Soul Revisited: Celebrating Otis Williams of The Temptations

Today marks the 74th birthday of the last surviving original member of Motown’s legendary group The Temptations. For over five decades Williams has lead the group through personnel clashes and changes, yet through it all still remains on the road today, entertaining thousands of fans year in, year out.

Otis Miles Jr. was born in Texarkana, Texas in 1941, to Otis Miles and Hazel Williams. The unmarried couple soon split after the birth of Otis Jr., with his mother moving to Detroit leaving the then young boy to be raised by his grandmothers. In 1951 Hazel sent for her son to come and join her in Detroit, a city that sparked his interest in music, in particular vocal groups. Adopting his mother’s surname, the teenage Otis put together several singing groups: in particular the Siberians and later Otis Williams and the Distants. The Distants scored their only hit in 1959 entitled ‘Come On’, which featured lead vocals from friend and later-era Temptation Richard Street. The Distants also featured singer Elbridge ‘Al’ Bryant and bass singer Melvin Franklin, whose friendship with Williams would last a lifetime.

After The Distants failed to capitalise on the local success of ‘Come On’, the group splinted: Richard Street went on to form The Monitors, with Williams, Franklin and Bryant joining forces with two singers another local group The Primes, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. This new group became known as The Elgins and were signed to the fledging Motown Record Corporation. In 1961 they were rechristened as The Temptations, and would become one of the most successful acts of the sixties.

Over the course of the group’s history there has been twenty-two Temptations including Williams; but Williams has been the only constant member since the groups founding. The first major line-up change came with the departure of Bryant who was replaced by David Ruffin, an electrifying singer and performer. Yet, unlike their Motown colleagues The Four Tops, The Temptations have always had internal strife within the group, fuelling the many personnel changes in the group’s history. By the early seventies Williams and Franklin remained the only original Temptations. Friends until the end, both committed themselves to the legacy of the group, vowing never to quit. Williams and Franklin registered the name ‘The Temptations’ as their own, and would perform with each other within the group for over thirty years.

During the recording of the group’s excellent For Lover’s Only album Franklin fell ill and sadly never recovered. He died in February 1995 at the age of 52. Williams vowed to continue and the then line-up of long-time member Ron Tyson, Ali-Ollie Woodson and Theo Peoples as a quartet. Since then, Williams (along with the brilliant talent that is Ron Tyson) has continued to lead the group. Indeed, although Williams is the longest serving Temptation, he has rarely sung lead for the group; instead he has taken on the role of the group’s spokesman and leader, responsible for all the musical and business decisions. Often criticised for his business-first approach to the group, particularly in response to the various hiring and firing of members, Williams has nevertheless been played a vital part in keeping the music of The Temptations alive, and keeping the group recording and performing. Under his leadership the group continues sell out venues around the world, and fortunately for us, at the age of 74, Williams shows no sign of slowing down.

To celebrate the legacy of this great man we’ve picked out some of our favourite Otis Williams moments on record and in performance, as well as revisiting an interview we conducted with the man prior to The Temptations last UK tour.

NSR Meets Otis Williams of The Temptations! by Newcastle Student Radio on Mixcloud

Don’t Send Me Away, With a Lot O’Soul (1967)

This song is the first lead that Williams sang as a member of The Temptations. Written by Smokey Robinson and Temptation Eddie Kendricks, the song finds Williams in fine voice. Certainly, his voice is not best suited to singing lead: while Motown may have billed the group as having ‘five lead singers’, this is at best a slight exaggeration. Sadly for Williams, at that time the group already three outstanding lead singers in Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin and Paul Williams, as well as the world’s greatest bass singer Melvin Franklin, who is outstanding on this record. Williams therefore spent much time anchoring the sweet soul harmonies of the group, a role he still performs elegantly today. That said, ‘Don’t Send Me Away’ is a delightful ballad that is an interesting interesting snippet of Temptations history.

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, Diana Ross & The Supremes Join The Temptations (1968)

After Motown’s brilliant idea to cause internal strife within The Supremes by re-naming them ‘Diana Ross & The Supremes’, leading the eventual departure of founding member Florence Ballad, they had a truly brilliant idea to unite their star girl group with their star boy group. Two albums were put out by Motown, plus a live television special of the two group’s performing together. The albums in themselves are nothing special, featuring so-so covers of standards and soul songs of the day. The exception was ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’. Originally sung by Dee Dee Warwick, her version went largely unnoticed until Motown got its hands on the song and recorded on these two super-groups. Unsurprisingly, Ross was given the lead from The Supremes, which was countered by Eddie Kendricks’ soaring falsetto from the Tempts. Otis Williams was then given a spoken-word interlude in the middle of the song, carving out a little niche he would utilise later on in the Temptations career.

Masterpiece, Masterpiece (1973)

Although The Temptations had a massive hit in 1972 with ‘Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone’, and Motown were keen to continue their winning formula with producer Norman Whitfield, relations between Whitfield and the group had cooled. Whitfield wanted to continually experiment with psychedelic elements in his music, particularly long-instrumental sections in his songs. This became most apparent with the thirteen minute long ‘Masterpiece’ on which The Temptations sang on less than four minutes of it. Williams was given another spoken intro, one of his finest. The single version came in at just four minutes, but the group felt that Whitfield was conning people who had bought the album expecting to hear the Temptations vocals. They would not work with each other again until 1983’s Back To Basics album. That said, Masterpiece is a brilliant record, one that often gets a little lost in the Temptations catalogue of hits.

