Fairfield native Dennis Edwards turned 73 last week, and though he and his family moved away from Alabama when he was 8, he remembers his days in the Birmingham area fondly.
And not so fondly.
“All those days I had to slop the hog,” he says with a laugh. “You never forget that stuff. My uncle had a watermelon farm in Hueytown, and you either worked on the farm, or you didn’t eat.”
Edwards is calling from St. Louis, which he has called home for decades. But the Temptations Review featuring Dennis Edwards is headlining a fundraiser Wednesday at the Lyric Theatre, and to hear Edwards talk about coming back to Birmingham to perform, you’d think he’d never left.
“When I was in Alabama, we were church folks,” Edwards says. “My father was a minister.”
Well, not always a minister.
“My father started as a honky-tonk piano player who went all over Alabama with his trio,” Edwards recalls. “My mom was in the church. To be with her, he had to give up the honky-tonk thing. He joined the church and gave up his music.”
But Dennis, at an early age, picked up the mantle.
“My mom started me singing,” Edwards says. “At 2, I got a chair and stood on it when everyone couldn’t see me. She knew right then that I wasn’t afraid of crowds and I was going to be something special.”
When Edwards’ father got a job with Chrysler, the family moved to Detroit, where his father worked and still was a minister.
“I was at the church almost every day of the week,” Edwards says. “I was with the church all the time. I got the call to go with the Temptations, and I had to explain this to them, but my mother said, ‘You’re singing with the Devil now.’”
The “devil” was rock ‘n’ roll, and the Temptations were at the forefront of a rock ‘n’ roll and R&B movement at Motown, having released hits such as “My Girl” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” in the early 1960s.
In 1968, after some tumultuous times with lead singer David Ruffin, the group replaced him with Edwards, and though he became a music star, his mother would have none of it.
“When I first started, I would come to the house, and I would bring money and mom wouldn’t take it,” he recalls. “She said it was the devil’s money. But a few years in, the group was really successful, and I brought a thousand dollars home, a lot of money at that time. She wouldn’t take it, so I put it in an envelope and left it on the fireplace. She called me and said, ‘Junior, I hope the Lord don’t mind me using the thousand dollars to pay these bills.’
“I told her that just because I’m working and singing rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t make me a bad person,” Edwards says. “She started accepting that her son was somewhat of a star. But for a long time, I was just her son who turned his back on the Lord.”
Edwards is as surprised as anyone that he’s still out there on the road singing the music of the Temptations.
“I thought I could sing a little bit, but I don’t think any of the guys thought 40 or 50 years later we’d still be doing this,” he says. “When we came in, we kind of knocked the big-band people out. Then you had the rappers. We thought when they came in, we’d be finished, but the mistake they made was their language. When you sing clean music, it will last forever. You start putting in four-letter words and calling women the b-word, you’re going to have a problem.”
“What they taught us early at Motown was no curse words, always be classy, be a gentleman and know how to treat people,” Edwards says. “My mama taught me that in Alabama.”
Early on, thanks mostly to his first recording contract that resulted in very little money, Edwards realized that he was in a business. He watched Ruffin leave the group, and later he and others would come and go.
“Every time any of us ever left it was something to do with money,” Edwards says.
Still, the group persevered, eventually earning a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Edwards thought it would be the original five inducted, but he was included, too. “Wow, it’s the greatest thing in my career,” he says.
At the induction ceremony in 1989, Edwards, Birmingham’s Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin – all of whom had left the Temptations – decided to team up and tour as “Ruffin, Kendricks and Edwards,” recording and touring until Ruffin died of a drug overdose in 1991 and Kendricks died of lung cancer in 1992.
The Temptations continued with original member Otis Williams at the helm, and a court battle ensued when Edward began touring as Dennis Edwards and the Temptations.
“We spent over a million dollars on this battle, but the judge said, ‘Let Otis be with the Temptations, and you can use the Temptations Review.’”
That’s who’ll be performing Wednesday in Birmingham, singing the hits that helped define a generation.
“The sound has changed a little bit, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the magic of our sound,” Edwards says. “People love our music.”
Edwards tries to do new material from time to time, but that’s not what the fans want to hear.
“We’ve got to do the hits,” Edwards says, naming “Get Ready,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “My Girl” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” among them. “If you come to see the Temptations, you come to hear the hits. I get tired of it sometimes, but the public doesn’t.”
You might see Edwards take a 15- or 20-second break now and then on stage, but at 73 he’s still going relatively strong.
“I’m still doing well, but I don’t kick quite as high,” he says with a laugh.
And he’s thrilled to be returning to Birmingham, where he still has a cousin and lots of friends.
“It’s always special,” Edwards says. “I remember as a kid going downtown with my mom. Our buildings aren’t as high as New York, but when you’re 6, 7 years old, you think it’s the biggest city in the world. And to us, it was.”
“Through the Lens,” honoring Jesse Lewis Sr., founder of the Birmingham Times, will feature the Temptations Review featuring Dennis Edwards. The Foundation for Progress in Journalism, which recently announced its purchase of The Times, will host the event, which takes place Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Lyric Theatre. Tickets: lyricbham.com/events