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A Temptations take on Motown

The Temptations' Otis Williams discusses the experience of being the part of a signature act on Motown Records — in the studio and on the road.
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By Ken Sharp

Spanning over five decades of seminal recordings and exhaustive touring, The Temptations are heralded as one of the most commercially successful and influential acts of all time.

Formed in 1961, the band’s classic lineup—Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin—cranked out an electrifying assembly line of sublime hit after hit, all stone cold classics numbering such quintessential soul smashes as “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “Just My Imagination,” “The Way You Do The Things You Do” and more.

What set The Temptations apart from Motown’s other successful male groups, The Four Tops and The Miracles, was their forward-thinking vision and singularly distinctive gritty sound, which drew heartily from the boiling cauldron of gospel, R&B, funk, blues and soul.

Under the tutelage of producer/songwriter Norman Whitfield, The Temptations really hit their artistic stride, continually pushing the musical envelope with a parade of ambitious and challenging material. Unlike many of their Hitsville contemporaries, (i.e., The Supremes and The Four Tops) they never once fell prey to second-rate imitations of past chart glories. Timeless psych-soul jewels like “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedelic Shack” and “Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)” kept the band cutting-edge and in the process garnered them newfound credibility among the rock audience. Like fellow Motown mavericks, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, The Temptations were true musical trailblazers, their songs informed by astute, socially conscious lyrics and arresting messages.

Through countless personnel changes and the tragic deaths of key founding members, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin and Melvin Franklin, The Temptations continue to endure. The following is an interview with the Temptations lone surviving member, Otis Williams, for a colorful journey through the group’s storied musical career.

GM: Do you recall when you realized The Temptations had first made it?

Otis Williams: There were a lot of moments. We were like 22, 24 when we had our first big hit with “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” We thought it was great when we finally got a hit. But then it started happening with “My Girl,” which was our first No. 1 record, which sold over a million copies. Then we started having the hits with Norman Whitfield: “I Can’t Get Next To You,” “Cloud Nine,” “Runaway Child, Running Wild”... I think that’s when we started feeling we had something goin’ because we were getting hits on such a regular basis and working to the ninth power. We kind of figured at that point we were doing something kind of monumental.

GM: But recording great songs wasn’t enough for Motown, you had to look great and be great stage performers, too.

OW:We were told and taught about being in show business, not just for the glory of having a hit record. That we could make show business our vocation rather than our avocation and do it because this is what we love to do and continue to work whether we got another hit record or not. So we came from another mind set as far as being in show business. A lot of these acts today don’t want to be in it that long or work nearly that hard. They’re just in it for as long as they have a hit. But we were thinking of making this our livelihood. We didn’t want to be confined to a 9-to-5 kind of life. Being with Motown we came from a different background of teaching.

GM: The Temptations were renowned for your tight choreography. How much time would you spend perfecting your stage craft?

OW: When we first got together, Paul (Williams), Eddie (Kendricks), Al Bryant, Melvin Franklin and myself, we’d just stand there onstage and sing the songs of the popular day. Paul came from the kinda thing of being very good in clubs. He had the club kind of senses of how to work an audience and perform. So he said, ‘We’re not gonna be able to just stand and sing, we’re gonna have to dance and create excitement and create sexy kind of moves so the women will really enjoy us.” We told him, “Man, we can’t dance” and Paul said, “Yeah you can” and we started rehearsing and little by little it became an easier thing, as far as the choreography. Bam! We were stuck being noted for our different kind of choreography. And then as time and fate would have it we added the four-headed microphone, which really separated us from every group that’s ever been.

GM: What was the four-headed microphone?

OW: It was a four-headed microphone for the group. David Ruffin came up with the idea of “We can really be different. We ought to have a microphone where all four of us can sing on it rather than every other group.” Lon Fontaine (choreographer and stage director) said, “I know some people in California that can fix that up for us.” So it was a mic stand with four microphones on it. We used to do all our choreography around that. That really set us apart from any other group. It created a whole other level of excitement. When we performed we had bodyguards who took care of our microphones, the late great Benny Welburn. Benny would set the four-headed microphone out on stage and when they would see the microphone the audience would go wild.

GM: Bring us back to The Temptations 1961 audition for Motown.

