“Now are you ready to go back?” a tuxedoed band leader asked the crowd at Staten Island’s St. George Theatre on a rainy night in May. “I’m talking about all the way back … allow me to introduce the one and only vocal group voted number one of all time!”
The next hour was a brisk and blasting tour through the back catalog of the Temptations, one of Motown’s most famous ensembles. The group performed sharply choreographed dances near the front of the stage, spinning and twirling with military precision; behind them, a 10-piece horn section tooted and trilled with overwhelming power. The Temptations pushed the tempo to squeeze in as many hits as possible — refusing to luxuriate even on opulent, laid-back singles like “Just My Imagination” — and the mostly aging crowd bopped with vigor, rejuvenated by the swinging classics of their youth.
At one point, one of the Temptations went fishing for compliments. “Is anyone out there tired yet?” he asked. The crowd screamed, “No!” But semi-jokingly, 76-year-old Otis Williams, the lone surviving original Temptation, raised his hand. He’s been the ensemble’s primary force of cohesion for decades, and nearly 60 years into his life as a Temptation, his goal remains miraculously unchanged: Keep the group together. It’s no wonder he’s feeling weary.
The Temptations are currently experiencing yet another moment of resurgence. They performed 88 shows last year and have another 75 lined up already in 2018. In May, they released a new album, All the Time, on which they take on modern hits like the Weeknd’s “Earned It.” And there is a Temptations musical, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, currently playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., before it heads to Broadway.
Of course, the group that’s currently on the road is not your parents’ Temptations: They’re now composed of Williams and a handpicked, tightly drilled set of recruits, several of whom have now been Temptations far longer than more famous group members like David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks.
In the early Sixties, Williams was in an ensemble called Distants, which merged with members of another group, the Primes, in Detroit; they were re-christened the Temptations in 1961 after joining Berry Gordy’s legendary Motown label. Williams stuck around when Ruffin joined in 1964, forming the first classic-era lineup, and when Ruffin was replaced by Dennis Edwards for a remarkable second incarnation.
Williams was also present when the Temptations briefly parted ways with Motown in 1976, when they returned to the label just four years later, when they reinvigorated their touring career by performing on the famous 1983 TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, when they improbably went platinum with Phoenix Rising in 1999 and when they hit the stage on Staten Island in 2018. “I think Otis, man, he’s got that stick-to-it-ness,” says Narada Michael Walden, a veteran writer-producer who collaborated with the Temptations during the Nineties.
Unlike Ruffin, Kendricks or Dennis Edwards, Williams rarely sang lead; consequently, he never broke away from the Temptations to attempt a solo career. He was, and is, doggedly committed to the idea of the group, even when that meant kicking out other members or fighting former Temptations for the rights to use the group’s name.
“I like finding talent, I like writing songs, I like production, I like the behind-the-scenes — that’s what my forte will always be,” Williams tells Rolling Stone over the phone days before his Staten Island show. “As Mr. Gordy and everybody else knows about myself, I am the glue. If I’m going to glue something together, I want it to be worth something and make a profound statement.”
In 2017, Billboard named the Temptations the most successful R&B act of all time, beating out Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Michael Jackson. The group released 16 Number One albums, 14 Number One singles, and 43 Top 10s across four different decades. Their mid-Sixties and early-Seventies work remains omnipresent, the definition of golden oldies.
But they were not instantly successful. “We had to do about eight different singles before we got the big one, ‘The Way You Do the Things You Do,’” Williams recalls. “Most labels, nowadays, if you don’t have it on the first or the second record, they will drop you. Mr. Gordy didn’t do that to the Supremes and us. They were calling the Supremes and the Temps the ‘No-Hit Wonders.’”
That changed, of course, but since the Temptations’ music lives on today as an innocuous throwback — a safe choice for six-year-olds and 76-year-olds alike — it can be difficult to understand the group’s initial impact. When it comes to critical analyses of the Motown canon, Wonder and Marvin Gaye tend to receive the most accolades. As solo stars who broke away from the system and wrote hits like “Superstition” and “What’s Going On,” respectively, Wonder and Gaye fit a certain model of rebelliousness that tends to seduce critics and historians.
“[The Temptations’] success may have actually worked again them in terms of getting love for being historically important,” says Dave Darling, who produced the group’s latest LP. “When you have only the legacy, it’s easy to focus on that. The Temptations never stopped being a contemporary working band, and one has to wonder if that prevents people from thinking of them as a historically important band.”
