At the end of a month in which the world mourned for Muhammad Ali, it seems apt that I’m conducting an interview with the sole surviving original member of a band the revered US boxing legend and civil rights activist once labelled ‘the greatest group in the world’.
Otis Williams – barely 11 weeks older than Ali, who died on June 3, aged 74 – already had a couple of group name changes and minor hits under his belt by the time fellow 18-year-old Cassius Clay won his gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He was with The Distants then, having relocated from Texarcana, Texas, to Detroit, Michigan as a youngster, quickly emerging on the local music scene.
By the time Clay had converted to Islam, changed his name and turned pro, Otis had joined forces with the band that made their name as The Temptations, signing to Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown Records in March 1961. And while Ali was celebrating his first WBA and WBC heavyweight titles in early 1964, The Temptations were enjoying their first major hit, The Way You Do The Things You Do. The stage was set, with Ali already a major figure in the civil rights movement and The Temptations one of the key groups providing a soundtrack for such a pivotal era in American history.
So what did Muhammad Ali mean to Otis Williams?
“You know, when I heard of his passing, in all honesty I cried. I thought about the times Ali and me walked down Broadway, New York City, and people came out of buildings, he stopped traffic, and I was thinking, ‘Here I am, walking with Ali!’
“I was with him with my group when he fought over in Manila in ‘75. One of his fellas called us to his dressing room and we talked together. He asked us to sing Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, which we did, a capella. We used to go to his house when he lived in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I had some wonderful times with The Greatest. When I heard of his passing I sat there and I cried like a little boy.”
I could go further with those parallels between Ali and the Tempts, charting their own progress at key moments such as when the Louisville, Kentucky-born boxer refused to be conscripted into the military in ’66, citing religious beliefs and opposition to US involvement in Vietnam; the subsequent stripping of his title in ’67 and eventual overturning of the resultant conviction for draft evasion that led to his March 1971 ‘Fight of the Century’ with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, around the time of the Tempts’ third US No.1, Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me). And then there was the afore-mentioned ‘Thrilla in Manila’ with the same opponent in October 1975, at which point the Tempts were on Shakey Ground, their last R&B chart No.1 stateside. But Otis isn’t all about the past, and there have been four decades of Temptations performances since the latter.
In fact, there have been five top-10 hits and 28 top-75 singles in the UK alone over 51 years (starting with My Girl, which surprisingly only reached No.43 this side of the Atlantic first time around). And life certainly goes on apace for the highly-driven Otis Williams.
Otis, based in Los Angeles since 1974, and his group – these days completed by Ron Tyson (on board since 1983), Terry Weeks (since 1997) and new boys Larry Braggs and Willie Green – have plenty of US summer dates before their latest transatlantic travels this autumn, when they join fellow Motown legends The Four Tops and ‘70s disco favourites Tavares in the UK.
The day we spoke, Otis was all set for a weekend show at the Saban Theatre in his adopted city and others at Lake Tahoe and the Napa Valley, followed by ‘a string of one-nighters’. It’s a busy life, I suggested, for a septuagenarian.
“Ah, you know, I can’t complain. I’m doing what I love to do. When you’re all having your holidays, we’re performing for ours! And we love coming to England. I consider England my second home. We’ve been coming there ever since ’64.”
That was for the Motortown Revue, wasn’t it?
“That’s true. We came over and did Ready Steady Go and all those wonderful early shows you had back then.”
Gerri Hirshey said in 1984’s Nowhere to Run – the Story of Soul Music (yes, it gets yet another name-check here, but with good reason as far as I’m concerned), ‘In their prime nobody could work a crowd like the Tempts. No one dressed as well; no set of voices could match their full-court give-and-go. And surely no one could out-dance them.” That’s not a bad way to be remembered, is it?
“Not a bad way at all. And we’ve been told that for quite some time, so I think there’s some truth to that.”
Not least considering the wealth of competition at the time.
“Oh yeah, that makes it even more interesting – competition in showbusiness is thick as thieves, so for people to knock yourselves above that structure is a marvellous feat in itself.”
In the same book, former Temptations member Richard Street, who was with The Distants from 1959/60 and then with The Temptations from 1971/92, identified you and fellow founder Melvin Franklin (who also featured in The Distants) as the ‘heart and brains of the group’. Was that right?
“Well, we’ve been told that since day one, so I guess there’s some truth to that. But all I ever wanted to do was have fun, make money and sing to the girls, get on the stage and do what we do. For me, it’s just been about having fun – which is the operative word!”
You and Melvin were together way before. What do you recall of your first sighting of The Primes’ Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks? Did you feel instinctively you should join forces?
“We didn’t. All I knew at the time – when they were The Primes and my group was the El Domingoes – is that I recognised Paul, Eddie and Kell (Osborne) as fantastic singers, but I had no inclination that in a certain amount of time Paul and Eddie would be joining my group.
