Otis Williams -Biography
My life story? Well, 43 of my 65 years have been spent as baritone/second tenor for The Temptations so The Temptations are a huge part of my life. What a ride it's been, as a founding member a legendary group that is currently in its 5th decade of recording and performing.
Otis Williams, BT (Before Temptations)
The start of my life was simple but loving. I was born October 30, 1941 to Hazel Louise Williams and Otis Miles in Texarkana, Texas. As my parents were not married, and Hazel was only a girl of 16 when I was born, I was raised by my paternal Grandmother Gooden, with plenty of involvement by my maternal Grandmother Lucinda Eliga.
In 1951, Hazel brought me to Detroit, Michigan to live with her and her husband
Edgar Little. I grew up with a younger half-brother Allan and half-sister Denise.
I occupied myself with things important to 10 year olds: comic books, sports, toys and riding my red and white J.C. Higgins bike.
The other force in my life was music. The music scene in Detroit was exploding with doo-wop groups on every corner and I spent countless hours watching the likes of
Lavern Baker, Royal Jokers, Chuck Berry, the Nightcaps, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers appearing at the Fox Theatre. But it was watching the Cadillacs in their loose light suits and stepping routines -- and the effect it had on the audience -- that made up my mind up. Singing is what I wanted to do.
Informal groups came and went in junior and senior high school until The Distants pulled together -- Al Bryant, James Crawford, Melvin Franklin, Richard Street and yours truly. It was with the Distants I made my very first professional recording "Come On/Always" on Northern Records.
Berry Gordy heard The Distants perform and told us how much he like us and that if things changed with our current management, to give him a call. Shortly there after, The Distants decided to part company with our then manager, Ms. Johnnie Mae Matthews. Unfortunately the contract we signed gave her ownership to the name The Distants, so we were a group with no name. Close to that time, another rising group, The Primes had a recording deal that fell apart. This left Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams without a contract.
So now a line up featuring Me, Melvin, Al, Eddie and Paul went to Hitsville (the two story house where Motown was headquartered) to audition as The Elgins (like the watch) After the audition, Berry Gordy said he wanted to sign us--but change the name! We would have had to anyway because there was a group already known as The Elgins. The Year was 1961 and The Temptations were born!
Life has a way of twisting and turning. Just I was focusing on working with The Temptations, my steady girlfriend, Josephine Rogers, told me she was pregnant. We married, and in 1962 my only child, Otis Lamont Williams, was born.
While it was exciting to be recording and traveling for Motown, our first few singles did not hit big. It was discouraging to work so hard and not have things happen. We even recorded a tune as "The Pirates" to see if a new name would make a difference. Thankfully, that was not the issue and we went back to being known as The Temptations. But it did not help my marriage and in 1964, Josephine and I divorced.
But there were also changes with The Temptations. Al Bryant's behavior resulted with him to be asked to leave the group. He was replaced by David Ruffin. Our next single
"The Way You Do The Things You Do" (1964) charted at number #11. And everything began to change.
"My Girl" (recorded in December of 1964) was our first #1 single -- selling a million copies, and one of my all time favorites. The song changed all of our lives, and gave me a ticket through amazing times. This part of my life is well documented. But unless you were there, you can't truly know what it was like not only to be part of a major singing group, but to make a mark on history. To be the first all-male group for Motown, to perform in the BBC The Sound of Motown special -- the show that introduced Motown to the world; to help lead the way for black artists to experience crossover success, for our NBC special with the Supremes to be the first Black Television Special in history, to have our first Grammy Award also be Motown's first (Cloud Nine, 1969).
And to top it off, I met my second wife, Ann Cain, the following year.
The Temptations success has a lot to do with our ability to be in tune with the times, but
resist the urge to chase trends. We kept up on what other acts were doing but tried to make each song uniquely our own. Not too many of the groups we came up with could make the transition from doo-wop to social and politically conscious songs. We celebrate the past, but always look forward. When we finished taping the 1983 Motown 25 show, we went right back to finishing our Back to Basics album. And I married for a third time, to Goldie.
I've taken the good with the bad. While being a Temptation has allowed me to record with some of the greatest singers and musicians in the country, perform at the White House, travel the world, sing for Mohammad Ali, even dance with Imelda Marcos, it didn't shelter me from the dark side of life: power struggles within the group, dealing with David Ruffin's drug problem as well Paul Williams's drinking and suicide, my mother and son's early death, Melvin's failing health, and Martin Luther King's assassination all had an effect on me. But, I've also been a witness to huge changes in normal, daily life. When we started touring, it was a matter of routine for venues in southern states to divide white and black fans by a rope. Commonplace then, unthinkable now -- I like to think we had a hand in that.
The Now Tempts
Personnel changes with The Temptations was just part of the story, sometimes by fate, sometimes by choice. While some people have criticized us for it, I would argue it kept the group fresh and gave us staying power. As an example, when I teamed up with Ali Ollie Woodson to write songs, one of our first collaborations was "Treat her Like a Lady" which was one of our biggest selling hits of the 80's.
The Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, but our story doesn't end there. 1989 also gave us a #10 R&B hit with "Special." We followed that up with "Soul to Soul" #12 in 1990 and "The Jones" -- #41 in 1991. Although they had left the group years prior, the 1991 deaths of David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks was viewed by many people as the end of The Temptations. But The Temptations have always been about a sound; straight up soul with 5 leads and a philosophy; to keep on. So we sought out singers who embraced both and went forward. For Lovers Only, a collection of standards in 1995, attracted a new generation of fans. It will always be a sentimental favorite of mine as it was the last record I did with Melvin Franklin. He died later that year.
1998 was a watershed year for The Temptations and an example of the balancing act we maintain to this day, on one hand our NBC mini series The Temptations, which chronicled our early days and rise to fame, was number one it's time slot (against Monday Night Football and Jurassic Park no less!), and won an Emmy. At the same time, our album of all new material, Phoenix Rising went platinum, with the single "Stay" topping Billboard's Adult Contemporary charts for 3 months. How many groups who started in 1961 can say that?! That success was followed with a 2000 Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Recording for Ear-Resistable. We released additional new songs on Awesome in 2001 with the group continuing to tour, usually spending 40 weeks a year on the road.
2004 marks the release of The Temptations 60th CD -- Legacy with includes a track, "You Are Necessary in my Life" which I co-wrote and co-produced. I launched www.otiswilliams.net to provide both breaking news and a historic record for fans of The Temptations worldwide. We've signed a "Surf & Soul" World Tour with the Beach Boys and Four Tops, which kicks off in 2005. I'm developing an Otis Williams clothing line and also looking into making some of my artwork available through the internet.
And I'm always working on a new song.