Killer Trochees: The Temptations, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” (1966)

“Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” is a major hook mystery. How can a song so great be so monotonous? Well, of course it’s not monotonous at all; it more than makes up for its lack of melodic and harmonic variety with its endless supply of hooky phrasings.

A big part of the story here is the alternation between two different rhythmic regimes in the vocal, the rambling recitative of the verse and the marching of the chorus. Either would be intolerable if prolonged, but going back and forth between them makes each seem like just what the doctor ordered.

Lead singer David Ruffin is marvelously free throughout. There’s no telling where his notes will land. He spurts ahead, he sings triplets. He’s not bound to sing the chorus in strict time like we are. He’s even looser with the chorus than the verse because we feel the chorus rhythm so strongly and he can play against that.

To appreciate the chorus, we must understand how “ain’t too proud to” gets it going.

A typical pop chorus hook makes a rhythmically strong statement in one four-beat measure—call this the #1 measure—probably followed by a second. For instance:

……………1……..2………..3……..4……….1……..2……..3……..4……..
…[She] loves you – yeah………..yeah………yeah…….[she]

Notice how it helps to start up the hook a little early, in the last part of an intro measure. “Loves you” without “she” would be ponderous; you might use that pattern if you were writing a spoof (like the TV theme “Bat – man!”). But “She loves you” takes off; loaded by “She,” it launches with “loves.”

You can back up further and get more of a running start:

………………….1………2………3………4……….1……….2……..3……..4…….
[She was a] day…………………………………tripper

Indeed, you can use any amount of the intro measure as long as you don’t totally fill it, which would just create an earlier #1 measure. The extreme possibility is to use seven eighths of it, as in Gentle Giant’s “Betcha Thought We Couldn’t Do It”:

[1]….[2]……….[3]………..[4]……………1…….2…….3…….4…….
…..[I betcha thought we couldn’t]….do it

(Imagine filling in that space in the first half-beat: “Boy I betcha thought we couldn’t do it.” It turns into a Measure #1, right?)

I’ve been working up to the claim that a key to the greatness of “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” is its perfectly balanced ensemble of loads-to-launch:  in the first place “Ain’t too proud to,” which is emphatic without being as strenuous as “I betcha thought we couldn’t” and natural without being as easy as “She” or “She was a,” and then in the following loads that illustrate other possibilities:

1……….2……….3……….4……….
……………………………..sweet [dar – ]
………………….please…don’t [leave]
………………….don’t…..you….[go]

“Ain’t too proud to” starts right on the 3 beat, which threatens to negate the springiness of the whole loading gambit. But it perfectly establishes a funky marching quality, and its on-the-beatness balances against the off-beat notes on 4-and, 1-and, and 3-and (“[sweet] dar – lin’,” “[please] don’t leave me”). The song gives you a sense you’re getting around to doing everything.

If you want to go straight to the four words “Ain’t too proud to” as the great hook in this case, I won’t object; I realize the song would still grab us even if “Ain’t too proud to” started on 1. The contrast between the two trochees “ain’t too” and “proud to”—the diphthongs “ai” and “ou” being brash and quite divergent in sound-shape—is strictly controlled by the symmetry of their rhythm and their percussive middle t’s, which lets you sing them or feel them as plaintively as you want without spoiling your funky march. The diphthongs actually assure the funk because they swell out in such a way as to push the “too” and “to” slightly behind the beat. (For contrast, try saying the phrase with au-to-ma-tic evenness.) (For comparison, check some other trochaic diphthongs—that’s what I said, trochaic diphthongs: “Baby, baby,” etc.)

I see now what the title of this post needs to be.

I’m not home yet, though; it must also be allowed that the fabulous double trochee “Ain’t too proud to” wouldn’t work nearly as well without a payoff like “beg.” Savor in your mouth the broad exit of “beg” after coming through the gauntlet of “Ain’t too proud to.” You can make “beg” as big as you want. You could make it last three whole beats. That’s not advisable, but the possibility is important; when you end “beg” after one or one-and-a-half beats, the listener feels you’ve made a decision. The stakes in saying this word just right are very high, both for the imploring lover in the song and for any singer of the great phrase.

Next to “G-L-O-R-I-A,” “Ain’t too proud to beg” might be the most inherently pleasurable, imaginarily powerful, compulsively utterable phrase in our rock canon. It could replace “By the shores of Gitche Gumee” and “Double, double, toil and trouble” on the trochee page of our versification manuals.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Time, Words and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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