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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Singer Otis Williams, Founder Of The Temptations


This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective and hear more of my 1988 interview with Otis Williams, a founding member of The Temptations, the Motown group whose hits included "My Girl," "The Way You Do The Things You Do," "You're My Everything" and "I Can't Get Next To You."


GROSS: We've got to talk about your choreography (laughter).


GROSS: The choreography for your group was done by Cholly Atkins, who was a great dancer and got his start, like years before he started working with vocal groups, dancing with Honi Coles.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

GROSS: Describe some of the steps that he choreographed for The Temptations and the names for the steps, too.

WILLIAMS: Cholly's steps - let me tell you something. Not easy. He's got a lot of little hitch steps and a lot of little subtle movements. And you really have to pay a lot of attention, you know, because you look at the stuff that we do on stage, you say, oh, that's easy. Oh, no, no, no. I mean, he's cussed us out and called us all kind of names, you know, because it would be hard to get. You know, but once you got a Cholly Atkins choreography down you would definitely be separate and apart from any of the other acts 'cause he's not an easy fellow to deal with far as his choreography.

GROSS: You said there were no extra beats for corrections when he was choreographing one of your songs. Explain what you mean by that.

WILLIAMS: Let's see. If you got out of step, you would catch hell getting back in because he's got everything scientifically in place. So if you missed that and had to come back in, you said, oh, my God, how am I going to catch back in because, you know, a lot of times choreography is to a certain kind of beat. Cholly would hear something that you would have to really strain to hear on the record. And he would probably pick up something like if it was a guitar lick. Well, most cases, steps are choreographed to the drum or a bass lick. But he would get something that's all together, that's faint, that you would say, man, I don't even hear that. But it would be there.

GROSS: Did you ever lose it onstage?

WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah, all of us at one time or another.

GROSS: How would you cover up?

WILLIAMS: It was just something inside you said, you better find a way. So you would find a way. But it would be hard. You would miss a few bars before you got back in step. So we would cover it up. We would clown a little bit, oh, and run back to the bandstand and then come back up and, oh, OK, I got it - boom (ph) - and fall right in. But you would catch hell getting in for a while.

GROSS: Otis Williams is my guest. And we're talking about founding and singing with The Temptations. And before we talk more about it, let's listen to another of The Temptations' recordings. I want to play "The Way You Do The Things You Do."

WILLIAMS: That's a good one.

GROSS: OK. And this was written by Smokey Robinson?

WILLIAMS: Yes, Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers.

GROSS: The lead singer on this is Eddie Kendricks?

WILLIAMS: Eddie Kendricks.

GROSS: And let's give it a listen. Then we'll talk about the vocal harmonies.


THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) You got a smile so bright you know you could have been a candle. I'm holding you so tight you know you could have been a handle. The way you swept me off my feet you know you could've been a broom. The way you smell so sweet you know you could've been some perfume. Well, you could've been anything that you wanted to, and I can tell the way you do the things you do, oh, baby. As pretty as you are you know you could've been a flower.

GROSS: Otis Williams, which part were you singing on that record?

WILLIAMS: I was singing baritone. We would always sit around with Smokey. And Smokey was a very good producer in the respect of he would already have in mind how he wanted the harmonies to be structured, who would sing, what lead and what have you. So it really was never no problem working with Smokey because he would say, OK - we knew Melvin would sing bass. Eddie was only - Paul, he sang second tenor. Eddie - I meant David did first. And I was baritone.

GROSS: Berry Gordy really wanted the group to cross over R&B charts and pop charts. And he was really into crossing over.

WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely. Yes. Yes.

GROSS: So were there things that he thought you should do to make sure you crossed over to the pop charts?

WILLIAMS: Well, and he always stressed the thing of, like I said, lyrics, you know, had a large play in it and song structure. But he also stressed that the melody would be very simple, you know, whereas, you know, even a child could hum it. So he would stress as simple as you could keep it, the more mass appeal it would have...

GROSS: Were there certain things you were supposed to do, like, for the white listeners (laughter)?

WILLIAMS: Keep it simple.

GROSS: Keep it simple for the white people (laughter)?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, and for the black. But especially for, you know, that mass appeal, you know, just K-I-S-S. And that means in our term keep it simple, stupid, because most cases when you look at the top 10 records basically are very simplistic. You know, and they have that mass appeal.

GROSS: Otis Williams, a founding member of The Temptations, recorded in 1988. Tomorrow we'll continue our 30th anniversary retrospective with more interviews from our first two years as a daily NPR program. We'll feature interviews with Paul Schrader, who talked about writing the film "Taxi Driver," and John Updike, who talked about his memoir, "Self-Consciousness," which was about all the things that made him self-conscious, including his stutter and psoriasis. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.


THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Ooh (ph), your love is fading. I can feel your love fading. Girl, it's fading away from me 'cause your touch, your touch has grown cold as if someone else controls your very soul. I've fooled myself long as I can, can feel the presence... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.