Echoes, Redferns Richard Street, a member of legendary Motown Records group…
- Posted on Jun 25th 2010 2:30PM by James Sullivan
It's often said that the Temptations did for soul music what the Beatles did for rock 'n' roll. From post-doo-wop ballads such as 'My Girl' and the psychedelic soul of 'Ball of Confusion' and 'Papa Was a Rollin' Stone' to an '80s collaboration with Rick James, these Hall of Famers span generations.
The Temptations' most recent album, aptly titled 'Still Here,' is a prelude to the group's 50th anniversary celebration in 2011. Like Paul McCartney, 68-year-old group leader Otis Williams (sometimes called Big Daddy) is still touring and recording, keeping the group name alive. Spinner spoke with him about life, death and mobbed-up nightclub owners.
The new song 'Change Has Come' recalls the Temptations' great social-justice anthems.
[The songwriters were] a husband-and-wife team out of Birmingham, Alabama. And when it was presented to us, I fell in love with it. It's so apropos to what we are going through as a country, with the first African-American president.
It's a tough job, isn't it?
Well, you know, he knew what it was before he got into it. Clinton got it – all our presidents get hammered. And President Obama probably knew he'd get hammered even more so because of the color of his skin. I think he's doing a good job. He just inherited a bad situation.
When the group started recording more socially conscious songs in the late '60s, I'm curious whether you had to persuade Berry Gordy to let you go in that direction, as very commercially driven as he was.
Berry didn't bother us in that sense. Of course, we started having hits with Smokey [Robinson as songwriter and producer]. And then when Norman [Whitfield, Motown songwriter-producer] started working with us on 'Ain't Too Proud to Beg' and the songs after that, I guess Berry said, "Well, leave them alone." He never did step in and say, "I don't want you guys recording that." Which he could have, because every Friday they were having quality-control meetings.
That always seemed like a funny idea, having "quality control" for music.
It definitely worked for Motown. Berry would gather the producers and the songwriters -- everyone but the artists. Sometimes I'd stand outside the door and really hear them going at it.
Another new song I want to ask about is 'Soul Music,' which has such a sweet, nostalgic tone but also sounds contemporary. It's well-timed, since we seem to be in the middle of a classic soul revival.
Well, not only has Motown been here for 50 years but Philly International, Stax Records... Great music will withstand the test of time. The amazing thing about younger people, people in their late teens, early 20s – I was in L.A. a while ago, walking down the street, and these two young guys stopped me and said, "Mr. Williams, we don't mean to bother you, but we know who you are, and we just want to say that you guys made better music than what we have today." And I've heard that enough times to know that, you know – 'My Girl,' 'Ball of Confusion,' 'Just My Imagination' – these are songs that anybody and everybody can relate to.
You had great songs from both of those early phases of the group, with Smokey and then with Norman Whitfield. Can you characterize how their personalities differed?
Well, Smokey was just a complete producer-songwriter. He came to us with 'My Girl,' 'Get Ready,' and he had everything fit. He would always allow us to have our input, but he was just a very confident producer and songwriter. Now, Norman laid some dynamite tracks and wrote some great lyrics, but he left a great percentage of everything else to us, as far as the harmonies and things. So it was like night and day. It was great working with both of them.
Your group has had plenty of high times, but you've also experienced more than your share of tragedy. You've lost so many members.
Well, that's life. Most recently, we just lost [Ali-]Ollie Woodson. But you just have to continue on, just like when you lose a family member. You just have to continue on.
Is there a particular moment in the group's history when you remember the highs far outweighing the lows?
Oh, sure. Next year is the 50th anniversary, and we've quite naturally had a lot of historical moments. I could rattle off so many – wow! Especially when I walk around my home, so many gold and platinum albums, Grammys and awards and citations. I never would've imagined when we started out that we would achieve so much.
What was it like to play the legendary Manhattan nightclub the Copacabana? I've heard all the stories about owner Jules Podell and how unpleasant he could be.
Oh! Well, Jules Podell was wonderful to us. You know, we broke all the existing records at the Copa, for any act. We played there in 1967, and the lines were all the way around to Central Park, and the police were there on horses trying to control the crowd. Our manager told us that Mr. Podell wanted to speak with us, and he came in and told us that we should let him know if anyone tried to mess with us. "Nobody gonna mess with my Temptations!" So, yeah, he was a character.
Did you get to have last words or mend fences with each of the departed members of the group before they died? Any regrets?
I regret that we lost so many talented guys. But you know, Eddie Kendricks, we talked a few days before he passed. I told him I loved him, and he said, "Same here." I told him we made history together. We made something really great that would outlive us all. Unfortunately for Paul [Williams, no relation], he committed suicide, but we had always communicated with Paul. Even when he was no longer in the group, he still did our choreography. I didn't see David Ruffin when he passed -- we were on the road, and you know what happened to him in Philadelphia [Ruffin died of a drug overdose in a crack house]. But from time to time before he died, we'd see him, and it was always cordial. Melvin [Franklin], him and I were still together when he had a seizure and passed. We were friends to the end. And I sat and talked with Ollie a week or two before he passed. I'm happy to say that, all in all, we did get a chance to mend fences with those who we needed to do so with.
For five decades you've been the spokersman for the group. Did you fall into that, or are you by nature a take-charge kind of guy?
You know, it goes back to when we worked with Johnnie Mae Matthews [the Detroit label owner who signed Williams' group the Distants, precursors to the Temptations], when she would call rehearsal at her house. I always made a point to get there a little before time. And one day she said, "Otis, you're never late. That's a good quality to have. You be the group leader." When we got to Motown, we met with Mickey Stevenson, then the A&R man. He said, "If you want to make Mr. Gordy mad, be late." And we said, "We don't play late." So that's how I became the leader. All I wanted to do was sing, but the late Johnnie Mae Matthews put that yoke on my back and, well, here it is 50 years later.