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.
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.