THE TEMPTATIONS (Otis Williams): The last Temptation of soul
Originally formed in Detroit, Michigan in 1960 as ‘The Elgins’, The Temptations - having scored four US Pop Number one singles, 14 US R&B Number one singles, and won three Grammy awards - are officially the most successful soul male vocal group ever. Meanwhile, this March sees them return to the UK for a 10-date ‘Greatest Hits’ tour alongside fellow ex-Motown legends The Four Tops.
With their current line-up comprising sole surviving original member Otis Williams alongside newer recruits Terry Weeks, Ron Tyson, Joe Herndon and Bruce Williamson, over the years The Temptations have seen no less than 22 (!) different male vocalists pass through their ranks; the most famous line-up occurring during their famed ‘Classic Five’ era. Which - spanning 1964 to 1968 - featured bass-singer Melvin Franklin; iconic lead tenor/falsetto Eddie Kendricks; second tenor Otis Williams; baritone/choreographer Paul Williams; and charismatic lead baritone David Ruffin. During which time - working first with writer/producer Smokey Robinson and later Norman Whitfield - the quintet helped define the ‘Motown Sound’, while establishing themselves as America’s definitive male vocal group of the decade via such classics as 1965’s timeless chart-topping ballad ‘My Girl’ (which remains their signature tune to this day) and 1966’s brassier ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’.
It was nevertheless the fivesome’s edgier ‘psychedelic soul’ era (1968 to 1974) which saw them finally attaining bona fide success and credibility on the international mainstream - via a string of socio-political, epic Norman Whitfield productions which (influenced by funk band Sly & The Family Stone) combined a harder-edged, funkier take on the ‘Motown Sound’ with a then-fashionable psychedelic rock edge. Indeed, with Dennis Edwards having replaced a sacked David Ruffin as lead baritone in 1968, highlights of this period included the Grammy-winning US Number One singles ‘Cloud Nine’ (1968) and ‘Papa Was Rollin’ Stone’ (1972); in addition to significant chart-topping albums like 1969’s ‘Puzzle People’, 1970’s ‘Psychedelic Shack’ and 1972’s ‘All Directions’.
Nevertheless, with the musically-groundbreaking Whitfield/Temptations partnership coming to an end less-than-amicably in 1974 (amidst the group allegedly complaining of the Motown super-producer’s “arrogant” and “overbearing” attitude), much of the quintet’s ongoing pop and international appeal quickly faded. However, they nevertheless have pretty much to this day retained a consistent presence on the US R&B charts amidst increasingly-frequent membership changes; with high points including their punchy 1984 transatlantic hit single ‘Treat Her Like Lady’; the Platinum-selling 1998 LP ‘Phoenix Rising’; plus their 2000, Grammy-winning album ‘Ear-Resistible’. Meanwhile, the 2008 release of their ‘Classic Soul Hits’ set (featuring 12 new recordings of classic soul songs, plus six of The Temptations own greatest hits) impressively returned the group to the UK Pop Top Ten for the first time in 16 years.
Thus, while The Temptations will be forever remembered for their recognisable, intricate choreography, charismatic vocalists and flashy, tailored suits (not to mention the pivotal role they played in the mainstream breakthrough of the ‘Motown Sound’), what sets them apart today from all of their Sixties and Seventies contemporaries is that they have retained their status as a successfully-charting modern-day recording act for over 42 years. A unique achievement… Which becomes one of many fascinating topics raised, as Pete Lewis speaks in-depth to Otis Williams - The Temptations’ only surviving original member - just weeks prior to the quintet’s forthcoming British tour.
PETE: Perhaps we can start by discussing the current Temptations line-up for your upcoming UK ‘Greatest Hits’ tour?
OTIS: “Well, Ron Tyson has been in the group for 25/26 years - he sings first tenor and lead. Terry Weeks has been with me for 11 to 12 years, and he sings various voices - baritone, second tenor, first tenor AND lead. Bruce Williamson - who’s been in the group for going on three/four years - sings lead, baritone and second tenor. While Joe Herndon - who’s been with me for about six years - just sings strictly bass.”
PETE: So how did you come to select each one?
