Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Temptations' Otis Williams on his iconic protest songs

War. What is it good for?

Posted By on Wed, Jul 27, 2016 at 10:50 AM

click to enlarge The Temptations performing at the Palladium in 2014 - MARK SHELDON
  • Mark Sheldon
  • The Temptations performing at the Palladium in 2014

Otis Williams is the lone surviving founding member of The Temptations.

Williams was born in Texarkana, Texas in 1941, but his mother relocated the family to Detroit shortly after Williams’ birth. After scoring a regional hit in 1959 with his teenage group The Distants, Williams accepted an offer from Motown boss Berry Gordy to start working for his soon-to-be world famous label.

The Temptations were born in 1961 when The Distants joined forces with rival Detroit vocal group The Primes. And the rest, of course, is history.

Williams' band would go on to become one the most successful groups in music history, amassing an expansive catalog of beloved hits that few other groups can match. “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Just My Imagination,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” are just a few of the universally adored records The Temptations cut.

And Otis Williams was there through it all. 

For me, The Temptations’ classic work breaks down into two major categories: the wonderful Smokey Robinson love songs that defined the group’s career in the early 1960s; and the funky Norman Whitfield-penned message songs that propelled the group through the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I must admit I’m most partial to the latter, so when I had a chance to grill Williams’ on The Temptations’ work, I plied the music legend with scores of questions about The Temptations’ catalog of soulful protest music. 

If you’re a fan of classic soul music you certainly won’t want to miss the Otis Williams-led Temptations performing this Friday at Conner Prairie alongside fellow Motown greats The Four Tops. 

NUVO: I know you’ve played hundreds of gigs around the world during your career, and it’s probably impossible for you to keep track of all the shows you’ve done. But I did want to ask you about a couple of the earliest Temptations’ appearances in Indianapolis. I believe your debut performance here happened in 1964 at the Circle Theatre in Downtown Indy, where you performed alongside Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and other Motown greats on the Motortown Revue.

However, I was curious if you remembered your second time here in May of 1966 when you played at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The promoter of that concert sponsored a “Miss Temptation” contest, where the grand prize winner was awarded a free wig! It seems like there was a real festival atmosphere on those early tours and Motown reviews.

Otis Williams: Wow! [laughs] I don’t remember the wig thing, but we had a lot of fun in the concerts during the 1960s. I’ve been in this business for fifty-six years, I can’t remember everything that happened through that time. But it’s always wonderful coming to Indianapolis because we have great friends and fans there.

NUVO: Mr. Williams we have a short amount of time to talk today, so I wanted to jump straight into my favorite period of The Temptations’ work. In the late 60s The Temptations’ sound expanded beyond the traditional Motown R&B motifs into funk music, psychedelic rock and message-oriented lyrical content. This change was initiated in 1968 when the group recorded “Cloud Nine” with the visionary songwriter/producer Norman Whitfield. I’ve read that you were instrumental in pushing both Norman Whittled and your fellow Temptations into embracing these new sounds.

Williams: That’s correct. The Temptations were in New York City at the time and I was talking with my friend Kenny Gamble of Gamble and Huff. We were at the hotel talking and that’s where we first heard “Dance to the Music” by Sly and the Family Stone. I became obsessed with Sly and the Family Stone’s sound, and the uniqueness of it. When we flew back to Detroit I told Norman Whitfield about it.

At that time we were in a transitional period. Dennis Edwards entered the group, and we were letting David Ruffin go. After that transition Norman Whitfield came up with “Cloud Nine." That earned us our first Grammy, and also Motown’s first Grammy. That record changed our sound tremendously.

NUVO: You can certainly hear the Sly Stone influence on that record. But some of the records you made had a more overtly psychedelic rock sound than Sly’s productions did. There was a lot of very heavy acid rock guitar on some of your tacks. [Note: that’s partly due to the work of the great session guitarist Dennis Coffey.] I’m curious what you were listening to beyond Sly Stone that was influencing the group’s direction. Were you a fan of bands like The Beatles and some of the more experimental psychedelic music ensembles of the era?

Williams: You couldn’t avoid listening to psychedelic music and The Beatles at that time. The Beatles were bigger than life, you couldn’t help but listen to them. A lot of psychedelic rock groups were jumping on the scene then, like Jimi Hendrix and Iron Butterfly. We were hearing all of that, and we were part of that generation of sound.

NUVO: I know you came up in the era of doo-wop music, and smooth vocal harmonies. I’m curious if you personally enjoyed and related to the heavier rock sounds?

Williams: I enjoyed it. I am from the era of ballads and melodies and great lyrical content. But I’m appreciative of other forms of music and I did appreciate the heavier rock sounds. It was a great experience being part of that.

NUVO: The Temptations recorded so many incredible messages songs during this period. You made records commenting on everything from war, to poverty, to drug abuse, to consumerism, to dysfunctional family relationships. One of The Temptations’ most powerful message songs was Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s“Ball of Confusion” from 1970. It’s sad to say this, but when you hear the lyrics from “Ball of Confusion” now it’s still completely relevant to what’s going on in American society today.

“People moving out, people moving in
Why, because of the color of their skin
Run, run, run but you sure can't hide…
The sale of pills are at an all time high
Young folks walking round with their heads in the sky
The cities ablaze in the summer time…
Evolution, revolution, gun control, sound of soul
Shooting rockets to the moon, kids growing up too soon
Politicians say more taxes will solve everything
And the band played on”

Tell me about that song and how it feels singing it on stage now in light of all the difficult issues facing the world today.