“At that time we become The Temptations – Melvin Franklin, Al Bryant and myself – and enter Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks. I knew they could sing but didn’t know fate would have it as such that we would end up getting together, as happened in 1961.”
That said, it took the addition of David Ruffin to see you truly break through.
“David Ruffin was a talent unto himself, and made a few singles as a solo artist. They did okay, but didn’t put him on the map. But my group were so popular in the Detroit area that David and myself used to hang together, run together and go to different parties.
“One day David said, ‘I want to sing with your group’. I was really astounded. He was a hell of a singer and competent performer. He joined at the end of ’63 and we recorded The Way You Do The Things You Do in January ’64, and history was made at that point.”
Getting back to Muhammad Ali, when he saw you play New Jersey one night at the turn of the ’70s, he reckoned you were so good (hence his ‘greatest group’ comment) he heard an extra voice. It turned out that Richard Street was in the wings, ready to deputise for Paul Williams, who was struggling with his health at the time (not least a drug problem).
“Oh yeah. Well, we’ve gone through some changes to carry on The Temptations’ legacy. It’s been an interesting ride, trying to keep us going. But 56 years later we’re still having fun!”
There was certainly a lot of chopping and changing. The Temptations proved a perfect name. Members over the years have succumbed to a few temptations. There have been troubles, shall we say.
“Yeah, but life is life, regardless of personalities and what have you. People are going to be people, regardless of what. Sometimes God tests us to see what we’re made of. We’ve been tested quite a bit along the way, and sadly enough I lost my guys. But I was able to continue.
“I’ve been asked before what I look for when I need to find a new talent. But I don’t look for talent first. When I say that, they look at me quizzically, but I look for the head and heart. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you’re not ready to handle showbusiness, you will negate the talent.”
The Temptations clearly have a winning blend – from deep bass to falsetto via your baritone, that rich lead, and so on. There’s the dazzling choreography too. I’m guessing it all works only with a lot of practise.
“Oh sure! We have been blessed to be round some very wonderful talented, consummate performers and entertainers, like our choreographer, the late, great Cholly Atkins; our vocal coach Maurice King and Johnny Allen, who also helped arrange our songs; Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows; and naturally Berry Gordy himself. He instilled a lot of things in us.
“Then there’s Shelly Berger, my manager then and now. I’ve had many wonderful talented people to help shape and mould The Temptations into what we are known for today.”
Ever analysed how you fit into the Motown story? Businesses today talk about unique selling points. What are yours?
“We just enjoy what we do. I try not to analyse. I believe in living life rather than getting analytical. When you do that, you’re not enjoying life. Let things take their course, enjoy the ride.
“But I do know we have self-worth and we’ve made an impact, being voted one of the greatest 100 acts of all time in Rolling Stone. Wow – I never would have imagined that. I’ve had so many amazing things happen, so there’s a reason for The Temptations being here.”
That Rolling Stone accolade from late 2010 (with a link here) saw the Tempts poll 68th out of 100 acts, 11 places higher than The Four Tops and between Cream and Jackie Wilson. All highly arguable of course – I’d have had them much higher. As Rod Stewart put it in print, “I was on holiday with my parents in the late Sixties when I heard I Wish It Would Rain. I lived in England, where it f***ing rains all the time, so it was appropriate. But that’s also when I fell in love with David Ruffin’s tenor — it jumped out of the speakers and ravished my soul. Whether it was Ruffin or Dennis Edwards or Eddie Kendricks or Paul Williams singing lead, the Tempts were always an all-star vocal band. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the Tempts had an unprecedented string of hits: My Girl, The Way You Do the Things You Do, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, Just My Imagination. Later on, they broke ground with the psychedelic soul of Cloud Nine. I remember listening to the hi-hat rhythms on that record over and over with the guys in the Jeff Beck Group. We’d try to change every one of our songs to try and capture their drumbeats. When I got home from holiday, I immediately bought I Wish It Would Rain. At that time I was very much into folk music and turning the corner into R&B, and I’ll never forget seeing that cover, with all the Tempts dressed as Foreign Legionnaires, sitting in the desert. Their outfits were wonderful — I blame them for teaching me to wear loud colors. They also came up with the cutting-edge dance routines. Nobody moved like the Tempts. I’d later become friends with David Ruffin — when our bands would play in Detroit, Ruffin would come to every show and we’d sing (I Know) I’m Losing You, a Temptations cover off my album Every Picture Tells a Story. His voice was so powerful — like a foghorn on the Queen Mary. He was so loud. My children grew up loving the Temptations, and we tried to see them every time they came to town. They would always pick me out of the audience with a spotlight, trying to get me up to the stage. But I never did. I’m too frightened.”
Of the many departures since the start, it must have hit Otis hard losing his long-time friend and colleague Melvin Franklin in early 1995 (less than six years after the band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).
“Melvin and myself had known each other since we were 16 or 17. We were kids. I lost my friend when he was 52, and still miss him today.”
