The Temptations are a veritable soul music institution. In a storied recording career that stretches back to 1961 and the dawn of Motown Records, the legendary vocal quintet have witnessed myriad changes in personnel and had many fine singers come through their ranks – including David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, and Dennis Edwards, to name but three – but their one constant and ever-present figure has been co-founder, Otis Williams. He’s been the solid rock behind the group that has given them stability and continuity during fifty-seven years of blood, sweat, toil and tears that has yielded a plethora of hit records and heaps of awards and prestigious accolades.
At 76, Otis Williams has no inclination to hang up his microphone just yet. “As long as I can keep doing the dance steps, I’ll keep going,” he laughs, though, sadly, you feel that the time when the curtain comes down on his career is drawing ever closer. But for the moment, though, The Temptations are still a viable and going concern and are set to bring their unique vocal magic and stupendous back catalogue to the UK this coming November when they co-headline a joint eight-concert tour with fellow Motown legends, the Four Tops. The two groups, who have enjoyed a long but friendly rivalry, have been touring together for many years now and enjoy the camaraderie of being together on the road. “We’ve been doing this for about four decades so it’s like old hat to us,” laughs softly-spoken Otis. “They travel on their own bus and we travel on our bus and then we get to the gig,” he says, describing the two groups’ on-the-road routine. “We laugh and talk and enjoy one another’s company, and then we go and do the show and then go to the hotel and rest up and then go on the bus to the next gig. So we’re like pedestrians – we just work and take care of what we do.”
Otis makes life on the road sound mundane and uneventful but judging from when they were last in the UK together – which was about eighteen months ago – there’s nothing remotely pedestrian about the show that the two groups will serve up. “Naturally, we’re going to be singing our favourites,” says Otis, who then proceeds to reel off the names of some of The Temptations’ classic songs. “We’ll be doing ‘My Girl,’ ‘Treat Her Like A Lady,’ ‘Just My Imagination,’ ‘Ball Of Confusion’… we also have a new CD coming out in May and will probably do one of the cuts off of that. The name of it is ‘The Temptations All The Time,’ so we’re going to introduce some fresh songs into the set.”
More than anything else, it’s the loyalty shown by British audiences that continues to impress Otis, and his affection for the people of this so-called Sceptred Isle seems sincere and heartfelt. “They spoil you because they love you forever,” he explains. “They just love you regardless, especially if you put on a good show and give them what they came out to see. They are wonderfully devoted fans. Over in America, they receive us very well, but I guess over here, in the UK, we’re kind of spoiled. When you get over to England, boy, they let you know they love you forever, so I’m very impressed with the loyalty that they have shown us throughout the years.”
The UK has been a good hunting ground for The Temptations, who racked up 31 hits here between 1965 and 1992, and Otis Williams is quick to extol the virtues of the group’s British fans.“England is wonderful,” he enthuses. “It’s what I call our second home because we have been received so wonderfully well, ever since 1964 when we first came over. The British people are just wonderful fans to have and they love you forever. Sometimes they know more about The Temptations’ history than Americans do. I’m very impressed with their knowledge. They find out stuff that I forgot all about that we did. They are very in tune with what we do.”
Are there any British cities that he especially looks forward to visiting? “I can’t say just one,” he says diplomatically,“because I don’t want to make somebody unhappy, but it’s all great. Naturally, we just love coming to London because we’re shopaholics – we go and hit Harrods and a couple of other stores that you have that we always go to.”
The group’s maiden visit to the UK is etched into his memory. “We flew in to do (a TV show called) Ready Steady Go,” he remembers. “We were over there primarily for promotion. The Supremes came over to do promotion, too, and they were hot at the time, and they stayed over and worked. We did our promotion but came over back stateside because we had to record again. But we had a chance to meet The Beatles while we were there. At that time, England was really wide open because The Beatles were as hot as cayenne pepper, and they had different fashions over there which we didn’t see over here in the US. I was impressed by a whole lot of aspects about England. I almost didn’t want to come back home, it was so wonderful.”
