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OTIS WILLIAMS (OF THE TEMPTATIONS) 2011 SOULMUSIC.COM INTERVIEW
CLASSICS, ED SULLIVAN, AND MORE...
Phone interview recorded October 27, 2011

To say that THE TEMPTATIONS made their mark on music is a serious understatement. Hit records, numerous TV and concert appearances, and several lineup changes later, the Tall, Tan, Tantalizing quintet from Detroit is still going on strong, thanks to the leadership of group founder (and last man standing from the Classic Tempts roster), OTIS WILLIAMS. Mr. Williams sat down with KEVIN GOINS on October 28, 2011 to discuss a new singles collection released by Motown/UMG, as well as a DVD of the group’s legendary appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show...



Kevin Goins: This is Kevin Goins for SoulMusic.com, and with us this week is a legend. He is the leader of probably the greatest vocal group of all time, and, of course, for many of you who’ve followed Motown for many years, you know who I’m talking about: the tall, tantalizing Temptations. And with us this week is the leader of The Temptations—the founding leader, I should say—Mr. Otis Williams. Mr. Williams, welcome to SoulMusic.com.

Otis Williams: Well, thank you. How are you doing?

KG: I’m doing fine today. First of all, I want to say congratulations on fifty years of having this great group with us. Where has the time gone?

OW: Well, you know, time seems to be very fast when you’re having fun, and we’re still having fun, even though it’s fifty years later. We’re still enjoying the ride.

KG: I see, and we enjoyed going along with the ride, too. Besides yourself and Ron Tyson, who’s in the current lineup in The Temptations?

OW: We have Terry Weeks, who’s been with me about seventeen years or so, and we have Joe Herndon who’s been with me for about eight years; and then Bruce Williamson, who’s been in the group about five or six years. And that’s the current lineup.

KG: Thank you so much. I know that you have a DVD out of your appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show—we’ll get to that momentarily—and a Motown singles collection that should be quite fascinating. I know this is a question that I get from a lot of people when it comes to classic groups such as The Temptations, but anything new coming out as far as new songs, new material? I know you guys did a few things a couple years ago.

OW: Yeah, we had a CD out last year called STILL HERE. And we will be gearing up for 2012 to come out with something next year, so we will definitely be working on something to keep our fans in the loop of what we’re doing, and let them know that we are still making music.

KG: Wonderful. Now let’s go back in time. Temptations, Ed Sullivan Show, now available on DVD, and I’ll get to my favourite appearances momentarily. Is there any one particular performance on The Ed Sullivan Show that stands out to you as a favourite?

OW: Well, I enjoyed all the times we were on there. They were nerve-wracking, but I enjoyed every one: the ones that we did with The Supremes, and then I enjoyed the ones that we did with the girls … we did “You Make Me So Very Happy,” and then, naturally, when we were on there promoting ourselves. So when I looked at the CD [DVD] the other day, I was very impressed for us to be able to be on Ed Sullivan as many times as we were. And the man really enjoyed the music, speaking of Ed Sullivan. So it was great.

The only thing I was kind of nervous about being on his show; he was one of the few shows that went out live. So that meant if you made a mistake, you hit a bad note, you could not go back and say, “Uh, could I do that again?” No, I’m sorry. About thirty-five to forty million people just saw you make a boo-boo. So it was just that kind of pressure. But we enjoyed being there, because once you do Ed Sullivan you get a sense that you have arrived.

KG: Absolutely. And I believe the first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show with The Temptations was around 1966, if I’m not mistaken?

OW: Yeah, about that.

KG: And it’s funny, you touched upon two performances that were my favourites and I’m snapping my fingers going, “Dang, he just killed off my next couple questions,” but I’m going to go to them anyway. My favourite, you just mentioned one of them, was when The Tempts appeared with The Supremes. Now, this was when David Ruffin was still in the group, and this was about a year before The Supremes and The Tempts went into the studio to cut the first of two studio albums you all did together. Could you elaborate more about how that came about, with The Supremes and The Tempts going on The Ed Sullivan Show together?

OW: At the time The Supremes and The Tempts were riding on a very high profile, as far as our records were selling, and we were doing big business at venues, so Motown wanted to maximize both groups’ popularity and increase the sales value of what we were doing. It was a great union. Plus, The Supremes and us had been singing together even before we ever did Ed Sullivan, when we used to do record hops and little gigs in and around Detroit. So it wasn’t a newfound thing for The Tempts and The Supremes to perform together—it just got to be on a bigger plateau, a bigger stage for world acceptance, and just maximize both groups’ popularity and salability of records.

