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Otis Williams: Traveling With The Temptations

Motown legend talks about his journey from Texarkana to the top of the charts

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spinner image The Temptations, Otis Williams
At left, Otis Williams (bottom right) with the original lineup of The Temptations. At right, Williams performing in 2015 in California.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Michael Schwartz/WireImage/Getty

Otis Williams is the last of the five original Temptations who still tours with the group, which performs 35 weeks a year. There have been 22 replacement Tempts over the years, but Williams has been a constant throughout. He lives in Los Angeles when he's not on the road, and tries to stay in shape: Williams is still 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds at 77 years old. The following are edited excerpts of his conversation with AARP about Motown's 60th anniversary.

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On his long, amazing journey:

I was raised by two grandmothers. I’m originally from Texarkana, Texas. I milked the cow, got the eggs and I picked some cotton. But my grandmother would have me listen to nothing but gospel. Mahalia Jackson, the Swan Silvertones, the Dixie Hummingbirds. So when I moved to Detroit, in 1950, at the infancy of rock ‘n’ roll, you started to hear of all these great shows coming to the Fox Theatre there. I was about 12, 13. When I saw how people reacted to the Cadillacs, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, that’s what made me say, “Hey, I wanna do that."

There have been so many highs. We won Motown’s first Grammy for “Cloud Nine.” Now I have five. Ed Sullivan — if you went on one time and he didn’t like you — don’t come back. We were on The Ed Sullivan Show 13  times. With the original Tempts, we broke all existing records at the Copacabana. As a young man, I heard all about Nat King Cole and all the great heavyweights there. When we came [to the Copa], they had police out in front. Everybody was trying to get in. We broke all existing records at the Apollo Theater [in Harlem]. Our star is on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

On the aerodynamics of Temptations’ crowd-igniting choreography, especially Paul Williams’ “round-the-world” splits:

It starts with a split. You drop down and then rise up and spin. David Ruffin was known for it, too. David would throw the mike up, and as it was going up, David would drop to his knees. As he was coming up and the mike was coming down, he would grab it. The timing was so magnificent. It was truly a showstopper.

The choreography has been our cornerstone ever since, and we still have to do it. We’re working on some for a song on our new album. I’m [nearly] 80 years old! I have to warm up. It is what it is — we’re identified with our choreography. It makes me get as much rest as I can.

On the enduring joys of taking the stage when “Ladies and gentlemen, the Temptations!” still prompts a happy roar:

It hits you in the chest. If you’re a caring person and you love what you do, and you get this kind of reaction from people who have spent their hard earned money to come see you ... they give this feeling of excitement. We can feel it before we go on. We’re getting love before we hit the stage. That’s a powerful feeling. When that doesn’t happen anymore, we better find something else to do. After 58 years, I still love it. But the real key is, you have to get that rest.

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