A Conversation with Otis Williams of The Temptations
Posted on 01/06/2020
The Temptations have been an inspiration for countless artists since their inception in the early 1960s. Founding member, Otis Williams, has been at the epicenter of the group for six decades. From Motown to now, Williams' talent and leadership directed The Temptations to the top. See The Temptations along with The Four Tops on May 15, 2020 at 8pm!
Read the Interview Below
ON THE SONGS AND ALBUMS:
Q: Let’s talk about your albums. You’ve released so many of them, including 16 number one R&B albums. Do you have a personal favorite?
A: The Temptations In A Mellow Mood holds a special place in my heart because it was a different kind of album for us. It was filled with legitimate pop standards and sung in a way that was very different from what people were used to hearing from the Temptations, thanks to a great vocal coach at Motown, Maurice King. He’s the one who taught us those intricate harmonies. Motown was grooming us to play places like the Copacabana in New York and the main rooms in Las Vegas. Performing songs from that album like "Hello Young Lovers," augmented with our hits, gave us an interesting balance rather than just being straight up R&B. It allowed us to cross over to a wider audience.
The other album that stands out for me was For Lovers Only, primarily because it got lost due to corporate changes at Motown at the time. It’s an album that is worth fans taking another listen.
Q: The Temptations have had 14 number one R&B singles and 43 R&B singles in the Top Ten. Is there a song that stands out most for you?
A: One that stands out is our very first hit, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” which was written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers. Smokey had asked us to come to the Motown Studios late one evening in 1964. When we got there, he passed out the lyrics, sat down at the piano and said “Okay, here’s how it goes...” I’ll never forget reading—You got a smile so bright, you know you could have been a candle; I’m holding you so tight, you know you could have been a handle, the way you swept me off my feet, you know you could have been a broom… I was thinking, “What the...!? This is some hokey stuff!” I never would have thought those lyrics would make sense but that’s the talent of the great Smokey Robinson. Only he could master such lyrical content.
Q: Where were you when you heard about your first hit single?
A: Our first hit was “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” We had always been known as a working group. By that I mean we’d be out in towns like Muskegon, Saginaw and Lansing working clubs for two or three weeks at a time before heading back to Detroit to record again. We had just returned to Motown from one of those stints when one of the executives came and told us the song had been released and was doing well. He showed us the trades. It was #76 with a bullet. By that time, we had recorded seven or eight records including “I Want a Love I Can See,” which we thought was going to be a hit. None of them had done much, so we just sat there in the Motown lobby and cried like little boys about to get their butts whipped.
A short time later Motown let us know “The Way You Do the Things You Do” was jumping off in Chicago! Then it became really big in Philly. Then we found out it had taken off in New York City. Once a record takes off in New York you know you’ve made it big. That was in March of 1964, and by April it had almost made the top ten—it peaked at #11, and we’ve been rolling ever since.
Q: The Temptations have so many great songs in their vast music catalog. As a songwriter and producer, yourself, what’s the difference between a good song and a great song?
A: It’s a combination of a lot of things. When you hear a great song you feel it spiritually, and emotionally—it hits you in your gut. I was still living in Detroit, and driving into town, when I first heard Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” When that song started to play I had to pull over to the shoulder of the road. I couldn’t believe it. You can tell a great song instantaneously. Within the first few beats it plucks on the right nerve, the right sensibility inside you.
Q: Do you have a favorite lyric or bit of choreography among the many songs you’ve sung and performed?
A: I love the part in “My Girl” where we sing ‘What can make me feel this way?” On the record, we sing it right along with David [Ruffin]. On stage, however, we did it a little differently. He would ask and we would answer while throwing our arms straight out. It made it more dramatic. “Papa was a Rolling Stone” was another favorite of mine. It kicks off with that great bass line, which serves as the pulse of the song. We did a move on stage that simulated a pulse. It was very effective.
ON THE CHOREOGRAPHY:
Q: In the early days, a lot of the Temptations moves came from working with famed dancer and choreographer Cholly Atkins, who passed in 2003. Who’s currently doing choreography for the Tempts?
A: I must give accolades, even before Cholly, to Paul Williams. When we first got together and Paul was in the group we’d just stand there as we were rehearsing. One day he turned to us and said, “Fellows, we have to be exciting. We have to have moves that are classy, so that fans will say, ‘I like the way they move their bodies.’” Paul was the initiator of our choreography, then came Cholly Atkins and Lon Fontaine. For the last few years we have been working with a very talented, young man named Michael Henderson.