KG: You touched upon The Supremes and The Tempts doing gigs together at the very beginning—we’ll get to that momentarily, as well, thank you. The second appearance that was my favourite--you also mentioned that--was when The Tempts performed Brenda Holloway’s “You Make Me So Very Happy.” And I gotta say, what I loved about that particular performance is y’all were dancing with the girls, and the set looked as if y’all were in a penthouse apartment, and it looked so classy. And to see you all move and groove like that … it looked like all ten of y’all were having a ball up there.

OW: Well, we were. We had practised extensively with the girls to get the choreography and everything down, but through it all—yeah, we were having fun. It’s really a lot of fun when you’re singing to pretty ladies face-to-face like that, so it made the performance even more of a significant note, because they were beautiful young ladies. And the young man—I can’t think of his name, but Ed Sullivan mentioned his name at the end of that—did a great job of staging us. So I looked at it, and … actually, I forgot that we did that with the young ladies. But just wonderful memories--it was a great time with Ed.Sullivan and them; they set up that kind of stage setting that was very slick.

KG: Very slick indeed. Now let’s touch base on The Ed Sullivan Show. Unlike a lot of TV shows where you go in, you rehearse and then you shoot--Ed Sullivan, you had to take a week for rehearsal, then you had the dress, and then you had the actual show. That’s a lot of work.

OW: Well, anything of value and purpose is going to require work, yeah. A lot of work is involved. We would rehearse when we got the green light that we were going on The Ed Sullivan Show; we would rehearse in Detroit even before we got in to New York to tape the show. Because, there again, when we got to Ed Sullivan we had to rehearse about a couple days before they actually taped the show. So there was a lot of work involved, but a lot of our preparation was done back in Detroit, because we knew what we were going to do once we got there. So it was much easier to do it, because we had already primed ourselves before we got there. So the rest, once we got there, was just a little tune-up.

KG: And the reason why I brought that up is because if you remember the group back in the day: The Rascals, with the hits of “Groovin’ ” and “How Can I Be Sure”— Felix Cavaliere, who was the keyboardist and leader of the group, he elaborated just like you did that with Sullivan--you rehearsed for a solid week, then you had the dress rehearsal, then you had a final run-through, then, boom, like you said, you’re on the air. If you made a mistake … oh, well. If you did well, you did well. Let’s backtrack to you bringing up The Supremes and The Tempts. Before then y’all were The Primes, The Primettes, and The Distants.

Now just for those who have not seen the movie, or have not read the book like I did, back when you published it back in, I think, 1988-89, how did The Distants and The Primes merge together to be The Temptations?

OW: I’ll make it a condensed story, because it can be kind of long, but we were managed by a guy named Milton Jenkins, and my group was The Distants, and The Primes were Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, and Kell Osborne. And we lost members in both groups and with us losing members—The Distants—and them losing Kell Osborne of The Primes, Eddie came back to Detroit and called me. And at that time I was in need of a tenor, because Mr. Gordy had asked me to come to his label.

So when Eddie came over with Paul, that was the emergence of The Temptations, along with a guy named Elbridge Bryant, Melvin Franklin, and myself. So that’s how The Tempts became The Tempts, through the merging of two different groups. And The Supremes were The Primettes. Like I said, Milton Jenkins managed them, and it was just one of those kind of evolutions, of them moving right along with us. Eventually they signed over at Motown, not too long after we signed. So [when] I look back at it, it was just something that was meant to be. So history was made through those efforts.

KG: Lots of history, lots of hits, lots of great albums; a Grammy Award in 1969 for “Cloud Nine,” which started off a nice Grammy run: “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” got a Grammy, and I believe the comeback record, I call it, of ’97, “Stay,” was nominated as well.

And I want to touch base on that, because I sat in Harry Weinger’s office—Harry Weinger is the vice president of Universal Music Group. He played me the rough demo of “Stay,” and my first reaction was, “Boy, Narada Michael Walden and The Tempts are showing some guts sampling one of your own classics, ‘My Girl.”

Now a lot of us who listen to classic soul and R&B, we get a little possessive or whatnot when we hear one of our favourites get sampled, but this is one where we couldn’t get mad at you guys.

