Walking into History
HOLLYWOOD HAILS THE EMPERORS
It was the 3rd of September, that day…
No, wait, it was another day in September when the crowd gathered at 7060 Hollywood Boulevard, near Sycamore Street. It was hot, and the crackle of the security guards’ walkie-talkies only seemed to raise the temperature. Even so, the guests were cool, calm and collected, waiting for the ceremony to begin.
A smartly-attired Smokey Robinson was among them, as was Berry Gordy, of course. Also, Mary Wilson, Cornelius Grant, Claudette Robinson, Robert White, Cholly Atkins and Norman Whitfield. Some were looking forward to the party afterwards, at the House of Blues on Sunset.
As you may have guessed by now, this was not last week’s Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony to salute the late Jackie Wilson – his was the 2,672nd star on that much-photographed pavement – even though a handful of the same people were on hand. This was an earlier occasion, when the 2,034th star was cemented into the walkway. Then, the honourees were the Temptations. “It’s not just our imagination,” declared the press release from the organisers, touting the honour to be handed to Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, Theo Peoples, Ron Tyson and Ali-Ollie Woodson.
I recall Woodson’s gold outfit that September 14, 1994, not least because his son was wearing matching gold. Also, the triumphant “Yes!” when a civilian secured Smokey’s autograph on the back of a business card, just before the once-and-forever Miracle disappeared into the back of a black limousine at the ceremony’s end.
Today, it’s the Temptations’ turn to occupy West Grand Blog, drawing on my recent interview with founder Otis, and another Q&A – several years before the Walk of Fame shindig – with group members Melvin Franklin and Richard Street. Plus, this month marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Emperors Of Soul, the five-CD set which showcased the group’s legacy better than anything before or since. “So much has changed,” wrote Nelson George in liner notes commissioned by the compilation’s producer, Harry Weinger. “So much will never be the same. But the values of that time and place live in the voices of the Temptations and our memories of their steps and their cool.”
Another anniversary is on tap, too: it’s 60 years since the Distants (including Williams, Franklin and Street) recorded “Come On,” that group’s first release for Johnnie Mae Matthews’ Northern Recording Company. “We were one of the first acts to record for her,” said Williams. “Johnnie Mae really could have been a force [competing with] Berry Gordy if she had played her cards right. Not only did she have my group – at the time, we were Otis Williams & the Distants – but she had Norman Whitfield, when Norman played tambourine for Popcorn Wylie and the Mohawks. Johnnie Mae also had the possibility of signing Mary Wells.
‘NOT IN THE CARDS’
“Then the Impressions – the two brothers, Arthur and Richard Brooks – came over and were thinking about signing with Johnnie Mae. I guess if she had really taken care of business, she could have possibly rivalled Berry.” But, continued Williams, “it was just not in the cards. Everything was working good for Berry.”
About those days, Melvin Franklin spoke of the debt owed to Lawrence Payton of the Four Tops (both men are no longer with us). “He is the closest thing to a musical genius that I’ve ever met. He has a natural, God-given gift, an innate ability to understand music and to voice harmonies. I remember when I made my first record, with a group called the Voice Masters. I was not in the group, but my mother, Mrs. Rose Franklin, was in the same club with Anna Gordy and Gwen Gordy, and they were like sisters. They’d say [to Rose], ‘Your son really has a great bass voice,’ and they let me go to New York to record with them. Well, Lawrence Payton was the reason I was able to go, because Ma, she knew them, and Lawrence always got the greatest respect from everybody. He said, ‘Well, Mama Rose, you oughta let your son go. I’ll make sure he does his homework.’ I had to take my books with me. [Lawrence] is like my mentor.”
Similarly, the late Richard Street said he was grateful for his time with the Distants and, later, for a tour of duty with Norman Whitfield in Motown’s Quality Control department. “It was a great job. I never got bored with it, because it was music. It taught me a lot, even down to how sessions go, and how to be a producer.”
It was when Street, Franklin and Williams were in the Distants that Gordy first saw them. As Otis told Harry Weinger when the latter was prepping Emperors of Soul, the occasion was a record hop at St. Stephens Community Center in Detroit, and Gordy was present because the Miracles were also appearing. “When he came in, we were already on stage, and as high as the stage was, you could see who all was coming in, the next act. And so when we came off, the crowd said, ‘Ohhh, mo’! mo’! mo’!’ So the disc jockey – Frantic Ernie Durham, as a matter of fact – had us come back and do it again.
