By ALLISON KUGEL
Since signing with Berry Gordy’s Motown Records in 1961, the legendary Temptations have gone through many incarnations in their more than 50 years of making music, from fledgling singers riding the early wave of Motown’s signature hybrid rock n’ roll/R&B sound, to becoming international hitmakers and mainstays of American culture. That Motown sound, including The Temptations’ hits, have become a universally celebrated comfort food for the soul. Who hasn’t hummed along with the classics My Girl, The Way You Do The Things You Do, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, Get Ready, Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone and Just My Imagination?
With nine Grammy nominations, four Grammy wins, and a 2013 Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, the group is still bringing magic to worldwide audiences, with what founding member Otis Williams says is the group’s strongest lineup in two decades.
Their new album, All The Time, sees the band covering Sam Smith’s Stay With Me, The Weeknd’s Earned It (originally recorded for Fifty Shades Of Grey), Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud and Michael Jackson’s Remember The Time. New original songs on the album include Waitin’ On You, Be My Wife, and Move Them Britches. The digital album’s two bonus tracks include a Gospel Mix of their rendition of Stay With Me and a special Heathens Mix for Move Them Britches. Every note on the new album is infused with that yearning, soulful, seamlessly harmonised blend The Temptations are celebrated for.
The last surviving original member, Otis Williams, discusses the group’s first studio album in eight years, All The Time; their upcoming tour throughout the US and UK; and his relationships with fellow Motown alumni including the late Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy.
Williams is humbled by his five-decades long success in the music industry, but not unaware of the indelible impact he and his bandmates have had on music, the entertainment industry and popular culture.
Tell me about the most significant benchmark events in your life; the events that shaped your destiny.
First would have to be my two grandmothers. I was raised by my grandmother on my mother’s side and my grandmother on my father’s side. They instilled in me a lot of great qualities that I carry with me through present day. Naturally, I include my my mother’s influence, and then the other thing is timing. Timing can be the most important thing in our lives, for good or bad. The good thing about my timing is that I was brought to Detroit from Texarkana when I was growing up and was in Detroit when Berry [Gordy] started Motown. Detroit is always known for being the town of the Big Four: Chrysler, General Motors, Ford and Motown. And of course, I was aligned with some great guys, speaking first and foremost of the original Tempts lineup. It was David, Eddie, Paul, Melvin and myself. When I stop and think back on that time in my life, I didn’t know that we would reach such heights and enjoy such a wonderful and exciting adventure. My career has been so illustrious that it’s hard to pinpoint just one moment.
Prior to speaking with you, I read your 1988 memoir, Temptations, to get to know you better. You’re the only original founding member left from the original lineup. You talk about the drama with other members of the group, some personality clashes and people coming and going over the years. You’re the one who never quit, never got fired, never wavered in your loyalty to the collective group. What is the higher purpose that has kept you so steadfast with The Temptations for more than 50 years?
The higher purpose is being dedicated to what I love, first and foremost. I love to perform and to bring some kind of happiness to people, and oftentimes in a world that seems to have gone crazy. I stick with the basics. I’m dedicated, and when I stop to think back, I thank God that He put me here for this purpose – The Temptations. I’ve gone through more than 20 member changes in the group’s lineup over the years. All of those member changes I’ve had to deal with, they were all very strong personalities. Even with all of that, I remained focused and dedicated because I love what we do, and still do 50 years later.
When you’re performing on stage or recording in the studio, do you feel the spirit of some of the other members who’ve passed, particularly the “classic five” including as you mentioned above: David, Eddie, Paul and Melvin?
I definitely feel the presence of David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin because we were such a unique lineup, and I would like to think we made such a profound statement together during the time that David was with us. I carry those four, their memory, their presence since their leaving. I definitely carry the spirit of them. And also Dennis Edwards, because a lot of people also look at him as an original Temptation. He [recorded] so many hits with us. In fact, he was on more hits with us than David was. I still feel the presence of those guys.
Let’s discuss your new album, All The Time. Why the eight- year break from recording, prior to making this album? And why come out with a new album now?
With Motown’s slow demise, and when the company went out of business, we continued to sing. We did a few albums, but nothing of real note. At one point I said to myself, “Maybe we should just perform.” We were always one of the hardest working acts in the business. Then when I went up to Universal with my grandson, and I spoke to Bruce Resnikoff [CEO of Universal Music Enterprises], and he asked out of the blue, “Otis, would you record?” As you said, there was an eight-year gap, and I said, “Yes, we would love to record!” Mr. Resnikoff was the catalyst for us going back into the studio. We went into the studio and he told us he wanted us to do some covers. I then said I wanted to mix it up and do some original songs as well, so it wouldn’t just be an album of covers. The word of mouth from those that have heard the album, and on social media, has been very good.
You cover some amazing artists, including Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, your friend, the late Michael Jackson, The Weeknd…
I love those guys and what they did with those songs. I heard those songs when our producer Dave Darling and I were given the list and told, “Otis, pick what you want to record.” When I heard the Weeknd’s Earned It and Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud, among the others, I said, “Those are a must-do!” It was that kind of process in picking the songs for the album, and it was a labour of love.
You cover the Michael Jackson song Remember The Time. That was an interesting choice.
I’m a big Michael Jackson fan. We used to sit and talk when we were all at Motown together. Michael invited me to the set when he was doing the video for Remember The Time. Him and I sat in his trailer and we talked in between them getting the lighting and the stage ready for him to come out and do his video. So, I chose to record Remember The Time, because that’s what I was doing, remembering the time when Michael said, “Otis, come on down and watch me do this video.” It was fond memories and why we recorded that song for this album.
