The song begins with just a simple, quiet guitar that sounds like a lonely man slowly shaking his head back and forth, maybe in disbelief. The bass line provides the heartbeat followed by the strings, adding color and sadness. High pitched harmonies with a hint of vibraphone culminate in the scene being set.
“Each day through my window I watch her as she passes by.”
And then the fantasy begins. “I say to myself, you’re such a lucky guy. To have a girl like her, is truly a dream come true. Out of all the fellas in the world, she belongs to you.”
Suddenly, the fantasy is over and reality sets in. “But it was just my imagination, running away with me.” Still alone. Staring out his window. Watching.
This was The Temptations at their very best. Eddie Kendricks taking the gentle lead vocal with lush harmonies behind him. Ironically, this would be their last number 1 hit. Health and personnel conflicts had begun to plague the group and would soon tear them apart. But, before the inevitable end of the group, they recorded this; a perfectly tragic opus.
The fantasy continues. In perfect harmony, the entire group hits the first word as they tell the rest of the story. “Soon…”
“Soon we’ll be married and raise a family. A cozy little home, out in the country, with two children, maybe three.” Another chorus, and then the music builds in anticipation to perhaps the best bridge in popular music. Reality crashes in on the fantasy with anger, with frustration, with confession. Temptation Paul Williams sings the first line, followed by Kendricks.
“Every night, on my knees I pray. Dear Lord, hear my plea. Don’t ever let another take her love from me, or I will surely die. Her love is heavenly. When her arms enfold me. I hear a tender rhapsody. But in reality, she doesn’t even know me…”
The orchestration and harmonies are lush and beautiful, with a slight speed up to a triplet under “tender rhapsody” only to slow down as Kendricks painfully draws out “she doesn’t even know me” as the rest of the group comes in to remind him, “but it was just my imagination, once again…”
For the careful listener, there are subtle orchestral and harmonic treats throughout the song, and what could have been a simple tale of jealousy and longing becomes something so much more.
One by one, original members of The Temptations dropped out of the group, replaced by others who mimicked the original recordings on stage. For decades, faint copies of The Temptations performed hits like “My Girl,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “I Can’t Get Next to You.” But the performances were rushed, and rote. There is nothing to suggest the heart, and the heartbreak, that can be heard in original recordings like “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me).”
“I tell you I can visualize it all
This couldn’t be a dream,
for too real it all seems.”
“Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)”
Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
Performed by The Temptations