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OTIS WILLIAMS: THE TEMPTATIONS AUSTRALIAN TOUR INTERVIEW

The term ‘legendary’ is one of the most overused in the music business, these days applied to artists way too early in their careers. On the other hand, there are some artists whom you’d swear the term was created for… pioneering, iconic acts like The Temptations, one of the most influential vocal groups in music history. In a career spanning over five decades, The Temptations have sold more then 10 millions records and racked up 37 top 40 singles, including era-defining classics such as My Girl, Aint Too Proud To Beg, The Way You Do The Things You Do, Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me), and Papa Was A Rolling Stone. Along with The Supremes, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Martha and The Vandellas and so many other amazing black artists, The Temptations helped to make Detroit’s Motown Records the biggest hit-making machine in the world during the 60s and into the 70s. While baritone singer Otis ‘Big Daddy’ Williams is the only remaining original member of the group, The Temptations still perform numerous sold-out concerts around the globe and in December this year will be coming to Australia to perform a series of cabaret style shows at Sofitel’s exquisite ballrooms in both Melbourne and Sydney.

Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips had the honour of chatting to Otis Williams about the Temptations career and the upcoming shows in Australia.

As you’d expect for a group which has survived over 50 years in show business, The Temptations have gone through several lineup changes. Of the original five members, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, and David Ruffin have all passed away. With such a solid reputation to uphold, you’d expect any new member coming to the group to be an outstanding singer. Yet surprisingly, vocal ability is not first and foremost what Otis seeks in his fellow Temptations. “I have been asked that quite a few times and every time I tell them, people look at me kinda quizzical if it’s face to face … I don’t look for talent first,” he states. “That might sound strange but you might have all the talent in the world … if you’re not a nice person and you don’t know how to deal with show business, you can keep the talent. I look for spirit and heart, that’s the most important thing. I have been around talented people all my life and I’ve seen a lot of it just wasted away. I need to know where your head is and I need to know you have heart. If you’re a good person and you’re able to do the job, well then your talent will shine. I have learnt that through the many different personnel and changes that we’ve been through.”

The Temptations have been so influential to so many other vocalists in the music industry but when Otis was growing up, he had to look elsewhere for his singer role models. “Well I’m from the south and I was raised primarily by two grandmothers who only listened to gospel,” he tells me. “I must give the gospel the credit because I was raised listening to Mahalia Jackson and The Swan Silvertones, Clara Ward and The Dixie Hummingbirds. I didn’t get turned onto rock ‘n’ roll until I moved to Detroit at the beginning of the 50s, when rock n roll was beginning to take shape. Then I started to listen to Sam Cooke, when he was by himself and Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters and Chuck Berry, The Cadillacs, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, that’s when I was influenced into wanting to be in show business.”

The 60s was a golden time for soul and RnB music featuring acts like The Four Tops, Sam & Dave, The Drifters, The O’Jays, Isley Brothers, Supremes, Martha and Vandellas, and most of them were performing up to nine months of the year. While several of them came from the same record label, there was a healthy competition between the artists, each fighting for a spot in the upper echelons of the record charts. “Yes, there was competition and that’s what made us even better,” says Otis. “It was a healthy competition and that’s why we’ve always tried to do our best. There was healthy competition with The Four Tops and us in particular. They’d go out and try to outdo us and we’d do the same. It would add more excitement and fervour to the show but regardless if it was The O’Jays or The Four Tops, we’d just try to be the best we could.”

The more The Temptations succeeded, the more Berry Gordy’s Motown label wanted hits and the band was churning out several per year. Whether a song resonated with the public or not, they’d find out after if it got aired on radio or when they performed it on stage. However it was with their biggest hit ‘My Girl’, that Otis had a notion about even before it was released.
“I had a feeling about My Girl,” Otis says on reflection. “I told Smokey (Robinson) that. We put the voices on and the real coup de grâce was when Paul Riser added the strings and horns to the vocals. When I heard the horns and strings, I told Smokey, who was sittin’ in the studio with the faders … I said I don’t know how big a record this is going to be but it’s going to be a big record. Motown released My Girl on December 28th, 1964. In February 1965 we were on at The Apollo and they sent us a telegram to say we were number one and it’s been popular ever since.”

Not only were The Temptations one of the great vocal groups of the day, the musicians backing them in the Motown studio, more commonly known as The Funk Brothers were also extremely influential in the development of popular music. They are probably one of the most sampled bands in music history, forming the basis of so many current hip hop tracks. While the band were never credited on Motown records, musicians like bass player James Jamerson gained acknowledgement later in life, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Otis Williams and James Jamerson had known each other long before The Temptations achieved success, playing together on earlier musical projects.
“I’d known James Jamerson long before that,” Otis explains. “He used to come into the studio when we were with Johnnie Mae Mathews (former manager/producer). He’d come in with an upright double bass strapped across his shoulder. But the Funk Brothers were extraordinarily great musicians. They were all great jazz musicians, big in the Detroit jazz scene. I was going to go and see them the night the riot broke out in Detroit but I went home and I’m glad I did. They were excellent guys, not only great musicians, they really were like brothers but once they got down in the snake pit at Motown they were something else. They are the only rhythm section to be on more number one records than anyone else in the business. That is truly a milestone.”

Recording studios back in the 60s were a far cry from current sound production facilities and Otis takes full advantage of the state of the art gear now on offer. The conditions they had to record under in the 60s would be inconceivable these days. “I do enjoy it now,” Otis says. “It has only gotten better. When we started recording it was kinda primitive with the kind of things we had to do to record. If somebody went to the bathroom, we’d have to wait for the toilet to stop flushing before we hit the record button. Nowadays if we walk into a studio it’s like walking into a space module. It’s very interesting now, the sound is more pure because technology has taken it to a whole other realm.”

Otis is not happy about everything in today’s music scene though. While he understands that the new RnB is just another development in music, he does sometimes take offence at some of the lyrics he hears coming out of the radio. “One thing I learned a long time ago is that the one constant is change,” he says. “I can understand that, you can’t stop change but I’m surprised by some of the stuff I hear on the radio. I listen and they’re cussin’ all over the place and talkin’ very sexual and to be honest, I am not impressed by that. That don’t move me. I don’t care who the artist is. To be cussin’ and talkin’ almost explicitly about sex … I don’t like that. True music that stands the test of time is like what Motown made. It’s like what Philadelphia International made. Like what Stax made. None of that stuff was out and out sexual, you’d have to use your imagination. Some of the stuff I hear on the radio I am not impressed with at all.”

Otis Williams is excited about bringing The Temptations back to Australia for shows at the Sofitel ballrooms in Sydney and Melbourne. With such a long and successful career in music, I asked Otis to nominate some of the key moments that stand out for him.
“We’ve got a history spanning over 50 years, it’s so hard to say,” he tells me. “I’ve had so many wonderful moments in time. I’ve been to The White House about 4 or 5 different times, the times at The Apollo, The Copacabana in New York City, we had our own TV show in the 60s with all the other black artists of the time, so many great moments but always performing in front of the people … that is what I enjoy the most.”

The Temptations Cabaret & Dinner Show
Sofitel Sydney Wentworth 6-9 December
Sofitel Melbourne On Collins 13-17 December

TICKET INFO HERE

 

 

 

 

 

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