There are few groups in the history of music to experience the incredible amount of success and longevity as The Temptations. Their music became the soundtrack of America’s changing tide toward segregation and opening the gates for black entertainers to achieve crossover appeal during the early days of Motown Records in the 1960s. Five decades later, their intergenerational influence continues to impact past and current musical artists. During the group’s prestigious career, they’ve spawned fourteen number one R&B records, received three Grammy awards and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
EBONY recently sat down with the legendary Otis Williams to discuss the history behind the group, how black music has changed over time, and their future plans.
EBONY: Can you tell me the brief back story regarding your involvement in forming the original lineup for The Temptations?
Otis Williams: I was in Detroit when rock and roll was in its infancy. I was impressed by the rock and roll shows that were coming to the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Once I moved to the west side of Detroit, I found some guys that really had the same type of dedication I had. Mr. Gordy saw my group which was Otis Williams and The Distants. He told me to come see him because he was starting his own label. A few weeks later, I left the little label I was with and joined Mr. Gordy. History was made in December 1961 with emergence of The Temptations. Then, in 1964, when David Ruffin joined Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, and me, history was really made.
EBONY: Do you feel the spirit of the Motown sound helped to break down color barriers and segregation during the turbulent 1960s?
OW: Oh, absolutely. No question about it. My feet have been held to the fire to be able to live through that, see it firsthand, and being moved to tears because we used to walk into restaurants in parts of the south after performing Motown Revue shows there and being told, “We don’t serve n*ggers.” And us being smart, we said to them, “We don’t eat ‘em.” They wouldn’t feed us so we ended up going somewhere else to find something to eat. Then, there were times where there would be ropes hanging down from the center of the auditorium that we would be performing in. Blacks would be on one side of the aisle and whites on the other. We came back to that same auditorium a year later and blacks and whites were sitting side by side enjoying the music. If it wasn’t for the sweat coming down our faces, you would’ve seen the tears. To be a part of something that broke down the barriers for artists of today to enjoy and not have to go through that, I’m very glad we were forebearers to break down those walls.
EBONY: Music has been in a constant state of evolution from the 1960s until now. How hard was it transforming the group’s sound through the changing of group members in each decade and remaining successful?
OW: First of all, you have to be dedicated to the business you’re in. This is a cut throat business. Every six months, the music changes. It’s just like the weather, but we’ve always been dedicated to what it takes to survive. We’ve always loved challenges. And thank God we’ve been able to withstand all the changes not to just our personnel, but music trends. Music is forever changing and to be able to adapt to whatever the popular genre of music is at that moment has been an awesome feeling. We’ve been able to do that for the past five decades. It’s something we look forward to and rising to the occasion. Fortunately, for us, we’ve always had multi-layered voices in the group that can sing any genre of music from gospel to jazz to rock and roll to country western. So whatever is called for us to sing, we can do. It has been the strong suit for The Temptations.
EBONY: There are many people that believe R&B and soul music is dead. What are your thoughts about the current state of R&B and soul music respectively?
OW: The one constant thing in life is change. Some of it’s good and some of it is not. On the real side, I’m not impressed with a lot of stuff I hear on the radio today. I tell people when they say old school, I say, “Yea, that’s me.” Because songs from back in the day you could hum the melody once they went off the radio. I hear music on the radio today that when it goes off I can’t even find the melody or know what the hell the songs are saying. There really isn’t a track there either. I like John Legend, but if you asked me this same question back in the day, I’d be able to rattle off group after group. But now I have to search to come up with someone who I think is impressive enough for me to say I like them. I also like Jennifer Hudson. Some of the music is good, but overall I’m not impressed. That’s why Motown’s music, Gamble & Huff’s music, Stax’s music, and a lot of the music that was from the 60s, 70s, and 80s are still popular today because of the lyrics. If you listen to some of the lyrics today, they’re cussing, talking about beating a woman, and all kinds of stuff that leaves me scratching my head. The thing I really can’t understand is how the FCC is allowing this to happen. When we started out, we couldn’t even say the word damn on a record. We’ve become a very decadent society because anything goes for the almighty dollar.
EBONY: What are your feelings about Motown the Musical currently playing on Broadway?
OW: Well, we’re very hopeful now that Mr. Gordy has started the Motown musical. We would like to see The Temptations long story go to Broadway. We’ve been in a holding pattern waiting for Mr. Gordy’s musical to get started. I’m really looking forward to being a part of it when they take our popular miniseries to Broadway, which was released in 1998. We truly have a story to tell. So that’s the thing I’m hopeful for in the coming years.
EBONY: How does it feel to be the last living member of The Temptations and the admiration you continue to receive from your fans?
OW: When I stop and think about me being the sole survior of the Temptations, I’ve often been told by others "God isn’t through with you, Otis. You still have work to do." I’ve said to myself a few times that there must be something to that. For all the guys that I loved and cared for are no longer here and here I am still carrying on in 2013, I’m just in awe. When I go out, I try to dress and blend in with everyone, but people always stop me asking me and telling me I’m one of the Temptations. They always talk to me about our music and how it makes them still feel. I thought I was dressed down, but I always get recognized. It’s really a blessing though to receive the love and admiration from the fans. I can’t complain because I realize our group has played a huge role in people’s lives. I’m fortunate to be a part of something that will outlast us all. I never could’ve imagined receiving all these different accolades in my career.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites.