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Otis Williams: Blending Past with Present

09/24/2014 12:00AM ● By Phil Reser

Sound From The Soul

October 2014
By Phil Reser

An essential component of the record label Motown, The Temptations began their musical life
in Detroit.

It was in 1964 that the Smokey Robinson song, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” turned them into stars.

An avalanche of hits followed, many of which achieved lasting fame: “My Girl,” “It’s Growing,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” “Get Ready,” “Too Proud to Beg,” “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” “I Wish It Would Rain” and so many others.

As things grew more political, The Temptations got more serious, changing their tone and lyrics with songs like “Runaway Child,” “Cloud Nine,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Psychedelic Shack.”

While the group’s line-up has changed constantly over the decades, 72-year-old founding member Otis Williams has remained with the band throughout its 54 years.

Williams began singing in the church choir in his hometown of Texarkana, Texas. His mother later took him to Detroit to live with her and his stepfather, and he begin attending rock and roll shows at the Fox Theatre, including Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

When he saw Lymon and the “control” he had on more than 5,000 people at a concert, he said to himself, “That’s what I want to do.”

Williams later became part of “The Distants,” who recorded “Come On/Always” on Specialty Records in 1959.

“The Distants” would later reorganize, calling themselves “The Elgins” and auditioning for Motown
record producer Berry Gordy.

Gordy signed the “classic five” of Williams, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, with the stipulation that they would rename themselves “The Temptations.”

Their music became the soundtrack of America’s changing tide and helped open the gates for black entertainers to achieve racial crossover appeal.

“We used to walk into restaurants in parts of the south after performing there and they wouldn’t serve us,” recalls Williams.

“There would be ropes dividing the auditoriums that we were performing in. Blacks would be on one side of the aisle and whites on the other. Later, we’d returned to some of those same places, and blacks and whites would be sitting side by side enjoying the music.”

Today’s lineup consists of Williams, Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, Joe Herndon and Bruce Williamson.

“I tell people we are God’s group,” he says, “I don’t mean it arrogantly. It’s just that we have been tested time and time again and keep coming back. We have suffered the deaths of so many of our legendary singers: Paul Williams, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin. Others like Dennis Edwards, Richard Street, Ali-Ollie Woodson and Theo Peoples have left, and yet
our unity is tighter, our sound brighter and our popularity greater. Someone has watched over this group. Someone has protected our integrity. Someone has said, ‘Just go on singing and it’ll get better.’

“Our challenge has been to live in the present while respecting the past. Our past is filled with riches only a fool would discard. At the same time, we thrive on competition. As a Motowner, I grew up in the most competitive musical atmosphere imaginable. But we also understand that for a group with history, no matter how glorious that history might be, reinvention is the name of the game.”

During the group’s prestigious career, they’ve spawned 14 number one R&B records, won three Grammy awards and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Adds Williams, “Our success has a lot to do with our ability to be in tune with the times, but resist the urge to chase trends. We kept up on what other acts were doing but tried to make each song uniquely our own. Not too many of the groups we came up with could make the transition from doo-wop to social and politically conscious songs.”

The group has always been dedicated to doing what it takes to survive. “Music is forever changing, and to be able to adapt to whatever the popular genre of music is at that moment has been an awesome feeling,” he says. “Fortunately, we’ve always had multi-layered voices in
the group that can sing any genre of music. So whatever is called for us to sing, we can do. That has always been the strong suit for The Temptations.”

Friday, October 24, Cascade Theatre