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Seeing the pages of his memoir brought to life in "Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations" on a Broadway stage was a profound emotional experience for Otis Williams.
The jukebox musical, which picked up a Tony for best choreography and a Grammy for the cast recording, was still in what the singer calls "its very embryonic stages" when he took in an early rehearsal.
"I sat there and I started crying," Williams says.
"Here's a little country boy from Texarkana, Texas. We'd run up and down the gravel road with our hot water cornbread, barefoot with coveralls on. Now my life story is being told on Broadway. I never would've imagined. I'm just a very blessed fellow."
It's "something that God must've wanted to happen," he says.
With a national tour of the musical hitting the road, the Temptations are headed to Phoenix with the Four Tops on a tour celebrating their 60th anniversary.
A new album, 'Temptations 60,' celebrates a milestone
They're also releasing an album called "Temptations 60," whose highlights range from songs reflecting on that anniversary to timely takes on the ball of confusion this world is today.
On the opening track, "Let it Reign," they sing, "We need peace, we need change."
Another highlight opens with chants of "I can't breathe" and "No justice, no peace" before settling into a chorus of "It's time for the people to stand up for their rights/ Oh yes, it's time for the people to bring the darkness to the light."
As Williams says, that type of talk is nothing new.
"The 'Tempts have always been reflective of the times," he says, citing such timeless examples as "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World is Today)," "Message From a Black Man," "Runaway Child, Running Wild" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone."
"When I listen to 'Ball of Confusion,' it's so apropos," he says.
"Here it is about 40 years later and the words are as timely today.'"
"Let it Reign" also features a socially relevant guest rap by K. Sparks.
"I wanted to do something different," Williams says, "So I said, 'Let's surprise them. I want to start off with some rap jazz.'"
Collaborating with Motown legend Smokey Robinson
As the last of the original Temptations, Williams felt it was important for the current lineup to pay tribute to the friends he's lost along the way, which they do on a track titled "When We Were Kings."
It features references to David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin, Dennis Edwards and Paul Williams.
"When I wake up in the morning, I thank God for letting me see the start of a new day," Williams says.
It was immediately after thanking God one morning that he realized he should write a song about his former singing partners.
"It was like an epiphany," he says.
The album also features a collaboration with another Motown legend, Smokey Robinson, who wrote their breakthrough hit, "The Way You Do The Things You Do" as well as such classics as "My Girl" and "Get Ready."
"I said 'Smoke, it's only fair and only right that you should be part of this 60th-anniversary album because you started us rolling with 'The Way You Do the Things You Do,'" Williams recalls. "He said, 'No problem, baby.'"
Robinson ended up writing, producing and lending his unmistakable vocal talents to the soulful slow jam "Is it Gonna Be Yes or No?"
The album closes with a new recording of "Come On," a song originally done by Otis Williams & the Distants.
That pre-Temptations group included Williams, Franklin and Elbridge "Al" Bryant, a founding member who had been replaced by Kendricks by the time they cut their breakthrough single.
The new recording kicks off with a monologue from Williams that tells the story of how that single, a regional hit, attracted the attention of Robinson and a young Berry Gordy, who came to see the Distants perform at St. Stephens Community Center in Detroit.
With that, the wheels were set in motion for Gordy to sign the Temptations — initially known as the Elgins and formed from the ashes of the Distants and another Detroit singing group, the Primes — to Miracle Records, as Motown was known in 1961.
The rest, of course, is music history.
Motown's influence went beyond the music
"Motown was no happenstance," Williams says.
"Motown was put here for a reason. And to be part of that is something that I'm still in awe of. To be part of something that is celebrated after all these years and noted for all the wonderful songs and artists, I'm just happy that the timing was such that I moved to Detroit and became part of something that has turned out to be a phenomenon."
Motown's impact on the culture of the '60s ran much deeper than the pop charts.
"The '60s was one of the most tumultuous decades within the last 100 years for America," Williams.
"And here come this little two-story family flat — 2648 W. Grand Blvd. in Detroit, Michigan, and the music and the coupling of all the talented songwriters, producers and employees, Berry at the helm and the artists, that was no happenstance. That was meant to be."
The success of Motown acts like the Temptations and the Supremes helped break down racial barriers as the Civil Rights movement was gathering steam.
"Look at South Carolina," Williams says.
"When we first played there, this was 1964, there was a rope right down the center of the auditorium — white fans on one side, blacks on the other. Before we went on, we saw that and we went 'Wow, that is horrible.' But we went on and did the show."
When they came back the following year, he says, there was no rope.
"Blacks and whites are sitting side by side, high-fiving and booty-banging and enjoying the music," Williams says.
"Like I have always said, if it wasn't for the sweat that we were sweating from performing, you would have seen five guys on stage crying for the power of music. For the power of Motown's music."
Motown never tried to reign them in as the songs, which by that point were mostly written by the writing team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, became increasingly political.
"We had no problem because Norman Whitfield had had hits on us with 'Ain't Too Proud to Beg' and 'I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You),'" Williams says.
"So I guess Mr. Gordy said 'Norman Whitfield and the Temptations are having so much success, I'm not gonna bother with them. Whatever they do, they do.' So we had no pushback from Berry. His thing was just leave Norman Whitfield and the Tempts alone because they're making hit after hit after hit.'"
Otis Williams is 'the last man standing'
The Temptations have been through countless lineup changes through the years. By Williams' count, they've had 26 members, including Ron Tyson, a member of the current lineup who's been on board since 1983.
"When I look back at where I've been and where I'm going and the fact that I'm still here, everybody's got a role to play while we are of this earth," Williams says.
"Well, God in his infinite wisdom left me here to carry on this great legacy that David, Eddie, Paul, Melvin, Dennis and various guys have helped the Temptations evolve. So I'm just glad that I was able to continue it on."
It's God's will, Williams says.
"Hey, there's a reason. And I guess God said, 'Otis, you are the reason.' Everybody's got a role to play. Mine is to carry this here torch as long as I can."
People often ask him what he looks for in a singer, having looked for many singers through the years.
"When I say, 'I don't look for voice first,' they look at me quizzical,'" he says.
"And I say, 'I look for the head and the heart. You can have all the talent in the world. If you can't take directions, you gonna negate all that talent. I've been around some of the singing-est brothers in the business. I'm the last man standing."
The Temptations and the Four Tops
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 14.
Where: Arizona Federal Theatre, 400 W. Washington St., Phoenix.
Admission: $49.50 and up.
Details: 800-745-300, ticketmaster.com.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: The Temptations' Otis Williams talks about Motown and a life in music