The Last Temptation of Motown: A Conversation with Soul Survivor Otis Williams
The last original member of Motown titans the Temptations talks new music and breaking down racial barriers in the tumultuous 1960s
To say the Temptations are the soundtrack to a generation is both trite and also not totally accurate — try multiple generations. The legendary R&B group is one of popular music’s longest running dynasties, spanning nearly six decades, 11 presidencies, and the entirety of the James Bond series. All told, they’ve logged 44 studio albums and 37 Billboard Top 40 smashes, plus Grammys, television specials and an induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Twenty-four singers have been members of Motown’s most elite vocal squad, but only Otis Williams has been there since the very beginning.
The baritone, who turned 76 in October, acts as both leader and standard-bearer for the group, which now includes Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, Larry Braggs and Willie Greene in its ranks. Together they’re back with a new album, All the Time. The Temptations’ first release in eight years includes three soulful originals, as well as expertly chosen covers of hits by Sam Smith, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, the Weeknd, John Mayer and a fellow Motown veteran by the name of Michael Jackson. Their trademark harmonies, which helped define a genre half a century ago, serve to enhance these contemporary tracks, illustrating once again that the “Tempts” are timeless.
As a founding member and the sole witness to the Temptations’ entire saga, Williams safeguards the band’s legacy. His 1988 memoir, previously the basis for a hugely successful 1998 miniseries, is now the plot of a new musical, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, which comes to Broadway in the fall. With one eye on new music and the other on old memories vividly brought to life in the upcoming production, the ever-gracious Williams had much to say when he recently spoke to PEOPLE.
What gets you most excited for your new album, All the Time?
Well, it’s a labor of love whenever we go into the studio. That’s what we thrive on. It has three originals — “Waitin’ on You,” “Be My Wife” and “Move Them Britches” — and then we did Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” and Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me.” It’s loaded with a lot of good songs, but we felt we would give them the Temptations twist.
What was the process of choosing the songs?
They’re all favorites of mine. Those are songs that I always listen to. Sam, Ed, Bruno Mars, John Mayer — they’re great artists, so it made it easy for me to decide the songs to go alongside the three originals. I didn’t just want the album to be a cover job, because we’ve done that before. The originals gave it a new flavor, rather than the same-old-same-old that we’ve done on [1995’s] For Lovers Only, which was a cover job, and [1967’s] The Temptations in a Mellow Mood. We’ve done those kinds of albums before, but this one is pretty, pretty good.
How has recording changed from your first sessions at Motown’s Hitsville Studio A back in Detroit?
The essence of recording is basically the same, but now you can really purify the sound and have effects and things. They’ve added a lot of equipment, but basically it’s still the same. You can have all the modernized equipment you want, but if you can’t sing it’ll come out horrible. We always try to go in and do the best that we can, but the recording is always the same. Any artist has to get in there and put it all out there for the microphone. But when we go into the studio now, it’s like stepping into a spaceship because of all the modern equipment!
What was the energy like at Hitsville in the early ’60s? There must have been a great sense of community.
Man, let you tell me something. I feel good thinking about those days because they were fun lovin’ — really fun lovin’. The truth is, Motown was like a family. We’d try to help out whenever we could. Sometimes one of the producers would say, “Hey man, I need some handclaps, I need some background voices.” We’d often just go to Motown to hang out, even if we didn’t have anything to do. It was like a YMCA. The camaraderie and the spirit of everybody pulling for one another was always there. We had a healthy competition, which is what made Motown excel, but it was all fun lovin’ while we all tried to make our mark in the world.
I’m thankful for those fun lovin’ days at Motown. I often think back and I’m very thankful to God for placing me with all those that were there. Motown was meant to be. Motown was no happenstance. God, in his infinite wisdom, got all those talented people — the engineers, the everyday people who worked with Motown — for a reason. Because the ‘60s were the most tumultuous decade in the last hundred years, and through all of that, here comes this little two-story family flat that had all that wonderful music. It was like wonderful music to a troubled soul. I’m glad to be part of something so historic.
How did you first meet up with [Motown founder] Berry Gordy?
We used to have to do record hops back then in those days. If you were an artist recording at that time, you had to go and say hello to disc jockeys for them to continue to play your record. You had to make an appearance. This one particular day I was at St. Stephens Community Center with my group, which was Otis Williams and the Distants. We had a regional hit and it was doing very well out there in Detroit and various other cities.
Mr. Gordy was coming in with the Miracles, because they had “Shop Around” at that time. We were onstage and I could see Mr. Gordy with the Miracles coming in: “Wow, that’s Berry and the Miracles!” When my group finally came off, I stood there watching the Miracles. Next thing you know, I’m in the men’s room and [Gordy’s] telling me, “Otis, I like the record that you have. You guys sound real good. I started my own label. You should come see me.” As fate would have it, about three weeks or a month later, I called and spoke to Mickey Stevenson, who was the A&R director at the time. We went over to see Mickey and he said, “I’m going to take you to see Mr. Gordy, but one thing. If you want to make Mr. Gordy mad, be late.” And I said, “We don’t play late.” We were there on time and Mr. Gordy loved what he heard and he gave us a contract.