Williams: It’s ironic that you should mention that, because every night when we perform “Ball of Confusion” I think, "Wow, this is a record that’s over 40-years-old and it is so relevant to what’s happening today.” It’s mind-boggling how ahead of time that song and Norman Whitfield were. On top of that, it was a hit record and it sold over a million copies.

NUVO: In 1969 you released the incredible LP Puzzle People which had powerful tracks like “Message From a Black Man” and “Slave." Puzzle People was one of the first overtly message oriented albums on Motown. It’s well-documented that Berry Gordy was reluctant to issue Marvin Gaye’s 1971 What’s Going On album. Did you have similar problems getting your more politically engaged music released?

Williams: No, we didn’t have any problems. We were on such a hot streak with Norman that Motown pretty much said leave Norman and The Temptations alone. We had made hit after hit after hit after hit with Norman. So Berry Gordy never tried to stop us.

NUVO: In 1970 you released another phenomenal LP Psychedelic Shack. On that album you recorded the original version of one of the most powerful anti-war anthems of all time “War," which incidentally was also written by Whitfield and Strong. A few months after the Temptations released “War," Edwin Starr recorded a scorching version of the tune for Motown. Starr’s version was a number one hit, and it became one of the most iconic protest songs of the Vietnam Era.

Was it difficult having Starr pull a hit record out from under your feet and watching him collect so much critical praise for “War”?

Williams: It wasn’t difficult for us. We’d had so many hits by that time, so we were happy to see Edwin Starr get a hit on “War”. Though we were the first to record “War”, Motown would always re-record things with other artists. That’s what they did with “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” which was recorded by both Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight and The Pips.

NUVO: The huge list of brilliant protest and message songs you recorded with The Temptations during this time is staggering to me. In addition to the songs I’ve already mentioned, we’re talking about tunes like “Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite The World)," “Stop The War Now," “Ain’t No Justice," “Law of the Land," "Don't Let The Joneses Get You Down," “Runaway Child," “1990" “Plastic Man” and so many others.

I’m curious what your views are on an artist’s role during times of social unrest?

Williams: An artist’s role is always to make great music that the people can identify with, relate to, and enjoy. Artists can be messengers of good faith just as much as a minister or politician can. A lot of times music can go places where politicians can’t go. A lot of times people who won’t pay any attention to a politician will listen to the message in music. We knew we had that kind of power through our music, so we always embraced doing whatever we could to reach out to our fans and the people listening to let them know what was happening.

NUVO: Was that important for you personally to have that outlet to express yourself on these issues?

Williams: Well, it was important to me to make good music. We started with our first big hit “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and then we transformed into doing the message songs. We more or less just wanted to make good music. But we appreciated that we were in a setting where we could express what we felt about the world and what was happening.

But we never wanted to be a group that would just browbeat our fans with messages, because after awhile that can turn into a negative. There are people who want to hear something about love rather than what’s happening in the world. All you got to do is turn on the news and you can hear enough about that. So we wanted to cross that bridge of being political to let the people know that there is hope in the world, and there is love — which is most important thing and the most needed. We tried to touch on all types of expression.

NUVO: So many, if not all of the songs I’ve been asking you about were composed by the late-great Norman Whitfield. Tell us about collaborating with Norman Whitfield.

Williams: Well, Norman and I grew up together. So I’d been knowing Norman since I was 19-years-old when we were all working at a tiny company called Northern Records. So to watch Norman come from Popcorn Wylie and The Mohawks to becoming one of the best producers in the world was just a wonderful transition. He and I worked together for a long time and we got along famously.

The day he left us I went to the hospital to see him and I sat and talked with him. It was great to know Norman. He could shoot pool, and to know Norman was to either love him or leave him alone — because Norman Whitfield was Norman Whitfield. He was a wonderful person and I can’t say anything negative about him.

NUVO: The work you and the Temptations did with Norman led to the creation and popularity of a genre many labeled psychedelic soul. How did you feel about that label and seeing bands like Funkadelic coming up in Detroit during the early ’70s?

Williams: I thought it was great. They were making funky music and expressing themselves and saying what they wanted to say through funk. It was a sign of the times. I just enjoyed all of it. You had Funkadelic and Parliament and so many other great things.

NUVO: Did you ever get a chance to work with George Clinton? I know the Temptations worked with the gifted Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel when you recorded his tune “Shakey Ground” in the mid ’70s.

Williams: No, I never got a chance to work with George Clinton. But we did record “Shakey Ground” with Eddie Hazel in 1975. The next thing I heard about Eddie Hazel after that was when he passed.

NUVO: Finally Mr. Williams, you’ve been working successfully in music for seven decades. You’ve toured the world and watched the music industry go through profound changes. I wanted to ask if you have any wisdom or advice you’d like to share with young musicians who are eager to devote their lives to this craft?

Williams: You have to be dedicated to it, and you got to remember it don’t come easy. You’ve got to pay a certain amount of dues and you can’t get discouraged. If you have the will, then sooner or later it will happen. So stay true to what you want to do and don’t let no one stand in your way.

I tell a lot of acts that when The Temptations started out there wasn’t any books to tell you about show business. Now if you go online you can buy all kinds of books to read up and educate yourself about show business. Now we’re talking about an industry that generates billions of dollars annually.

And also you have got to practice, practice, practice, practice.

NUVO: Mr. Williams, thank you for making time to speak with me. I’m a tremendous fan of all your work and It was a huge honor to speak with you.

Williams: Well, it was my pleasure. 

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