God willing, you hit 75 later this year. Playing devil’s advocate, why keep going? It can’t be about money.
“I still love what I do. When I stop and think about God blessing me to do what I do, we bring happiness to a lot of people. That’s priceless, y’know. You’re right, it’s not about money. If I feel good, I do good, and just plan on continuing to ride the horse.”
You’ve always been surrounded by talent, not least in the Hitsville USA era. I believe you heard Aretha Franklin long before her big break, while walking her older sister, future singer-songwriter Carolyn Franklin, home from school.
“I used to stay about a block and half from Aretha. I dated her younger sister. I was crazy about Carolyn, and we were in a room talking one day when Aretha walked in. I was like a little boy, saying, ‘Oh my God – Aretha Franklin!’
“Even then her name meant something. Detroit would sit down when she sang every Sunday night. Her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, had her sing in church, and the city would shut down listening to Aretha.”
What gave you the drive to emerge as The Temptations’ group leader?
“That was happenstance! I don’t know where it came from, but I was a stickler for time, and one day Johnnie Mae Matthews called a rehearsal – before we came to Motown – and I got there about half an hour before anybody. She said. ‘Otis, you’re never late!’ I told her my reason and she said, ‘Hold it – you be the group leader!’ Little did I know what that would encompass years later.
“When we left Johnnie, disenchanted, Mr Gordy had given me a card and said, ‘Come see me!’, so I called and met Mickey Stevens, the A&R man, who said, ‘If you wanna make Mr Gordy mad – be late!’
“I was already priding myself on being on time. Entertainers, people think, are always late, come with attitude and think the world should stop and revolve around them. We wanted to way-lay all that. Once you lose time, you can never get that back!”
“My grandparents. My grandmother was a singer down in Texas. I’d go and see her sing in the choir. I was into doo-wop when we moved to Detroit when I was 12, and the birth of rock’n’roll was really taking shape.
“I’d go see those wonderful rock’n’roll shows at the Fox Theatre. I was amazed what people were doing on stage, at a venue known as the second largest indoor theatre in America (after Radio City). Seeing 5,000-plus people going crazy at what five guys were doing on stage – wow!”
All these years on, you’ve sold tens of millions of records – a staggering amount. I have a particular love for so many, not least the better-known singles like My Girl through to those four great 45s from ’66 (Get Ready, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, Beauty is Only Skin Deep and (I Know) I’m Losing You), ’68’s I Wish It Would Rain, ’71’s Just My Imagination (Running Away From Me) and ’72’s Papa Was A Rolling Stone. But which songs are Otis most proud of?
“I’m equally proud of them all, but must say the standout will always be My Girl. When we finished it and Mr Paul Riser put the strings on that, I told Smokey (Robinson, who co-wrote the song) in the control room, ‘I don’t know how big a record this will be, but I think we got something!’
“That was December 1964, and February ‘65 we were at the Apollo Theatre, Mr Gordy saying there’s a telegram congratulating us on a No.1 record. Also, The Beatles sent a telegram to the Theatre congratulating us!”
That US No.1 arrived five long years after the more local success of Come On by The Distants, and at one stage you were dubbed ‘The Hitless Temptations’. Was there ever doubt in your mind it would all come together?
“Well, you know, we were hopeful. Come On did fairly well and gave us a name. But when we came to Motown in ’61 we had about seven singles released by Mr Gordy before the first big one, The Way You Do the Things You Do.”
At that point, unfortunately, the line is briefly muted and Otis comes back to tell me he has another call coming in. That ruled out – at least this time around – questions about the band’s later years and their psychedelic soul phase, more about the Motortown Revues and sheer wealth of talent on board, later moments of high dramas when David Ruffin refused to be ousted from the band and was known to sneak into shows and wrestle the mic. off his replacement Dennis Edwards on Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, his thoughts on Richard Street’s Ball of Confusion: My Life as a Temptin’ Temptation (2014, written with Gary Flanigan), and so much more.
But if you want to read up further on Otis and his group, there’s always his 1988 autobiography Temptations (co-written with Patricia Romanowski), an inspiration behind the NBC miniseries dramatisation of The Temptations story a few years ago. More to the point, Otis himself is still out there, putting on live shows with the current line-up of The Temptations. And then there’s the music, and that will never be taken away from us.
For this site’s April 29th, 2016, interview with Duke Fakir, sole surviving original member of The Four Tops, head here.
The Four Tops, The Temptations and Tavares visit Liverpool Echo Arena on October 21 (www.echoarena.com) and Manchester Arena on October 22 (http://www.manchester-arena.com). Both shows start at 7.30pm, with tickets £45/£40 via www.ticketline.co.uk and 24-hour ticket-line 0844 888 9991 too. For more detail go to fourtopsenterprises.com, http://www.temptationssing.com/ or http://www.tavaresbrothers.com/