What was he like as a boss?
Oh, I love Berry. I think he was learning by rote, just like we were. I don’t think he had any inclination that Motown would become this giant that was known throughout the world. Detroit was always been known for the Big Three: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. What’s another name? Motown. It was wonderful, Berry was learning how to run a company just like we were learning how to be artists.
You had your first hit in 1964 with “The Way You Do the Things You Do” by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers. Do you remember the first time they played it for you?
Absolutely! It was a cold January night and we just got back in town and Smokey called and said, “Hey Oak?” That was what he always called me. “I got a song I want to try on you guys.” So I called the guys — at the time, it was the emergence of the “originals” — David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks and myself. We walked over to the studio that evening, got around the piano with Smokey, and he started playing “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” And he passed out the lyrics. So I’m reading the lyrics and I’m going, “You got a smile so bright, you know you should have been a candle, I’m holding you so tight, you know you could have been a handle? Man, this is some funny, hokey stuff.” We went to the studio and we started recording it and when we finished I sat there listening going, “That’s pretty clever, Smokey. That was really nice.”
Next thing you know, they released it and it sold throughout America. From that point ’til now in the 21st century, it hasn’t stopped. “My Girl” was just installed in the Library of Congress. I never could have imagined when we recorded it in ’64. It’s been over 50 years and that song has taken on a life of its own.
You have your life story coming to Broadway soon, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. I’m so glad that’s finally coming to fruition.
When you see it, take a handkerchief, because there are times when you’re subject to cry. It’s not all about us singing and dancing and having a joyous time. We had some rough times, so we were able to encapsulate that throughout the running of the play.
I’m a big fan of the  NBC miniseries. If it’s anything like that, it’ll definitely be a tear-jerker.
You know, I have yet to sit and watch the miniseries. I watched a bit of it [being filmed], the scene where Melvin and myself have to go to David Ruffin’s apartment to tell him to straighten up or we were gonna let him go. Allan Arkush, who was the director, was setting the scene with the lights and then, “Alright, camera, action!” The guys came and knocked on the door, and they started delivering their lines, and I said, “No, I’m not ready for this. I can’t watch this.” You’re talking about 1998 when the miniseries was made, but when the incident went down it was 1966. You would think that even after all that time, I’d be able to check it out.
Smokey said to me, “Oak, when are you gonna watch your movie?” I said, “Nah, Smokey, I don’t feel like cryin’.” “Oak, you need to sit and watch your movie.” I said, “OK, but let me ask you something — have you watched it?” “Yeah, I watched it.” I said, “Did you cry?” “Oh, I cried. So get yourself a box of Kleenex and sit down and watch your movie.” I said, “OK, Smokey.” I’ve yet to really watch it, but I will. I’ll sit down and get me a box of Kleenex.
Speaking of Broadway, the Temptations were famous for their fancy footwork. What was it like working with [choreographer] Cholly Atkins? Were those steps as tough as they looked?
Man, you have to have the patience of Job when you’re working with Cholly Atkins, because his choreography is so tricky. And if you don’t move like he says for you to, he comes down on you: “You’ve got to move your ass!” It was a joy working with the late, great Cholly Atkins. I first saw his work at the Fox Theater with the Cadillacs. Boy, to see five thousand people going crazy over what five guys were doing onstage…I was 15 years old and I said, “That’s what I want to do.” To this day, I work to have that kind of reaction, commanding five thousand people or more. So that’s what started me wanting to be in the business.
It was recently the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What are your memories of that day in 1968?
At the time Dr. King was assassinated, we were in Baltimore, Maryland at a big show. And I mean a big show. We were headlining. All the acts that were on before us went and did it and the crowd was enthusiastic. But they had a pause and let everybody know that Dr. King lost his life. The whole mood in that big auditorium changed dramatically. The Tempts, we were standing there going, “Well, do we go home or not?” We went on and the audience was very receptive, but it was a dour kind of setting. So we did our show and we had to go back to Detroit.
I remember the place where he was staying, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee — which was the only hotel that would house blacks. Blacks couldn’t stay at the Peabody [Hotel] like they can now. We saw Dr. King was assassinated, and he was staying in what was always my room: Room 306. When the Tempts would come in, they would put me in Room 306, which is now a museum. But that used to be my room, Room 306, that Dr. King stayed in when he was killed.
Motown did so much to help break down the racial barriers. How do you feel being a part of that?
When I look back on it, it’s a wonderful feeling to know we were bringing people together. We were in Columbia, South Carolina in 1964. When we got to the auditorium, there was a rope down the center: blacks on one side, whites on the other. We came back to the auditorium the next year and there was no rope. Blacks and whites were sitting side by side, high-fiving each other and booty banging and enjoying everything. Like I always say, if it wasn’t for the sweat from the dance moves we were doing, you would have seen five guys all crying. So you can see how powerful music can be in bringing people together. It’s a powerful force.