The Temptations: Otis tells the group's tale
August 28, 1988
BY GARY GRAFF
Some of the the bumper crop of acts that Motown produced during its '60s heyday -- the Supremes and Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, the Commodores, the Vandellas and the Jackson 5 -- seem as alive today as they did decades ago.
Then there's the Temptations, positively vibrant after 29 years of performing and recording, which have been chronicled in group leader Otis Williams' new autobiography, "Temptations" (Putnam, $17.95).
Despite stiff competition, Motown's original high-stepping, smooth-singing quintet holds top-dog status in the legendary record company's archives. Bill Cosby, in fact, once told Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., "You can make a whole lot of changes to your company, but do not mess with the Temptations."
The most memorable scene in "The Big Chill" was the yuppie ensemble boogeying around the kitchen to the Tempts' 1966 hit, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." And the radio industry newsletter Impact recently named the Temptations -- with 16 No. 1 hits to its credit -- the top Motown act of all time based on a survey of urban-contemporary radio programmers.
"To me, they were the Beatles," said pop star John Oates, who, like his partner Darryl Hall, was heavily influenced by Motown music. "They did to me what the Beatles did to a lot of other people. They were all tall, skinny, great-looking. They had these amazing dance steps and wonderful voices."
The Temptations' history has never been in the spotlight, though. It's not that the Temptations tried to hide things, Williams said; they just never volunteered to talk about the inner workings of the group.
But there's always been curiosity. "People want to know why we've gone through so many changes and why we've been able to survive after losing key members like Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards," Williams, 46, said last week during a telephone conversation from his Los Angeles home. (Edwards recently rejoined the group.)
"I've come to realize that, by and large, people figured that we were supposed to be through when we lost David (in 1968). But with God's help, the fan support, support from Motown and the other guys in the band, we've been able to survive. I no longer question why; I just take it day by day, and I'm very happy we've been able to survive so long."
After reading "Temptations," however, the reason for the group's longevity seems to be Williams himself. Without bragging, he comes across as the man responsible for keeping the Temptations together, the one who wouldn't give up when others bailed out.
"He certainly is the anchor; there's no question about that," said Shelly Berger, the group's longtime manager. "When something needs to be done, the Temptations always look at him and say, 'OK, O., one of us has to do this, and guess what -- it's you.' "
Williams has much to say about all of his band mates in "Temptations," but those expecting sleazy details will be disappointed. Williams and co-author Patricia Romanowski decided early in the writing that they didn't want to hurl large handfuls of mud. He doesn't gloss over the intragroup problems, but he treats the egos and excesses of Kendricks, Ruffin, the late Paul Williams, Edwards and others with polite inferences rather than sordid details.
"I didn't want a book that would be full of scandals and character assassinations," he said. "I figured I could come up with a good book without that kind of mudslinging. I think the public will get a good read without this being a smut book."
Then he added with a laugh, "Besides, other people might want to write a book down the line and slap me across the face."
Williams said he was protective of the seamy details right down to the final edit of the book. At the last minute, he even deleted a few items about romantic entanglements at Motown. "It was about some of the people at Motown sleeping with each other," he said. "There was one story about a guy in one of the groups -- I won't mention his name -- who came home and found his lady in bed with someone else from Motown. It was that kind of thing."
Williams doesn't go easy on Motown, however. Though he describes the company as "teeming with energy and excitement" when the Temptations first signed in 1961, "Temptations" handles the company's questionable business dealings with its artists more directly than any other book about Motown, including ex- Supreme Mary Wilson's "Dreamgirls" (St. Martin's Press, $16.95) and writer Nelson George's "Where Did Our Love Go" (St. Martin's Press, $16.95).
At one point in his book, Williams complains about disparities in the financial settlements of the early Motown revue tours. "We never saw a single penny from any of those early tours," he writes, "nor did we see any kind of written statement breaking down where the money went. Since we rarely stayed in a hotel and weren't eating in the finest restaurants, it's hard to imagine what Motown's 'costs' were. Something about it didn't hang right."
The group's frustration with Motown's iron-fisted control was responsible for its three-year departure from the label in 1977, according to Williams.
The label tried to get Williams and his band mates to drop their attorney, Abe Somers, after he helped discover $300,000 in missing royalties, and a general breakdown in negotiations followed.
"After fifteen years on the roster, we felt many twinges of sadness at the thought of leaving 'home,' but what was going down was part of something bigger than just ...not liking our attorney," Williams writes.
"We wanted an honest book," Williams said when asked about the frankness of the Motown sections. "There have been so many books that said just great things about the company, or others -- like Nelson George's -- that really weren't accurate."
"It is a great company, but you can't insult the public's intelligence and paint a utopian kind of setting. I didn't want people to pick up the book and say, 'You cannot tell me that for all those years everything was hunky-dory all the time.' It wasn't."
Williams said Gordy even advised him to be open about the group's problems with Motown. "He said, 'Write a good book; no one wants to read a nice book,' " Williams remembered. "I was surprised to hear him say that, but he was right. People want to hear the truth."
For all its dark moments, "Temptations" is an upbeat history. Williams spins plenty of amusing anecdotes, ranging from Franklin standing behind a tree outside his house in Detroit while Otis talked to his mother about his joining the band to the misadventure's of singer Edwin Starr's pet chimp on the Motown Revue bus. He even writes of running into Michael Jackson, post-"Thriller" and wearing a disguise, at a newsstand in Hollywood, and he drops the little-known gem that Gordy planned to have the Tempts, and not the Contours, record the hit "Do You Love Me" in 1961.
"Temptations" is the beginning of what looks to be a busy year for the group. After Franklin undergoes minor stomach surgery in the fall, the Tempts will be back in the studio working on a new album, and there's already been interest from several film studios -- including Lorimar, 20th Century Fox and Motown -- about turning "Temptations" into a movie.
If that happens, Williams promised, the Temptations will appear on screen. He makes no bones about wanting to hold the group together another 29 years.
"Hey, we know we're blessed, so we're not going to just throw it away," he said. We're going to continue until God says it's over."