Q: This past October you turned 78, and have been performing, virtually nonstop, for 60-plus years. Can you still do those awe-inspiring moves? Do you sometimes wish you could separate the songs from the choreography?
A: It’s true, our songs and our moves are sort of locked in together. Here it is 60 years later and the audience is still looking for us to do the choreography. In our stage show now we do a lot of those moves, but at a certain point we also bring stools on the stage and sit and talk to the audience. I’m panting a little bit by that time and I tell them, “I’ve been doing this for six decades and I’m tired you all.” They just fall out laughing. We turn it into a comedy thing and fans love it. Sometimes I look at the stuff we used to do in the '60s, '70s, '80s and even '90s and think to myself, only when you’re young!!
Q: How are you still able to do those moves at age 78?
A: The key is you’ve got to get rest. I’m not one to hang out, go to bars, party all night and so on. When we first started I was in my 20's and did all that. But after a while my values changed. When I moved to Los Angeles in ‘74 I thought, man you really have to take better care of yourself, starting right now. It’s common sense, but common sense isn’t so common if you don’t use it.
ON THE GROUP’S INFLUENCES AND SUCCESS:
Q: Who were some of the musical groups who influenced you, both early in your career and later?
A: From the beginning, all I ever wanted to do was find a group of guys to sing with so we could have fun, and make a little money. I was impressed with so many incredible artists throughout my career. Early on, we listened to and were inspired by: The Flamingos, The Cadillacs, The Moon Glows, The Four Tops, Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers and so many more. Later came amazing groups and performers like Aretha, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. The list goes on and on.
Q: When the original “classic five” really started to take off—did you ever say to each other: we will never let success get in the way or change our lives?
A: That’s exactly what the original Temptations said. When we started having hits we told each other look man, we’re not going to be like some of the early great groups who had success and then started getting fragmented. We ended up being just like that. Success can be uncontrollable. You start having it—start making money, getting adulation, having doors opening up that had never opened up to you before—and it can make you think you’re more than what you are. Success is a wonderful thing to achieve but it can really test your will. I often had to pinch myself, because the success and love we were receiving was unbelievable. It threw us out of kilter after a period of time. Here we were: five young black guys from Detroit, making money; fans around the world, able to buy ourselves homes and cars and doing really well… and then, with outside influences, things began to unravel.
Q: When you started singing did you know your music would be as impactful as it has been?
A: No. I don’t think anyone could have known that. It often amazes me to learn what our music has meant to our fans. I remember getting a letter from the daughter of an elderly woman stricken with cancer who asked me to call her. When I did she put her mom on the phone. Her mom told me she had asked God not to take her until she had had a chance to talk to me. Now that she had, she was ready to go. Then she started telling me what our music had meant to her and the impact it had on her life. I was sitting on the edge of my bed, literally in tears. Then there was the time someone told me their cousin’s last wish was that a Temptations CD be placed in their coffin. How could I possibly have imagined someone would want to take our music to their final resting place. What do you say to that? It still leaves me speechless.
Q: In 2017, Billboard Magazine named the Temptations the “#1 R&B/Hip Hop Artists of All Time.” How did that make you feel?
A: You could have tipped me over with a feather. It was a great honor, especially having been around for 60 years now. Also, we were thrilled to be named among Billboard’s “125 Greatest of All Time Artists” in November of 2019. We definitely feel the love from fans and the industry.
ON LONGTIME MANAGER, SHELLY BERGER:
Q: Shelly Berger has been manager of the Temptations since the mid-1960s. How did all of you come together?
A: Motown brought Shelly in as a staff manager to oversee us and the Supremes. Shortly after that Berry Gordy sat down with him and asked what are you going to do for my artists, my company? Shelly said he was going to make sure we had our own TV special, he was going to get us on the Ed Sullivan Show, was going to book us into the Copacabana, and so on. He laid out a big program. Mr. Gordy excused Shelly, called one of his executives into the office and said, this guy’s crazy. Fire him! That was in 1966 and his unprecedented strategies far surpassed expectation. Here we are in 2020 and we’re still together.
ON THE TEMPTATIONS’ LONGEVITY:
Q: It’s been six decades now for the Temptations. What’s the hardest thing about keeping a group afloat for that long?
A: First, let me say, singing for these six decades has been a true labor of love. I’ve been surrounded by some of the most talented singers God ever created. However, it takes much more than talent to stay together. It takes a willingness on everyone’s part to collectively work together in harmony. It can be challenging at times but we are blessed to still be around for 60 years and rolling on.
