Interview: Otis Williams, The Temptations
I’ve been reading up on the history of The Temptations, and I hadn’t realised what a dramatic, epic story it was. With so many changes to the line-up over the years, it almost reads like a soul soap opera. But looking back on your career to date, what makes you the most proud?
Being able to survive. Once you know the history of The Tempts, with all the ins and outs of different guys coming in, and the deaths and the tragedies, here we are 47 years later, still doing it. Ordinarily, a group that has gone through as many changes as we have would have been through a long time ago.
A lot of that longevity must be down to you, as the sole surviving member of the original line-up. Were you always the band leader?
I’ve been the spokesman for the group from day one. As far as the records, that was Motown’s concern, because they were the record company. But as far as the members, and who was in the group, that was pretty much up to me.
Did you do the hiring and the firing?
Well, I hate to sound callous – but you know, somebody’s got to do it. I don’t necessarily want to fire anybody, but in most cases, something would happen that would just make it circumstantial. So we would have to let a guy go, for health reasons, or for many different reasons. I just wasn’t firing somebody because that was my role; it would have to be something very detrimental to the group for me to do so.
A lot of times, it’s a group effort. I would always some of the other guys what they thought. Our president, he’s got a cabinet, and we have to ask to see what their thoughts are. So it was pretty much a diplomatic kind of thing.
Looking at your contribution to the band, it’s interesting that as the leader of the band, you’ve never taken on the lead vocals. Instead, you’re known as “the tenor in the middle”. Why has that been so?
If it’s a song that I really feel good about, then I would do it, but most cases I was just happy keeping it together. We all got the same money, so it wasn’t that the ones that were doing the lead were getting more money than me. I guess we all have a role to play, and mine was to keep The Temptations going and to take care of business. So I’ve always been the man behind the scenes.
In many of your hits, you each take it in turns to sing single lines. Is there one particular line that you can point to, where we can all recognise you?
On I Can’t Get Next To You, I sing “I can make a change, just with a wave of my hand.”
I’m personally very fond of your output from the late Sixties and early Seventies when you worked with the late Norman Whitfield, who took over from Smokey Robinson as your chief musical mentor. How did that change come about?
Well, we started losing record sales. Berry Gordy was always having a competitive thing going with his songwriters and producers. He said that if Get Ready didn’t crack the Top Ten, then Norman Whitfield would have the next release. Get Ready did real well, but it didn’t go Top Ten pop-wise. So Ain’t Too Proud To Beg came out, and we had a great eight or nine year run with Norman.
People sometimes call it your “psychedelic soul” period, but it doesn’t sound psychedelic to me. “Psychedelic” sugggests fantasy and escape, but a lot of your songs of this period – Ball of Confusion, Law of the Land – were rooted in realism and social commentary.
I can understand why some people refer to it as psychedelic soul, because prior to Cloud Nine we were doing sweet ballads like Please Return Your Love, My Girl and Since I Lost My Baby, and those funky R&B tunes like Ain’t Too Proud To Beg and I Could Never Love Another. So when you change from those kinds of songs to something that’s got a whole other spin to it – and here comes the psychedelic era at that point – I can understand why they would relate to it as psychedelic soul.
When we came out with Cloud Nine, it didn’t jump off at first. For about a week or two after Motown released it, we were kind of concerned, because normally when our record came out it would run up the charts real fast. But it took a minute for Cloud Nine, and I guess our fans were thinking: wow, the Tempts have really changed up on us. But the next thing you know, it took off, it sold a million copies and we won our first Grammy.
It sounded so different. I remember the first time I heard Papa Was A Rolling Stone on the radio. At the age of ten, I’d never heard anything like it before. It felt groundbreaking.
We were the first act at Motown to venture off over into that kind of style of music, and we were the first Motown act to win a Grammy, so it paid off very handsomely all the way round.
That social commentary aspect is something that seems to have disappeared from a lot of modern popular music. Do you miss that at all?
Its just like anything else; there’s always a change. The Sixties has been noted as the most tumultuous decade in the last hundred years. All kinds of movements were involved. Dr King was making his move. You could sit right at home and see world leaders lose their lives on TV. There was women’s lib; there was civil unrest at school campuses. We were living in some crazy times, which would breed that kind of creation, as far as making music goes. So I guess it was just indicative of the times that we were living in.
Was there a lot of competition between the Motown acts, to try and get the best songs that everyone else wanted?
The way Berry had everything set up, at the beginning he would say: Hey, I think I’ve got a song for the Temptations. That could come from Norman Whitfield, or from Smokey Robinson, or possibly from Holland Dozier Holland. But once Smokey really started having consistency, he was the man. But Motown was so competitive from within. They would have a quality control meeting up in Berry’s office on a Friday. A lot of things were decided in those meetings, depending on whoever had recorded the best material during the course of that week.
Who are you still in touch with from the old Motown days?
Well, all of us are still good friends; we just don’t see each other. Because Motown is no longer the Motown that we knew, or that the world knew, everybody has moved on with their lives in different places. But when I see Smokey, it’s just like we never missed a step.
When you play to British audiences, how different are we to your American audiences?
England is almost like coming to our second home. We’ve been over there so often, and for so long, that the English people just love us unconditionally, even if we were never to get another hit record. They really love and appreciate the hits that we have. England just loves that old Motown music! We’re getting ready to celebrate our fiftieth anniversary, and the music is just as fresh and well received as if it was being made today.
Great soul music always stands the test of time. I think it matures like a good red wine.
I agree. And Motown music, Philadelphia International music, Stax music, and all the music from the Sixties and the Seventies is still wonderful. They’re not making records like that today. I listen to the music that’s being made today, because I’m in the business, but the music that we all made was much better.
You didn’t just turn on the machines. You put your heart and soul into it.