“So when we finally came off and as Smokey and the Miracles came on, nature called. I had to go to the men’s room, as well as Berry. We were standing there, paying that water bill, and he said, ‘Man, I really like your group, I love your record, and if you should become unhappy with where you are, come see me ’cause I’m starting my own company.’ ”
‘WE’LL MAKE THE NAME’
A quarter-century later, Williams took up the story again, with me. “When we left Johnnie Mae Matthews and kept the name the Distants, for a few heartbeats, we were calling ourselves the Elgins. But we found out there was another group called the Elgins, so we were standing outside Motown with Bill Mitchell, and at the time, the group was Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Elbridge Bryant, Melvin Franklin and myself. We were throwing around names, and Bill said, ‘What about ‘the Temptations’?’ I asked the guys, and Paul said, ‘Otis, whatever the name is, we’ll make the name.’ That’s how we chose the Temptations. So when I said I liked that, Bill hollered into the building and told the young lady to put ‘the Temptations’ on the contracts. And so we’ve been the Temptations ever since.”
At the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the honourees were – as noted above – Messrs. Williams, Franklin, Peoples, Tyson (who was actually absent due to illness) and Woodson. When I asked Cornelius Grant, the group’s longtime musical director, for recollections of the day, he said he was proud to be present, “but sad that the original guys were not there to witness the fruits of their labour.” At the House of Blues party, Harry Weinger remembered, Mama Rose was in attendance, as was Richard Pryor, albeit wheelchair-bound.
There were a couple of awkward before-and-after moments. The former was a congratulatory message from Bill Cosby. At the time, it seemed amusing; in retrospect, less so. “Thank you for the many girlfriends I got by bringing your records to their houses,” Cosby wrote.
Afterwards, former Temptation Dennis Edwards claimed that he had received no invitation, and was insulted. “I thought [the award] went by your singing, your years in the business and your performance,” he told the Chicago Tribune. Responded the group’s manager, Shelly Berger, “The decision was to include the Temptations, not everybody who was a part of that group. He didn’t come into the category of original Temptations or present Temptations. So why would we have him involved?” (When it came to Emperors of Soul, though, Edwards was present on more than 30 tracks, from 1968’s “Cloud Nine” to 1987’s “Look What You Started.”)
Today, 60 years since “Come On,” the perpetual Temptations contain just one original member, Otis Williams. And the secret of that longevity? “You make the music,” he said, “you don’t let the business run you down. If you let it, it can get the best of you. I’ve always been pretty self-conscious about trying to keep myself together. I had fun like everybody else, but I didn’t get into too much craziness, like partying all night and drinking.” He added, “We adhered to Mr. Gordy’s wishes of being on time, being professional, carrying yourself like a pro. We still do that all the way up to today.”
Indeed, you might call it the Temptation Walk.
Music notes: most, if not all, of the Temptations’ catalogue can be found on digital services, as well as some of their post-Motown albums, excluding the Atlantic Records releases, 1977’s Hear To Tempt You and 1978’s Bare Back. As for Emperors of Soul, it doesn’t appear to be available as such for downloading or streaming, although obviously most of its tracks are on the other albums. Early recordings by the group and/or its various members are also offered digitally: Yield to Temptation! is a 25-track compilation featuring pre-Motown material by the Distants, the Voice Masters and David Ruffin, as well as Temptations tracks first released on Motown’s Miracle and (as the Pirates) Mel-O-Dy imprints. This was a “public domain” physical release in 2014 from El Toro Records, which has apparently now made its way onto digital music platforms.
Book notes: Otis Williams produced in 1988 one of the first Motown autobiographies, Temptations, written with Patricia Romanowski, while in 2010, there was Ain’t Too Proud To Beg by Mark Ribowsky. Slimmer than both was Richard Street’s Ball of Confusion, penned with Gary Flanigan, out in 2014. “The reason the Temptations in name survive today illustrates the fact that the Temptations’ name or brand is bigger than any one of its members,” Street summarised, shrewdly. And there’s the personal story of Genna Sapia-Ruffin, mother of David Ruffin’s son, David Jr. Her memoir, David Ruffin – My Temptation, came out in 2012.