Last year, Billboard named The Temptations the all-time top R&B/hip-hop music act.
The numbers speak for themselves: a record 16 No. 1s on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and 14 chart toppers on the R&B/Hip-Hop Songs tally. But the stats only tell a portion of the story. Such Temptations gems as “My Girl,” which the Library of Congress entered into its National Recording Registry this year, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” are American classics that generations have grown up on. Director Steven Spielberg so loved “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” that he personally requested it be used in his current film, Ready Player One.
Passing through the legendary Motown quintet since forming in 1960 (as The Elgins) is arguably the greatest assemblage of lead singers—including Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards—ever to front any group.
The Temptations return Friday with All the Time, their first new album in eight years. Produced by Dave Darling, the Universal Music Enterprises set includes covers of songs made famous by Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, The Weeknd, John Mayer and Michael Jackson, as well as three originals—all delivered with the Temptations’ layered vocals and distinct harmonies.
The group, whose current lineup features founding member Otis Williams, Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, Larry Braggs and Willie Greene, remain active, playing at least 75 dates a year. Its jukebox bio musical, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations, moves to Broadway this fall after stints in Berkeley, Calif., Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Toronto.
In April, the engaging Williams, 76, talked to Billboard over a leisurely lunch in Los Angeles about making the new album, the group’s longevity and his memories of some famous friends.
What made you decide to make an album now?
[UMe president/CEO] Bruce Resnikoff asked me, “So what are the Temps doing?” I said, “We’re rehearsing, we’re getting two new guys.” He said, “Wanna do an album?” So, naturally, me being an artist, I said, “Oh yeah, yeah, great.” But when he mentioned the cover job, I said, “I’m tired of that.” I talked with [consultant] Jeff Moskow and I said, “If we’re going to do it, we should add something to it.” That’s how the three originals came about.
You put a Temptations spin on each cover, including a spoken intro to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud.”
That was right off the top of my head, adding a little church feeling.
What about Jackson’s “Remember the Time,” which has a swing feel?
We always try and add the Temptations flavor and harmony. Michael and I were friends and had invited me to his taping of [1991’s] “Remember the Time.” So when I saw it on the list, I said, “Oh yeah, let me do that” because I’d been there during the whole process. We will never see another artist like that. To watch him grow from a little boy and become such a world-renowned entertainer that he is… Beautiful person, too. I put him on the same parallel as Prince. God only passes out a few entertainers every so often and those two, I’m happy to say I’ve seen and met and have enjoyed their music.
Were all five of you in the studio together?
Yeah, especially when it comes to the harmonies. Some of the guys like for none of us to be in the studio while they do their thing privately. I’m pretty much the same way. I don’t like a congregation around us because people tend to think it’s a show. We’re not trying to do no show in the studio. We’re there to make our record.
Did you think about bringing in any of the original artists?
That would be a great idea, but I don’t think the budget would call for that because most artists nowadays want to get paid. There’s nothing wrong with that. [Years ago,] we attempted to talk to Luther Vandross when we did a song that we felt would be great to do with him. But when I heard he was asking for like $100,000, I said “Excuse me, but no. We’ll pass.”
How will you incorporate these songs into your live show?
We’ll probably do one or two. The reason being that we’re only allowed 75 minutes or maybe 90 minutes. And there are some songs we can never ever take out. Years ago, when “My Girl” sold a million and was No. 1, after a while it started declining. This was when the original Temps were together. Paul [Williams], the [band member] who would run down the show, said, “OK, we’ll take ‘My Girl’ out. We did the show and were called every name except child of God for not doing “My Girl.” So I told the guys, then and now, we will never not sing this song.
It must be very humbling when people say that you provided the soundtrack to their lives.
What’s even more humbling is the fan mail from time to time. One particular [letter read], “Mr. Williams, first chance you get, would you please contact my mother?” So I called. The mother came on the phone and the first thing she said was, “I asked God not to take me until I talked to Otis Williams.” She was holding on. Moves me to tears now. I’ve had people say “When I die, put a Temptations album in my coffin.” When we started singing, we didn’t know our music would be that impactful. It’s powerful, but music is that way.
The group has performed for segregated audiences and watched the rise of civil rights. Is that covered in the musical?
We were appearing [in Kentucky]. At the performance, there were some white guys that wanted to start some bullshit. That’s when I found out David Ruffin, the rest of the Temps and the Four Tops were [carrying] guns. We got back to the hotel and were packing up the bus when these guys [shot at us]. Thank god, none of us were shot. That ended up in the play.
The Lorraine Hotel in Memphis is now a museum, but check this out: the room that [Martin Luther King, Jr.] stayed in used to be my room, 306. That was my room every time we played there. So when I saw that’s where Dr. King was killed, standing in front of the door, I said “Wow, that used to be my room.”
How many presidents have you played for?
We first went to the White House when Nixon was in power because one of his daughters loved the Temps and the Turtles. Then we were there for Clinton, Obama and Bush the son, a nice guy. The last year that Obama was in power, we went into the Oval Office—it was Christmas—and he told me that he loved “Silent Night.” So we started doing a little of it a cappella. The boy’s got a beautiful tenor. I said, “Man, you can sing. You’re tall enough and you look good, you could be a Temptation.” He said, “No, no, no, I can’t do that.”
So he has a standing invitation to join?
He’s got one, but we know he’ll never take us up on it.
Have you played for Trump?
We did a private party for him at Mar-A-Lago [years ago]. If he were to ask the Temps to come now, we ain’t coming.
The Temps are part of modern musical history. What are some of your memories about other legends, starting with Aretha Franklin?
I don’t care what female artist you name, Aretha Franklin is the queen. When I saw what she did [by stepping in to sing “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammy Awards] when Pavarotti couldn’t sing — I tell you, when a sister came out and was doing it— I said, bar none, she was the greatest.
A genius. We would be on tour and Stevie would be in the back of the bus playing instruments. Somebody would say, “Stevie, cut that damn [racket] so we can get some sleep.” I look back at it now— little did we know Stevie was woodshedding to be the artist and creative force he is today.
Truly one of a kind. Berry was learning how to be president right along with us learning to be artists. The reason he would write songs was to get girls. But here came this phenomenon known as Motown—all of these artists, producers, songwriters and the people that helped run Motown. Berry had to learn how to deal with that because Motown was jumping off real fast and probably quicker than he had realized. He managed to handle it really well. I loved him because he always stood behind Melvin [Franklin] and myself whenever we had to go through a personnel change. He never wavered. He kept the door open for the Temps to still be who we are today.
What happens to the Temptations when you get tired of touring?
I wanna ride the horses as long as I can. We’re so stuck to the choreography aside from the songs. If I’m 80 years old, [they’ll still] want to see me do those steps. I said, “Jesus Christ, it’s one thing being stuck to the song. We can stand there and sing the song, but they wanna see us move.” And my right knee is telling me, “Look, boy, you need to sit down a bit” because I’ve had surgeries on both legs from years of dancing. But I’m going to ride the hell out of the horse. When I get off the horse, it’s gonna be bald.”
Additional reporting by Gail Mitchell