OW: Well you know, we flew up to the Bay Area to record with Narada, but that wasn’t a song that was to be recorded when we first looked at it; it was a song that was on that same album, “If I Give You My Heart.” But Narada said, “I want you to hear something,” so he took me into one of his offices, and he played the track to “Stay,” and just the first few bars, I said, “Man, later for that other song—we can come back to that. Let’s record this; this is a smash.” And he said, “I was hoping you’d say that.”

So I called the guys into the room with Narada and myself, and we started rehearsing it. And after we got the vocals on, Narada flew down here to do some more vocal work, and as it happened, I was sitting at the console. I said, “Some strings would turn this all the way around.” He said, “Really, Otis? Really?” I said yes. He said, “Well then, you call.” And George Jackson was the president of Motown at the time, and I put the call in. He said, “Well, Otis, if that’s what you feel, then we ought to budget for some strings.” When they put the strings onto “Stay,” I knew that I felt the same way about “Stay” that I felt about “My Girl.” And sure enough, “Stay” was a huge hit. That album sold a million and a half copies, and “Stay” was the stimuli of that.

KG: PHOENIX RISING was the album that came out in ’97, and, like I said, when Harry Weinger played me the rough demo of “Stay,” I almost fell on the floor. I said, “Yeah, this is their hit. This is to ’97 what ‘Treat Her Like a Lady’ was for The Tempts in 1985.”

OW: That’s right.

KG: Another record that just surprised the heck out of me. And how did that come about, with Ollie Woodson?

OW: Well, Ollie used to live with me in the house that I had in Studio City, and there was a piano in the room that he was staying in. And him and I had been talking about writing songs, and we wrote a few songs even before “Treat Her Like a Lady,” but the stimulus for “Treat Her Like a Lady” was--we would always hear ladies talking about, “Man, these guys today, they don’t know how to treat a lady. Where are the real men that know how to treat a lady?” Open the door, light the cigarette, compliment them, take them by the hand. And a lot of guys don’t know, but when you’re walking down the street—and I see it so often today—a man is supposed to walk on the outside and the woman is supposed to walk on the inside.

Yeah, but you see a lot of guys, they don’t do any of that. So Ollie and I sat down and we said, “Let’s sit down and write this song, and let the women know that there are still some guys that know how to treat her like a lady.” And Al McKay was the producer, along with Ralph Johnson, and they structured it to turn out the way it turned out. The one who felt it should be the release—he lives in Detroit now, I can’t think of his name—but when he heard it he told the powers-that-be at Motown, “ ‘Treat Her Like a Lady’ is the release.” And sure enough, when they released it it flew up the charts, and we still do that and “Stay” in the show today.

KG: Yes, indeed. And I heard that record when I was in college, and I heard it at a function in college, and I walked up to the DJ … now at the time, I was hosting a soul music show on the college radio station. I said, “Who’s this?” and he looked at me like, “You don’t know?” I said, “Uh, no.” And he said, “Look at the turntable.” And I see the Gordy label spinning around, and, of course, for those of us who know product identification, when you see a certain Motown label, you pretty much know who the group is.

So when I saw the Gordy label, and I saw Temptations, I went, “You’re kidding.” It took me—it took a lot of people—by surprise, because the production … Al McKay, Ralph Johnson, formerly of Earth, Wind & Fire--It was like the superpowers working together: the guys from Earth, Wind & Fire were working with The Temptations.

OW: Yeah, it was a great union. And I must give accolades, also, for the staging of it with my—he’s like a father to me—the late, great Cholly Atkins, he staged the heck out of us. Even when we do it today, people still respond. And when we go to England, that’s one of the songs they want to hear, regardless to what else, other than “My Girl”—they love that over there in Europe. So we still do it today.

KG: You mentioned Cholly Atkins, legendary choreographer. How involved was he in developing the great moves of The Temptations, other than the late, great Paul Williams?

OW: Very instrumental. Well Paul, I have to give him his accolades, because he was the one that initiated us into doing choreography. At first we would just get together, and stand up and sing, but Paul said, “No, we’re not just going to stand up and sing; we’re going to be exciting— with sexy moves and what-have-you.” And this was the emergence of us being known for our choreography.

Then, in comes Cholly Atkins that would add another spin to what we were doing. He kind of tuned us up, and gave us another spitshine because they were grooming us to go into the smart rooms: the Copacabana, the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, and the Vegases, and what-have-you. So Cholly was very instrumental in giving us another kind of spitshine, and here it is today—we are steeped with the choreography.

KG: That is great. And you mentioned giving you guys the spitshine so you could go into the big rooms, the Copacabana, the Waldorf Astoria, the Coconut Grove, the Latin Casino. But I gotta say my favourite clip with The Temptations where y’all are just having a ball dancing up there—other than the Ed Sullivan one, was your appearance on the Murray the K TV show called “It’s What’s Happening, Baby,” where you do “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” It wasn’t so much perfection; it was raw, it was exciting, and you all just looked like you were having a great time—everyone looked like they were having a great time—but just to see you all dance… wow, it was amazing.

OW: Yeah, that was a fun show to do. Murray the K was a great guy to do those big lineups that he had. So we were just having fun. We were loose, just getting out there, doing our thing and just very appreciative of what was happening to us.

KG: Absolutely. And I know you’re on a time crunch here, Otis, and I appreciate your time. I do want to touch on the fact that there’s a singles collection that is coming out on Motown/UMG with the hit singles. Now is this singles as well as the B-sides? What is the singles collection about?

OW: Yeah, it’s our first single from “Oh Mother of Mine”, which was our first single with Motown, and the back side of that was “Romance Without Finance.” All the songs that’s involved, they all have B-sides, and there’s a little booklet that tells about each song, and who wrote it, and when it was recorded, and what-have-you. So I’m up to the point of three CDs with all those songs … and, mind you, that is just from ’61 to ’71. Now you know, ’71 all the way up to now, there’s room for a whole other set like that. So it’s a great piece of product. They gave me my copies a few days ago, so I’m enjoying it.

KG: ’61 to ’71, which covers pretty much the first decade of The Temptations. And as you said, from ’71 to—let’s just say, for the sake of argument—’91 or 2001, that could be another six discs right there.

OW: I wouldn’t doubt if they don’t do that, because, like I said to the other person I was talking to … I got a call from a guy named Brian--they call him Mr. Motown--and they have since found, I think he said, seven other songs that we had recorded, and Harry Weinger said, “How did we miss this?” So I guess they will package those tunes, and sometime next year they’ll be releasing those.

KG: So much great stuff has come out from Motown/UMG, from the vaults. And Harry’s a dear friend of mine, I’ve known him … oh my goodness, we’re going on twenty years now, and he just does great work. I particularly love the Lost and Found disc that came out in ’98 where there was a lot of unreleased stuff: a tune where David, Eddie and Paul all share the lead vocals—which is rare, by the way—and a song called “Last One Out is Brokenhearted,” which had The Temptations with The Andantes backing y’all up, which is another rare thing, too.

One last thing I want to ask you, this is something that Whoopi Goldberg did with you guys many years ago on a talk show that she had, a late-night talk show: Could you give the listeners your perspective on the Tempts who are no longer here? Let’s start with Ollie Woodson.

Whoopi Goldberg, many years ago, on a late-night talk show that she had, she had you give a perspective on the Tempts who are no longer here. Could we do that, real quick, starting with the late Ollie Woodson?

OW: Well, Ollie Woodson was such a unique personality, talent, songwriter … Ollie could go up to five octaves, and then he could drop down to be very earthy and gritty. God only sprinkled so many different, unique, talented people on this earth, and Ollie Woodson is definitely one—a very, very talented young man, and it’s just a shame that he had to leave so soon. I still can’t believe Woody’s not here … he called me “Poogy-Poo” and I called him “Woody-Woo.” I can’t believe that he’s no longer here, but he was a talented brother: sing, dance. Him and I wrote some great songs. So he was the total package as far as entertainment was concerned.

KG: Absolutely. Quickly, perspective on David Ruffin.

OW: Oh, Ruff-Dry? That’s what I called him, Ruff-Dry. David was very talented—raw talent. We would stop many a show when we would be singing, and David would throw the microphone up in the air, spin around and drop to his knees, and as the mic is coming down he’s coming up, and he’d grab the mic. Hell of a performer, one of a kind. You will not see another David Ruffin. And the man … David was so good, we would sing gospel. A lot of the time people would ask, “Why don’t you guys do a gospel album?” But Motown wasn’t interested in doing no gospel album, because at that time gospel didn’t sell--didn’t have the popularity that it does now. But yeah, we could sing gospel, and Ruffin had that passion that all of us did. A very, very talented brother.

KG: And by the way, it’s not too late to do that gospel album.

