The Temptations: Otis Williams still singing the classics
Otis Williams, last of the five original Temptations, still tours with the group, which will perform in New Haven Friday, May 24, at the Shubert Theatre.
Past honors aside, there’s new reason for pride: a Broadway musical, “Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of The Temptations,” which opened in March. And the young actor who plays Williams, Derrick Baskin, is nominated for a Tony Award (the ceremony is June 9).
“I’ve seen it quite a few times,” said Williams, 77, of the show in a phone chat recently. “I tell you, it’s touching. Naturally, the music — what we’re known for. But the thing I really love about the play is when I hear people say, ‘The music is great but, Otis, your story, wow! Did you ever imagine you would go through this and now the world is being able to see it?’ So I love it; it’s the best of both worlds.”
Williams was raised in Texas by his grandmother, who had him sing in the church choir. A move to Detroit at 12 led him to sing with friends.
“Rock ‘n’ roll was in its infancy, you know. It began to be something big-time,” he said. “I went to the Fox Theater in Detroit, which ... is the second-largest indoor theater in America... And to see 5,000 people going crazy over what five guys were dong on-stage, I was impressed with that.”
Inspired by The Cadillacs and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Williams was in one group but soon joined Melvin Franklin, Elbridge “Al” Bryant, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams as The Elgins before Berry Gordy discovered another group was using that name. So the Temptations were minted.
“But we must have recorded about six, seven singles,” said Williams, “before we got the real first hit, which was ‘The Way You Do the Things You Do.’ That was in 1964.”
At almost he same time, the group’s “classic lineup” (with David Ruffin replacing Bryant) produced the group’s monster hit “My Girl” (written by Smokey Robinson and fellow Miracles member Ronnie White).
“It was really unbelievable,” Williams said of the time. He recalled his first exposure to ‘My Girl.’ “Smokey came to us at a club ... and he came backstage and he was touting how great the show was and then he looked down at David Ruffin and said, ‘I have a song for you.’”
Ruffin and Robinson worked on the song while on tour and the group soon recorded it.
“In February 1964, we were back at the Apollo and Berry Gordy sent us a telegram congratulating us on ‘My Girl’ being the No. 1 record and selling over a million copies. And The Beatles sent us a telegram congratulating us. And once that happened, it was just hit after hit after hit.”
Songs such as “Get Ready,” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (with The Supremes), “Ball of Confusion,” “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).”
Those were increasingly tense times in America, with war, assassinations and civil rights battles. The group was not exempt from bias or turmoil.
“We had our share of early prejudice, getting shot at and called the ‘n’ word,” Williams said. An auditorium in Spartanburg, S.C., would have a rope down the middle for blacks on one side and whites on the other.
“I learned that the music from Motown really would bring people together,” Williams said. “And ... we came back to that same auditorium and blacks and whites were seated side by side during the music. Music can be a very powerful influence to break down barriers.”
The Temptations, with their singing, smooth stepping (the Temptations Walk) and precision, influenced many groups, from The Chi-Lites to Hall & Oates.
“Whoever would have thought that little two-family flat at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. (now the Motown Museum) would come along and make such powerful music that is still being loved over 50 years today,” Williams said. “... I’m just happy I was at Motown and had a lot of talented people instilling in us about being in show business for the longevity.”
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