One of the greatest soul/funk songs of all time, the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," almost never happened. The group was certain it would flop, and resisted their producer Norman Whitfield's attempts to get them to sing it. He prevailed, and as the featured single on their album "All Directions," the brilliantly arranged epic rocketed to No. 1 on the charts and earned the Temptations a couple of Grammy Awards.
"At the beginning, we almost didn't record it," reveals Otis Williams, the last surviving original Temptation. "We were tired of singing psychedelic soul. We wanted to go back to ballads, the 'My Girls' and the 'Since I Lost My Baby's.' Our fans would ask, 'When are you going to go back to sing those ballads?' We had a strong debate about it, but Norman was set on recording 'Papa Was a Rollin' Stone,' and we ended up recording it.
"I would consider it one of the greats because Norman and (co-composer) Barrett Strong did a hell of a job on the production. It's one of those songs I never get tired of hearing. Rolling Stone magazine listed the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and we had three, 'Papa Was a Rollin' Stone,' 'Ball of Confusion' and 'Just My Imagination.'"
Forty-six years after their first chart hit, the Smokey Robinson-produced "The Way You Do the Things You Do" helped define the Motown sound, the Temptations still delight audiences around the world. And while only one founding member remains, the group's dynamic harmonies, refined choreography and string of classics have been lovingly preserved.
The most commercially successful and critically acclaimed male vocal group of the 1960s and early '70s, the Tempts began their musical life in Detroit, an essential component of the original Motown "Hitsville" machine, invented by Berry Gordy.
"We had heard of Berry making a name writing songs for Jackie Wilson and then Smokey and the Miracles," Williams recalls. "As fate would have it, he gave me his card at a record hop. I called him after a few weeks, we auditioned and he signed us up.
* The Temptations (top) and the Four Tops (above) perform at 7 p.m. Sunday at the MACC Events Lawn. Tickets are $35, $50 and $65, with a limited number of $85 premium table and $125 golden circle table seating. Applicable fees are added to the price of tickets, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
"Even in the early days before all the hits, Motown was a fun place to be. We would stay even when it closed up at 6 o'clock, and empty the trash and sweep the floors, whatever was needed for the next day. It was our Camelot."
Following "The Way You Do the Things You Do," an avalanche of hits followed, from "My Girl," "Since I Lost My Baby," and "Get Ready," to "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "Beauty Is only Skin Deep," "I Wish It Would Rain," and "You're My Everything."
The classic lineup was Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin and Williams. Aside from their magnificent singing, the Tempts became known for smooth stepping and flawless presentations.
In 1966, Norman Whitfield became the Temptations' main producer, after his "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" performed better on the pop charts than Smokey Robinson's "Get Ready." Whitfield began steering the group toward a harder-edged, brass-heavy soul sound, and socially and politically charged lyrics that reflected the changing times, and the influence of an explosive rising star from the West Coast, Sly Stone and his group, the Family Stone.
"Sly and the Family Stone were our inspiration to getting into psychedelic soul," Williams explains. "When I heard 'Dance To The Music,' it was such a departure from the sound that was happening at that time. I asked Norman if he had heard Sly and he hadn't. I said, they were doing something fresh and different, and maybe we should try that. Thus was the emergence of 'Cloud Nine.' "
The centerpiece of the group's landmark "Cloud Nine" album, the funky Top 10 hit (with its reference to getting high as a way to escape inner-city woes) won Motown its first Grammy Award, for Best R&B Vocal Group Performance in 1969.
The Tempts' foray into psychedelic soul territory elicited a series of hits including "Runaway Child, Running Wild," "I Can't Get Next to You," "Psychedelic Shack," the masterpiece "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," and the brilliant protest song "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)," with its potent, rapid-fire lyrics that are as relevant today as when it was first released.
"Round and around and around we go," the Temptations sang, "where the world's headed nobody knows. Air pollution, revolution, gun control. Fear in the air, tension everywhere, unemployment rising fast, People all over the world, are shoutin' end the war."
"Every word on there was telling the truth about what was happening then," says Williams. "Thirty years later, that song is so apropos with what's happening in the world today. Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong were ahead of themselves when they wrote and produced it in the late '60s."
Interestingly the Temps also recorded the political anthem "War" during this time on their "Psychedelic Shack" album, but as Motown was reluctant to release it as single for the band. Edwin Starr took it on, and his version soared to No. 1 and sold more than 3 million copies.
After a lengthy fallow period, it was not until the late 1990s that the Temptations scored a No. 1 hit again with "Stay," (featuring a sample of "My Girl") on "Phoenix Rising," their first million-selling album in more than 20 years.
In the last few years the group has released two critically acclaimed albums. "Reflections" paid homage to Motown with covers of songs like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and The Jackson 5's "I'll Be There," as well as Thelma Houston's disco anthem "Don't Leave Me This Way." "Back To Front" was their tribute to classic soul with new recordings of Barry White's "Never Never Gonna Give Ya Up," Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin,' the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself," plus the Doobie Brothers' hit "Minute By Minute."
And then this year, the Temptations recorded an impressive collection of new material on "Still Here," which runs the gamut from sensuous ballads to social commentary, with one song, the inspirational "Change Has Come," honoring President BarackObama.
Capturing their classic sound with a contemporary sheen, the track "Soul Music" pays tribute to the glory days of Motown. "We wanted to harken back to the way music used to be back then, because when I listen to the radio and what's happening today, I'm not impressed," Williams explains. "The main focus has always been to come up with great music. Great music has stood the test of time, so we've always tried to have great songs."
And "Listen Up" echoes the activist lyrics of "Ball of Confusion."
"One of our strong suites is being able to sing about what we are going through as a nation," he continues. "We just wanted the world to know this is what's happening today. We wanted to express the things we see like guys walking around with their pants down showing their butt. What's that all about? When I was told they got the idea from guys in prison, I said, why do you want to emulate guys in prison? They don't have belts because they could be caught hanging themselves. So we made the song 'Listen Up' for awareness sake."
Next year Otis Williams will celebrate his 50th anniversary singing with the legendary soul band.
"I had no idea that when we started out in 1960, I would be at the precipice of doing this for 50 years," he concludes.
"I love what I do and there are not too many people on this earth who can say that. I'm very blessed and thank God every day because this brings joy and happiness to a lot of people. Music is such a powerful force and a powerful influence, and it's great to be part of something that leaves positive feelings."