Today’s song was suggested to me by a staged reading of a play I saw on Sunday: Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67 which uses very telling choices in the Motown songs of the time, including this one. At least the version of the show I saw did, and I’m assuming the songs chosen are chosen by the text. In any case, it ended with my favorite Motown song, The Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” which I already posted about. But discussion in the play about the different Motown vocalists made me feel amiss at not posting about The Temptations, particularly the version of the group with David Ruffin at the lead, as in today’s track.
“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” unlike “Reach Out” also figures prominently in The Big Chill (the soundtrack was released on Motown) when Howard (Kevin Kline) fires up his stereo with this song, does a little rock-out, then kisses the cover of The Temptations Anthology. And why not? The opening—with its angsty announcement, “I know you wanna leave me / But I refuse to let you go”—grabs you immediately and then just as quickly transforms into a feel-good strut—“Ain’t too proud to beg, sweet darlin’ / Please don’t leave me, don’t you go / Ain’t too proud to plead, baby, baby / Please don’t leave me, girl, don’t you go”—which, you may recall, soon has The Big Chillers bumping and grinding as they clear the table and do clean-up. It’s charming—since we’re sure the song, when they were young, led to sexier pursuits, but even as part of a domestic chore it makes things feel more alive and vital.
And that’s the charge of the song, which Ruffin strains to sing, giving a kind of desperation to the vocal that works well against it’s funky tempo—a change in sound caused by Norman Whitfield taking over the production from Smokey Robinson, who gave the Temps their early hits and that velvety sound best known in “My Girl.” This is a Temps song that knows Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight are out and about is ready to keep step. Whitfield eventually took the Temps even further afield, and that’s the era I knew first—the time of “Psychedelic Shack” and “Ball of Confusion” in the early Seventies when they were meeting the challenge to R&B that was “psychedelic soul” in the person of Sylvester Stone.
Today’s song was also a single for The Rolling Stones in 1974, from the LP It’s Only Rock’n’Roll, and, indeed, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by that point feels very much like classic rock’n’roll, akin to Chuck Berry, one of the Stones’ eternal mentors. It’s a good strutting groove, so no surprise Jagger liked it enough to cover it, as he would, to even better effect, with another Whitfield production “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” in 1978. As the Seventies ran on, the sounds of the Sixties and early Seventies in Hitsville, U.S.A, seemed better and better. That was radio.
The song might be apropos too, coming after yesterday’s consideration of a man defending his manliness from an effeminate name. To whit: Now I heard a cryin' man / Is half a man / With no sense of pride / But if I have to cry to keep you / I don’t mind weepin’ / If it’ll keep you by my side. So there’s the question of what’s manly, under the circumstances, and this guy admitting that, hey, he’ll use “women’s weapons” if it works. But we note that the feel of the song has nothing in common with something like the crying dude in Redding’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” Here, it feels much more like a feint, a way of professing deep feeling. The upshot is that the guy will beg, plead, cry, whine, pitch a fit, do whatever stirs up enough reaction that “keeps you from walkin’ out that door.”
I suppose we could say it’s a song about a certain emotional parity in the war of the sexes. If push comes to shove, all bets are off and it’s about seeming desperate and despondent. And we might say that the song’s message is that admitting oneself willing to drop all self-regard feels pretty good. A way of saying, “for this, I’ll do whatever it takes.” Let your friends laugh / Even this I can take.
The play, Detroit ’67, leans heavily on the plays of August Wilson as though Wilson’s work is a blueprint to follow. It worked well in the dramatic reading because the language is nowhere near as worked up as Wilson’s and the cast was very engaging and those Motown songs created a very real presence of a shared ethos, a window on how the close-knit black family and friends in the play lived and loved to a Motown soundtrack the way so many did then, and on how that music still makes a time and a sensibility present at once—lest we forget.