The group, formed in Detroit in 1961, was a merger of two local vocal groups, the Primes and the Distants; Baritone Otis Williams, Elbridge Bryant and bass vocalist Melvin Franklin from the Distants, and tenor Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams (no relation to Otis) from the Primes. (when singers Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard switched to Motown, they temporarily used the feminine form the Primettes before becoming known as the Supremes).
Otis Williams had earlier success in Otis Williams and the Charms with "Ivory Tower" and "Hearts of Stone". He saw the Primes perform in concert in 1961. Soon after, the Primes disbanded and later that year, Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Bryant, Franklin and Kendricks formed the Elgins. They were then signed to the Motown Records label Miracle.
By 1964, Bryant had left the band and was replaced by tenor David Ruffin. That year the band went into the studio with writer and producer, Smokey Robinson, to record the top ten hit single "The Way You Do the Things You Do." With Robinson again producing, the group returned in 1965 with their signature song, "My Girl," a Number One pop and R&B hit. The group continued to release strong material (including "Get Ready," "Ain't Too Proud To Beg," and "(I Know) I'm Losing You") throughout the 1960s and to maintain a high standard of choreography in their live performances, establishing themselves as one of the top musical acts of the time.
By the end of the decade, the group had begun to change their sound away from the earlier Motown formulas, now with Dennis Edwards in the lead (David Ruffin quit in 1968 after continued disputes with the rest of the group and the record company), towards a style known as "psychedelic soul". Their songs began to reflect greater social concerns, often dealing with drug use, politics, and life in the inner city. Songs such as "Cloud Nine", "Psychedelic Shack", and "Ball of Confusion", all of them hit singles, reflected this new sound.
After the release of the hit single "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)" in 1971, Kendricks left the band to focus on a solo career. Paul Williams left the group soon after. Plagued by alcoholism and other personal problems, Paul Williams was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on August 17, 1973 at the age of 34.
Tenors Damon Harris and Richard Street were brought in to fill the group's vacancies. The group continued to do well through the 1970s with songs like "Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," "Masterpiece," "Let Your Hair Down," and "The Plastic Man,"
Since the 1980s, various members of the group have continued to tour and perform reunion shows from time to time.
Ruffin died, at the age of 50, on June 1, 1991 after overdosing on cocaine. Kendricks died, at the age of 52, of lung cancer on October 5, 1992. Melvin Franklin died, at the age of 52, after suffering a brain seizure on February 23, 1995.
In 1998, the Temptations returned to the studio to record Phoenix Rising. Also that year, their story was the subject of a popular NBC television miniseries. The group was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999.