In 1971, The Temptations were still riding high. One of Motown's most popular groups of the '60s, the vocal quintet made an abrupt shift in the latter part of the decade with songwriter/producers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong at the helm. The duo began crafting drawn-out epics for the group to sing, heavy on instrumental flash and occasional social commentary, too. This blend of "psychedelic soul" kept the group relevant through songs like "Runaway Child, Runnin' Wild," the chart-topping "I Can't Get Next to You" and "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World is Today)."
And it was driving Eddie Kendricks mad. The group's soaring tenor, heard on poppier fare like "The Way You Do the Things You Do" and "Get Ready," chafed under Whitfield's artistic direction, and began taking his frustrations out on his bandmates. He and Otis Williams - the group's longest-lasting member - even got into it after a gig at The Copacabana in 1970, after which Kendricks decided to follow ex-bandmate David Ruffin's advice and go solo.
But Kendrick's final big moment with the group would be a sweet one. Whitfield dusted off a ballad he'd written with Strong some years earlier: "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)." Featuring a sumptuous backing track by The Funk Brothers with orchestral swells from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Kendricks warmed to the song instantly, sticking around after an overnight session to hone his vocals. And it was a moment for another member to shine, too: Paul Williams, Kendrick's best friend and a longtime member of the group, got one of his most notable solos on the impassioned bridge. (It was not a moment too soon, as Williams would exit The Temptations concurrently with Kendrick, struggling with alcoholism and sickle-cell anemia and dying only two years later.)
The throwback sound proved massive for The Temptations: "Just My Imagination" topped the charts in both Billboard and Cash Box, named by the former as one of the year's top 10 hits overall. Even Otis Williams, who was not speaking to Kendricks when the song was released, wrote in 1988 - four years before Kendricks' passing - that it was "Eddie's finest moment."