In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of those pesky April showers, we’re looking at songs with “rain” in the title.
The cover to The Temptations’ 1968 album The Temptations Wish It Would Rain is one of the odder ones from Motown’s classic era—and an anomaly for a label that typically projected elegance, not whimsy. The five singers appear dressed in French Foreign Legion garb, sprawled out on a pile of dry dirt, with a useless cannon stuck into the ground behind them. The image is meant to be a literal (and goofy) illustration of the album’s title, which was named for The Temptations’ 1967 Billboard Top 5 pop hit “I Wish It Would Rain.” But anyone who looked at that cover today might think both the song and the LP were frivolous, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
David Ruffin sings lead on “I Wish It Would Rain,” using his gritty, expressive voice—an instrument made of unfiltered smoke and butterscotch—to turn a simple howl of heartbreak into a full, theatrical performance. Norman Whitfield produced the song and co-wrote the music with his frequent partner Barrett Strong. These men had the Motown formula down with the easy rhythms, the tasteful orchestrations, and the emphasis on multiple vocalists doing a modest call-and-response. That all makes “I Wish It Would Rain” sound nice. But the song’s real distinguishing feature is its lyrics, by Roger Penzabene, who wrote about losing his girl and desperately hoping for a storm to disguise his tears, so he could go outside again.
That’s a relatable sentiment, made all the more heartbreaking by Penzabene’s death at age 23, on December 31, 1967, by his own hand, 10 days after the single was released. Accounts differ on why he killed himself, and whether the break-up in “I Wish It Would Rain” is autobiographical. Many claim yes, but for a time the comment section to a 2008 Brad Laidman blog post about the song became a forum for commenters claiming to be Penzabene’s friends and relatives, arguing with the narrative. Whether the particulars of the lyrics are taken from real life, they ring true. Ruffin’s conviction has a lot to do with that believability. And so does a Motown house style engineered to have broad enough appeal for listeners to hear “I Wish It Would Rain” as both the last testament of a suicide and a casual complaint by five thirsty guys in an arid desert.