Q: What have you found out about yourself after all these years, as a performer, as the group’s leader, and as a man?
A: The yoke of being the group’s leader was put on my back by our then-manager, the late great Johnnie Mae Matthews when we were still Otis Williams and the Distants. I wasn’t one of the lead singers and didn’t feel I had to lead. My attitude was we were all equal. I just wanted to win. However, unlike some of the other members of the group I was always a stickler for being on time. Johnnie Mae loved that so she made me the group’s spokesperson and the one to call whenever something had to be dealt with. What I learned about myself is that we all have roles to play here on this earth. I found mine in being organized, and having the discipline to keep things going when we were on the precipice of doing big things. When Mr. Gordy called to congratulate me on the opening of the Broadway musical, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations he said “Otis, if it wasn’t for you the Temptations would not be around all these years later.” I’ve heard that countless times over the years. It made me realize this was the role God meant me to play.
ON THE SMASH HIT BROADWAY MUSICAL, AIN’T TOO PROUD WITH THE TONY AWARD®-WINNING CHOREOGRAPHY AND GRAMMY®-WINNING MUSIC:
Q: What went through your mind when you saw the musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations performed for the first time on the Broadway stage? I would imagine it was a deeply emotional experience?
A: When I saw those brothers performing I was like a proud dad seeing five sons being delivered right there on the stage. They were so dynamic, and just spot-on in their depiction of us. I remember watching Ephraim Sykes killing it—throwing his microphone into the air, and then grabbing it as it came down while dropping into a split. I was sitting there thinking, wow, I had a hand in that. And it wasn’t just the extraordinary actors playing the Temptations. I was proud of the producers, the award-winning director and writer, the musical director, the choreographer, the orchestra, the entire cast, including the ladies playing the Supremes and everyone who had a hand in making the musical possible. Beyond the music and the moves, I was very happy that our story was being told. People have said they didn’t know I had gone through all that, losing David, Eddie, Paul, and Melvin the way I did, or that I lost my son in a construction accident.
Q: How did it feel when you learned the musical Ain’t Too Proud would be touring to 50 cities, in more than 100+ weeks, starting July 2020? What went through your mind when you heard that great news?
A: I was overjoyed. The fact that the musical has touched so many lives in the audiences on Broadway has been inspiring, and to know so many others will have an opportunity to share in our story is truly amazing.
Q: Motown of the 1960s was a once in a lifetime phenomenon. Do you think it could ever be replicated today?
A: No. I often tell people 1960s Motown was no happenstance company. God, in his infinite wisdom, brought all those talented songwriters, producers and executives together in that little two story family flat at a time of great change in this country—a decade that saw the assassination of leaders like Dr. King, Malcolm X, and the Kennedys; the Civil Rights movement and racial unrest; women’s lib; Vietnam and the anti-war movement. It was one of the most tumultuous decades of the last 100 years. And here comes this company that housed all these talented people making music that will outlive us all. It was like putting ointment on a troubled soul. That’s why I consider Motown the greatest record label of all time. Nothing now compares to them. Nothing ever will.
Q: What was it like being a part of those Motortown Revue bus tours to the deep South in the '60s?
A: What stands out most is the enormity of how people felt—good, bad, or indifferent—when it came to racial tension; seeing a rope running down the middle of a theater aisle with blacks on one side and whites on the other; hearing people tell us to get out of their neighborhood and don’t come back here; or seeing police dogs being unleashed on peaceful civil rights demonstrators. Music was a cushion for most of us, but it was hard to not sink into despair seeing how torn apart we were as a nation.
Q: There were so many indignities and outright dangers that came along with those tours in that era. How did the music help you get through those rough times? Was there ever a time when you thought it’s not worth it?
A: We never got to the point of saying it’s not worth it. When you give up like that, the opposition has won. You stay the course. Music is a powerful force. It can bring people together in ways that politicians cannot. I mentioned earlier being at a theater in South Carolina and seeing a rope separating blacks from whites in the audience. A year or so later when we went back, the rope was gone. When we traveled to apartheid South Africa in the '70s we insisted on only playing before integrated audiences. From the stage, we could see people of both races in the crowd dancing together, perhaps for the first time. While doing a one show “tour” in Gdansk, Poland, before the Iron Curtain fell, people told us how they sought out our music on the black market. Music truly is a universal language.
ON BERRY GORDY:
Q: In one article, you were quoted as saying “Berry kept the door open for the Tempts to still be who they are today.” How so?
