Glancing through the entries on the Billboard Hot 100 from forty-four years ago today, I was struck by a title in the Top 40 that I’d never encountered: “Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)” by the Temptations. The record was at No. 39, just down from its peak a week earlier at No. 33. (It peaked at No. 8 on the R&B chart.)
Despite the foreign language title (and after a brief sorting of links at Google, I’m still not sure which African language it is), to my ears the record holds no trace, either sonically or lyrically, of what we would eventually call world music: It comes straight from the Barrett Strong & Norman Whitfield notebook (with Whitfield producing).
Given the Strong & Whitfield sound, its relative failure on the charts is a little perplexing. In Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, “Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)” is the fourth of a series of five singles listed beginning in August 1969: The three before it were “I Can’t Get Next To You,” which went to No. 1; “Psychedelic Shack” (No. 7); and “Ball of Confusion” (No. 3). And following “Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)” in early 1971 was “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” which was another No. 1 hit, a record decidedly different than the four preceding it but still a Strong/Whitfield track.
My guess is that the foreign title might have put off programmers and confused the buying public, because it’s a pretty good record.