Motown’s historical groups are coming to Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall, April 18, to give their fans a one-of-a-kind concert. Otis Williams, creator and original member of the legendary Temptations, speaks about his career, lawsuits, today’s artists and much more. He also talks about the movie called “The Temptations” filmed here in Pittsburgh, that he has never seen because it’s too hard emotionally.
“Most guys and girls wanted to sing back in the day. The great rock and roll shows in Detroit were very inspiring and we wanted to be a part of it. The Cadillacs, The Teenagers and other R&B groups had over 5,000 people in the audience screaming to hear more of their music and it was very inspiring to me as a singer. I was 14 years old when I wanted to start singing. The desire and support of the fans keeps us going after all these years. Berry Gordy, who is the Motown founder, also kept us going year after year. We’ve always had great feedback from our audience to keep it going and that was also inspiring,” said Williams.
Dennis Edwards came along years later to replace David Ruffin as one of the lead singers. When Edwards left the group to pursue a solo career he started touring as the “Temptations” without Williams’ approval. A judge ruled that he could be called Dennis Edwards and the Temptations Revue but not The Temptations.
“With Dennis, he tried to steal our name and I had to fight to get it back because what’s right is right. The only reason Dennis was awarded to use “The Temptation Revue” and not the “The Temptations” was because he was on so many hits. Even though I owned the name, the judge did not want to deprive Dennis of making a living. Sometimes promoters try to get slick and just say “The Temptations” when they are touring with Dennis and that is something I try to stay vigilant with to make sure that does not happen,” said Williams.
Williams knew that business was business and he and Edwards shared great times together and remain friends. From time to time they have tried to have reunions with both Temptations groups, but Williams said that was not going to happen. They tried to have a reunion back in 1983 and it didn’t work out so he wanted to let sleeping dogs lie.
He loves what he does and thanks God that he lets him continue to do what he wants to do. Williams will tell people all the time that there are only a handful of people who can say that they are doing something they truly love doing. He is fortunate because he is not caught up in a 9 to 5 job and is his own boss.
“I’m not that impressed with today’s R&B music at all. We just came off of tour in Amsterdam and two young kids said, ‘Mr. Williams, you guys made better music than we have today.’ I was walking down Melrose here in California and others have said the same thing. I am from the school of great songs and great lyrics. We don’t cuss and talk about doing it to a woman. We left things to the imagination and that’s why our music is still so popular today. It’s nothing to get into an elevator and here one of our songs playing. They use our music everywhere including television commercials. When you can sit back and hear your music in other venues, that is one of the highest compliments. There are a few singers I listen to such as Alicia Keys, John Legend and Beyonce. If you had asked me what singers I like back in the day, I would be able to tell you a whole list without stopping, but I am not able to do that with today’s singers. I have to think for a minute when I am asked that question. A lot of these young artists are not singing, they are just talking in key,” said Williams.
Being a part of Motown, Williams was very close to a lot of the groups that came through, but he was devastated when the king of pop, Michael Jackson passed away in 2009
“When Michael Jackson passed away last year, I lost a great friend. I have shared some good times with him. When Rev. Jesse Jackson would have his OperationPush event, the girls would burst on the stage to see the Temptations and the Jackson Five. I could hear Michael saying, Where’s Otis? I looked at him and he was really concerned about where I was and I said to him, “I’m right here Michael. I am 11 or 12 years older than Michael. He invited me down to the video shoot “Remember The Time.” When I heard about his passing, I sat and cried for a while because I lost a great friend.”
Williams is not going to retire. The Temptations’ life story is coming to Broadway, but first Berry Gordy’s life story will come out. When Gordy’s is done, then the Temptations life story will begin. There are young guys playing the roles and Williams will have a hand in the production. The productions will be in London first and then come to the States where it will tour the country.
Williams is proudest of the fact that the Temptations have had the endurance to deal with show business as it is because show business is so fickle. To be able to achieve so much is great and he reflects back as he walks around his house and he sees the Grammy Awards, gold and platinum records, citations and the Hollywood Walk of Fame achievement. Starting out back in the day, if you would have told him they would have achieved all this success, you could have knocked him over with a feather. He gives praise to God because if it was not for him none of this would be possible. The timing was perfect when they came along. Motown was historical back then and there will never be another Motown.
“Becoming a part of something that will outlive us all is a major achievement within itself,” said Williams.
“In our dressing room, we have a guy named Billy, who played one of our songs in the dressing room and it brought a smile to my face. I was so happy that when I got to our next gig, I had to take out the Bible and read the Bible and thank God because it brought a joy to my spirit. I never would imagine that I would be a part of something that is so mind-blowing. The younger generation really appreciates the music we made because we are not talking about knocking someone in the head if you don’t get your money. It’s just great music that is standing the test of time because we are celebrating our 50th anniversary,” said Williams.
“We used Smokey Robinson for a lot of our early music. We don’t talk a lot, but the love is still there. The Motown family spirit is still very much alive. Smokey and I were together and I let him know that I did not watch the movie “The Temptations.” I said no because I did not want to start crying. Smokey calls me Oak and he said to me, “Oak, watch your movie because it’s fantastic.” The reason I did not watch the movie is because when they shot it in Pittsburgh and we came there before we went on the tour, I saw the scene where Melvin and myself came to David’s apartment to let him know he needs to straighten up or we are going to let him go. The producer said action, and when the actors started to deliver there lines, I said oh no. I could not take it because of the emotion from that time engulfed me and I couldn’t take it. I probably will watch it, but not yet. Ninety-five percent of the movie was the truth.”
(Brian Cook from the American Urban Radio Network contributed to this story.)
(The Temptations will be appearing with The Four Tops at Heinz Hall April 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the Heinz Hall box office 412-392-4900 or online at www.pittsburghsymphony.org.)