Otis Williams is on a roll.
The founder and only original surviving member of legendary Motown group The Temptations is basking in the glory of seeing the fruits of his labor pay off with a hit Broadway musical, and recent induction into the Apollo Theater Walk of Fame.
“I never would have imagined this when we started out, first coming to the Apollo in the early 1960s,” Williams told The Root. “It’s just hard to put into words because when we first started there, we’d heard the folklore about, ‘Hey man, if you don’t do good at the Apollo, they going to boo you off that stage, this guy going to come out with a long hook and snatch you off,’ and all that. If you can get past at Apollo, you can perform anywhere in the world.”
The current incarnation of The Temptations—whose membership has included Dennis Edwards, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Ali-Ollie Woodson and Ron Tyson over the past six decades—performed and was also honored on June 10 at the star-studded Apollo Spring Gala, which raised $2 million for its year-round artistic and community programming initiatives.
“It’s an honor to pay tribute to The Temptations on the Apollo’s Walk of Fame,” said Jonelle Procope, President & CEO of the Apollo Theater. “It’s one of the most important ways for us to celebrate artists who have contributed to and articulate the African American cultural narrative, and who continue to bring together generations, resonating across the world.”
The story of the Grammy-winning group with its sophisticated style, tight-knit choreography, and chart-topping songs is being told eight times a week on The Great White Way with the Des MacAnuff-directed, Dominique Morisseau-scripted Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. The show has garnered critical acclaim and 12 2019 Tony Award nominations, winning Best Choreography. Next year, it will hit the road for a 50-city national tour.
Following the induction ceremony, The Root caught up with Williams.
The Root: Talk to me about the success of Ain’t Too Proud.
Otis Williams: Well, I’m very thankful to God, I give it all to him for me to be able to witness my life story being portrayed so wonderfully by the cast. I have to pinch myself to see if this is really real, and to know that it is being received so well is just an added benefit. So it’s something that I never would have imagined when we started out singing back in Detroit. It’s different but I’m very thankful, happy and proud.
TR: The fact that you are a producer of the show, which is also going on tour, you not only get a chance to revel in the show’s success but the riches too, right?
OW: (Laughs) Well, so I’ve been told. I just wanna bring enjoyment to the world so they can see a part of The Temps that they rarely get to see. I’ve had young people come to me and say, “Mr. Williams, we didn’t know you went through that!” So that’s the riches that I really enjoy; that my life story’s being told. The musical is a surprising force that gives us more depth, more than just the thing of singing and dancing with flat shoes on and the four-headed microphone. It lets audiences know that we are really people that have tales of drugs and the whole nine yards, so that’s one of the riches that I am very happy about.
TR: Now you’ve outlived damn near everybody. I know it’s cliché to ask but I want to know: What’s your key to survival? Watching the show, you get an idea that you’re some sort of goodie two shoes. But even those types perish. How did you really manage to live through it all?
OW: Well I think what I’ve learned about myself [is] you got to have … discipline because one man’s poison could be another man’s feast. I learned a long time ago that you got to have some kind of discipline within yourself because you are reveling in success, and making money, and all that adulation in the world and sometimes, it’s so easy to get lost along the way and I tried not to. I tried to always be in control of me.
I am not going to sit here and say I am perfect, but at the same time I said, ‘Oh no, I ain’t doing that.’ I always had a little stop cap within myself … Then also by me being raised by two wonderful grandmothers, they just instilled in me a lot of wonderful qualities that I adhere to all these many years later. I am from Texarkana, a little small town down Texas, not too far outside of Dallas. I attribute a lot of it to my upbringing.
TR: Now, the Temptations story has been told before on VH1, and it still resonates for a lot of people. You were involved in both, so what did you want to make sure was done that wasn’t necessarily done before? Did you tinker with anything?
OW: Well, I just wanted to add a little more depth to it. You see, when you do something live, like what’s happening with my play, the people can feel it even more so because it’s right in your face. So when you do it in person, it’s just another kind of presence.
TR: How was it working with Dominique Morisseau? What did the process entail in putting Ain’t Too Proud together?
OW: Dominique is fabulous. She’s a wonderful young lady. Her and Des MacAnuff came out to my house in L.A. and we sat on two or three different occasions. They quizzed me. They wanted to know … how we went about certain things. They listened to me throw my Otis-isms in there … and I didn’t know that she was writing all that down until I saw they play and they delivered it.