As Otis mentioned above, as well as being elated about returning to the UK, the quintet are excited about their forthcoming new album, ‘All The Time,’ which is due for release in May. “It’s our first album for nine years,” says Otis. “This is a first for The Temptations because we’ve never gone this long without having any product out.” Even though, this is the group’s forty-sixth album (excluding compilations), Otis Williams is not blasé about making records and still gets a thrill from launching a new album: “I’m just as excited as I was back in 1964 when our first album, ‘Meet The Temptations,’ and our first hit, ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do,’ came out.”
The new twelve-track album finds the group mainly putting their distinctive spin on songs by contemporary hit-makers, which include Sam Smiths ‘Stay With Me,’ Ed Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud,’ and The Weeknd’s ‘Earned It.’ “We did great cover jobs on tunes that I had the pleasure of picking out,” reveals Otis. “One of them is a soulful version of ‘Stay With Me,’ and it makes you want to go to church. We also did three originals, including our new single, ‘Waiting On You,’ which has just been released.”
The album’s producer is Dave Darling, whose previous credits include rockabilly band, Brian Seltzer and The Stray Cats, country singer, Meredith Brooks, and gravel-voiced troubadour, Tom Waits. Hardly the strongest credentials for producing a legendary Motown soul group, you would think, but on listening to the album, he’s done a sterling job. Otis Williams was impressed by him. “It was our first time working with David and he brought a freshness to us and a different approach,” he declares. “He’s a wonderful producer.” In fact, he enjoyed the session with Darling so much that he’s not averse to working with him again. “I told him the other day, when I did some promotion for our new single, ‘Waiting on You,’ that we would not hesitate to go back in the studio with him again because he’s a consummate producer and he knows his music.”
Joining Otis in the current incarnation of the group is Ron Tyson, whose been with The Tempts since 1983, Terry Weeks (“he’s been with me for over 20 years,” says Otis), plus two singers whom Otis calls “the newbies.” They are bass voice, Willie Green, and tenor lead, Larry Braggs, who both joined in 2016. A former vocalist with Tower Of Power, Braggs is in a privileged position, following in the hallowed footsteps of such iconic Tempts’ front men as David Ruffin and the late Dennis Edwards (pictured above). Talking of Edwards, who passed away earlier this year, Otis Williams is fulsome in his praise for the man whose raspy, gospel-powered voice led the group during its verdant psychedelic soul era in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “Aside from being a dynamic performer and a hell of a singer, Dennis was funny,” reveals Otis. “He had a very comedic side that would make you laugh and we’d say” you are nuts!” I think about all those days when we were together and he would do and say funny things, but it makes me kind of sad to think that he is no longer with us and he suffered so before he passed. But he was a wonderful fellow. I loved Dennis.”
As good as he was a singer, Dennis Edwards wasn’t quite as charismatic on stage as his predecessor, the bespectacled David Ruffin, who was with the group from 1964-1968 and sang on records like ‘My Girl.’ “They were both different kinds of singers,” admits Otis, when trying to compare Ruffin’s and Edwards’ respective styles, “but they were both dynamic. David was fantastic and there’s nothing I can say about David other than that when it came to performing, he was one of the greats. He could sing and dance and then he would throw the microphone up in the air then drop to his knees and catch it, so he was a dynamic showman…but Dennis was the same.”
After Ruffin was fired and Dennis Edwards, who had previously sung with The Contours, came in, the group’s producer, Norman Whitfield (pictured above), radically changed the group’s sound. In 1968, he ushered in a phase of socially-conscious, counterculture-influenced message songs. Remembering the groundbreaking producer, Otis Williams says: “We grew up together. We used to be with (Detroit recording pioneer) Johnnie Mae Matthews so I knew Norman way back. We were both 19 years old when we first met up.” At that time, the ambitious Whitfield was just a young kid trying to get his foot in the door at Motown and could occasionally be heard playing tambourine on records before becoming a quality control person, then a songwriter, and in 1966, taking over from Smokey Robinson as The Temptations’ producer.
“Watching Norman come from playing a tambourine to becoming one of the world’s renowned producers was an interesting travel,” opines Otis. “He had hits on us – like ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ and ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’ – before we went to psychedelic soul. That came about in 1968. I asked Norman, had he heard this new sound, speaking of Sly & The Family Stone, and he said, ‘no, man, I haven’t heard that.’ Anyway, we went out of town and when we came back in town, Norman had recorded the track to ‘Cloud Nine,’ and history was written. That was the first Grammy for The Temptations and Motown. We had a wonderful eight years of hits with Norman.”
