‘I am in awe’
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS: OTIS WILLIAMS
In an exclusive interview, the last surviving original member of the Temptations reflects on the group’s journey through modern black history.
BY KIMBERLY BAILEY-TUREAUD
Black History Month is celebrated by remembering legends and pioneers — accomplished men and women whose sacrifices were instrumental to African-American dignity, and who helped pave the way to progress for untold generations to come.
Popular music has frequently been associated with promoting ideals of racial equality. At the height of the civil rights movement, Motown was the soundtrack to which the marchers marched, and few people had a more intimate perspective on that aspect of history than Otis Williams. The last surviving member of the original Temptations, his partnership with David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin and Paul Williams helped propel black music into the mainstream at a time when segregation was still the law of the land. With timeless classics like “Just My Imagination,” “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” on their discography, their music is destined to live on through the ages.
In an exclusive interview, Williams sat down with Las Vegas Black Image Magazine to discuss his group’s place in history, reflect on the changes it underwent over the decades and preview an upcoming Broadway production.
Did you ever think that the Temptations would still be performing for audiences around the world in 2015?
No, I never did. After 55 years of performing, you couldn’t tell me back in 1960s that The Temptations would still be going strong. I am in awe just like anyone else who remembers when we first began, because show business is so fleeting.
But the lucky part is that Motown Records prepared us through their artist development division, which required us to go to classes every day from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. It was mandatory that we learn about show business — and it became our vocation instead of our avocation. Learning about the business from some of the greats, such as Berry Gordy, Harvey Fugua, Shelly Berger and Cholly Atkins, is why the Temptations have been around for so long. We were around a lot of talented people who passed on the knowledge of how to make show business our vocation, because we wanted to be in it. We didn’t want our success to just be predicated on the success or non-success of our last record. We have proven that we can still work with or without a hit record.
What are some of the things you remember about the other original Temptations that is not a part of their tragic endings?
Before all of the negative things that took over the lives of David, Eddie, Melvin and Paul, we were all fun-loving guys. We were all focused and purpose-driven to try to make it in the business. Paul was really funny; he had a very distinct personality, and we had a lot of fun at the beginning of the group.
I witnessed Paul coming from drinking milk — Melvin, Al and myself drinking “sneaky pee,” which was beer and wine mixed together — to drinking a bottle or two of Courvoisier and Hennessy. Paul used to say, “Why do you all drink alcohol? You should drink milk, it’s healthier for you.” When I saw the effects of alcohol on Paul, I never wanted to drink hard liquor again. I saw what it could do, and it’s a wonder I wasn’t ever knocked out stepping in between Paul, Eddie, David and Melvin when they were in heated arguments after drinking.
We had our moments — but all in all, it was a great bunch of guys. When we started making real money, that is when the negative factors started. I remember vowing with the guys that we weren’t going to be like other groups … and allow success to break us up. It is one thing to say it; it’s another thing to live it. We didn’t live up to our own expectations for ourselves as a group.
Having hit record after hit record, and making money, is a life-altering thing. To see how we were all single-minded and purposeful to make it in this business, and to have it all change, was really mind-blowing. Everything will be shown in our upcoming Broadway play, “The Temptations.”
How will the Broadway stage production differ from “The Temptations” miniseries?
We will probably use some of the content from the miniseries, but we will go further with dramatic license. We are meeting with writers and the director to see which way we will approach the Broadway musical. But it will be the truth. I will not do anything to denigrate the guys from the group that are no longer here. But we will show the real emotion of what it took to make the Temptations a success, and the persona the guys took on. We will expound on more of the behind-the-scenes happenings. It is one thing to see the Temptations on stage, but it’s a whole other thing to see the group offstage. We plan on releasing the Broadway play in the next couple of years. We are at the beginning stages, but things have started.
What are your recollections of the discriminatory practices of the 1960s, during the heyday of the Temptations?
Oh yes, there are a lot of things I remember about the 1960s — those were some of the most difficult years forAfrican-Americans. It is hard to grasp the image of the most talented artists, producers and songwriters — who came out of the original two-family house called Motown Records, located at 2648 Grand Boulevard in Detroit—having close encounters with racial discrimination.
I remember when we were performing in South Carolina on a Motown tour, and there was a rope that ran from wall to wall down the center of the auditorium — with white people on one side of the rope and black people on the other side. We didn’t really know what to say about it, but we went on to perform. The following year we went back to perform at that same auditorium; there was no rope, and whites and blacks were dancing together side by side. If it wasn’t for the perspiration on our faces, you would have seen five guys on stage crying.
We have refused to perform in Mississippi and Arizona because of discrimination practices. Mississippi was really bad with racial prejudice, and we refused to perform in Arizona until they honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday. We had to make certain stands for our beliefs.
During the early performing days of the Temptations, I remember standing on the side of the stage with bats and sticks while the Four Tops performed — to protect them during their performance, because some crazy people would jump on stage to attack them. And the Four Tops would stand on the side of the stage and do the same while we performed. We would travel most often on a bus from city to city to perform, and one time we stopped at a restaurant to get something to eat. When we entered the restaurant the white people in the restaurant told us, “We don’t serve niggers.” We said, “That’s fine; we don’t eat them,” and we left the restaurant and got back on the bus. We would have to pull the bus to the side of the road when many of us had to relieve ourselves, and go in the bushes because we weren’t allowed to use the restrooms at hotels, restaurants or gas stations along the way.
I also remember one time after a performance, when we were boarding our Motown tour bus in the south, a group of white men came out shooting guns at us — and it was shocking to see how many Motown artists were carrying their own guns. Fortunately, no one got shot and we rode down the road.