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'I Lived Through All That?': The Temptations Musical Hits The High And The Low Notes

Jun 30, 2018
Originally published on July 1, 2018 6:23 am

With their signature harmonies, tight choreography and flashy outfits, The Temptations helped define the Motown sound.

Lesser known is what the five young men from Detroit had to sacrifice to get there. A new musical, appropriately titled Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, chronicles the tumultuous journey of the Motown group. Behind their chart-topping hits and smooth melodies, the original group's climb to globetrotting superstardom was fraught with departures, deaths and ego during a turbulent 1960s America.

But the quintet's one constant was its co-founder and sole surviving member, Otis Williams. The production, now at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., before it hits Broadway, is based on Williams' memoir and authored by award-winning playwright and Detroit-native Dominique Morisseau.

Williams, "the glue" of the group, tells NPR about the "emotional" experience of watching his memories play out on the big stage.

After seeing Ain't Too Proud, he says, "It was emotional. I was moved to tears. You know, 'cause I'm saying, 'Wow. I lived through all that?' Never had any idea that when we started singing that we would be going through a lot of craziness, being baptized in fire by certain aspects of life."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On his Motown education

See, at Motown, we had to go to school. By that I mean, Motown had a division called artist development. And we would have to be there at 10 in the morning, 11 in the morning, 'till 6 in the evening. Motown said look: "We want to show you the correct way of getting on the stage. Then while you're on the stage you know what you have to do. And then the correct way of coming off the stage."

So, OK, that's easy. He said, "But here's the kicker. We have to teach you guys how to carry yourself when you're off stage." I say, "Oh, really, why?" He said, "Because people know what you do on stage. They want to see how you are when you're not on stage."

On being "the glue" of the group

I've been called "the glue." ... Shelly [Berger], our manager, and various people that were very instrumental in The Temptations' career — they said, "You know, Otis. If it wasn't for you, there would be no Temptations." Because I've always been in the kind of thinking of, "Let's take care of business, fellas." We can have fun, but we gotta be at the studio at a certain time.

On whether he ever felt the price to keep the group together was too high

No. Even in losing the classic Temptations, life goes on. The one thing that's constant in life is change. And sometimes when it's that kind of change you will find out what you're made of. You have to stay strong and stay focused and — you can't fall apart because you lose certain things, because life is like that at times. Sometimes that's the only way you can find out what you're really made of.

On the difficult times the group went through

I don't think it's bad luck, I just think that's part of life. You know, sometimes we choose our own wealth. Doing certain things and a lot of times that's not a good thing. Especially when you can start the drinking or the drugs.

I've always stayed focus[ed]. Not to say that I'm a saint, you know 'cause I mean I had my fun. But I learned about myself that, as a governor of me, I would see certain artist friends of mine do certain things. And I would look at 'em, I said, "Nah, I'm not doin' that."

On his experience watching Ain't Too Proud

To see my play in a different perspective, it was touching. And I'm glad that I felt that way because when they come to see the play I don't want them to think just, "Oh the Tempts dancing and singing — that's it." No, no, no. We were shot at down South.

I never will forget. We were in Columbia, South Carolina, the first time we went there in 1964 doing a Motor Town review tour. They had a rope right down the center of the auditorium — whites on one side, blacks on the other. We came back to that same place then the following year — no rope. Blacks and whites sitting side by side, high-fiving, enjoying the show. And if wasn't for the sweat we were perspiring from dancing and singing, they would've seen five guys on stage crying. The power of what music can do.

On not being encouraged to use their celebrity to be outspoken during contentious times

Back then, during that time, the way we would get back at 'em is through the music. And there were times that we would say that we did not like this. I'll give you a case in point. Ole Miss in Mississippi. So we were gonna play there, we got there early, and as we were standing there watching them get everything ready for us to perform, black folks came down and they wanted to sit right down front. ... But they didn't have the tickets to sit there. So, when the white folks came, it almost became a nasty situation. So Eddie Kendricks and myself, we walked out and we had the guys turn the microphone on. And we said, "Hey, look. Please. Don't do this. We came here to perform for everybody. Let's not have an ugly situation."

Know the most amazing thing? Black folks went and sat — now they weren't in the back, they were just on the side. And white folks sat down in front. As we walked away from the microphone, we said, "Wow, we're only entertainers but they listened, and we stopped a possible nasty situation." So we had our moments of speaking out about "don't do this, this is wrong."

On why he thinks the music of The Temptations endures

When I listen at the "My Girls," when I listen at "What's Going On" ... last night I was listening to Stevie's "Sign, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." That music was so profoundly effective, but you don't realize it until years later. Everybody can identify with it or relate to it to some extent, and it's just the kind of music that makes you say, "Wow. I lived through that. I love that music." I would bring all kind of memories.

On a moment that showed him the power of The Temptations

I often get a lot of fan mail. So this one particular day, I got a fan mail. It started off, "Mr. Williams, if you get this, would you please call me? My mother would like to talk to you."

