn't be talking to me."
Strong's a generous guy. He was in the room while the basic tracks as well as the
vocal tracks were recorded, but Norman Whitfield received sole production credit for the sessions. Ask him why, and Strong simply says, "Norman was -- and still is -- a great producer. He knew how to get the best out of everybody."
Ask him about Parliament-Funka-
delic leader George Clinton's claims that Whitfield used to tape P-Funk's performances at the Twenty Grand club and turn their riffs into Temptations hits, and Strong says, "Yeah, well, people say a lot of things -- and I don't know anything about that -- but I know whenever Norman showed up at the studio with whatever he had, it worked."
"Grapevine" was first recorded by the Miracles, then Marvin Gaye, then the Isley Brothers, then -- in its first hit incarnation -- by Gladys Knight & the Pips. "The Gladys Knight version was a souped-up, totally different thing," Strong shrugs. "That was us trying to do something like what was happening at the time. The Marvin Gaye version was the original arrangement. That's the way I sang it to Norman. But Marvin just opened up and became a totally different guy altogether when he was singing that. He put so much into it."
Strong whistles softly. "You could just tell it was a hit record. It had such a soulful feel. Everybody on the session was moving around to the music, getting into it. Everybody -- the musicians themselves, yeah -- had something they wanted to try, and you can tell when they get that involved, they feel something."
What about those groundbreaking Temptations sessions, like "I Can't Get Next to You"? "The music was changing then," says Strong. "The times were changing. It was going into the psychedelic era. And we had a different singer [Dennis Edwards replaced David Ruffin] with a different type of voice, so we had to find something to accommodate him."
What about Al Green's astonishing slow-drag version of the tune? "I love it," says Strong. "It was a changeup, just like when Paul Young did [the Marvin Gaye B-side] 'Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home).' I didn't see that particular song as a sad song, but that's the way he felt it, so it worked. I was shocked, though, 'cause I never thought anybody ever heard Marvin's version.
"As far as 'Cloud Nine,' 'Psychedelic Shack,' 'Ball of Confusion' go, all that was just a sign of the times. Seems like those were the only things that were righteous enough to write about. Things like 'Papa Was a Rollin' Stone.' These things happened in a lot of people's lives. Living in the ghetto, they had a father that sort of just hung out -- he's home every now and then or whenever -- and we could see these things happening, write about them, and people would say, 'Wow, that happened in my life.'
"With 'War,' I had a cousin who was a paratrooper that got hurt pretty bad in Vietnam. I also knew a guy who used to sing with Lamont Dozier that got hit by shrapnel and was crippled for life. You talk about these things with your families when you're sitting at home, and it inspires you to say something about it.
"When Bruce Springsteen did 'War,' it was real exciting to me, 'cause he felt what I felt. The feeling, the way he got into it, it was something different, but it was good. He's one of my favorite singers, no matter what he sings."
What about those seriously weird chunks o' psychedelic funk you cut with the Undisputed Truth -- "Smiling Faces Sometimes," which was a huge hit, and "You Make Your Own Heaven and Hell Right Here on Earth," which wasn't?