The next time I met them, Des asked, ‘Did you ever have to go to that deep dark retrospective within yourself?’ And I had never been asked that before, and when I told Des what it was, Dominique was sitting there rubbing my right arm, because it started moving me to tears … They asked certain questions that just made me open up even more.
TR: I listened to the last Temptations album, All The Time, where you guys are doing covers of songs by Sam Smith, Maxwell and The Weeknd. What’s next for the Temptations, the group?
OW: Well, we contemplated going back and doing another album. We are in the throes of coming up with great material. We’re going to the studio and doing it. We want to do it because next year it is 60 years for The Temps. I like to come up with something, finish it and keep it with Temptation style but great material because we don’t try to get slick and do a whole lot of tomfoolery. The Temptations are a part of Motown, it’s the song quality, it’s the song that matters and that’s what we’ve always tried to align ourselves with: coming up with great songs that people of all walks of life can relate to and understand.
TR: What do you make of today’s songwriters? Are there any ones who stand out for you that you really like as far as artists are concerned?
OW: “I get asked that quite often. I must say, like I’ve always told others: the one thing that’s constant in life is change. I listen to today’s music, I meet it with mixed emotions. I don’t want to be knocking anybody else or trying to hurt anybody else who’s trying to make their bones but I’m not that impressed with some of the stuff that I hear on the radio. I’m from an era with great songwriters, great producers, great singers. I stopped listening to stuff on the radio today and ask, ‘Where is the melody?’ See, Berry Gordy said that if you can retain a song in your mind and the next day it’s still there, you got a hit record, so go on and develop that. A lot of the stuff that I hear on the radio I can’t even remember the melody. Some of the stuff on the radio it’s just not the same quality of music. That’s why Motown’s music and the Temps music is still so very popular today.
TR: You’ve recorded hundreds of songs but is there a song after all these years that you guys haven’t recorded that you always wanted to?
OW: No, nothing comes to mind quickly. But I’ve always been in love with my friends down in Philadelphia, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. I’ve heard some of the things that they’ve recorded with The O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and I know that one of Kenny’s dreams was to produce and write a song for The Temps.
TR: Speaking of Philadelphia, you and Patti Labelle had a romance.
OW: Oh wow. Well, yeah that was 1965, ’66.
TR: And industry lore says she broke off your engagement because you wanted her to be a housewife, is that true?
OW: No, that’s not true, I don’t know why Patti would tell that. I call that breaking her back to keep up her front. I had just got divorced, I wasn’t even thinking about getting married and I damn sure wouldn’t have asked this girl, as wonderful as she sang, to stop singing. So that is not true, I don’t know why Patti LaBelle said that. That’s not true. Patti shouldn’t do that because I wouldn’t ask that girl to stop singing, to be a housewife and carry on, that’s one of the things that I was knocked out about her when she would start singing “Danny Boy” and all those wonderful songs and I said, “Wow this girl can sing nice.” How the hell I’m going to ask her that? That would be just like she was saying, “If you’ll ask me to stop singing you got to stop singing.” I’m telling the gospel, I never would have asked that girl to stop singing to be a housewife.
TR: Wait, so how many times have you been married and divorced?
OW: I’ve been married three times.
TR: So what’s your current marital status, are you married now?
OW: No, I’m not married now.
TR: Do you want to get married again?
OW: Well, I don’t know. But right now I’m not married. I got my divorce in June 1997, ‘98. I’ve been a bachelor ever since then.
TR: Last year, the music world lost Dennis Edwards and Aretha Franklin. So many of the legends are leaving us. How do you face mortality?
OW: Well, my thing [is] we all should know that we’re only here for X amount of time. There is an expiration date on all of us. So I try and live every day that God touches my eyes to see the start of every day and I’m blessed to be doing what I’m doing. Here I am 77 years old and I’m still having wonderful fun. I just thank each joyous day that God let me do it. Like I said, “We got to be real with ourselves.” Everybody got to make that transformation so while I am on this earth of or of this earth, I’m going to enjoy it. Like I’ve always said, I plan on riding the hair off the horse; when I get off the horse I want it to be bald. That’s a lot of riding.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.