Otis Williams on The Temptations and bringing Motown to Melbourne

The Temptations. Photo: Supplied

The Temptations. Photo: Supplied

Otis Williams is taking a breather. The last man standing from the original line up of Motown legends The Temptations, he’s enjoying three days at home before the band heads off again on tour, this time to Las Vegas. On average, they spend at least 30 weeks of every year out on the road.

It’s the sort of hectic schedule that few bands can endure for long, but Otis has been doing this for an incredible six decades.

“I’ve never burned out to the point where I’ve wanted to quit,” he says. “We love what we do. It can be a burnout factory if you let it be. We’re not one of those bands who just get out there and stand and sing. Our doctors tell us we’re entertainers-slash-athletes.”

The 75-year-old baritone admits he’s had his wild moments, but those are far behind him now. Clean living and exercise have probably helped him outlive the other four members of the original Temptations, but he credits a less likely factor: being raised by two grandmothers.

“Grandmothers instil a special set of values and principles in you. I’m a stickler for trying not to get into trouble and I always remember my humble beginnings, even though I’m blessed to be doing good now.”

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That kind of attitude has helped him survive the fallow periods that befall any high-flying performer.

“I don’t care who the artist is, how hot they are. Everybody gets a cooling spell. That’s when you find out what you’re made of. Not everyone can handle not getting the hits and the adulation.”

Likewise, most bands struggle to survive a line-up change, but The Temptations (formed in 1961 from a collision between two rival soul groups) have change baked into their DNA. The original line up lasted seven years and, over the next few decades, edged away from the sweet sound of early hits The Way You Do The Things You Do and My Girl. Since 1995, when the group’s bass singer Melvin Franklin died, Otis has been the only constant.

“No one man is greater than the sum total,” Otis says. “And that sum total is an eleven letter word: Temptations. I would like to think it would be able to continue when I do retire. But right now, I plan on being there.”

While some veteran performers get a bit tetchy about audiences only wanting to hear the old stuff, Otis says the band is happy giving the crowd what they want. Punters attending their forthcoming dinner and show dates at Sofitel’s Grand Ballroom can expect to hear all the hits, delivered with the same pizzazz in the same flashy suits.

It’s not just nostalgia, Otis says, so much as the fact that the Motown sound has never really dated.

“Our legacy stands shoulder to shoulder with any music I hear now. That Motown catalogue is so powerful, it has never waned. I’m just watching a film called Baby Driver and all through it they’re playing Motown. That’s a testament right there, this is music that will always endure.”

Unsurprisingly, it’s a period that Otis looks back on with great affection. Established in the late 1950s in one of the dodgier quarters of Detroit, Motown Records spawned a record-breaking string of hits that fused a soul heart with a pop aesthetic, effectively bringing African American music crashing into the mainstream.

Artists such as Marvin Gaye, the Supremes and Stevie Wonder all cut their teeth (and first records) at the company’s Hitsville USA studios.

“There will never be another company like Motown Records,” Otis says. “I try not to use the word never, but I think I’m safe in saying that. They had so many dominant artists under one label, they had more hits than a lot of the major companies had. It was no happenstance. God brought Motown together at that point of time, in one of the most tumultuous decades, to make a profound statement. I’m just glad we were part of something so monumental.”

The Temptations Live in Melbourne

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