The Temptations are the soundtrack to multiple generations. The legendary R&B group is one of popular music’s longest running dynasties, spanning nearly six decades, 11 presidencies, and the entirety of the James Bond series. They have logged 44 studio albums and 37 Billboard Top 40 hits, plus Grammys, television specials and an induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Twenty-four singers have been members of Motown’s most elite vocal squad, but only Otis Williams has been there since the very beginning.
The baritone, who turned 76 in October, acts as both leader and standard-bearer for the group, which now includes Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, Larry Braggs and Willie Greene in its ranks. Together they’re back with a new album, “All the Time.” The Temptations’ first release in eight years includes three originals, as well as covers of hits by Sam Smith, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, the Weeknd, John Mayer, and fellow Motown veteran Michael Jackson. Their trademark harmonies, which helped define a genre half a century ago, serve to enhance these contemporary tracks, illustrating once again that the “Tempts” are timeless.
As a founding member and the sole witness to the Temptations’ entire saga, Williams safeguards the band’s legacy. His 1988 memoir, previously the basis for a hugely successful 1998 miniseries, is now the plot of a new musical, “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which comes to Broadway in the fall. With one eye on new music and the other on old memories vividly brought to life in the upcoming production, the ever-gracious Williams had much to say when interviewed by Jordan Runtagh, of People Magazine.
“It’s loaded with a lot of good songs, but we felt we would give them the Temptations twist. They’re all favorites of mine. Those are songs that I always listen to. Sam, Ed, Bruno Mars, John Mayer — they’re great artists, so it made it easy for me to decide the songs to go alongside the three originals. I didn’t just want the album to be a cover job, because we’ve done that before. The originals gave it a new flavor, rather than the same-old-same-old that we’ve done before.
The essence of recording is basically the same, but now you can really purify the sound and have effects and things. They’ve added a lot of equipment, but basically it’s still the same. You can have all the modernized equipment you want, but if you can’t sing it’ll come out horrible. We always try to go in and do the best that we can, but the recording is always the same. Any artist has to get in there and put it all out there for the microphone. But when we go into the studio now, it’s like stepping into a spaceship because of all the modern equipment.
I feel good thinking about those days because they were fun-lovin days The truth is, Motown was like a family. We’d try to help out whenever we could. Sometimes one of the producers would say, “Hey man, I need some handclaps, I need some background voices.” We’d often just go to Motown to hang out, even if we didn’t have anything to do. It was like a YMCA. The camaraderie and the spirit of everybody pulling for one another was always there. We had a healthy competition, which is what made Motown excel, we all tried to make our mark in the world.
I often think back and I’m very thankful to God for placing me with all those that were there. Motown was meant to be. Motown was no happenstance. God, in his infinite wisdom, got all those talented people — the engineers, the everyday people who worked with Motown — for a reason. Because the ‘60s were the most tumultuous decade in the last hundred years, and through all of that, here comes this little two-story family flat that had all that wonderful music. It was like wonderful music to a troubled soul. I’m glad to be part of something so historic.
Barry Gordy was coming in with the Miracles, because they had “Shop Around” at that time. I think he was learning by rote, just like we were. I don’t think he had any inclination that Motown would become this giant that was known throughout the world. Detroit was always been known for the Big Three: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. What’s another name? Motown. It was wonderful, Berry was learning how to run a company just like we were learning how to be artists.
It was the emergence of the “originals” — David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks and myself. We walked over to the studio that evening, got around the piano with Smokey, and he started playing “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” And he passed out the lyrics. So I’m reading the lyrics and I’m going, “You got a smile so bright, you know you should have been a candle, I’m holding you so tight, you know you could have been a handle? Man, this is some funny, hokey stuff.” We went to the studio and we started recording it – the rest is history.”