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Otis Williams Reflects On Years With The Temptations

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Otis Williams Reflects On Years With The Temptations

Otis Williams Reflects On Years With The Temptations

Otis Williams Reflects On Years With The Temptations

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Otis Williams, the last living member of the original musical group The Temptations speaks with guest host Allison Keyes. The Temptations 49th album was just released, titled Still Here, which mixes contemporary sounds with classic Temptations harmonies.

ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

When you think Motown music, there's Stevie, Smokey and Diana. But for many, The Temptations are on top of the list. The group started in Detroit in 1961 and you know their number one hits by heart. Songs like "Just My Imagination," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and of course "My Girl." But their new album goes in some new directions.

(Soundbite of song, "First Kiss")

THE TEMPTATIONS (Musicians): (Singing) But there's nothing more exciting than a first kiss. But the thing is that she's the one I'm going to spend my life with.

KEYES: Yep, after almost five decades, The Temptations are still at it and have just released their 49th - that's right, I said 49th album, aptly titled "Still Here." And here to talk about the new CD and maybe look back at some of the old school music is Otis Williams. He's the only remaining founding member of the band. Thank you, Mr. Williams, for joining us.

Mr. OTIS WILLIAMS (Musician): Oh, it's my pleasure.

KEYES: I have to say, this is such a coincidence, I was watching TV last night and The Temptations movie came on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

KEYES: And I have been blasting your music ever since I heard the new CD.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Wow, thank you.

KEYES: How should your old school fans look at this new music, this new sound?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, you know, we always try and stay on the cutting edge, the fresh edge, you know, we just don't want to rely on our laurels. And we always when we go in the studio, we try and put a great CD together because we do not believe in fillers. And we like to think this CD is loaded with a lot of good diversified songs.

KEYES: Okay, my father would kill me if I didn't ask you this, but, you know, you're not 20 anymore. Is it hard or difficult to be putting all this new sound out at this time in your life?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, when it's something that you love doing, it's not hard. You know, it can be laborious at times, but I think I'm a very fortunate fellow 'cause I'm doing something that I love and there's not too many people on this here face of the earth could say that. So, I won't complain 'cause like I said, it'll be like me crying with a loaf of bread under my arm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: What kind of reaction have you been getting? Are you getting radio play yet? You just dropped on the 4th of this month, right?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. We just dropped on the 4th of this month. And, well, you know, we are hoping to get some kind of record play, radio play, because for acts thats been around as long as The Temps have, we don't get that mainstream play like we used to when we were just starting out. So we have to find another way of marketing and promoting our product.

KEYES: I've been reading some of the headlines from the blogs and several note the use of Auto-Tune on this album. One, in fact, accused you of, quote, "taking a page from T-Pain's sacred book of all things Auto-Tune. I mean, I'm a singer, I guess I always thought of Auto-Tune as a thing you do when you had no pitch. But you guys have way a lot of that. So, what's up with Auto-Tune here?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I guess it's for those that can't stay in pitch, you know, on pitch. And, but first, we don't even think about no Auto-Tune. I mean, we from the old school, where we can stand there flatfooted and just sing. So, Auto-Tune don't even come into our minds when we go into the studio to do so.

KEYES: Let's take a listen to one of the songs off the new album. I believe it is called "One of a Kind Lady."

Mr. WILLIAMS: Sure thing.

(Soundbite of song, "One of a Kind Lady")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, one of a kind lady. She's a one of a kind lady. She's a one of a kind lady.

KEYES: See, in that tune I'm hearing a little mix of the Auto-Tune and a mix of your straight voices there.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it's definitely our voices on that, but Auto-Tune, like I said, if it was put in it was because something that the engineer probably just wanted to add a little flavor. But all in all, it's The Temptations doing our thing like we've been doing since 1961.

(Soundbite of song, "One of a Kind Lady")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) ...our reality. She's a one of a kind lady. And there ain't no (unintelligible). One kind of lady. She's a one of a kind lady. And there ain't no (unintelligible).

KEYES: Mr. Williams, is this album for people that know what soul music is? 'Cause there's arguably not the same level of what you guys did then available now, or for people that need to be taught that those who invented it are still at?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Both. Yeah. We like to let them know that good soul music or good music period is still around and we like to let them know that that's been our mainstay is to always come up with great songs. And that's the whole purpose. Because great songs will last and stand the test of time. So we've always been like that because we have a testament of that with the "My Girls" and "Just My Imaginations" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." So whenever we go in the studio we only think of great song quality and purpose.

KEYES: The Temptations have gone through a lot of changes, including changes in group members over the years, although you've been there throughout. How do you make sure you guys keep to that motto: Temptations forever, you know, and sound like yourselves?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well it's a concentrated effort to try and make sure we have the right personnel and the right talent. But in most cases I always - look, people ask what do I look for when we have to change? I more or less- talent is secondary to me. I'm more interested in the mindset as far as the head and heart. Because you can have all the talent in the world but if you can't take care business and direction you will nullify that talent.