OTIS: “Basically I was just hoping they could do the job! You know, they all have wonderful voices - and so it’s all worked out well! Bruce, for example, had been trying to get into the group for about 11 years. So, as soon as the chance came along - as I say, about four years ago - he was IN! Then Joe, as well as being a wonderful bass-singer, in addition had all the OTHER necessary things - like the right height requirements, etc. Terry, meanwhile, just has a wonderful, unique voice. While Ron Tyson, as I say, has been with me for about 26 years. Which makes him the longest-serving lead tenor The Temptations have ever HAD! And I guess the main reason for that is because he WANTED to be in the group well before he knew he was GOING to be, plus he’s a wonderful asset overall who pretty much has all the qualities needed to be a member of the Temps.”
PETE: Will the current Temptations line-up be releasing a new album?
OTIS: “Yeah, we have a new CD called ‘The Temptations; Still Here’ that we’re getting ready to release in May. It’s all fresh, brand-new material - no cover jobs - and we’re very proud of that, as well as the fact that it’s being released on the Temps’ own label called ‘10:30 International’. You know, we have 14 great songs on there, and we’ve done much of the production ourselves, together with an assortment of people. Some of the songs are political - which is something we’re known for - plus we’ve got a steppers’ tune, which is a very popular style here in The States right now. Then we’ve also got some wonderful ballads, some funk tunes... So yeah, it pretty much covers everything The Temps are known for. And, as I say, we’re pretty proud of it!”
PETE: You grew up in Detroit during the Fifties. How do you remember those days?
OTIS: “Well, back in the Fifties they had those great rock & roll shows that would come through Detroit. So, little by little, the rock & roll era was really taking shape full-bloom - and next thing you know, the music business was wide-OPEN! And to me those days were just idyllic, in the sense of us being young guys singing on the street corners - like a lotta groups DID back then. You know, you’d lose members, you’d move from one part of town to a DIFFERENT part of town... Then you’d find some MORE guys. So again you’d stand on the street corner and sing, then go around to parties and recreational places and sing… And it was when I moved over to the West Side that The Temptations first happened, in 1961.”
PETE: I understand The Temptations were originally formed as ‘The Elgins’ from the joining-together of two local Detroit vocal groups - The Primes and your group, Otis Williams & The Distants...
OTIS: “What basically happened was both groups lost members and decided to merge together. Our group - Otis Williams & The Distants - were a five-man outfit. So, when we lost two members, two members of The Primes - Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks - joined me, ‘Al’ Bryant and Melvin Franklin… and together we became ‘The Elgins’. Then in ’61 we signed with Motown, and decided to change our name to ‘The Temptations’ after Berry (Gordy) had discovered there was already ANOTHER group called The Elgins. And looking back now, I’m just very glad that I was in Detroit at that time to become part of such a historic chain of events. You know, Berry started Motown in ’59; we joined them in ’61... So I guess it was just something I was destined to be a part of - and I thank God for it.”
PETE: So how do you now look back on the group’s early, unsuccessful period at Motown from 1961 to 1963?
OTIS: “Oh, it was fun - you know, feeling our way through and hoping that somebody would come up with ‘the big-one’ for us... I mean, Berry believed in his acts and so he’d just keep taking them into the studio until they came up with that magic first HIT! So yeah, it was a learning process - dealing with different producers and different songwriters - and I’m thankful for it. Because I learnt a lot - and Motown back then, in the early Sixties, was just a wonderful, joyous place to be.”
PETE: It was after hooking up with Smokey Robinson in 1964 that The Temptations finally attained mainstream US success. What was working with Smokey like?
OTIS: “I look back on it, and I think of Smokey as being just the consummate songwriter and producer that he’s KNOWN for being. You know, in 1964 David Ruffin joined the group (replacing a fired Elbridge ‘Al’ Bryant); Smokey saw us perform… And he actually came up with ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’ while he and The Miracles were riding down the Pennsylvania turnpikes and singing! That became our first hit, and then later the same year he brought us ‘My Girl’ - which was our first Number One! So yeah, working with Smokey was just WONDERFUL!”
PETE: After you’d worked with Smokey for a couple of years, in 1966 Norman Whitfield took over as your main producer and in turn took The Temptations away from the ballads and into a harder-edged, brassier sound...