So I call. I say "Hi, this is Otis Williams. I'm responding to your letter." The daughter said, "Uh, Mr. Williams, hold on, let me get my mother. Mother came to the phone, the first thing that came out her mouth was, "I asked God not to take me until I talk to Otis Williams." How do you say anything behind that? And she said, "Let me tell you what you guys meant to me and my life and the music that you made." And as she's telling me all this, I'm sitting there, tears running down my eyes. And after she finished, she said, "Now God can take me."

So I've had moments like that, which lets me know that the music that we've made and continue to make has such a profound effect on people, just depending on the person or the people.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T TOO PROUD TO BEG")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) I know you wanna leave me, but I refuse to let you go. If I have to beg and plead for your sympathy. I don't mind...

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So, it's a cliche, but it's true. They really need no introduction. That is The Temptations, one of the most successful vocal groups ever. A group of young men, barely out of their teens, started singing together in Detroit, became part of the Motown empire and eventually became globe-trotting superstars. A new musical, now playing at the Kennedy Center, tells their story and what it cost them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T TOO PROUD TO BEG")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Ain't too proud to beg, sweet darling. Please don't leave me, girl, don't you go...

MARTIN: The musical is called "Ain't Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations." The book was written by award-winning playwright and Detroit native Dominique Morisseau. We'll visit with her tomorrow. But the story is based on the memoir and the memories of the co-founder and the sole-surviving member of The Temptations, Otis Williams, and he's with us now. Otis Williams, we are so delighted to have you here.

OTIS WILLIAMS: I'm glad to be here and talking with you.

MARTIN: Your group is known for so many things, I mean, your costumes, the vocals, the tight choreography. I was really curious about that. Like, how did that become a thing?

WILLIAMS: See, at Motown, we had to go to school. By that I mean, Motown had a division called artist development. And we would have to be there at 10:00 in the morning, 11:00 in the morning till 6:00 and evening. Motown said, look, we want to show you the correct way of getting on the stage. Then while you're on the stage, you know what you have to do and then the correct way of coming off the stage. We said, OK, that's easy. He said, but here's the kicker, we have to teach you guys how to carry yourself when you're off stage. I said, oh, really? Why? He said because people know what you do on stage. They want to see how you are when you're not on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET READY")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) And I'm bringing you a love that's true, so get ready, so get ready. I'm gonna try to make you love me too, so get ready, so get ready.

MARTIN: I get the impression both from your memoir, which I've read, and also from the musical that you were kind of like the father of the group. Do you embrace that?

WILLIAMS: Well, I've been called the glue.

MARTIN: The glue.

WILLIAMS: I've had Mr. Gordy to say, you know, Otis - and Shelley, my manager - he's still here - and various people that was very instrumental in The Temptations' career, he said, you know, Otis, if it wasn't for you, there would be no Temptations. Because I've always been in the kind of thinking of let's take care business, fellas. We can have fun. Yeah, I know, but we've got to be at the studio a certain - a certain time.

MARTIN: But you also kept pushing, pushing, pushing even when it was obviously costing you. And I have to wonder whether you ever felt that the price was too high.

WILLIAMS: No. No. And even in losing the classic Temptations, life goes on. The one thing that's constant in life is change. And sometime when it's that kind of change, you will find out what you're made of. You have to stay strong, and stay focused, and you can't fall apart because you lose certain things because life is like that at time. Sometimes, that's the only way you can find out what you're really made of.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end though, I mean, I grew up listening to your music. But I didn't grow up with you...

WILLIAMS: Right.

MARTIN: ...In the way that some people who grew up with you knew this story. I didn't not remember or realize just how much pain you did go through. I mean, losing Paul Williams, who developed serious health problems, chronic alcohol problem, and then later took his own life - and then David Ruffin developed drug problems, and then Eddie Kendricks died of lung cancer. That had to have been awful.

WILLIAMS: It was.

MARTIN: Frankly, I mean, these were your best friends. And I just have to ask, do you think it was bad luck or why do you think it is? It's like a Shakespearean tragedy, really, to be honest with you.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, but I don't think it's bad luck. I just think that's part of life. Sometimes we choose our own way of doing certain things and a lot of times that's not a good thing especially when you can stop, you know, the drinking and the alcohol or the drugs, you know. So I've always stayed focused, you know. And not to say that I'm a saint, you know, because, I mean, I had my fun. But I learned about myself that as a governor, I mean, I would see certain artist friends of mine do certain things. And I would look at them and I said, now, I'm not doing that.

MARTIN: What's it like watching the play for you - watching the musical for you where you're seeing both the highs and the lows. Like for example, losing your son who died young. I mean, as in a construction accident. I mean, what's it like watching that?

