Listen to this track by five man Motown pop soul institution The Temptations. It’s “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”, a smash hit single as taken from the group’s 1971 record The Sky’s The Limit. The song was a return to form for the group, hearkening back to their earlier Motown singles in the 1960s after a period of putting out records that featured a grittier and more updated sound. At the same time, this single was the end of an era, too.
A big part of this was the departure of lead singer Eddie Kendricks soon after this song was released, leaving the group to strike out on his own in the much the same way that his former colleague David Ruffin had done. This song was Kendricks’ swan song with the group, and he made it a doozy; a virtual solo performance with his fellow Temptations providing an empathetic Greek chorus behind a tragic narrative. Even his nemesis in the group at the time Otis Williams had to admit that Kendricks knocked it out of the park on this cut, one that would become one of their best-loved songs.
This tune would become a signature song for the Temps, and inspired a number of cover versions including one by the Rolling Stones that had that them covering a Motown hit well after their habit of doing so on one of their albums was long behind them. This song is notable for another reason, too; it’s emotional complexity as balanced with how relatable it is.
That complexity and accessibility balance is wonderfully matched by the textural variety found in the arrangement of this tune. The Funk Brothers were on hand to provide the rhythm track as was per usual on a Motown cut. But, there are little flourishes on this song that make it stand out, including the warm marimba that punctuates its mellow sonic palette. This is not to mention the cinematic strings that raise the whole song into the stratosphere, proving to be a very effective counterpoint to Kendricks’ keening lead vocal that belies the central tension to be found in the narrative.
The song was kept on the shelf by writers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong during the time that the Temptations were scoring hits in their psychedelic soul phase of the late 1960s. At the time, this song was probably looked upon as something of an anomaly with a distinct lack of raw urban imagery of cloud nines or funky countercultural psychedelic shacks. Fuzz guitar and wah-wah pedals, popping percussion, and loping bass lines just weren’t applicable on this tune. This song was more a throwback to their original sound. It was certainly a welcome one to those fans looking to reconnect with a more straightforward narrative, and just in time for the Philly soul sound that made string-laden and cinematic balladry into a bankable prospect once again by the early seventies. “Just My Imagination …” fit right into that milieu. Although in saying that, all is not what it appears on this song as it goes along. As we listen, we find that there is an ingredient that had been at the root of many classic Motown songs by this time, which is that of heartbreak and anguish under a thin veneer of happiness and contentment.
“Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” is familiar tale of unrequited love which presents another of its strengths; that pretty much everyone can relate to it. Instead of being a song of bitterness or delusion, it provides an element that makes it extraordinary; self awareness and resignation. As rich as the fantasy to be found in this song is, the narrator is no fool in love. He knows the predicament he’s in. In reality, she doesn’t even know him despite his declarations of love and his detailed plans of a life together with her. It’s just his imagination running away with him, and making his awareness of that fact the source of his anguish.
Kendricks plays this musical situation as cool as can be rather than going too far over the top, which was one direction he could have gone. The song is better served by his choice to sing in a tone that exudes contentment, even though the middle-eight section in particular reveals the cold truth of the matter that the narrator’s love is out of his reach, and in fact does not exist the way he has described in the verses. This doesn’t affect the tone of Kendricks’ vocal part at all, and its the contrast between the narrative and his delivery that really makes this song into the classic that it is, full of quiet suffering while the strings hold down the more dramatic elements that the song also offers.
In this song, there is no happy ending. There is just a quiet and canny acceptance of a painful situation for which there is no clear resolution.
For more about this song and the story about how it was recorded, take a look at this article from The Guardian which outlines just that.