OW: We left a little small label we were with and we were known then as The Distants. When we came over to Motown, we were kind of nameless. We wanted to name ourselves The Elgins but we heard that there was another group called The Elgins. We were standing outside of Motown, the Tempts and a guy named Bill Mitchell. We found out we couldn’t use the name The Elgins and we were all kicking around names. Bill said, “What about The Temptations?” I said, “I like that.” I asked the guys what they thought of it and Paul said, “Hey man, a name is whatever we make it, it’s fine.” So Bill hollered up to the legal department at Motown, “Put on the contracts, The Temptations!” At that audition we didn’t sing for Berry (Gordy). I met Berry when we were The Distants, this was about ’59, 1960, and my group was playing record hops. To keep your record played you had to go out on the weekend and visit these DJs at these record hops and perform your record. At the time The Miracles were hot with “Shop Around.” We had a nice regional hit with “Come On.”We were onstage performing and the crowd just kept calling us back, kept calling us back. And the last time while we were onstage we would see Smokey (Robinson) and The Miracles along with Berry coming through the crowd at St. Stevens Community Center in Detroit. So when w e finally came off stage I said, “Wow, that’s Smokey and The Miracles.” Berry was standing there. We went to the men’s room and he gave me his card. He said, “Man, I like your group and should you guys ever leave your label come see me because I’m starting my own label.” I called him when we became disenchanted with Johnnie Mae Matthews of Northern Records. When I called Berry he told me to see his A&R man, Mickey Stevenson. He wanted us to go over some songs with him so he could see what we got. So we came over to Motown and went downstairs in the basement and started singing. Mickey really liked us and we got signed to the label. Our first record for the label was “Oh Mother of Mine,” and on the back side was “Romance Without Finance is a Poor Paradise.”

GM: There was a tremendous amount of competition among acts at Motown.

OW: Oh yeah. That’s what Motown was built on, having that kind of inner competitive kind of thing. That was a natural; Motown was loaded with so many talented people that it just created a real good kind of competitive edge and hunger. “I want to show you how good I am” or “We’re better than you guys.” That’s what made Motown the company it’s become known for.

GM: Was there a rivalry between the Temptations and The Four Tops?

OW: Oh yeah. There was friendly rivalry. We were always trying to outdo them. What really sent the Tempts apart was we not only could sing R&B but we could sing gospel.David and Eddie and Paul, all of us, had that kind of background, listening to church, gospel music. We could stand there and sing gospel. Not to knock the others but The Four Tops or The Miracles or The Contours weren’t steeped in gospel. Then we’d turn around and start all that choreography and Melvin growling and Eddie soaring the tenor and David spinning around and dropping to his knees and grabbin’ the microphone, we always felt we had a little edge in comparison to some of the other acts over at Motown.

GM: How did Smokey Robinson come aboard to become an early champion of the band and collaborator?

OW: When Smokey first met Berry he was writing songs. It was something that he was already doing before he got to writing and producing on us. Then for whatever reason Smokey kept writing songs, he knew about us, we would do record hops together and we worked a lot of club dates and he’d come see us. One day he said, “Man, I’ve got a song for you guys” and he came up with “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” He told us that The Miracles were traveling in their station wagon going down the Pennsylvania Turnpike and they were singing in the station wagon and “The Way You Do The Things You Do” came about. Smokey said, “This would be a great tune for the Tempts.” So we went into the studio with him and recorded it and it was a hit. Then after that we started having hit after hit after hit with Smokey.

GM: Do you remember when he brought you “My Girl”?

OW: When we were first told about it, we were appearing at a very popular club, The 20 Grand, and Smokey came to see us. He’d already written “It’s Growing” and “The Way You Do The Things You Do” for us. David (Ruffin) was in the group by then. At that time each one of us would do a song. We had this medley that each one of us would take a lead on. David was singing “Under The Boardwalk.” When we finished the show Smokey came backstage and said, “You guys were fantastic, you just tore the place down”. Then he looked at David and said, “I think I got a song for you!” So David being like he was, young and cocky, said “Well bring it on, we’ll sing anything!” So we went to the Apollo Theater and that’s when we started rehearsing to the track of “My Girl” in-between shows because The Miracles were also on the show. They closed the show and we were about midway on the billing. It was our first No. 1 record. I’ll tell you when we first knew it was gonna be a hit… We went back to Detroit and put the voices on it and when Paul Reiser added the strings and the horns to “My Girl,” I told Smokey in the control room that this was gonna be a big record. We were at the Apollo in February of 1965 and Berry sent us a telegram congratulating us that “My Girl” was No. 1.

