A Conversation with Otis Williams of the Temptations
HULICK: I have been looking forward to talking to you this morning Otis, then the shocking sad news about Michael Jackson came late yesterday and…
WILLIAMS: You sound like you are about to cry.
HULICK: I’ve been crying off and on since last night.
WILLIAMS: I’ve been doing the same. Hey, I stand six-foot-two and weigh about 250 pounds and when I heard Michael had passed away I just started crying. I was with my manager and my attorney. I am not ashamed to say I cried. You know sometimes us guys, we have to be so macho, but I cried for the love of a friend.
HULICK: I think the whole world cried a little bit.
WILLIAMS: Yes. We all did.
HULICK: Ironically, one of the things I was going to talk to you about Otis was the Motown 25 television special in 1983 where you and the Temptations and the Jacksons performed that night. I wondered what it was like to be there when it was a turning point for you and the Temptations as well as for Michael and his solo performance. How did that feel to be a part of that and feel the energy that must have been in the room that night?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, when we were told about being part of the Motown 25, naturally you thought, “OK, wow! Motown is 25 years old!” We were happy we were going to be a part of something legendary and it will be one of the great television shows of all time. Little did I know what was about to happen. We were gathering and getting ready to do the show and when the Four Tops and us came on we really brought the house down. And we figured, “OK, we’re doing what the Temps and the Tops do!” Then, when the Jacksons came on, it was fantastic. But when Michael went into his solo, “Billie Jean,” and went into the moonwalk I just said, “Oh my God! Who is that up there?” Now I knew Michael, but this was another kind of person. I mean, to do that kind of move and just the whole persona that he had created was something truly special and I am just so happy that I was a part of that so I could see greatness in its infancy.
HULICK: Wow! It must have been unbelievable!
WILLIAMS: Yes, I saw Michael Jackson at that moment break off into a superstar. I’ve been doing what I enjoy doing for 48 years and in the course of that you meet such great personalities and entertainers. We got to meet the Jacksons and started sharing the stage with them various times. I’ll never forget this time I was in the trailer with Michael waiting to go on. We just kicked it until they came and got him for a shoot he was doing. But until then it was just Michael and myself just reminiscing about Motown and what we were doing as entertainers. It really was such a wonderful private time. It was just him and I… no bodyguards, no managers, nobody else around… just Michael and I sitting there talking.
HULICK: Just one-on-one.
WILLIAMS: Yes. I also remember when we shared the stage in Chicago when Rev. Jesse Jackson had “Operation Push.” The Jacksons and us were doing the finale and all the fans started rushing to the stage. I mean it was thunderous! The security guards said, “Man we can’t stop all these fans from getting up here, we need to get you guys out and in the U-Haul truck!” So they took the ten of us and put us in this big U-Haul truck and we left that way. It was dark in the truck and I could hear Michael saying, “Where’s Otis? Where’s Otis?” So one of the guys turned the light in the truck on and I said, “I’m right here Michael. I’m right here.” The look that he gave to me was nothing but love and concern and I will always remember that. I thought, “Wow! Here is this giant little person with a giant talent being so concerned about where I was.”
HULICK: That’s a special memory, too.
WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely.
HULICK: Do you recall the moment when you started out when you thought ‘This is it; we’re on our way’?
WILLIAMS: Oh, wow… yeah, well I think we really started feeling that way when we started doing shows and breaking all existing records at places like the Copacabana and the Apollo Theatre and the many times we did “The Ed Sullivan Show.” That’s when I guess we got a feeling that in a sense we had arrived.
HULICK: Has the dream been everything you imagined it would be?
WILLIAMS: Oh, more! I mean, when I walk around my house and look at all the many different plaques, gold records, four Grammys, all kinds of citations from presidents, governors and world leaders and what have you, it’s more than I would have ever imagined. So yeah…it’s turned into even more than I could have imagined and I’m still having a wonderful ride.
HULICK: You have said that “reinvention is the name of the game.” Do you feel you can go too far in trying to please the current music scene?
WILLIAMS: Well we, the Temps, never step out of character. Of course, I’m not using us as a yardstick for everybody to measure by, but we know our limitations. We will not step out of character in the sense of trying to be rappers because rappers are the popular thing nowadays and come out with our pants halfway down across our behinds and walk with the swagger.
HULICK: (laughs) Well that’s an interesting picture.
WILLIAMS: (laughs) Yes, well I think it just depends on the artist knowing their strengths and their weaknesses. But ours has always been predicated on great music. That is what we always tried in keeping… come up with great songs and let that be our criteria of being able to continue on and do what the people always expect the Temptations to do…great music, entertain them and stay within the character we’re known for.
HULICK: Looking back, would you do anything differently?
WILLIAMS: When I look around at the hits that we had, we’ve been very blessed. I wouldn’t change a thing. The only thing I regret is that we’ve had to go through so many different personnel changes. But all in all it’s been wonderful and I think certain things happen for a reason, to build strength and character. So some things, even though they could be a negative… like Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, used to say, ‘Take a negative and turn it into a positive.’
HULICK: Right. And also any of the negatives you did endure make you what you are today.
WILLIAMS: That’s right.
HULICK: What is the best part of being Otis Williams?
WILLIAMS: Wow! The best part of being Otis Williams is being able to… wow, the best part is… being able to endure. That’s about as plain as I can put it.