The last Temptation
Otis Williams makes good on his vow to never quit The Temptations
By Carl Kozlowski 06/05/2014
Otis Williams was one of countless teenagers nationwide who formed doo-wop singing groups in the 1950s. But he was lucky that he lived in Detroit, where his amazing ear for talent paid off quickly when then-nascent Motown Records was formed and made him one of its first artists.
When Motown head Berry Gordy paired the Temptations with rising young songwriter Smokey Robinson, magic was formed. With songs like “My Girl” and “Get Ready” at their disposal, the Temptations took the world by storm with a classic lineup of vocalists – including David Ruffin, Eddie Kendrick, Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin – that resulted in dozens of hits that are still played today and five Grammys.
Williams, 72, is the last original member left, but he still performs up to 100 shows per year with the current lineup in venues worldwide. As he looked ahead to Saturday’s concert at the Arcadia Performing Arts Center, Williams took the Pasadena Weekly back to the beginning for a look at his lengthy career.
PW: You jumped in when doo-wop and rock era were just being born. How did you know you had a knack for it?
Otis Williams: Back when rock and roll started and was in its infancy, they used to have these fabulous shows coming to the Fox Theatre in Detroit, and I was mesmerized watching 5,000 people go crazy over what five guys were doing onstage and said, “That’s what I want to do.” That set my mind to want to form me a group and I did, and seven years later we were getting the same kind of accolades at the Fox stage with the Temptations at 21, 22 years old.
You were there at the dawn of Motown. Did you know how big it’d get?
No, I don’t think even Berry Gordy knew how much of a phenomenon Motown would become. We all wanted to make money and sing and be successful, but had no idea it would become such a huge entity. I look back on it and I always say, “Motown was no happenstance. It came out of God’s infinite wisdom.” Motown came out of the ’60s, which was the most tumultuous decade of the last 100 years, and here comes this little two-story family flat, housing all these creative people to make such a profound impact on the world.
I look back and say, “God helped that company along.” Because back in the ’60s, it was nothing to see world leaders get killed, see women’s liberation, campus unrest, riots — all kinds of things were happening in the ’60s. Motown was a soothing ointment for a troubled world. To come out of the ’60s and leave such a benchmark of talent, it will continue on so long as we are a world.
The Temptations went through so many phases: ballads with Smokey, uptempo R&B with Norman Whitfield writing, and later, psychedelic soul. Why?
We were the kind of group that never wanted to be pigeonholed, always wanted to spread our talent and see how far we’d go. It was wonderful to do “My Girl,” but Norman Whitfield was there with “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and we wanted to flex. We always wanted to explore different kinds of sounds, and it paid off with five Grammys and a whole slew of number one records and platinum records.
You also had a phase of songs with darker social commentary with “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “War.” Was that coincidence or did you want to make a message?
Norman Whitfield was the writer of “Papa,” “Ball of Confusion” and “Runaway Child” and he just wanted to try something other than love songs, which will always be around. We wanted to tell truisms. Life isn’t always about love. “Ball” is timeless and relevant to our world even after 40 years.
What was it about your songs that stood out and stood the test of time more than others?
Let’s call it what it is: there will never be a company like Motown again. Never! They’re the best recording company there ever was. Motown did something that no other company did do or will ever do; they said there’s still a need for artist development. We went to school and had to carry ourselves in a classy way, and watch ourselves offstage because you know what they want onstage. There were a lot of reasons for our success — like the education to be consummate performers and make it our vocation, not our avocation. There sure ain’t no record companies that put out lessons like that now.
You vowed to never leave, because there were so many changes in the group lineup. Did you realize I’d be doing this 50 years later and how do you feel?
It’s my baby. I started The Temptations so I’m not going to walk away. Luckily, I had the ability to bring the Temps to the forefront, and I’m still enjoying it. Another noted entertainer said the same thing: Getting onstage is the easy part, but traveling gets old, especially in one-nighters. Pull up in the bus, get to hotel room and clean up, get onstage, go back to the hotel, clean up and go to sleep, and start it all over again and go to the next gig. That’s the only rough part of what we do but the performing end? There’s nothing greater than to walk onstage and to have thousands wait to see us do our thing, and that’s when I realize I’m a lucky man. Because when I stop to think about this world that rotates on its axis every day and is loaded with millions and millions of people, when you can be part of the small percentile to do what you love and get cheered for it, you’re happy to keep it going. You have to. n
The Temptations perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arcadia Performing Arts Center, 188 Campus Drive, Arcadia. Tickets are $44.50 to $99.50. Visit arcadiapaf.org or call (626) 821-1781.