GM: The Temptations had alternating lead singers with Paul Williams, David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, how was it decided which member would sing lead?

OW: That came about naturally. There wasn’t any kind of blueprint. Some things just happened without any real reason. You’d get around a piano with the producer and guys start saying, “I like what you did, you take that part?” Certain things just happened like that. Next thing you know you’ve created a format to do that. Other times Smokey would be very precise saying, “Eddie, this is for you” like he did on “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” It just depends. Sometimes the producer would have one of us in mind that he wanted specifically to sing the lead, like on “My Girl” he definitely wanted David to sing that. On “Don’t Look Back,” that song fit Paul’s voice.Everyone knew that Paul was the main lead before David came along.

GM: How were the background vocals parts by The Temptations different from other Motown acts like The Four Tops, Miracles?

OW: See, there again, a lot of that comes from our gospel background. That’s one of the things that Berry will tell people why he liked the Tempts, it’s because we had that rich, gospel sound. Melvin with that deep voice, Eddie with the tenor, David with the grit, Paul with his thing and me holding it down. It’s just the way we were raised, how we felt we wanted to deliver our songs and voice them to make us so identifiable. Once our records came on we wanted people to go, “We know who that it, that’s the Tempts.” We did crossover with pop but we had a strong R&B, gospel foundation. That’s the kind of singers we were at that time.All we wanted to do was sing and be a very good act.

GM: You first toured England in 1965 and since then England has embraced Motown artists perhaps more passionately than any other country.

OW: England just loved our music. They’re unyielding in their love of Motown. They love Motown to this very day. They have certain pubs and clubs throughout England that have Motown nights. It’s hard to explain, they just love Motown music. Motown’s music is undeniable. It just had that other kind of thing that no other companies had. No other label had the effect on England like Motown. Motown is one of those companies that is not to be denied. They still love our music 50 years later.

GM: Was it difficult touring down south in the ’60s at the height of civil unrest?

OW: At that time in Motown’s history there was a lot of racial tension in the country. People didn’t care if they hurt your feelings or not, they’d call you a n***er or whatever very openly. Through that we had to deal with it. We were told when we were in my home state of Texas if we wanted to stop and eat, they said, “No, we don’t serve n***ers.” Then we’d have to get back on our tour bus and go down the road. If we wanted to use the bathroom you had to go out in the woods. In the south there was a rope right down the center of the auditoriums, whites on one side and blacks on the other side. We came back the next year and no rope. Blacks and whites sitting side by side high fivin’, booty bangin’ and enjoying the music. It would bring tears to your eyes but the music was able to break down barriers. Politicians couldn’t do it.

GM: Did you experience any real tense moments on those tours down south?

OW:The Motown Revue was on tour somewhere and we were staying down south at the Daniel Boone Hotel. We had performed and these white guys drove by in a car, called us the “n” word, shot at us and the (Four) Tops and other Motown acts. We all dropped and that’s when I found out some of Motown traveled with guns like the Tops and us. Luckily they didn’t hit anybody. We dropped down and hid and we got into our bags and started coming up with guns in the event they were gonna come back around we were gonna shoot at them. Then when we went somewhere else to perform, while the Tops were onstage we were standing on the side if anybody was gonna try and come up and jump on them we’d be there to protect them and they’d do the same thing for us.

GM: How important was Paul Williams to the band’s look, choreography and sound?

OW: Paul was just awesome. He was a consummate professional as far as the stage presentation of the Tempts, the choreography and the way he delivered a song. I’ll never forget when we were at The Copacabana in New York and this is while Adam Clayton Powell was still alive; he was a famous politician, a famous congressman out of New York. We were singing “For Once in My Life.” Paul could sing so well and emit so much emotion that even guys could feel it. Paul was singing that song with so much feeling that Adam Clayton Powell stood up and was giving us a standing ovation. Tears were coming down his face. Once he stood up and started applauding us, everyone at The Copacabana stood up and started applauding us and we hadn’t even finished the song. Paul left the band because his health had gotten too bad. At that time we were sure enough dancing and you have to be in good health to do what we do onstage and you had to be in even better health back then. He was a smoker and the doctor told our road manager that Paul won’t be able to stay with the Tempts because his respiratory system can’t keep up with all that dancing, so we ultimately had to let him go.

