Over Here To Tempt Us – The Temptations’ Otis Williams On His Love Affair With The UK, Norman Whitfield, And Singing With President Barack Obama

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“Life is good – I woke up this morning!” So says 78-year-old Otis Williams, accompanying his quip with a hearty, self-deprecating chuckle. As the last surviving original member of the legendary Motown group, The Temptations, the Texas-born baritone singer has quite a responsibility to shoulder, it seems, but remains philosophical about it. “I guess God felt as though I could handle it all and sixty years later, The Tempts are still carrying on, so that’s something I’ve come to realise and accept. Somebody’s got to do it, and I guess I was the chosen one.”

The Temptations have been visiting the UK regularly for fifty-six years now and are set to return this autumn when they’ll play eight shows in tandem with their old Motown sparring-partners, long-time rivals and forever friends, The Four Tops. “We’ve been coming to England since 1964,” says Otis, explaining  The Temptations’ enduring love affair with the British public. “I think we made a lasting impression when we first went there, making ourselves known by singing songs like ‘My Girl’ and wearing sharp suits and doing beautiful choreography. That embodied the thing that The Tempts did, and it became something that the British people expect to hear. And that’s why I think we’re so loved there.”


The feeling is mutual. “We love coming to England,” enthuses Otis. “To me, it’s like my second home. I loved it when we first came over because of the activity and the vibe. The energy was different, especially with The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and all those groups of that ilk that were busting loose. It was just a whole other setting – the style of dress and the music. So it was just a wonderful place to be because it was so different. They were wearing different kinds of clothes then than what we were wearing back in the states, so we loved coming to England. It’s always good going back because the reception is good wherever we play.”

Otis says he’s conscious that the British public has certain expectations about the music they want to hear and says the group is happy to oblige them. “Naturally we’ll be doing what we’re noticed for, which keeps bringing us back to England after all these years,” he says. “We’ll be singing ‘My Girl,’ ‘Just My Imagination,’ and ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,’ with some new, fresh stuff inserted within the show: a couple of songs from our new album, ‘The Temptations All The Time.’ But it’s the older songs that the world has come to know and love from the Tempts. They will forever be in the show because that’s what our fans come to hear us sing.”

altOf course, the group’s iconic, chart-busting 1965 hit, the Smokey Robinson-penned-and-produced ‘My Girl’ is at the top of the group’s setlist. “‘My Girl’ changed our lives dramatically,” he reveals.  “We fell in love with it after we rehearsed it. Then we went in the studio and recorded it, and when (arranger) Paul Riser added the strings and horns, I just felt it was something special. It was released in December 1964, and by February 1965, it was a number one hit record. I remember we were performing at the Apollo Theater in New York, and Berry (Gordy) sent us a telegram congratulating us. The Beatles also sent a telegram congratulating us. But ‘My Girl’ was one of those special kinds of songs, and it is still loved fifty-plus years later. It just opened up a whole world of love and acceptance and added a coup de grace to The Temptations. So it’s a very important factor in our existence.”

altMotown’s resident poet laureate, Smokey Robinson, was the principal architect behind The Temptations’ early chart successes, but in 1966 Berry Gordy brought in Norman Whitfield (pictured above) to write and produce the group’s music. He took the group in another direction, using them as guinea pigs to deliver his socially-conscious psychedelic soul sermons.  “Norman was a track master,” notes Otis.  “He was a genius kind of guy in putting songs together. I must say out of all the producers that we worked with, Norman took a different path of producing records. When you listen to ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’, ‘Ball Of Confusion,’  ‘Message From A Black Man,’ ‘I Can’t Get Next To You,’ and ‘Just My Imagination,’ you realise that Norman just created something out of the ordinary, but they were songs that turned out to be monster hits. So we had some wonderful moments and times with Norman.”

                           altUnlike their touring buddies, The Four Tops, who managed to keep the same line-up for many years, The Temptations have a long history of volatility and changing personnel. The current line up includes Ron Tyson (who joined in 1983 and is the second longest-serving member behind Otis), Terry Weeks (who’s been with the group since 1997), and relative newcomers, Larry Braggs and William Green. “It was human nature I guess,” says Otis, speculating on the reason for the group’s instability and various incarnations over the years. “The one constant thing is change and even people that you felt you knew would change. Success can be a strong aphrodisiac and make you feel and think certain ways, just depending on the person. We all have egos and having an ego isn’t necessarily a bad thing to have, but when you had the kind of success that we were having, you find out what you’re made of. You find out how dedicated you can be. I don’t denigrate any of the guys that have gone, I’ve just come to realise that that’s the way life can be. I had to go through changes and here we are today.”

                      altOtis is proud of the new Broadway musical, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, which brings The Temptations’ story to the stage and won a Tony award for Best Choreography. Experiencing it in person had a profound effect on him. “I’ll be honest with you; it moved me to tears,” he discloses.  “I haven’t yet watched the TV miniseries (from 1998) about us, but I had to go and see the play in person and man, it’s very touching. Some parts will make you well up and other moments will make your heart almost pop out of your chest because we’re dealing with actuality – singers with egos, and all kinds of things that can disrupt a group. And then there’s the music. The music is such a great force and the one constant. We’re breaking records on Broadway, and now the show is getting ready to go around the country here in America, and then it will be coming to England, also.”

Even though he’s 78, Otis is still driven and wants to keep the group moving forward. “One of my goals is to keep it going so even when I retire, I’d like to see the Tempts continue and be loved and accepted,” he reveals. “I want to make sure that it’s the same quality that the fans have come to know, love and expect. At the moment, though, I love what I do. I’m not caught in a nine-to-five job, like some people who are complaining and very unhappy. I go on stage for between forty-five minutes to an hour and make a good living. The only thing I complain about is travelling and ungodly hours, things of that nature, but other than that, I’m blessed.”

Finally, what stands out as the biggest highlight of his career? “When you’ve been around as long as we have, there’s a lot of highs,” laughs Otis. “But I think that one of the things that come to my mind right off the bat is being in the White House in the Oval Office singing ‘Silent Night’ with President Barack Obama. I never imagined we would get to do that. He was singing right along with us. He’s got a sweet tenor voice, and I said, ‘President Obama, you should join The Tempts – you’re tall enough, can sing and look good.’ He burst out laughing, and said ‘no, no, that’s what you do, I’ll just do what I have to do.’ So that’s one of the highlights of my professional life.”

 Catch The Temptations On Tour With The Four Tops later this year:

Thursday 29 October                 Cardiff                        Motorpoint Arena

Friday 30 October                      Nottingham                Motorpoint Arena

Sunday 1 November                   Manchester                Arena

Monday 2 November                  Liverpool                    M&S Bank Arena

Tuesday 3 November                 Leeds                        First Direct Arena

Wednesday 4 November            Birmingham                 Arena

Saturday 7 November                Bournemouth             International Centre

Sunday 8 November                  London                      O2 Arena

Tickets available from: www.ticketline.co.uk, 24-hour ticket line 0844 888 9991, or from the venues direct