Otis Williams is the only founding member left in The Temptations. As such, he spiritually anchors the hit R&B group.
And his spirit is alive and well. Even though he’s been singing “My Girl,” the group’s first number one single, since 1961, Williams hasn’t grown tired of singing it for fans. He approaches performances and new records with fervor because he still has something to prove.
But he’s not aiming to prove anything to himself, or to his fans. He wants to show today’s singers how it should be done. He doesn’t hold back in his harsh assessment of today’s top R&B acts – acts that his group has paved the way for. He doesn’t begrudge them for the their rapid paths to success, he just doesn’t think they have much depth to show for it.
Gene: Who are your favorite singers?
Otis: Most are no longer here: Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and I must add the late, great Gerald Levert.
Gene: There are many stories of legendary musicians, like you, who had to struggle to get their songs heard and to get a fair wage. What do you think of how a lot of today’s stars, like “American Idol” winners, seem to have an easy ride?
Otis: I think the artists of today are standing on the shoulders of earlier pioneers who fought to make our music well known and fought to break down barriers, and then there was the fight for royalties… A lot of those barriers have been broken down so that today’s artists can flourish.
Gene: What do you think of today’s R&B singers?
Otis: I am not that impressed with the music of today. Music from Motown, music from Philadelphia International, music from Stax/Volts, some of the earlier CBS and Atlantic music is still accepted today because our music was better than the music that’s out today. I even hear that from kids sometimes. I’m not impressed. I heard an artist the other day and she was cussing… I said, “My God! This is what music has evolved to, where you have to curse to get your point across?!” It’s a bad reflection of we as a people. We have demoralized ourselves.
Gene: Are there exceptions, any younger artists that you do like?
Otis: I would have to think long and hard, and that is a problem too. Back in the old school days, you could just rattle off names. I can’t think of any genuine singers on the radio. I would have to do some serious thinking, and please believe that it [the list] ain’t gonna’ be over five.
Gene: Of the songs you perform, is there one that stands out as being physically challenging to sing?
Otis: The one that is physically challenging is “Treat Her like a Lady.”
Gene: Why is that?
Otis: Our wonderful, late, great choreographer Charlie Atkins had us, and still has us, stepping. It lets you know what kind of shape you’re in! You got a lot of little trick steps and then you have to leap up and down. That’s the most challenging routine in our repertoire.
Gene: Is there one that’s emotionally difficult to sing?
Otis: We used to do “For Once in My Life” with the late, great Paul Williams. When he sang that you just wanted to well up and cry. He was singing that song with so much emotion! That was the only one that was hard to do.
Gene Is there a song that you enjoy performing the most?
Otis: I am a big Temptations fan myself! I am very proud of our iconic songs. First and foremost, I would have to give it to “My Girl.” “My Girl” is the one that they [fans] look for us to do come hell or high water.
Gene: And , you don’t get tired of it?
Otis: No, I don’t. The only thing that tires us out are the ungodly hours of traveling to get to each performance. On the performing end, as long as we get rest, we don’t get tired of it. When you start getting tired of songs, that is a hint to get out of the business! People are spending their hard-earned money and they want to hear that song. If they are not tired of the song, why should I be tired of it?
Gene: The next question actually comes from singers who were influenced by you. Daryl Hall and John Oates’ band mate, Tom “T-Bone” Wolk, wanted me to ask you if you are aware of the major influence you’ve had on them?
Otis: Daryl used to come by when we used to play the Uptown in Philly and help us with our uniforms. He was a young fellow… They are wonderful fans to have throughout the years.
Gene: I have an a cappella version of “My Girl” and recently, on a song that you wrote, “You Are Necessary in My Life,” starts off a cappella. Do think that you guys might do more a cappella stuff?
Otis: I think that we are going to have a cappella on the next album, on a song that Sting did: “If You Love Someone Set Them Free.”
Gene How about a whole song or an album?
Otis: You can never tell. The album we are getting ready to do has some a cappella. So you like the a cappella on “Necessary?”
Gene: I do.
Otis: We do that in the show and people seem to really enjoy it.
Gene: What do you want your legacy to be?
Otis: That’s entertainment! I’d like to think that we really entertain our fans.
Gene: What is the best thing that music has given you?
Otis: Music has given me enjoyment, a purpose and a sense of relief. It’s a good antidote for the body when you need to feel better. It’s been wonderful. I thank God for being able to do music that people love.
Gene: What’s involved with preserving your voice?
Otis: Rest, and don’t drink alcohol or do drugs. You have to take care of your voice because it’s an instrument unto itself.
Gene: On your Web site, you say that The Temptation’s recipe for success is “staying in tune with the times, but not chasing the trends.” How do you manage that?
Otis: You have to stay in touch with the times, but don’t step out of character and be something that you’re not! Hip-hop and rap are popular, but you will never see The Temptations trying to be hip-hop. The key, to us, is great songs. We’ll always stay in character.
Gene: Any tips for readers that want to be singers?
Otis: If you have the God-given talent to sing, you should pursue it relentlessly and the rest is being in the right place at the right time.
Gene: Can you see a day where retirement might be appealing?
Otis: I get asked that often. I wonder if it’s because I’ve been around so long. The only thing you wait for once you retire is to die! I’m not ready for retirement!
Gene: You probably get asked that question a lot because a lot of people don’t understand what it’s like to have the passion that you have.
Otis: That’s right!
Gene: How do The Temptations stay fresh?
Otis: You’ve got to love it! Rap and hip-hop are very popular, but we still wedge our way in there to let them know that good music should always be in [style]. We thrive on that challenge. It revs up our adrenaline…When you can still get acknowledgment 45 years later, that lets you know that you are still in the mix!