Before Whitfield worked his magic on them, The Temptations were produced by one of Motown’s early sonic architects and ace tunesmiths, Smokey Robinson (above). “There’s no comparison between Norman and Smokey,” says Otis. “Smokey was a melodic, out of sight songwriter/producer while Norman was an innovative force and he would go in areas that other producers would not. They were two wonderful producers with different approaches.”
To date, twenty-four different people have been in The Temptations’ line-up since 1960 and compared with the Four Tops, a much more stable group by comparison with very few alterations in personnel, the quintet has experienced many changes. According to Otis Williams, what has galvanised them and held them together is a dogged determination and a passion for performing. “Perseverance, and the fact that I still love what I do has kept us going,” says the Texas born singer. “And what I’ve learned is that the one thing that is constant in life is change. So I’ve been able to, with God’s help, to be able to adapt to whatever is necessary to help The Temptations continue on, and over 50 years later, we’re still having fun. So I just give thanks first and foremost to God, because on the real side, The Temptations should have been through when we lost David Ruffin, but we didn’t, and we ended up with a whole other sound and we even went farther and higher that we had done before with David. So it’s just about loving what we do. I must also give credit to Berry Gordy, because he would always be there for Melvin (Franklin) and myself in spite of all the changes we went through and gave us his backing.”
Otis Williams took on the mantle of the group’s leader in 1995 when fellow co-founder, Melvin Franklin, passed away. I asked him what qualities he looked for when he sought to recruit new member to join The Temptations. “I look for head and heart first,” he states. “People will look at me and say what are you talking about? But, see, I’ve been surrounded by talent all my life but I always judge a person by where their head is and what kind of heart they have. You can have all the talent in the world but if you’re not a nice person you’re gonna negate that talent. So I look for the essence of a person, not just the talent. You’ve got to be a very good person and not get a big head. So for me, it’s the head and the heart first.”
Only four years away from his eightieth birthday, Otis has contemplated a time when he won’t be able to perform anymore with the group. “I would love to see them carry on without me,” he confesses, but admits that as he’s the only surviving original member, many people won’t accept the group as The Temptations anymore. “I’ve been told, ‘if you’re not up there, Otis, it ain’t going to be the same,’ so it’s a burden that I carry because I still love what I do, but I don’t want to be eighty-something years old and still doing all those steps that we are doing!” He laughs heartily at the thought and then adds, “I’m just taking a day at a time.”
Although the group’s new album, ‘All The Time,’ embraces contemporary songs, Otis, for the most part, says that he is not enamoured with a lot of today’s music. “I listen to a lot of stuff on the radio, today’s music, and some of it I like but a lot of it I don’t,” he confesses. “I don’t think you have to reduce yourself down to cussing, profanities, and all kinds of degrading things,” he says, alluding to the expletives that dominate hip-hop and also some R&B. “But it’s a different world now. When we started out, we couldn’t even say the word damn. But now they’re saying everything.”
Unlike, perhaps, some of those modern records that offend Otis’s ears, his group’s own music, has endured spectacularly well. Reflecting on the group’s legacy and the timelessness of its music, Otis says: “We’ve been surrounded by great songs and great songs will stand the test of time.”
There have been plenty of highlights in The Temptations’ long career, the most recent of which, according to Otis, being the recognition of their evergreen 1965 hit, ‘My Girl,’ by the American Library of Congress, which has included it in their National Recording Registry set up to celebrate and document landmark American music. “I could never have imagined that would happen to ‘My Girl’,” says Otis, whose sense of pride at the group’s inclusion in such a prestigious American institution is almost palpable. It’s just one of many awards and accolades that the legendary group has picked up during a long and remarkable career that looks likely to continue for another couple of years. Catch them live while you still can.
SEE THE TEMPTATIONS LIVE ON TOUR IN THE UK WITH THE FOUR TOPS BETWEEN NOVEMBER 19TH AND 29TH.
THE TEMPATATIONS’ NEW ALBUM ‘ALL THE TIME’ IS RELEASED BY UNIIVERSAL ON MAY 4TH