The Temptations’ co-founder, leader and sole surviving original member Otis Williams has a very simple secret for keeping up his stamina night after night on tour.
“Well, I have a black belt in sitting down and being lazy,” he said with a laugh from his home in Los Angeles, before heading out on a short run of Northeast dates. The group will be at The Egg in Albany on Saturday night.
“That’s the key to what we do — when you don’t have to do nothing, you do nothing and get that rest. Because when the promoters are asking us to do 65 minutes, 75, 80, sometimes as much as an hour-and-a-half, you better get that rest. Especially for the one-nighters — you do the show, you go up to your room, shower, go to bed, wake up, get on the tour bus and do it all over again, so you have to get that rest.”
Even at 72, Williams has no problem singing the acrobatic harmonies and performing the energetic choreographed dances that the Motown group is known for. While hits such as “My Girl,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” have cemented the vocal group’s position as R&B and soul innovators, their choreography has always been just as key to the shows as the music itself.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
How Much: $34.50
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
“I think the most strenuous one that we have to do is ‘Treat Her Like a Lady’ — that one is really physical,” Williams said.
“But no, I’m able to maintain. If people say, ‘How do you keep up with the younger guys in the group?’ I say, ‘You got it backwards — the younger guys keep up with me.’ ”
For more than 50 years, Williams has led The Temptations, keeping them on track through multiple lineup changes. The band has maintained a quintet lineup throughout its history — since 2007, the group has consisted of Williams, Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, Joe Herndon and Bruce Williamson.
Whenever a new member joins, Williams and the rest of the group must teach him the choreography and vocal parts for a massive list of songs.
“When we have to teach them, we ask them to stick to really the way the record was — that’s what the audience has come to know and love,” Williams said.
“Don’t try to get too fancy, just stick to the basics — The Temptations follow K.I.S.S. — keep it simple, stupid. That’s what the songs are built on. The choreography — that’s a whole other entity itself. We make it look easy, but it’s not easy to do.”
The Temptations’ chart-topping days may be behind them — “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” in 1972 was their last No. 1 on the Billboard Top 40 — but the group has continued to command big crowds while releasing albums, most recently 2010’s “Still Here.”
Touring has slowed ever since 9/11, but the band is still out on the road every year, playing for audiences ranging from young children to longtime fans from the group’s early years.
“They’re as young as single digits, all the way up to 80 to 90,” Williams said. “The thing of it all, basically, is it starts with the songs. When you listen to The Temps’ songs, they’re real; they’re very simplistic; there’s a sense of nothing too complicated. We’re not cussing, we’re not leaving no suggestive mannerisms — we just have straight-up good songs. That’s what it’s always been at Motown — Barry [Gordy, Motown founder] always strived for songs first.”
For Williams, the formation of the original Temptations — Williams, Elbridge “Al” Bryant, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams (no relation to Otis Williams) — was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
Before The Temptations, Williams sang with a Detroit group called The Distants, who were approached by Gordy in the early ’60s. That group also featured Bryant and Franklin, as well as future Temptation Richard Street.
After being approached by Gordy, two members of The Distants — Street and Mooch Harrell — left the group. Williams, Franklin and Bryant hooked up with Alabama natives Kendricks and Paul Williams after their group, The Primes, split up.
“Gordy came to us and said, ‘If you guys leave your label, come and see me — I’m starting my own company,’ ” Williams said. “We had different members leave, and thus The Temptations were formed. So it’s complicated to say — it was one of those things, when I look back at my career, that was just destined to be. It was a special, nice time when Barry gave me his card.”
It wasn’t until 1964 that the group scored its first Top 40 hit with “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” which peaked at No. 11. But even in the early years the group was never discouraged, despite earning the nickname “The Hitless Temptations” among Motown staffers at the time.
“Luckily for us, Barry was of the mind to keep recording us until we got that number 1,” Williams said. “A lot of companies now, if you don’t have a hit right out, they’ll drop you real quick. It took us 8 to 9 singles until we got ‘The Way You Do the Things You Do,’ and then it was hit after hit after hit. But no, we would never think about braking up or stopping singing; we were a working group. Between working the various clubs and recording, there were a lot of things to focus on, keeping us continuing on.”
The group also faced segregation in the South, and often addressed racial tensions in their songs. Their trailblazing performances helped to open doors for other black artists throughout the ’60s.
“The ’60s were the most tumultuous decade within the last 100 years — from that, all kinds of ideologies were being born,” Williams said.
“We could just stay at home and see world leaders be assassinated on TV; you could stay at home and see the Vietnam War raging. . . . You could stay at home and see Dr. Martin Luther King trying to get civil liberties for us all. It was a crazy time, and we dealt with some of the prejudices, going to venues and seeing the audience roped off, blacks behind one rope, whites behind the other rope. Then we’d come back the next year and there’d be no rope at all, just blacks and whites sitting side-by-side enjoying the music, high-fiving one another.”