WILLIAMS: Well, it was emotional. I sat there, and I was moved to tears. You know, because I'm saying, wow, I lived through all that? Never had any idea that when we started singing that we would be going through a lot of craziness, being baptized in fire by certain aspects of life. You know, so to see my play in a different perspective. It was touching. And I'm glad that I felt it that way because when they come to see the play, I don't want them to think just, oh, the Tempts dancing and singing and that's it. No, no, no, we were shot at down South. Never will I forget, we were in Columbia, S.C., the first time we went there in 1964 doing a Motown review tour. They had a rope right down the center of the auditorium - whites on one, side blacks on the other. We came back to that same place the following year, no rope - blacks and whites sitting side by side high fiving, enjoying the show. And if it wasn't for the sweat that we were perspiring from dancing and singing, they would have seen five guys onstage crying. The power of what music can do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAY YOU DO THE THINGS YOU DO")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) You've got a smile so bright, you know you could have been a candle. I'm holding you so tight, you know you could have been a handle. The way you swept me off my feet, you know you could have been a broom...

MARTIN: You know, to that end, I was going to ask you about that because in the musical, it makes the point that as artists, perhaps you would have liked to have had more to say about the times but that you were not encouraged to do so. I mean, the musical makes the point that you were, sort of, told stay in your lane, as it were. You do have one of the great, you know, I don't know if you want call it a protest songs - one of the great ones of the era but. How did you feel about that now? I mean, as now, you know, we have a moment where, you know, artists are extremely outspoken, many of them are and especially in genres that serve diverse audiences - particularly African-Americans. It's almost expected, and if you don't, people are like, there's something wrong with you.

WILLIAMS: Well, I think...

MARTIN: I wonder now, like, how do you feel about that.

WILLIAMS: Well, I feel great about that, you know, they can speak out about it very openly. But, you know, back during that time the way we would get back at them is through the music. And then there were times when we would say that we did not like this - give you a case and point. Old Miss - in Mississippi - Archie Manning was the big-time quarterback. So we were going to play there. We got there early. And as we were standing there watching them get everything ready for us to perform, black folks came down and they wanted to sit right down front. Man, The Temptations here, we want to be sitting down front. But they didn't have the tickets to sit there.

So when the white folks came, it almost became, you know, a nasty situation. So Eddie Kendricks and myself, we walked out and we had the guys to turn the microphone on. And we said, hey, look, please. Don't do this. We came here to perform for everybody. Let's not have a ugly situation. Know the most amazing thing? Black folks went and sat - now they weren't in the back, they were just on the side, and the white folks sat down in front. But the most important thing that I learned as we walked away from the microphone, we said, wow, we only entertainers but they listened, and we stopped a possible nasty situation. So we had our moments of speaking out about don't do this. This is wrong. And so I never will forget moments like that. And that was like during the '60s when, you know, it really was crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOUD NINE")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) The childhood part of my life wasn't very pretty. You see, I was born and raised in the slums of the city. It was a one room shack we slept in, other children beside me. We hardly had enough food or room to sleep. It was a hard times...

MARTIN: Why do you think the music of The Temptations still endures? You know, I don't know that you really - I don't - I think it might be in the Constitution, you can't have a wedding without playing a Motown song or The Temptations in particular. I think it might be a law here.

WILLIAMS: Motown's music, Tempts music, however you want to paraphrase it, when I listen at the "My Girl," when I listen at "What's Going On" - last night, the party, I was sitting there listening Stevie "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," that music was so profoundly effective, but you don't realize it until years later. Everybody can identify with it or relate to it to some extent. And it's just the kind of music that make you say, wow, I lived through that. I love that music. It would bring all kinds of memories.

Now I'll tell you something that (unintelligible) let me know that the importance of The Temptations. I often get a lot of fan mail. So this on one particular day I got a fan mail from - and I'm sitting, reading it. And when I open it up it started off with, Mr. Williams, once you get this, would you please call me? My mother would like to talk to you. So I call. I say, hi, this is Otis Williams. I'm responding to your letter. The daughter said, Mr. Williams, hold on. Let me get my mother. So I'm sitting there. Mother came to the phone and first thing came out her mouth was, I asked God not to take me until I talked to Otis Williams. How do you see anything behind that?

And she said, let me tell you what you guys meant to me in my life and the music that you made. And as she's telling me all this, I'm sitting there and tears running down my eyes. And after she finished she said, now, God can take me. I asked him don't take me until I talk to Otis Williams. So when she hung up and we hung up, I sat there, and I said, wow. So I've had moments like that which lets me know that the music that we have made and continue to make has such a profound effect on people just depending on the person or the people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GIRL")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) I've got sunshine on a cloudy day...

MARTIN: That is Otis Williams of The Temptations. The musical "Ain't Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations" tells the story of a group from Otis Williams' perspective. It's playing now at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Otis Williams, it has truly been an honor. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILLIAMS: My pleasure, darling, my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GIRL")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) What can make me feel this way? My girl. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.