KEYES: You've got a pretty wide age range in the group now, right?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, the only one that's relatively young is Bruce. He's 39. Terry's in his 40s and everybody else is...

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. WILLIAMS: That age, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: You were just talking about "My Girl." If I'm not wrong, that was written by the fabulous Smokey Robinson...

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

KEYES: ...as an answer to Mary Wells' "My Guy," right?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes. Yes. Yes. I guess Smokey felt as though, well, I had a number one record with "My Guy," so let me try it with "My Girl." And Smokey came to see us one night at a very popular club in Detroit called the 20 Grand, and after we finished performing he came backstage and was telling us how great he enjoyed the show. And then he looked at David Ruffin, he said, I have a song for you. And us being young and cocky, we said hey man, bring it on. We'll sing anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And little did we know later on after we did the Apollo Theater with Smokey and the Miracles, we came back to Detroit, went into the studio and recorded "My Girl." And after Paul Riser put the strings and horns on "My Girl," I told Smokey in the control room, I said man, I don't know how big a record this is going to be, but it's going to be big. And sure enough, it was our first number one record and sold over a million copies.

KEYES: Let's take a listen to a little of it.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Sure thing.

(Soundbite of song, "My Girl")

THE TEMPATIONS: (Singing) I don't need no money, fortune, or fame. I've got all the riches baby one man can claim. Well, I guess you'd say what can make me feel this way? My girl. My girl. My girl. Talking about my girl. My girl.

KEYES: For this album you guys do kind of an updated version of that called "Shawtyismygirlooyeah," right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Keith Ferguson, The Spinners' conductor, one morning we were in O'Hare in Chicago about no o'clock in the morning, like six in the morning and he said Otis, I got something. Would you listen to the track for me? So now, six in the morning, I don't want to hear nothing. I'm thinking about sleep, you know, but I said okay, Keith. And when he played me "Shawty," I said oh, I have got to have that track. And I kind of built the album starting with "Shawtyismygirlooyeah."

KEYES: So now we've got to hear it.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "Shawtyismygirlooyeah")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Shawty she's girl. Shawty is going to stand the test of time. Ooh yeah. Shawty make a man stand up strong. Shawty, see my world. Shawty going to make, Shawty going to make it. Can't wait no more. Got to be with you. No I can't wait much longer. I'm that kind of guy. I'm there for you. Take it from a player. I've seen my share. Going to give up my creeping. I really don't care. She's got a smile so bright.

KEYES: Ah, that signature Temptations harmony.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: But why do you call it an update? Is it because it's a similar message to "My Girl?"

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, you know, that's what guys call - refer to their young ladies now is hey man, that's my Shawty. You know, so we wanted to stay, you know, with the now and what have you and so we said well, let's do a song called "Shawtyismygirl." And then so it came from that kind of thinking.

KEYES: I want to ask, I guess the same question about your new sound, I mean listening to this album, which I have been doing to the distraction of the staff since yesterday, it feels really old school in some ways. I mean the instrumentation, you know. I mean the kind of vibe in general. But there's some dead-on modern twists.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

KEYES: Is it hard to walk the line between your old sound and modernizing it?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, it can be a very delicate balance because we never want to step too far out of character, of being who we are. But at the same time, we want to be now as well as retain some of the past history sound of what the Temps are known for. We have a thing that we say in the studio when we are recording: K.I.S.S. That's means keep it simple, stupid. Don't get crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes talking with Otis Williams, a founding member of The Temptations who's here talking about the group's new album "Still Here," the 49th album.

We were talking earlier about how the album takes some of the new contemporary sounds. There's a little rap. There's some Auto-Tunes. What kind of things are you hearing from young folk out there now? Are they teaching you anything new about soul and R&B?

Mr. WILLIAMS: There's some songs out that I like. You know, I love me some Alicia Keys and Beyonce and John Legend, Prince, because he's still on the scene. But all in all, you know, music is music. Some of it a lot of times is being recycled. I've been on the elevator and heard "Just My Imagination," you know, in the music form. So you know, that's the thing that we always try and keep in mind is just do great songs that will stand the test of time.

KEYES: When you say great songs, is the problem with some of today's music that there's not the same level of writing both musically and for the lyrics or people aren't coming through the same kind of teaching you what to do, where to step, how to hold your head, you know, that whole Motown thing?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Sure. Well that's a lost art. See Motown, when Motown did that, that will never ever be duplicated because we actually had to go to school. Motown had this development park called Artist Development. We would have to be there at 10 o'clock in the morning and would not leave until six in the evening. You know, and I'm very blessed to have had that kind of experience because it has taught me about, you know, show business. And a lot of times it's more business than show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, and I'm very glad that I've learned that. And so, it's something that you have to really dedicate yourself to and that's what we did.