GM: Daryl Hall remains a huge fan of
Paul Williams.

OW: Oh yeah. I remember Daryl being backstage when we were at The Apollo and The Uptown Theater in Philly, he would help us bring our uniforms and stuff in. He was a good guy. He was just a young guy that admired us. He turned out to be a great soul singer. I love his voice.

GM: Share you memories of some of the band’s most beloved hits starting with “Get Ready.”

OW: “Get Ready” was a song that we recorded at a crossroads for us. Smokey had so many hits with us at the time and then Norman Whitfield had recorded “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” Berry was in a quandary. I heard him tell Smokey, “Okay, here’s what I’ll do. Smokey, you’ve been having the ‘My Girl,’ ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do,’ ‘It’s Growing,’ ‘Since I Lost My Baby,’ all those kind of hits. I’m gonna give you the next release but I really like ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.’” He said, “If ‘Get Ready’ breaks the Top 10 then you’ll continue to produce the Tempts but if ‘Get Ready’ doesn’t bust through into the Top 10 chart then Norman Whitfield will get the next release. “Get Ready” got to No. 22 or somewhere, it did good but it didn’t jump up into the Top 10 so Norman Whitfield got his shot with “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” And from that point on, up until ’72, ’73, we had a great run with Norman Whitfield. I was excited about “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” I thought the track was absolutely awesome when I first heard it. It had that grit. At the time, Motown’s producers had a great tendency to record the keys a step higher. So whoever was singing lead, they couldn’t sing it relaxed, it would have to have that urgency. And “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” was cut right at David’s vocal peak. We were urging him on, “Come on man, come on David, you can do it!” He was right at the breaking point of his voice. All those Motown producers did that. You listen to some of the keys for The Four Tops, Holland-Dozier-Holland would make the keys even higher to push the vocals and make it have that urgency. I just knew that “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” was gonna be a hit. David pulled it off but he said, “When we perform the song we can’t perform it in the same key because it’s too high!” So we lowered the key when we played it live. When that song was released it went through the roof. People loved it. We had that showman thing going for it. David was a real showman. You’d have to see David, he had a thing where he would throw the microphone up in the air, spin around, drop to his knees and as the microphone would come down he was coming up and grabbing it. It was such a synchronized thing that you’d have to see it. The public went off when they saw him do that and with us doing the sit tight choreography at the same time. It was undeniable. It was one of those tunes that really added to the impact of The Temptations.

Norman and the Tempts worked hand in glove. We changed each other. See, Norman wasn’t cutting no psychedelic stuff until he and I sat and talked one day out in front of this nightclub. I heard Sly & The Family Stone’s “Dance To The Music” and I asked him had he heard that song. He hadn’t heard it. I said, “When you do it might be something that would be very interesting for us to do.” I guess Norman heard it and we came out of town and came back into the studio and he recorded the track to “Cloud Nine.” At that time we were going through changes with David (Ruffin) who was replaced by Dennis Edwards. Our last hit record before we changed our sound with “Cloud Nine” was “Please Return Your Love.” So when we did “Cloud Nine” it was such a departure from what the Tempts were known for that it was kind of scary for a couple of weeks. When Motown released a record of ours, normally we would get great reception right out of the gate but it wasn’t initially received as well as other songs of ours. But then the record took off and we got a great reception for it. We ended up winning a Grammy for “Cloud Nine.” It was a definite departure from the norm and it was a challenge. I think that’s also one of the strengths of the Temps. We were always on the cutting edge and wanted to try something new rather than just to become comfortable and be pigeonholed for one style of music.

Norman (Whitfield) was a great producer. He just did his thing as a producer like the rest of them. Norman had a propensity to try different things. Some of it was because of the Tempts because as I said he wasn’t cutting no psychedelic stuff and then once we did that, we were on it for a while. Norman was a more experimental producer than Smokey, that’s why we had the kind of music we did when we worked with him because he was willing to go where other producers wouldn’t go. The only other people doing stuff like that at Motown were Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

GM: Your memories of “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep”?

OW: Only thing I remember about that song is Brian Holland loved it. Whenever I would see him in passing at Motown he’d say, “Man, I love that record, I love that record!”

