The song has one of those universally recognizable intros that everyone who has ever listened to the radio or streaming music has heard. It opens with an iconic bass line, followed by echoing finger pops, and the opening vocals, “I got sunshine on a cloudy day.”
Few songs more epitomize a musical zeitgeist or revolution in music history quite like this one. The individual male voices and musicians which brought those sounds to the world consisted of a classic Motown quintet with names like Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, and Otis Williams along with the accompaniment by accomplished jazz players, The Funk Brothers.
Yet it was together, singing, dancing and performing as a single unit, one member no more important than the sum that the Temptations forever changed the world of R&B, soul, and popular music with ballads like “My Girl” which became their first number hit. And, there were many more hit songs as well, like “Get Ready,” Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and “Just My Imagination” and eventually with psychedelic soul hits like “Cloud Nine,” “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” and “Ball of Confusion.”
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The Temptations began in Detroit under the guidance of Motown music visionary Barry Gordy. The Tempts came to the fore in 1960, replete with classy suits and old-school swagger, and within three years became stars.
In the ’60s, Motor City was the epicenter of cool and class and soon became a musical assembly line of hit after hit after hit. Those hits would come from the talents of legendary performers such as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Supremes, The Marvelettes, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Martha and the Vandellas. Some 20 number one hits came from this pioneering collective that would lead to its brash moniker, Hitsville USA.
Now 56 years later, one lone, original Temptation member, Otis Williams carries on with his latest iteration of the group, which he brings to the Ovations LIVE! Showroom at Wild Horse Pass Casino in Chandler this Saturday night, and the 74-year-old isn’t letting age slow him down.
“I had no indication that 56 years later I would still be enjoying the ride,” Williams says by phone from his home in Los Angeles.
Aside from Williams, it was his bandmates whose myriad of obstacles nearly collapsed the group.
Ruffin, who sang many of the leads in the group’s hits, wanted more control of the money, and towards the end of his tenure in the group began missing shows. After being kicked out in the summer of 1968, he would occasionally just show up on stage and take over the vocal. He would later launch a moderately successful solo career.
Kendrick, who handled much of the song arrangements, followed in 1970 after not liking the new psychedelic direction of the group’s music.
Williams, who suffered from sickle-cell anemia, fought the illness, but it would eventually force him to leave the Tempts in 1971 at the behest of his doctor. In the late ’60s, Franklin suffered from arthritis. He was shot in the hand and leg trying to stop a man from stealing his car in 1978. His health continued to deteriorate over the next several years, and by 1995 he could no longer perform.
Ruffin died of a drug overdose in 1991 at 50. Kendrick died in 1992 of lung cancer at 52. Paul Williams committed suicide in 1973 at the young age of 34, and Franklin died in 1995 after a series of seizures at 52.
For Williams, eluding the fate that befell his comrades was due in great part to dancing on the edge of the excesses of the entertainment world, yet knowing when to take control.
“I pride myself on being a survivor,” he says frankly. “I was all around the drugs. I wouldn’t say I was a saint, but I didn’t get over into the cocaine and the free-basing. I enjoyed a little grass. I always want to be in control. I don’t want no drugs controlling me. I want to be in control of me. I didn’t like alcohol cause the way it would make me feel, so I just abstained a lot of the that foolishness.”
Smokey Robinson, another Motown legend, played a significant role in jump-starting the Temptations’ career.
“Smokey came and saw us at a very popular nightclub called the 20 Grand and he was impressed with the show that we did,” recalls Williams. “He said, ‘I have a song for you guys.’ We were cocky and we said, ‘Bring it on. We can sing anything.’ So we played one night with The Miracles who were headlining, and in between sets we were introduced to ‘My Girl.’
“When Paul Riser [trombonist of legendary label backing band Funk Brothers and Motown arranger] put the strings and horns to the voices and the tracks, and everything, I said to Smokey, ‘Man, I don’t know how big a hit this record’s gonna become, but this is gonna be our big record.’
“They released ‘My Girl’ on December 28, 1964. February we were at the Apollo Theater, and Mr. Gordy sent us a telegram congratulating us that we were number one, and we got congratulations from The Beatles.”
Like many veteran performers, Williams is challenged to listen to the band’s hits like “My Girl” after 50-plus years, but his message is clear about performing them.
“I get tired of hearing it, not tired of doing it,” he explains. “If the people come to see you, and come to love you because of certain songs you did, and you don’t want to do it, leave the business. Leave it alone. They are the ones who give you their money and come out to hear you.”
Among the now 24 different names to grace the stage as Temptations, Ron Tyson has actually been with Williams and the Temptations longer than any other members with the exception of Williams and Franklin, going on 34 years. He and Williams are joined by Terry Weeks, now 18 years a group member. The trio will be breaking in new members, veteran soul man Larry Braggs (13 years with Tower of Power) and Willie Green this month.
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Williams and the Tempts now focus on their ongoing series of mini-tours, which already include some two dozen shows already in early 2016. The group is also is actually working on a Broadway play based on the the Tempts run, with Williams as a producer. The group is also working on a new album Williams hopes to write, record, and produce by next year, as well. The group’s last album, Still Here, came out in 2010.
Williams says it is hard to have one shining moment he is most proud of in a laundry list of accomplishments, from playing 13 times on The Ed Sullivan Show, being the only black group to have not one, but two TV specials, having played for U.S. presidents from Nixon all the way up to Obama.
“We stayed true to what we were doing, and the Americans and the world just embraced what Motown was doing and accepted it,” Williams says. “We were taught by some of the great masters in show business of people of that time. Make it your vocation rather than your avocation.”
The Temptations are scheduled to play Wild Horse Pass and Casino in Chandler on Saturday, January 16.