KEYES: Speaking of dedication, there is a track on this album that I love. It makes me feel like I'm going to sit down, and play some cards.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Uh-oh.

KEYES: Whether it be Spade or Bid at a barbecue.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Uh-oh.

KEYES: It's "Soul Music." Let's take a listen.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Soul Music")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) I remember every Saturday we would sit down and watch TV. Every Saturday at one o'clock was a favorite time for me. Yes it was. I couldn't wait to see the "Soul Train" coming down the road. Choo, choo. I couldn't wait to hear Don say love, peace and soul. Soul music. The kind of music we made love to. Soul music is what I want to hear, what I want to hear. I want to hear soul music. It might've said (unintelligible). I want to hear soul music. I want to want to hear. What to want to hear.

KEYES: So, we're all sitting here smiling. I just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: That kind of family soul music.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

KEYES: I mean the kind that Grandma or Mom and Dad, we can all sit together and know all the words.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Absolutely.

KEYES: Does this even exist anymore?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I like to think that there are families that still feel that same way. Some things should not be lost because time moves on. And I like to think that when we did "Soul Music" that people said yeah, yeah, we still do that. Oh I remember that. So some things I would like to think that it's still going on and bring a smile to your face because when I was listening at it just then, it brought a smile to my face and I said wow, I feel good about that song.

KEYES: Mr. Williams, I just want to listen a little bit to one of your older tunes.

(Soundbite of song, "Just My Imagination")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) But it was just my imagination, running away with me. It was just my imagination running away with me.

KEYES: Why do you think songs like that resonate so deeply with people?

Mr. WILLIAMS: First and foremost, it's a great song and I think at some point in time any and everybody can identify with it. And then it's such an easy singing song. You know, we just took it very like on cruise control and didn't try to get fancy with a whole lot of riffing and what have you and just kept it very K.I.S.S. - keep it simple, stupid - and when we do sing it people just start you know, we were somewhere and a guy grabbed his girl's hand and he looked in her and they looked in each other's eyes. So it's one of those kind of romantic songs that just bring people together and make you smile and reminisce and sing along. So it's got all the elements of a great song for any and everybody to enjoy.

(Soundbite of song, "Just My Imagination")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) But it was just my imagination, once again running away with me. Tell you it just my imagination running away with me.

KEYES: You guys won a Grammy in 2001. The last three albums made it into the top 20 R&B charts, right?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes.

KEYES: How do you keep all the success going, the energy, the doing radio interviews like this, the dancing on the stage? Are you still dancing?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Oh yeah, we still dancing. And I think our fans would be remissed if we were to just come out there and just stand there and sing because our choreography has become such a mainstay of our act that we have to do something even if it is nothing more than a little lean and bob. But yeah, we do a lot of choreography still. And well, I think the thing of it all is you got to love what you do. And I still find great enjoyment, you know, in doing what we do, you know. It has its moments where you get kind of tired, but when the body get tired and what have you, we come off the road and rest.

KEYES: Next year you are - meaning The Temptations - celebrating your 50th anniversary.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes.

KEYES: What are you looking forward to the most about that?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, one of the things that we're beginning to start thinking about how we're going to approach this is doing a great 50th year CD. And I would like to go back at the beginning, by that I mean it started with Mr. Gordy and I would like to have his input.

KEYES: You mean Berry Gordy, right? From Motown fame?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes. Yes, Berry Gordy. And I would like to use Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" as the benchmark of what I would like for this 50 year CD to be like.

KEYES: So if you've already called this one "Still Here"...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: ...what do you call your next record?

Mr. WILLIAMS: "Keeping On."

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: One more about the anniversary though, this has got to be a little bittersweet because you have lost some of the founding members of the group. Your ex-lead singer David Ruffin, there was Paul Williams who's gone. What would they think of this anniversary and of this album?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I like to think that, you know, they would be proud of what we've been able to do, to carry on, you know, even without him, which was a very tough loss, to lose Eddie Kendricks and Melvin Franklin, David Ruffin and Paul Williams. So I'd like to think that they would be proud and here we are approaching, you know, 50 years, which at the beginning we had no inclinations that we would be around 50 years later. So I'd like to think that they are very pleased with the legacy of being able to continue on.

KEYES: The epitome of Temptations Forever.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes.

KEYES: Otis Williams is one of the founding members of the Temptations, who next year will celebrate 50 years together. He joined us from NPR West in Culver City to talk about the group's 49th album titled "Still Here." Mr. Williams...

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes.

KEYES: Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Oh, it's my pleasure talking to an angelic such as yours.

(Soundbite of song, "Going Back Home")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) I'm going back home. Going back home. I'm going back home. Going back home. Yeah. To the place where my parents raised me, taught how to be a man. To the church that I used to go to learn the Gospel of the land.

KEYES: That's our show for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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