A: Mr. Gordy believed in the Temptations and believed in Melvin and me, so when the group faced personnel changes he was always very supportive. There have been many changes in our line-up since I first started the group. In some cases, with people leaving and then wanting to come back. Most record labels wouldn’t have put up with it. Mr. Gordy told Melvin and me as long as we wanted to continue he was going to support us.
ON BEING THE SOLE SURVIVING “CLASSIC FIVE” TEMPTATION:
Q: What went through your mind when Melvin Franklin passed and you realized you’re the last man standing of the original, “classic five” Temptations?
A: When I lost Melvin it was like having the wind taken out of my sails. We had been together since we were teenagers—since I was 17 and he was 16. Suddenly my best friend was gone. It left me feeling spiritually naked; like I was on an island by myself. He was always there for me and for the group. I really miss him. I miss the others too. They were an extraordinary group of men.
ON THE INFLUENCES OF DJ’S, RADIO AND TELEVISION:
Q: What impact did radio and its famous DJ’s have on your popularity over the years?
A: They had a huge impact. Having notable DJ’s like Joltin’ Joe Howard, Ernie Dunn, and Larry Dixon in Detroit; Georgie Woods in Philadelphia; Jocko Henderson in New York City; and the big heavyweights in Chicago put your records on their playlists, and say nice things about you, was an incredibly powerful thing. It was a sign that you had arrived. We’re so thankful Motown was the machine that it was—turning out hits for us and other artists and getting so many notable DJ’s throughout the decades to play our records. We are grateful to all the DJ’s who made sure our voices were heard, and who are still playing our music on the radio today.
Q: Don Cornelius and Soul Train launched and fueled the careers of several artists. The Temptations were already famous when Soul Train became a national hit. Did the show impact your success in the 1970’s?
A: Soul Train was like American Bandstand, black style, and it had a huge impact. Every Saturday at noon people would stop what they were doing and tune in to see who Don was having on the show that week. He was the talk of the town. It’s hard to put into words how great it was to be part of that, and then to have been on the show as many time as we were—it was a wonderful ride.
Q: What about the influence of American Bandstand in the early part of your career? And do you have any particular memories of Dick Clark?
A: Getting on American Bandstand was a coup because it meant we were crossing over to mainstream America. It was a sign we were a hit beyond the R&B world. I remember walking down a hallway around the corner from Dick Clark’s office in Los Angeles. I was talking to someone at the time and he must have had his office door open and heard me because he shouted, “Hey, is that Otis Williams out there?” Perhaps he recognized my southern drawl. We hadn’t been on American Bandstand in a couple of years so it meant a lot to me that he recognized my voice without seeing who it was talking in the hall.
Q: You performed on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. What do you remember about that experience?
A: We performed on The Tonight Show roughly ten times during the Carson era. One of the most memorable was shortly before he retired in May of ‘92. As the show was being taped they asked us if we could come up with a tribute to Johnny. On the spot, we made up a song, “Johnny, we hate to see you go,” and performed it in five-part harmony. The look on his face as he watched us from his desk, it was like he was getting ready to cry. I’ll never forget it.
ON THE FAMOUS APOLLO THEATER:
Q: Do you remember what it was like the first time you walked out onto the iconic Apollo Theater stage?
A: We first came to the Apollo, in the early '60s, as backup singers for Mary Wells, Motown’s leading star at the time. We did our two or three numbers, then we sang back-up during her set. Let me tell you, walking out on that Apollo stage for the first time we were beyond scared because the Apollo had a well-known reputation for snatching people off stage that weren’t up to snuff. The New York crowd was fierce in their opinions. If they didn’t like your act, they would holler out loud and boo you right off the stage with a message that came through loud and clear: “take your stuff back to where you came from!” When they sent the sandman comedian to haul you off stage, you would have to pick your ego up off the floor backstage. Fortunately, we never had to suffer that fate.
Q: Do you have a favorite memory or anecdote from one or more of your performances at the Apollo?
A: There were some wonderful moments, particularly after we had been so well received on our first visit. Once we started producing hit after hit, we packed the Apollo every time we showed up. I remember one time we were doing five shows a day, and the fans would line up down 125th Street, around 7th or 8th Avenue, all the way back to 126th Street. When it was all said and done we had broken all previous Apollo attendance records.
We’d open our show with “Hello Young Lovers,” rather than come out with an R&B tune. That was a bold move to make at the Apollo. The curtain would be closed, with us standing right behind it. At the time, we had this four-headed microphone and when it was put on the stage, in front of the closed curtain, the audience would see it and go wild because they knew what was coming. The curtain would go up and we’d start with that song. It was a gutsy way to open but the audience loved it. I’ll never forget watching all the ladies in the audience rush to the front of the stage throwing personal belongings at us. We had memorable times at the Apollo.
