He’s been one of The Temptations for over 50 years and is the only surviving original member, but Otis Williams (seated in the image above) is still going strong and preparing for another UK arena tour with fellow legendary acts The Four Tops, The Crystals and The Tavares. New Adventures In Hi-Fi spoke to him about how he keeps on temptin’ after all these years…
My Girl, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone, Cloud Nine, Ball Of Confusion, Get Ready, Psychedelic Shack, (I Know) I’m Losing You, Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me), I Wish It Would Rain, Beauty Is Only Skin Deep, I Can’t Get Next To You, All I Need, You’re My Everything. That’s a list of just some of the classic singles released by The Temptations over a space of just seven years between 1965 and 1972. They went from doo wop to soul to psychedelic funk-rock and were one of the first black acts to sell black music to white people without compromising themselves.
That’s quite a legacy for Otis Williams, the only member left in the band from those glory days and the only one left alive from the Classic Five line-up. David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin have all passed away, but their spirit and their talent lives on in the group that Otis still leads out on tour year after year, arena after arena, and even this interview has to be squeezed in by phone from a Fort Lauderdale hotel before a TV appearance . It’s all a long way from his childhood back in Texarkana, Texas: “I was raised up listening to gospel music, and that’s what really led to me wanting to be in the business, but when we moved to Detroit I became aware of the rock ‘n’ roll scene that was building up in the 1950s.
“We used to go to see the rock ‘n’ roll shows at the Fox Theater and that’s where I was inspired to get up on stage and do what I’m still here doing 50 years later,” he remembers. “Watching Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, and the Cadillacs and Ruth Brown and seeing the command and the control they had of somewhere like the Fox Theater, which was a 5,000 seater theater then, to see all those people going crazy because of what five or so guys were doing up on the stage, that made me want to do the same thing.”
That led to the formation of an ever-evolving group of various singers and various names on various small labels before the key figures came together and found themselves at exactly the right place. Despite many set-backs, Otis never thought of giving up: “I always knew our time would come, it was all about a process of paying our dues. We recorded for a couple of up-and-coming little labels in Detroit before we met Mr Gordy [Berry Gordy, of Motown Records] but I always had a good feeling that we were going to make it. Music was a vocation for us. We went to school to learn how to be in showbusiness.”
They may have had to learn their vocation at ‘school’, but one ‘class’ proved to be essential: “Chemistry is important within a band, because you need that to make it fun. You don’t want it just to be work, it’s got to be fun work, and it’s even more important to have that with the audience, because when you see them having fun, you vibe off it and that makes it even more fun for it, so that chemistry is a very important ingredient.” Of course, for The Tempts, that chemistry was often quite volatile and led to more than a few explosions within the group, usually involving the troubled-but-oh-so-talented Ruffin.
But Otis says that the good times always outweighed the bad times: “I like to think so anyway. The one thing that’s constant in life is change, we’re dealing with people first and talent and everything after. So, once you understand that it’s a human thing for people to have misunderstanding or disagreements, and that egos might clash, you understand that sometimes, that’s the way it is, but the good times overshadowed the rough times, definitely. That’s the lesson I learned, it takes more than talent, and I learned a lot about dealing with people, and also dealing with great loss, like losing the original five and more recently Ali-Ollie Woodson [Temptations vocalist for much of the 80s and 90s, who passed away in 2010).”
Dealing with change has been crucial for Otis, who has seen so many band members come and go, but also plenty of musical trends, and the Tempts kept up their winning streak in the late 60s by successfully following producer Norman Whitfield’s lead towards the more psychedelic music that the likes of Sly Stone were making. Not that it was always a smooth transition: “We were afraid of stepping out of character, because we had been known for the My Girl thing, so to go into the psychedelic era was something that we thought we’d try, but it paid off because we won our first Grammy [for Cloud Nine] and our record sales went up.”
The collaboration with Whitfield was very fruitful for a few years, culminating 40 years ago with Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone, not that the group were initially too keen on it: “It almost didn’t get made, but we were wanting to move away from the psychedelic stuff and get back to doing what we liked best, but we ended up making it and good job too, because we won another few Grammys for it and it’s still appreciated and loved today. Norman was into that kind of big production, which wasn’t what we were known for, so we just had to find the heart and soul in it, and build on that.”
Their days of being at the forefront of musical innovation and experimentation may be long behind them now, but the Tempts have kept on releasing new albums, the most recent being the appropriately-named Still Here, which came out in 2010. They’ve often sold surprisingly well and have garnered a few more Grammy awards in recent years, which isn’t bad work for a ‘legacy’ act missing most of their big hitters. “We don’t record with the kind of consistency we used to, but we come out with new product every 18 months or so to let our fans know we’re still out there making new music. It’s the same process it’s ever been, finding great songs and avoiding any gimmicks, because we’re not about that.”
Keeping up a schedule of new albums and tours (after this tour, they’ll be back into the studio) must be tough for 70-year-old Otis, especially having seen the harm that both Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin did to themselves by touring when their health really wasn’t up to it. “It can be hard to give up when it’s something you get into as a teenager, especially when it’s your health that’s involved. It’s tough to leave something that’s been a part of you for so many years. We get a good cardiovascular workout doing what we do on-stage, and I go to the gym when I can. I watch what I eat and I don’t drink, smoke or party. Been there, done that, and it gets boring after a while.”
And when the tour is as packed with great acts as their upcoming European jaunt, it’s not hard to see why he still enjoys it: “We’ve got the Tavares brothers, the Crystals, the Four Tops and the Tempts, so it’s a great package and I think it’ll do very well.” It certainly will, and Otis Williams has certainly done very well for a very long time. “I’m so proud that we’ve been able to be around for all these years and that’s a heck of a milestone. We’ve weathered all the many changes that have weighed upon us and I’m proud that the fans still love us and still want to come out to see us. We’re still winning awards, and Presidential citations and all manner of things that we never would have imagined, so it’s great the career that I’ve had and am still having.”
Of course, it’s hard not to think about the past and the friends and colleagues that Otis has lost along the way: “I’ve been surrounded by talented people all my life. David Ruffin, Dennis Edwards, Eddie Kendricks, Ali-Ollie Woodson, they’re all my favourites in various ways and they all brought something unique to the band. And then there’s the guys we have now, Terry Weeks, Joe Herndon, Bruce Williamson and Ron Tyson [whose tenure in the band is second only to Otis], I’ve had a plethora of talented people around me all my life.” And so he signs off for now, remembering both the past and the present of The Temptations, a soul group like no other. They’ll be on tour in the UK between March 16th and 28th, and they’ll no doubt be at an arena near you and you can find tickets here.