The Temptations were historically important for a number of reasons. “Vocal-group R&B is first thought of in doo-wop groups, that Fifties strain,” says Adam White, co-author of Motown: The Sound of Young America. “I think what the Temptations did by way of updating is bring that sound into the Sixties — no mean feat given what else was going on musically at that time. They made vocal groups cool in a time where it would have been very easy for that not to be the case.”
Part of this had to do with the Temptations’ versatility: The standard vocal-group concept is to have one or two primary singers, with the rest serving mostly as backups, but every member of the Temptations could sing lead — even Otis. “You want something pretty, they could sing the prettiest thing in the world,” Walden says. “You want something rough, rugged, they’ve got the most hardcore, rough, rugged sound you ever want to hear. They had all the gears, from Melvin Franklin doing the bass part, David Ruffin being the tiger, and then you also had the high-voice falsetto which inspired Prince, Eddie Kendricks.”
As a result, White adds, “the other thing the Temptations did was open the door for a lot of acts: the O’ Jays, the Spinners, the Dells, the Chi-Lites, the Stylistics, Tavares. They led the way to crossover, then they found themselves competing with all these acts for whom they’d opened the door.”
The first period of Temptations hits was dominated by writing and production from Smokey Robinson and often, though not always, by the graceful falsetto of Eddie Kendricks. Robinson co-wrote “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl,” “It’s Growing,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” “My Baby” and “Get Ready,” all of which went Top Five on the R&B chart and Top 30 on the Hot 100.
After Robinson stepped aside, the Temptations started working heavily with the writer-producer Norman Whitfield. Ruffin sang lead on a string of hits, including “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “I Wish It Would Rain,” before being fired from the group in 1968. At that time, swinging soul was giving way to funk, and Whitfield changed tack accordingly, pushing the bass high in the mix but also adding breathtakingly detailed orchestral arrangements. Many wrote the Temptations off after they lost Ruffin, but the group continued to score Top 10 crossover hits into 1973.
The group suffered again in 1971 when Kendricks left to pursue a solo career and Paul Williams left due to failing health related to his heavy drinking. (Williams died two years later in what was ruled a suicide.) These losses may have contributed to the Temptations’ fallow period in the second half of the Seventies. “In the original group, everybody could handle the out-front position, but David left, Eddie left, Paul dies, so Dennis was the last giant there,” says Glenn Leonard, who joined the Temptations as a tenor in 1975. “And we started running into problems with getting top-notch material, top-notch producers. Right when Eddie left, people think, ‘Well, they’re done — they’ll hang around for a while but they’re never going to be what they were.’ So the top producers, top writers, they stop coming to you with the top material. So we figured it was time to move on.”
“We left Motown,” Leonard continues. “We went to Philadelphia, and they tried to make us sound like a Philly group. But a group that has an identity as one of the best groups of all time, you can’t go in and reshape that. So we had problem outside of Motown because we didn’t sound like a Motown group anymore. So we wound up going back to Motown. Those were the hard years for the Temptations, and people don’t realize what a challenge it is to keep a group afloat.”
But they persisted. Rick James gave them an assist, adding the Temptations to his own songs “Standing on the Top” and the Top 20 crossover hit “Superfreak.” “In the Eighties, if you were a new young guy, the sound of the Temptations wasn’t necessarily something you would think to put into your music,” Adam White says. “Rick was smart enough to want to have that sound.”
The other boon for the Temptations came in the form of the famous special celebrating the 25th anniversary of Motown, best known for featuring Michael Jackson’s debut moonwalk. The show also included a battle-of-the-bands segment where the Temptations faced off against the Four Tops. “People began to be reminded, by virtue of their live work, of everything the Temptations had,” White says. “They hadn’t retreated, they hadn’t disappeared. They were out there on the road proving what they could do while another generation of groups was influenced and affected. That put them back on the road and then they never quit.” The Eighties and Nineties saw another wave of vocal groups that were indebted to the Temptations’ harmonies, including New Edition and Boyz II Men.
Back on Motown in the Eighties, the Temptations also regained their status as hitmakers. The groove-heavy “Treat Her Like a Lady,” co-written by Williams and co-produced by members of Earth, Wind & Fire, reached Number Two on the R&B chart. The Temptations continued to maintain a presence there through the Nineties, when they teamed up with Walden for “Stay.” “At that time, Puff Daddy out in New York was taking something you already knew and flipping it,” Walden says. So Walden followed suit, sampling the Temptations’ most famous smash, “My Girl,” and building a whole new song around the iconic bass line. This should not have worked, but Walden pulled it off, and “Stay,” polished and modern enough to fit easily next to singles by modern groups like Blackstreet, was played heavily on radio. The success of the single — helped no doubt by the neo-soul revival at the time — boosted sales of Phoenix Rising above a million copies.
