What Can We Steal From The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” pop song
Author: Written by Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland, Jr.
Date of Work: 1966
Where the Work Can Be Found: As a modern classic, the song can be found on countless Motown compilations.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure

Discussion:
Gosh, I love early Motown.  After a quick drum riff, David Ruffin sings to a lover in a pained shout: “I know you want to leave me/ But I refuse to let you go.”  Just like the other Holland and Dozier and Gordy and Robinson and all the other great Motown writers, Whitfield and Holland weren’t messing around.  The song certainly isn’t simple, but it is straightforward.  The narrator of the song has done something to alienate his (or her) lover and is now willing to “beg and plead” for sympathy in order to get the lover back.

The song lasts less than two-and-a-half minutes, but it definitely accomplishes its goals.  There’s no five-minute intro, no wasted energy.  Whitfield and Holland wanted to increase your heart rate and get your body moving, so they get right into the song.  Even though there are really only three chords in the song, the simple structure allows the Funk Brothers (the Motown backing band) an opportunity to shine.  If you’re writing a play or a film or working in another kind of collaborative art form, you have to trust your colleagues on some level.

Think of the passion with which David Ruffin is singing.  According to legend, the key of the song was raised until the notes reached the upper limits of Ruffin’s vocal range.  The strain mimics the emotion the narrator is feeling.  When we want a lover back, don’t we feel a sense of desperation and longing that takes us out of our comfort zone?  We should write with this same element of danger.  We should reveal the personal details that we may otherwise wish to conceal.  We should tackle the subject matter that scares us a little bit.

What Should We Steal:

  • Give collaborators (or characters) the freedom to help you improve your work.  There’s an eight-bar saxophone solo in the song.  It can be scary for some writers to give control of the song to someone else, but the solo adds to the magic of the song.  Even if you’re not writing a song, your characters will sometimes talk to you.  (Not literally, of course.)  Why not allow them to collaborate with you?
  • Make your work short and sweet when appropriate.  There’s a time for sixteen-hour operas and there’s a time for hopping 2.5-minute songs that give you the courage to ask that pretty girl across the room to dance.  (Sadly, I never did that, no matter what music they played.  I choose to blame my lack of success on lame school dance music from the mid-nineties.  Not my ineptitude.)  If you write fiction, why not sit down and write a 400-word short short?  If you write plays, why not create a potent five-minute play?

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