OTIS: “Well, while Norman did do some ballads and midtempo tunes on us in the EARLY days, it was when he came out with songs like ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’ and ‘I Could Never Love Another’ that he and The Temps REALLY connected. Then, of course, in 1968 he took us into the ‘psychedelic soul’ sound with ‘Cloud Nine’, ‘Runaway Child, Running Wild’… I mean, in terms of the difference between Smokey and Norman, I guess you’d say Smokey was a more melody-driven, lyric-conscious writer/producer; while Norman was more into his strong, funky TRACKS. But, you know, Norman brought what he did; he kept The Temptations growing… And while he was producing us we were able to garner three Grammies - including Motown’s first-ever Grammy, for ‘Cloud Nine’!”
PETE: So how do you now look back on The Temptations’ ‘psychedelic soul’ era, which - between 1968 and 1974 - saw you exploding internationally with funky, often-socially-conscious tracks?
OTIS: “Well, you know, it was just a sign of the TIMES. We were just singing about what was happening in the world at that time. But, at the same time, let’s not forget it wasn’t ALL about that for us back then - because in 1971 Norman also produced (the US Number One/UK Top Ten) ‘Just My Imagination’. Which was a slow, tender, sweet ballad. So, you know, we were just flexible. Norman would come up with the song and, be it fast or slow, we’d DO it! It really was a no-pigeon-hole kinda thing! We were just firing on all cylinders, just trying all different kinds of songs at the time, and being very experimental.”
PETE: Then in 1974 you split from Norman Whitfield, amidst rumours the group felt he was being too domineering and egotistical as a producer, and merely just using The Temptations as “puppets” - with his increasingly-elongated tracks often featuring barely three minutes of the group’s actual vocals…
OTIS: “Well, at the time we felt it was time to change. I mean, we’d done the psychedelic soul thing with Norman for about six or seven years and we felt we’d exhausted it. And yes, it was true that he’d started doing very elaborate tracks (many over 10 minutes long) but with a minimal amount of singing from The Temps on them - and this in turn was reflecting on the group, as our sales were starting to drop off. So we felt it was time to move on. Which is when Berry Gordy took over, and got other people like Jeffrey Bowen to produce a great album on us with (the 1975 US R&B chart-topping) ‘A Song For You’.”
PETE: The Temptations then left Motown in 1976 for Atlantic Records, only to return to Motown in 1980…
OTIS: “We left Motown in ’76 because we had a difference of opinion with the guy who was running the label at the time. You know, we had a disagreement and just felt it was best to leave. And I have to say that the 18 months/two years we spent with Atlantic Records were good times! I mean, they gave us a great deal. The only problem was we didn’t sell any RECORDS while we were there! Which I guess was down to the fact we’d taken on a new lead vocalist - a gentleman by the name of Louis Price (who’d replaced a fired Dennis Edwards) - and that did lead to a departure in our SOUND! So then, when Smokey asked us to come back to Motown, we were like ‘Well, we’ll listen’… So we sat and talked with Berry Gordy; Berry said ‘I want you back’ - and we wanted to COME back! It was just that simple! And so we signed back with Motown in 1980, and we stayed there until we finally left in 2004!”
PETE: One of the first big Temptations projects after you re-signed with Motown was the under-achieving 1982 ‘Reunion’ album and tour. Which saw legendary ‘classic’ former lead-singers David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks (who’d left The Temptations in 1968 and 1971 respectively) temporarily rejoin the group’s then-current line-up...
OTIS: “Well, like you said, it was somewhat successful, but there was also a lot stress (Ruffin still had a cocaine addiction; Kendricks’ voice had weakened by decades of chain-smoking). You know, the whole project could have gone a lot further - but the group was just so disjointed! So yeah, it was short-lived and it didn’t happen like we WANTED it to. But, you know, I don’t sit and ponder on it. That’s all in the PAST!”
PETE: The Temptations nevertheless managed to retain a steady profile on the US R&B charts during the remaining 22 years of their stay with Motown…
OTIS: “Well, when one thing don’t work, we move on to ANOTHER project. You know, that’s what The Temptations is all ABOUT - thinking straight-ahead, trying to learn from our past experiences, and trying not to make the same mistakes again... And so yeah, we did still get the hits - even AFTER the whole ‘Reunion’ thing. Like in 1984 we had a very big (transatlantic) hit with ‘Treat Her Like A Lady’, when Al McKay (former Earth, Wind & Fire member) was producing us. And then in 1998 we were lucky enough to strike big-time Platinum with the ‘Pheonix Rising’ album! So yeah, we were just doing what artists do - and, luckily for us, being at Motown we were able to record and continue to experiment with different writers and producers. And so it turned out GOOD! I mean, in 2001 (with the 2000-released ‘Ear-Resistible’ album) we even got our fourth Grammy!”