By all accounts, the Temptations should have splintered decades ago. Most groups don’t last two decades, much less close to six. And the Temptations were especially susceptible to internecine squabbling since they corralled so many great voices. “You could feel so many different personalities in there — how are they going to keep all that together?” Walden says.
“With David Ruffin, it was like the group was at war with itself in 1966 and 1967,” adds Mark Ribowsky, who wrote the only Temptations biography, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: The Troubled Lives and Enduring Soul of the Temptations. “There were factions warring with each other while they were still rising. It should have been suicidal. But Otis said, ‘Listen, I don’t care about your feelings, how you feel about Paul or Eddie. I’m just here to make sure this group doesn’t split up.’ It was his decision to kick Ruffin out.’
“Otis had the business sense that none of the other ones had,” Ribowsky continues. “When Paul Williams succumbed to his alcoholism, Otis had to tell him, ‘You’re out, buddy — we love you, but we can’t have you.’ He got Dennis Edwards to come in [from the Contours] and replace Ruffin and had even bigger success [than they had before]. Otis was the enemy of most of the Temptations through the years. But had he been more likable, they probably would have broken up in 1968 when Ruffin left.”
Williams’ tenacity extended to resisting Berry Gordy — who was famously controlling of his acts — just as Gaye and Wonder did. “Otis took the group’s business away from Gordy,” Ribowsky says. “He decided, ‘We’re gonna make our decisions and see our taxes.’”
Since Williams has existed in the background for so long, the extent of his importance to the group’s continued existence is mostly unknown. That might change, since the play that comes to Broadway will be based on Williams’ 1988 autobiography, Temptations. “With the play, audiences are going to understand just what Otis Williams pulled off as far as the Temptations are concerned,” says the group’s longtime manager Shelley Berger. “This new album should be a tribute album to Otis,” adds Ribowsky. But Williams, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems interested only in doing what he’s always done — keeping a low profile. In Staten Island, all the flashy vocal runs were handled by other members of the group.
All the Time attempts to engage with the modern pop vernacular, though not in the manner of Walden channelling P. Diddy: Working with producer Dave Darling and A&R Harry Weinger, Williams selected a series of contemporary songs to cover. “More recent songs [were] a good idea for a couple reasons,” Darling explains. “We both felt that these songs may have had some influences from the Temps and other bands of that era, some gospel vocal parts. And these are new so that might help some younger people enjoy the record.”
Williams is not shy about critiquing modern pop. “I’m really not that impressed with some of the stuff that I hear on the radio,” he says. “You have to bear in mind I’m from the school of Motown where great songs were written, produced and performed. When I hear something on the radio today where they cussin’ and they talking all heavy sexual innuendos — I don’t wanna rain on nobody’s parade, but some of the stuff they play on the radio, I’m not impressed.”
Working with the group, Darling looked to emphasize what sets them apart. “Where they fall with their harmonies is classic,” he says, “but we deviated a little bit in vocal rehearsals — why don’t we try this? A couple of songs we did pretty tight non-crossing vocal harmonies, which are really hard to do. And the usage of the bass voice is very Temptations, there are very few bands that have that particular sound. It’s a cross between gospel and the street corner. It’s usually one or the other, these guys are really both.”
But the influence of gospel has waned in modern R&B, as have vocal groups and the concept of intricate harmonies — even on the Urban Adult Contemporary airwaves, which nurture singers with an interest in R&B tradition. That means it’s hard for the Temptations’ new music to reach a wide audience. “Waitin’ on You,” one of the few original songs on All the Time (co-written by Williams), is the winner at radio, but it has earned just over 340 spins since May, according to Mediabase. The Temptations’ covers are endearing but not always effective — their version of the Weeknd’s “Earned It” has received a modest amount of radio play, but under 100 spins.
These totals are dwarfed by Temptations’ classics. “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Just My Imagination” and “Treat Her Like a Lady” still get over 60 spins a week at radio; the first two also are also each streamed more than half a million times a week. At the group’s show in Staten Island, the response to the new selections was muted. Fans come for the oldies.
Still, “we will never look on ourselves as a nostalgia group,” says Berger. “I’m not gonna say that we’re going to do hip-hop, but for what we do, we are contemporary. The same way, until the day he died, Frank Sinatra was contemporary. He didn’t change his style, and he was still the Chairman of the Board. Well, the Temptations are still the Emperors of Soul.”
“I had Otis in my car the other day and I was just playing [the new album],” adds Derrick Porter, the Temptations’ tour manager. “He calls me Tukey — he’s like, ‘Tukey, this sounds pretty good, man.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, you guys got a career on your hands.’”