The Temptations need no introduction. Their almost 60-year history has been filled with drama, joy, ups, downs, highs, lows — and lots of music.
The original five-man group that set the R&B world on fire — and led to a very pronounced desegregation of music in the 1960s — is one of the very best vocal lineups in history. With Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, and Otis Williams at the microphones, the hits just kept coming. “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and “My Girl” got things rolling, but they also dug deep for different sounds as they evolved with hits like “Cloud Nine” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
Yet while that quintet is what many envision when they think of the group, life has not been kind over the years. Ruffin began splintering from the group and left in 1968, replaced by Dennis Edwards. Hendricks left a few years later, and Paul Williams began to sink into alcoholism, committing suicide in 1973.
Last Man Standing
That left only Franklin and Otis Williams from the original five, and with Franklin’s death in 1995, Otis Williams was the last man standing. And dancing. It’s been a labor of love that keeps Williams moving forward even as the personnel around him, the other four members of his group, continue to change.
“God has left me on this earth for a reason,” Williams said in a recent phone interview with Whatzup. “I was left here to continue the work that we started. I’m taking something happy, but a little bittersweet, and letting it continue on even after we lost the others. It’s up to me to keep it going.”
When reminded of a Temptations performance in Fort Wayne in 1985 when, in the wake of the very popular Motown 25 television special, the group shared billing with the Four Tops on a tour that saw each group take a set then share the stage together, Williams talked about the similar path that the two iconic groups have taken.
“Yeah, Duke Fakir from the Four Tops is doing the same thing,” he said. “He and I are kindred spirits because with the deaths of the other three, he’s carrying on with new guys just like I am. We’re both keeping with our roots and trying to keep the legacy of our groups alive. Hey, ‘and the band played on.’”
Proof of the constant evolution of the Temptations and the effort required of Williams to keep it going comes when he mentions auditioning for a fifth Temptation. On the eve of performances, including their soldout show at the Clyde Theatre, Williams is looking to fill an opening. So what does he look for when seeking out a Temptation?
“The singing absolutely,” he said. “But there’s also a certain look. Temptations are known to be six footers. Most of all I look to see what’s in their head and their heart. I’ve been around a lot of talented people my whole life, but if there’s something wrong in their head or their heart it will negate the effect. When you get to a certain point, and you’re dealing with temptations — pun intended — you have to be able to control yourself. The person I choose to take that spot has to know that they aren’t bigger than the group. Berry Gordy used to say, ‘There isn’t one man that’s bigger than that 11-letter word: Temptations.’”
ON screen and Stage
The story of the Temptations has been shared in a variety of formats. Williams’s own 1988 memoir is the launching point for much of that history, leading to a 1998 mini-series called The Temptations. A multi-hour event, repeated frequently to this day on cable channels, the story shared the runaway ride that the group faced which included huge success but also derailing addictions.
For Williams it also shared his sorrow in the face of losing his Temptations brothers as well as his own son who was killed in an accident in 1983.
More recently a hit musical, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, has similarly shared the story with more emphasis on the hits and success than the tragedies. It is likely that reason that Williams prefers to talk about the Broadway musical.
“It’s been more than 20 years since the miniseries, and I have still never watched it,” he said. “It’s still too painful for me, but I have people tell me all the time how much they love it and how many times they’ve seen it. But the play I had to see. If you had told me that people would be watching my life story and enjoying it as they do, you could have knocked me over with a feather.”
Not content to rest on their laurels, the Temptations released an album in 2018 called All the Time, and Williams says there will be more recording in the future. Still performing many shows a year, the group continues to share its unique brand of vocal harmonies and stylish dance moves.
Williams said that he sees no reason to stop any time soon.
“There are people who work in a 9-to-5 job doing things they don’t necessarily care for because they have to bring home money,” he said. “They have to feed their family. But all we’re asked to do is perform for maybe 60 or 75 or maybe 90 minutes. Now the traveling itself is hard, but the effort we put into the show is what makes it worthwhile. So I can’t complain. I love what I do, and when we go out there on stage, we can read the audience and can feel that vibe from them. It’s been happening for 60 years now.”
As Williams points out, the group is on the verge of its 60th anniversary, and Williams, who recently turned 78, is unsure what they might do next year to celebrate. But celebrate they will in the way only they can — sharing their unbelievable catalog of music with their fans.
“I’m going to continue as long as I enjoy what I’m doing,” Williams said. “What is the point of sitting around doing nothing for the rest of your life? I could, but that’s boring. We will plan something special for next year, but I don’t know what that will be yet. For now I just need to find a fifth member.”
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December 27 • Clyde Theatre