GM: There’s a very tragic story regarding “I Wish It Would Rain.”

OW: Roger Penzabene was one of the song’s writers. He was a fine lyricist. We would see him from time to time. He was madly in love with his wife and I guess she was very flirtatious and she was trying to be amorous with other guys. One time she approached me and I wouldn’t dare do nothing like that because we liked Roger. From what I understand, he wrote the lyrics for “I Wish It Would Rain”... (recites some of lyrics) “I could never love another.” His writing came from his bleeding heart for this woman. Then we were out of town and came back in and heard that he just couldn’t stand it any more and blew his brains out. There was a time when we would mention that story onstage, we’d say that this song had a deep and true meaning to it. When you listen to the lyrics of “I Wish It Would Rain,” this is the way that this man’s heart and soul was for him to come up with that.

GM: The Psychedelic Shack album is regarded as a landmark in Motown’s history, it was a pioneering effort in psychedelic soul.

OW: That was a real good album. But we didn’t know it was anything special at the time. We were just recording. We were on a roll and Norman and Barrett Strong would come up with whatever. You can’t give all the credit to Norman because Barrett was very instrumental as far as the lyrics on those songs. We were just into that psychedelic zone on that album. We’d just go for it. We’d take it song by song and try to treat them to a certain amount of distinction unto themselves. We knew we were forging ahead with a different era of music when we were messing around with “Cloud Nine” and “Message to a Black Man,” “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.” We knew we were doing something different from “Ain’t Too Proud, “My Girl.” We knew we were exploring unchartered waters but we were being successful at it. We were excited by it because it was something new and different and fresh.

GM: Did it take longer to record a more experimental track like “Psychedelic Shack”?

OW: No, it didn’t take long doing it. We mapped out who was going to do what with the harmonies. It wasn’t an arduous process. At that time it was almost like a formula thing when Norman would present these songs we’d just figure out who was gonna do what, and then we’d go in there and do it. To us it was just another good song, we didn’t know it was more important than any of the others. It depicted the times. You know, (recites lyrics) “bearskin rugs, tails and minks.” Back at that time we’d go to places and that’s how people were dressin’. Back then in the ’60s people were wearing some funny things. Those were fun lovin’ times when I reflect back on it.

“Ball Of Confusion” was another good one. When I heard the groove to that I thought, man, that’s got to be funkier than unwashed armpits ‘cause it had the funk on it, it had the stink. You know, (James) Jamerson was landing in the pocket. I love the turnaround in the song. It was taken from a hit back in the ’40s or ’50s, a song called “Matilda.” (Sings) “Matilda, she brings me money...” So Norman added that turnaround. We laid it down and it went to No. 1, another big hit for us.

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GM: “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” is a seminal and groundbreaking song for the band.

OW: It almost didn’t get made.

GM: Why?

OW: Because we were tired of singing psychedelic soul. Norman Whitfield and us had a big verbal confrontation in the studio during the course of getting ready to record the song. He was very adamant about it saying, “Trust me, trust me guys, I’m telling you, this is gonna be a hit.” We wanted to go back to songs like “Please Return Your Love,” those lush ballads. People were slowly getting tired of the psychedelic stuff and by us being out there on the road you can tell. We’d talk to the fans and listen to the disc jockeys and we were learning that maybe it was time to leave that style alone and move on to something else. We went on and recorded “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and I’ll never forget after we finished it we had to fly to do a date in Hawaii. After that show we had to fly in Philadelphia for a disc jockey convention, which was held every year in various cities across the States. So we went to this disc jockey convention and every suite that we’d go into, every major recording company would be there having suites for their meetings. Every one I would go into I heard “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and I went, “Wow, it’s a hit!” It went to No. 1 and we won two Grammys for it. Norman did a marvelous job on that. Dennis (Edwards) said his father died on the third of September. It’s ironic that the lyrics for that song start out with the opening line (recites lyrics) “It was the third of September, a day I’ll always remember.” It had a special ring to Dennis.

GM: Lastly, what is the group’s legacy?

OW: We stood the test of time. We’ve lasted longer than anybody would have imagined. Aside from us working at it, it’s hard to say why we’ve lasted. I never would have imagined when we started out in ’61... By sheer will, love, grit, sweat, cussin’ out, ups, downs, highs, lows, whatever... through it all we’ve continued to survive and evolve.

Motown Records at 60