Since you knew him well, tell me, who was Michael Jackson?
Michael Jackson, during the times I spent with him, was a wonderful spirit. He was like a little kid, you know? At the time, he was very much a grown man, but Michael is one of those [talents] that God gives us every so often like Prince, like Elvis, like Sinatra. Certain talents come along that will make a statement while they are here, and even when they are long gone. Michael was such a unique force, but he was a kid at heart. Part of the problem with Michael is that he didn’t get a chance to have much of a childhood. He was thrust into being in showbusiness, which can be so time consuming, that it took away a lot from him growing up and being a kid. But sitting around and talking with him, he was a fine brother, fun loving and a unique energy.
I know you are still close with The Four Tops. Who are some of the other Motown artists that you’re still connected to?
Just as the saying went back then, even though we don’t see each other as often, we are still a Motown family. Everybody is spread out and doing their own thing, but I talked with Smokey [Robinson] a few weeks back, and he will always be my wonderful friend. When we got each other on the phone the first thing he said was [in a sing-song melody, paying homage to the classic Temptations hit, My Girl] My Boy, My Boy. That’s my man Smokey. I don’t see Stevie [Wonder] much, but we are still family even though we don’t see each other like we used to.
What’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve receivedfrom Smokey Robinson?
With Smokey it was always more about the musical collaboration. It was always, “Hey Tempts, I got a song for you!” He didn’t sit down and philosophise with us about what we should or shouldn’t do. Smokey was just one of the guys just like we were, and he would always come to us with great songs. He was doing his thing with The Miracles and the Tempts were doing our thing. But just him being around and picking up the essence of Smokey, the good heart of Smokey, it spoke volumes about him as a person.
In what ways was [Motown’s founder] Berry Gordy a significant teacher in your life?
Berry is such a unique person. He started out being a songwriter and he had to take off the songwriter hat to become president, because Motown was really taking off. We would sit around and listen to him talk. He was profound in his dedication about what Motown and its artists should be. At the same time, Berry was funny as hell and like a little kid. He used to be a boxer coming up, and he would show us how he would spar. Berry and James Jamerson [a regular bass player on many Motown hits] were outside in front of Motown, and they were mock sparring, because Jamerson liked karate and Berry was a boxer. Berry would then turn right around and talk about his dedication and his purpose for Motown. But Berry was learning to be a president as we were learning to be artists. He would speak of dedication, and he had us groomed and made sure that all of his top-flight acts would go to school. We’d go to artist development school. That was from the mind of Berry Gordy. I still see Berry more than I see Smokey. Berry is a great person.
Because The Temptations lineup has changed so much over the decades and you have remained the one constant throughout, what do you look for in a potential musician to join the lineup, and how do you know when you’ve found it?
One of the things I’ve learned over the years, as both a performer and as a person, is to look for the head and the heart first. Whenever I would mention that to other journalists they would look at me in a quizzical way. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you are not a nice person or you can’t take direction, you will negate that talent. So, I don’t look for the talent first. I want to know the essence of the person and I try to get a sense of him. Because you never know a person till you start working with them and it causes certain changes to happen. I’m an example of that. I’ve been around some of the most talented people in the world and I’m the last man standing.
What will be the legacy of The Temptations?
There was a popular show that was on, I believe in the Seventies, called That’s Entertainment! I enjoyed that show because it showed all these different formats of entertainment and clips. When it’s all said and done I would like for people to think about The Temptations and remember us with, “Wow, now that’s entertainment!”
What do you see as your spiritual foundation in this life?
Being raised by two grandparents, my spirituality is one that I try to carry forth, and I thank God for the blessings, because show business is such a fickle business. You can be thought of as one way today and then tomorrow it’s, “Who’s that person?” But I never lose sight of what’s real and I always try to remain in touch with my spirituality. Hopefully people can feel that whenever I’m around them. It all goes back to being raised by two grandmothers. That’s the foundation of my life.
What will your audience experience when they come to see you on this latest tour?
We’re going to focus on our original songs. We’ll be doing a couple of songs off this latest album, but it will focus on classic Temptations music for our fans, and what they are coming to hear us sing. My Girl, The Way You Do The Things You Do, Just My Imagination and all of that. We will stay in keeping with what we’re known for.
What do you hope fans get from this new album, All The Time?
I think people will say, “Wow, the Tempts did The Weeknd’s song, Ed Sheeran…” and all of that, but it will all be in keeping with what we have been known for throughout our history. Like I said, we’ve done cover jobs before, but whether it’s cover songs or originals we always want to put forth our best effort as far as being entertainers and singers. They will get what they have known The Temptations to be whenever we record.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned in your life so far?
It’s hard to pick just one. There are a multitude of things I’ve learned that keep me grounded, but the one thing that is constant in life is change. Not everybody can adapt to change. Some people catch hell trying to change with the times. It’s an understanding that change is a natural part of life, and being able to adapt when change comes about.
The Temptations new album, All The Time is out on CD, vinyl LP, limited edition white vinyl LP, and digital formats worldwide.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A Memoir Of A Life Unhinged And On The Record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.
Interview produced in partnership with Wendy J Studios – capture classic moments with impeccable photography.
Photo Credit: Jay Gilbert/Universal Music Enterprises
Question Credit: Question 13 Courtesy of Erik Medhus/Elisa Medhus