Singer Richard Street was once asked if the fact that the Temptations’ lineup was about as stable as the San Andreas fault was detrimental to fan loyalty. How can you love a group when you need a scorecard to know who’s in it?
Street responded with a sports analogy, noting that over the years, members of the Detroit Lions have come and gone, but the franchise is still the franchise and its fans are still its fans. Same thing with the Tempts, he said. This was about 1976, five years after Street replaced founding member Paul Williams. In 1992, Street himself was replaced by a guy named Theo Peoples. Who was replaced in 1997 by a fellow named Terry Weeks.
And so it goes, 46 years after a group of young men in Detroit, casting about for what to call their fledgling vocal group, settled upon “Temptations.” One of the five, Elbridge Bryant, left two years later. He was replaced by a skinny guy with glasses and a haunted tenor. His name was David Ruffin and he sang a song called “My Girl.” It put history on notice. Four years later, Ruffin was gone and the pattern was set. No roster of Temptations has ever lasted more than five years. Most have lasted less.
Why is that? “I don’t know for the life of me,” group leader Otis Williams says by phone. `Like I always tell people, the reason guys are let go is either they want to try a solo career or they start messin’ up, not taking care of business, or health reasons. I don’t get any joy in changing, getting up one morning saying, `I want to let somebody go.’ It breaks down our machinery to break somebody in, teach them all the choreography, all the uniforms and the whole nine yards. I don’t have no joy in changing.”
For the record, the Temptations’ current lineup - barring some last-minute firing or retiring - is as follows: Joe Herndon (he’s been the group’s bass man since `03); Ron Tyson (since 1983, he’s sung the falsetto parts originated by the late Eddie Kendricks); Bruce Williamson (he sings most of the leads made famous by Ruffin and by Ruffin’s replacement, Dennis Edwards, and his tenure can be measured in months), Weeks, and Williams, who founded the group in 1961 and has been its one constant since.
“Amazingly,” he says, “I still enjoy it. Even though I’ve gone through the trials and tribulations of having to change and what have you, I still find a lot of enjoyment in doing that. When I stop and think about it, I know that I’m a very fortunate and blessed person to be able to do what I enjoy doing.”
The Temptations’ so-called “classic five” lineup, which existed from 1964 to 1968, still stands as the avatar of the art of male group singing. Kendricks, singing that high, sunshiny tenor, Ruffin, his voice all exposed nerves and raw ache, Paul Williams, singing stately and cool, Melvin Franklin anchoring them with that unearthly rumble of bass, Otis Williams adding a dollop of creamy baritone to the mix ... those five set the standard. No other singing group was better. No other singing group was even as good.
But all that was a long time ago in a galaxy - Motown - far, far away.
Here in the seventh year of the millennium, Williams is not just the last living link to a glorious history; he’s also a guy with a new album (“Back to Front,” released Tuesday) to promote. It’s a cover album, full of pop-soul standards like “Wake Up Everybody” and “Minute by Minute.” Not surprisingly, Williams feels it stands with the best albums the group has ever done.
But he doesn’t kid himself. He knows what when people come out to see the Tempts, they’re not looking to hear Wake “Up Everybody.” No, they want “Ain’t too Proud to Beg,” “Get Ready,” “Just My Imagination,” “Can’t Get Next to You,” “Papa was a Rolling Stone.”
“There’s nothing greater,” says Williams, “than to walk out on a stage and you see your audience and they just light up from the excitement of seeing the Tempts and we’re singing the songs we’re known for. They’re genuinely enjoying this group, even though we’ve had personnel changes. But the songs we’re noted for are bigger than any one person. Those songs have taken on such an iconic value that there’s no one person in this group that’s bigger than the value of what those songs have.”
On Oct. 30, Williams will be 66 years old. It’s been 12 years since Melvin Franklin, Williams’ best friend since high school, and the only other remaining original, died of heart failure. It has to be a little lonely, being the last of the best.
Williams says a friend told him he had been left for last for a reason. He finds comfort in that. The Temptations has survived the coming and going of a score of men - Ali-Ollie Woodson, Louis Price, Damon Harris, Ray Davis, Glenn Leonard and more. Which raises an obvious question: When Williams dies or retires, would he like to see the group survive that, too?
“I would like for it to continue on,” he says, “but it’s also to the point of where, if you don’t see Otis Williams in there, it’s almost not the same.”
Not that he plans on going anywhere any time soon.
“I’m going to ride the hair off the horse,” says Williams. “When I get off the horse, the horse will be bald.”