Darling, Stand By Me, House Party (1975)

As we noted in our piece on Melvin Franklin, Motown records released an album of Temptations off-cuts as an album of brand new material in 1975 without the group’s approval. Indeed, the album House Party is amongst one of the group’s worst, but there are a few things that save it from being a complete disaster. In particular, the song that redeems the album somewhat is ‘Darling Stand By Me’, a horn-heavy mid-tempo ballad delivered rather well by Williams himself. Even the group didn’t hate it as much compared the rest of the album, and performed it on a few occasions. Again, it’s nice to hear Williams sing lead.

Can’t You See Sweet Thing, Power (1980)

After The Temptations largely unspectacular stint at Atlantic Record trying to capitalise on the disco wave, Berry Gordy wooed them back to Motown. He gave them the song ‘Power’, and it is one of the finest recordings done by The Temptations – at that time Williams, Franklin, Dennis Edwards, Richard Street and Glenn Leonard. Yet with the Miami race riots Motown feared that ‘Power’ might stoke further violence due to its lyrical content, and the album and single’s promotion was cancelled. Looking back, that’s a great shame as the Power album is pretty good. One of the most interesting snippets from the album is this, ‘Can’t You See Sweet Thing’. Written by The Temptations themselves, it features both Leonard and Edwards trading lead vocal. Williams was given freedom, however, to add a spoken introduction and conclusion to the song, as well as being more present in the vocal mix. Ever the hopeless romantic, Williams’ opening and closing pleads with his lady that he really does love her, and that they should try to work things out. It’s Williams’ niche at its best, and another interesting song from the depths of The Tempations’ later work.

Eye of the Tiger, Live at Harrah’s Casino Atlantic City (1982)

 Two live albums of The Temptations exist – Temptations Live! and In Japan – but only one seemingly authorised live concert exists on video, their performance at Harrah’s Casino in Atlantic City. The line-up – Williams, Franklin, Edwards, Street and then-newby Ron Tyson – are sublime. Their vocals are superb, and their dance moves stunning. One interesting selection is the decision to cover Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, but actually it works. All of the members are given a line or two to sing, and they all seem to enjoy the opportunity of singing a bit different. Melvin Franklin’s infectious smile and bass voice steal the show, but it’s nice to see Williams hold a little lead.

Treat Her Like A Lady, Truly For You (1984)

 For those familiar with the history of The Temptations will know that Williams does not sing this lead; rather the incredible Ali Ollie Woodson, truly one of the all time great Temptations and soul singers, delivers a knock-out performance. But it is interesting that Williams and Woodson in fact wrote the song. Even more interesting is that the song, and album, was produced by Earth, Wind & Fire members Ralph Johnson and Al McKay. As Williams states in his enjoyable autobiography, ‘Ollie hadn’t gotten that many breaks, and he expressed his frustration over the fact that no one would listen to his stuff. It’s hard to say why, because when we heard his songs, we thought they were very good…One of our first collaborations, “Treat Her Like A Lady”, became one of our biggest-selling hits of the eighties, and the album it came from, Truly For You, is one of our best.’ We agree Mr Williams, we agree. 

For Your Love/You Send Me, For Lover’s Only (1995)

Of all the Temptations albums, For Lover’s Only, an album of standards produced by Richard Perry, is one of their most elegant. The line-up included Williams, Woodson, Tyson, Theo Peoples and Ray Davies substituting for Franklin on bass; Franklin would record one song, the poignant ‘Life Is But A Dream’, before passing away. Williams was given a lead on the first half of the medley of For Your Love/You Send Me, with Woodson handling the lead on the Sam Cooke section of the song. This is arguably Williams’ finest performance as a Temptation, and it’s great to see that he has added this to the current Temptations set-list on tour.

Listen Up, Still Here (2010)

After the enjoyable but largely forgettable album of covers in 2007 The Temptations put out with current lead singer Bruce Williamson, Williams took the group back into the studio to record the excellent Still Here album. It is the last album the group has put out, and although it suffered from a lack of international promotion, it did reach the Billboard Top 200 albums. One of the interesting songs on the album is ‘Listen Up’ where Williams does another spoken word intro lamenting the state of humanity, when people only come together to destroy others, not for the benefit of human progress. It’s Williams at his best, and he features prominently with his soliloquies throughout the album; whilst new lead-singer Bruce Williamson and long-term member Terry Weeks handle most of the leads in brilliant fashion. Williamson has a powerful gospel voice, and Weeks’ sultry voice is delightful. It’s a shame Williams’ efforts on getting the new line-up into the studio didn’t get the attention it deserved when it came out, for this will probably be the final Temptations album.

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George Haffenden
Written by George Haffenden
Brought up on a healthy diet of soul and funk, Haff's dream was to become the first British member of The Temptations. Realising that this dream could never be realised, he is now the curator of The Funk & Soul Revue.