OW: Well, gospel is wide open now, but we’re talking about back there in the sixties. Because Gil Askey had wanted to do a gospel album with us, but I think Motown told him no. But now, with it being wide open, yeah, that’s true, because the guys that I have now, we can sing gospel. So who knows? You can never tell.

KG: And by the way, I gotta say, for someone who, myself, who has worn eyeglasses since the age of three, David made it … I thank God for guys like David Ruffin, because he made wearing those black—

OW: Fashionable.

KG: —eyeglasses fashionable. Thank you, David Ruffin. Real quick, Eddie Kendricks.

OW: One of the best tenors in the business, bar none. Eddie Kendricks is a premier tenor. I would find myself onstage, and we were singing this song called “A Time for Us,” and we were in Cherry Hill, New Jersey at the Latin Casino, and I almost stopped singing my harmony part to listen at Eddie, because he was singing it with so feeling in that beautiful tenor voice of his. I said, “Wow, that’s my Eddie Kendricks.” He’s definitely one of the all-time great tenors of all time.

KG: Thank you. And last but not least, to me the heart and soul of The Temptations, Paul Williams.

OW: Paul was such a unique person: very soulful, very gritty, very emotional in his delivery. Then he could turn around and dance—he was definitely the dancer of the group—the splits and the whole nine yards. And one of the most interesting things about Paul is he could sing a song so that he could move you to tears. I will never forget, we were at the Copacabana … now the Copacabana was packed, and Adam Clayton Powell had a seat right down in front of us almost, and we were singing “For Once in My Life.” Paul would emit so much feeling and soul to that song that Adam Clayton Powell stood up, tears running down his eyes, and he gave us a standing ovation.

Everybody at the Copacabana stood up and gave us a standing ovation, and if it wasn’t for the sweat that was coming down on our face, you would have seen the tears. Paul was that kind of an effective singer, he could touch the human emotion and the heart that made folks say, “Wow, that boy sings with a lot of feeling and soul.” Unique—very unique. There will not be another Paul Williams. I miss him … I miss him.

KG: Absolutely, so do I, as well as the many other great members of The Temptations who are no longer here. But I gotta say, the TCB special, NBC 1968, when Paul did “For Once in My Life”… I was two years old when that aired, and so I’ve seen it many years later, thanks to some friends who worked for the network--they had a copy of the videotape. And I’m watching that, and it just moved me so much. and I tell you, that particular scene where he does “For Once in My Life,” it was almost like the game-changer of that special.

OW: Yeah, he changed the whole mood.

KG: Now, Dennis Edwards had just joined the group; it was almost as if he put some fire under Dennis’s feet, saying, “When we do ‘I Know I’m Losing You,’ it’s like win or go home.”

OW: Yeah, well … that was Paul. Paul was definitely one of those kinds of guys that I’m so happy that he was part of us, and it was a shame for him to leave so soon.

KG: Absolutely. Where’s the next gig? Where are y’all performing next, because The Temptations were in Minnesota, and I live in Wisconsin. I’m fifty miles from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and I missed y’all when you were at the casinos here in Minnesota.

OW: We’re going to be not too far from you; we’re going to do Merrillville in Indiana. We’re going to be there next month.

KG: Excellent, excellent, excellent. Well, I don’t know if I’ll make it there, but next time you come to Moheghan Sun [in Minnesota] or any of the casinos in this area, I’ll be there.

OW: That’s what the Jackson 5 said [laughs]. Caught you off-guard with that one, didn’t I?

KG: Hey, another Motown group we can discuss at another time.

OW: Absolutely.

KG: Otis Williams, founder, leader of The Temptations, group that’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They have a brand-new DVD out of their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, a singles collection available soon from Motown/UMG. Otis Williams, thank you so much for being with us on SoulMusic.com.

OW: My pleasure.

KG: You take care, sir, and my best to you, Ron Tyson, Ron, Terry, Joe, and … who am I missing here?

OW: Bruce.

KG: Bruce. My best to all five of the tall, tantalizing Temptations. Thank you.

OW: Thank you very much. All right.


About the Writer
Kevin Goins aka “The Soul Ninja” is a veteran of the radio and recording industries, has authored liner notes for CD collections by Earth Wind & Fire, Melba Moore and Stacy Lattisaw. He's also the producer/host of the Internet radio interview series "Soulful Conversations" as well as a classic R&B show "The Kevin Goins Soul Experience".
  
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