PETE: So why did you finally leave Motown in 2004?
OTIS: “Well after Berry sold it (in the late Eighties), in our eyes Motown was no longer MOTOWN! You know, it wasn’t the same, family-type company that it was when he’d been running it. And then when, around 2004, they hired Sylvia Rhone to run Motown, we discovered she didn’t necessarily want to work with acts that were of a certain age. I think we were told we were ‘too old’ for her, and that she wanted to just work with upcoming rappers and artists of THIS time. So of course we felt it was time to leave! And, as soon as we knew she was definitely coming on board, we got OUTTA there! I mean, leaving wasn’t a hard decision for us! Because, even though we helped build Motown and we love the old Motown to death, like I said it’s not the same MOTOWN any more! And so I feel very thankful and blessed that, since leaving Motown, we’ve continued to move on and have success with albums like (the Grammy-nominated) ‘Reflections’ (2006) and ‘Back To Front’ (2007).”
PETE: When the 1988 book you personally co-authored - ‘The Temptations’, which served as your autobiography and history of the group - was adapted 10 years later into an Emmy Award-winning TV mini-series, it was perceived by some to contain jealous insults against your former band-mates. Plus Melvin Franklin’s mother, David Ruffin’s family and your own former wife filed a joint lawsuit for defamation…
OTIS: “Oh well, you’re gonna get that criticism! You know, that’s par for the course. But, when I look back on it, I’m actually very happy with the success of the mini-series. I mean, a lotta people still ask me how much of what was shown is the truth. And I tell them ‘95 to 98% of it’! I mean, they may have taken what they call in the business ‘dramatic licence’ to make it all ebb and flow well. But, it is what it IS! And, as far the lawsuits went, it was nothing that legal department couldn’t work out. You know, some people wanted money and all that stuff. But, at the end of the day, everything worked out fine.”
PETE: So why do you feel The Temptations have outlived so many of their Sixties/ Seventies contemporaries as an ongoing successful recording group?
OTIS: “That’s a good question, because you’re RIGHT! I HAVE seen a lot of my peers falling by the wayside and not being able to continue. I mean, there’s nothing specific that I can pinpoint - except that our work ethic is still the same as it ALWAYS was. We believe in working hard, we take nothing for granted, and we don’t rest on our laurels. And, because of that, we have been able to continue on and stay high-profile. You know, while some acts just go and do these oldies-but-goodies shows, we don’t THINK like that. Instead we play the smart rooms in Vegas, the smart rooms in Atlantic City... You know, we just think very progressive - and l think in that way we have been very blessed.”
PETE: And what are you ideas on the “fake” groups that tour today by falsely using the names of classic Motown groups like yourselves?
OTIS: “Well, to make a long story short, it’s NOT GOOD! But, you know, we have been able to weather through all that - and hopefully we will get laws passed to stop these groups from DOING that. What I understand (legendary original Supreme) Mary Wilson and a few others are trying to do right now is get a bill passed that says, if there’s not an original member of the group in the line-up, they cannot perform using the NAME of that group. So that’s what we’re working on right now. And I’m just pleased that these days our fans have become astute enough to check the group’s line-up beforehand and say ‘If it’s not Otis then we’re not going to SEE them’!... Because yeah, it is a constant vigil, and so we do what we have to DO! And thankfully we have been able to maintain our status quo and continue being known as ‘The Temptations’ - even WITH all these fake ‘Temptations’ that have been trying to emerge.”
PETE: So what else is currently in the pipeline for The Temptations?
OTIS: “Well, there will be a Broadway show about The Temptations’ life-story coming further down the line. You know, we have a big producer that’s intending to take The Temps’ story and put it on Broadway - and I’ve heard it said that it might even debut over in London in the West End and THEN be brought over to The States. But I understand that’s all about 14 months or so down the line. So there’s nothing more I can say about it right now… Except that I’m very, very excited about it!”
The Four Tops and The Temptations, with special guests The Drifters and Three Degrees - tour runs from March 14 to March 26 inclusive.
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Words PETE LEWIS