It was also at the Apollo, when we were performing with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, that Smokey came to our dressing room between sets and showed us for the first time, the song, the lyrics and the melody for our #1 hit, “My Girl.” (He left the background vocals up to us.) Soon after that backstage visit, when we were all back in Detroit, we recorded the song in the late summer/early fall of 1964 and it was released at the end of December that year. It was in March of 1965, when we were back at the Apollo that we received a telegram from Berry Gordy, congratulating us on “My Girl” hitting #1 and selling more than one million copies.
Q: For 60 years, The Temptations have had, and continue to have, an enduring legacy in music and entertainment through performances, recordings, films, theater and publishing. How did you feel about being enshrined on the Walk of Fame of the Apollo in June of 2019?
A: The Apollo and the Temptations have both stood the test of time and we are still standing today. When you think about all of the great acts that have performed at that world-famous venue and have been enshrined in the Walk of Fame, it literally blows your mind. And now, we’ve been recognized as one of those giants of entertainment, I can hardly put into words what it means to me. It’s an honor, I can’t even fully fathom.
ON THE FUTURE:
Q: Do you see your influences in contemporary music, and where do you see The Temptations and music going in general in the future?
A: We continue to stay true to what we’re known for and what we do. I give a lot of credit to Motown’s artist development training where we were schooled on how to stay true: our choreography, how we dressed, our harmonizing. We never strayed far from the things that our worldwide fans have come to know, appreciate, and accept about us.
The only time we stepped out of character was when we did the album, Cloud Nine. Making that album was a big departure for us. It came about because we were influenced by Sly and The Family Stone. When that album was first released it was spooky. We were used to our stuff coming out and running up the charts. This one started slow, but it became a Gold record and won us our first Grammy®. From that point on we were on a roll with psychedelic soul. The challenge was to be who we were, while doing something different.
We are looking forward to carrying the Temptations legacy into the future. We love what we do and enjoy touring and seeing our fans worldwide. We thank all of our fans globally for their enduring support, love and devotion. To mark our 60th anniversary this year, we will be touring internationally.
Q: The current line-up of Temptations—you, Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, and Willie Greene, Jr.—are still performing around the world. After touring all these years, it must be so gratifying to see the Temptations’ legacy continuing in the 21st Century.
A: It certainly is. When we started out in the '60s I never could have imagined we’d still be performing today. That’s unheard of, particularly when you consider the era we came from, and the fickleness of show business. I’m grateful to the men who are carrying the Temptations’ legacy forward with me. Ron Tyson, a lead vocalist with the group for 37 years, Terry Weeks, a lead vocalist with the group for 23 years, and Willie Greene, Jr., bass vocalist with the group for four years and I are thrilled to see audiences enjoying our music and performances today. One of the most inspiring aspects of touring is seeing the love and appreciation for our music being passed onto second and third generations in the same family. Fans come to our shows with their parents, grandparents and children, and they all join in singing our songs together. It’s a true family affair, we love it. It’s a mind-blowing experience.
ON YOUR LEGACY:
Q: What life lessons would you want to pass along to the next generation of artists?
A: Be dedicated and believe in yourself. Once I realized singing was what I wanted to do I was dedicated to being successful at it. I’ve told my kids and grandkids you have to condition yourself; you have to be baptized by a fire inside. You’re going to hear “no” a lot more often in life than you’re going to hear “yes,” so when you get a “yes” you ride it as hard as you can. I also tell them “no” doesn’t mean “no.” It just means not right now. Sometimes God tests us to see how bad we want something. Don’t get sidetracked if things don’t happen fast enough. You have to stay the course and press on. We all have to pay dues. That’s what gives it worth when you eventually succeed.
Q: Do you have any regrets as you look in the rear-view mirror?
A: Yes, you’re going to have some if you live life long enough. I regret I lost my son Lamont at such a young age. It was very hard coming to grips with that. I regret the classic Temptations couldn’t stay together. I’ve often said the world loved us but we didn’t always love ourselves. We got sidetracked and let stuff come into our lives that shouldn’t have been there. All in all, when I reflect back, my life has had many more positives than negatives. And even when those negatives came, I learned to live with them and continue on. Everyone will have moments in life they wish they could change but even at their worst those negatives can be powerful positive lessons. That’s the way God meant it to be. They helped make you a stronger and wiser person.
Photo by Chyna Photography