The Fourth of July feels different this year after months of protests and a pandemic.
Still, Otis Williams of The Temptations remains optimistic for the future of the nation.
“It’s like a heck of a combination punch by a heavyweight boxer,” Williams told WTOP. “It’s just unfortunate that we are going through this, but I’m a believer that we will come through. We’ve just got to galvanize as a people and as a country and get through it.”
This Saturday, The Temptations will perform on PBS’ virtual presentation of “A Capitol Fourth,” joining Patti LaBelle, John Fogerty, Trace Adkins, Yolanda Adams and Renee Fleming, as well as hosts John Stamos and Vanessa Williams with live D.C. fireworks.
“It’s a great pleasure to be in such elite company,” Williams said. “It’s great to be aligned with such wonderful, talented people that have made their mark in show business.”
Usually, the broadcast is filmed live from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, but this year’s 90-minute special will feature pre-recorded performances starting 8 p.m.
“We did it in the studio here in Burbank,” Williams said. “It was kind of different because we’re used to singing and performing in front of an audience, but you have to do what you have to do under the circumstances that we’re under, so we pulled it off.”
Expect to hear a six-minute medley of “Get Ready,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “My Girl,” complete with those signature dance moves in those flashy trademark jackets.
“We will still be bouncing and jumping around almost 60 years later,” Williams said.
Yes, it was 60 years ago that he first met Motown founder Berry Gordy in 1960.
“My group at the time was Otis Williams as The Distants and we had a little regional hit called ‘Come On,'” Williams said. “Mr. Gordy came in to Stevens Community Center with Smokey [Robinson] and The Miracles. … Mr. Gordy said, ‘I like your group and your record. You should leave where you are and come see me. I’m starting my label.'”
Upon joining Gordy’s Motown, they became The Temptations, with an original lineup of Otis Williams, Elbridge “Al” Bryant, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams.
In 1964, David Ruffin took over as frontman, launching the group to smash success.
“There are a lot of wonderful memories,” Williams said. “The many times we were on ‘Ed Sullivan,’ the time that we get our star in Hollywood. The list is endless. I walk around my house and look at all the accolades that I’ve achieved and I am just amazed.”
In 1968, Dennis Edwards replaced Ruffin as the band shifted to psychedelic soul.
“We were in New York, I was talking to my good friend Ken Gamble [and] we heard Sly & The Family Stone,” Williams said. “The Temps flew back to Detroit and [told] Norman Whitfield, our producer at the time, … ‘Hey Norman, there’s a new sound coming out, maybe we should try that.’ So Norman went into studio and we recorded ‘Cloud 9.'”
It sold over a million copies and brought Motown its very first Grammy, followed by “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Ball of Confusion,” which spoke to racism then and today.
“Music can be such a great ointment to the soul,” Williams said. “We can escape when we are in some kind of turmoil. Music is a soul satisfying medicine and I’m so glad that we have been able to administer that. … It’s a powerful force. … I’ve seen it bridge gaps, I’ve seen it bring people together, I’ve seen it move people to tears.”
He recalls how the music helped Vietnam troops during their deployment.
“We were on a world tour in ’75 and I ran across three soldiers when the Vietnam War had just ended,” Williams said. “They were telling me what Motown music meant to them. … They were standing there crying, which brought me to tears. … They would come back to their base and the first said they’d ask is, ‘We want to hear The Temptations.'”
He also said the music helped thaw the Berlin Wall.
“Shortly after the Iron Curtain came down, we were in Gdansk, Poland. As we were singing ‘My Girl’ and ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone,’ here we had a country that spoke a whole ‘nother language, but they were singing our songs in English! I was amazed.”
Today, Williams is the only surviving original member, but the band plays on.
“I’ve had a wonderful career of being part of the legendary Motown Records, making history and to certain extent changing history,” Williams said.