The Undisputed Truth – Smiling Faces Sometimes

26th January 2023 · 1970s, 1971, Music, Soul

The Undisputed Truth were Norman Whitfield’s Motown laboratory for his psychedelic soul constructions, testing out songs that would end up with The Temptations. This was their only hit.

Those old Motown dudes loved to make the most of their talents, and weren’t averse to a spot of recycling long before it became fashionable.

Holland-Dozier-Holland had openly played with it when they created The Same Old Song for The Four Tops back in 1965, constructing it out of the same band’s previous hit I Can’t Help Myself (hence the title).

Norman Whitfield – the genius behind “psychedelic soul” – was another early adopter, getting the most out of his songs by giving them to several artists.

Such as when I Heard It Through The Grapevine passed through Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight before becoming Marvin Gaye‘s signature song – and Edwin Starr did the same thing with War after Whitfield gave first crack to The Temptations.

In the early Seventies he created his own group, a trio called The Undisputed Truth, to use as a sounding board for the elaborate constructions he created with his lyricist, Barrett Strong, trying out different ideas and different arrangements on the same song.

Smiling Faces Sometimes was their first (and only) big hit, reaching no.3 a year after it appeared on The Temps’ album Sky’s The Limit. The original was deemed unsuitable as a single, firstly because Eddie Kendricks immediately left the group, and also because it came in at 13 minutes long.

The shorter version by The Undisputed Truth struck gold, reaching no.3 in the US charts in 1971 – no doubt aided by their startling stage image of enormous Afros and gold-painted faces.

Both versions use a spooky sort of arrangement, though the Temps go for the full haunted-house vibe on theirs while this one blends ominous, socially aware lyrics with psychedelic funk and extravagant guitar effects.

A year later, hoping to repeat that success, Whitfield and Strong gave first dibs on the all-time-great Papa Was A Rolling Stone to The Undisputed Truth, but it inexplicably flopped – until it was given to the more famous Temps, becoming the signature song of psychedelic soul.

Despite repeating the same trick of exchanging songs a few more times (Law Of The Land, You’ve Got Your Own Heaven And Hell Right Here On Earth), the trio of Bobby Taylor, Billie Calvin and Brenda Evans (the girls had sung backing vocals on Diana Ross’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough) never had another major hit.

After minor success with What It Is, Help Yourself and Fool For You (the latter two with a changed and expanded line-up, going for a Funkadelic sound), The Undisputed Truth followed Whitfield out of the door when he left Motown in 1975 and set up his own label.

They found no more success there either, but for a brief period the group included Chaka Khan’s sister, the splendidly named Taka Boom, while former member Billie Calvin went on to write Rose Royce’s huge hit Wishing Upon A Star, which must have set up for life.