Published On: Wed, May 24th, 2023
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The Temptations’ Otis Williams says racism ‘still there’ as he opens up on discrimination | Music | Entertainment

The Temptations' Otis Williams

The Temptations’ Otis Williams (Image: GETTY)

At the height of his fame in The Temptations, Otis Williams found himself on the receiving end of horrific racist abuse and was once even shot at. Even 60 years on, the US singer reveals prejudice and discrimination still raise their ugly heads.

Otis, who found fame with hits including My Girl, Papa was a Rollin’ Stone and Just My Imagination, is the last surviving member of the original Motown legends and is still touring with the group in his early 80s. But away from the bright lights of the stage, not everyone is pleased to see him in town.

“I still witness racism,” Otis says frankly. “It’s probably a little more modified now; it’s not as prevalent as it was back during that time, but it’s still there. The Temptations were in Atlanta, Georgia, last year and we were shopping and this guy looked at what I was wearing and he made a racist comment.”

There was almost an altercation which Otis thankfully defused.

READ MORE: Otis Williams says ‘the sky is the limit’ for Motown legends The Temptations

The Temptations in 1972

The Temptations in 1972 (Image: GETTY)

“We stopped it and after they found out who we were, they went: ‘Oh my God, The Temptations, can I take a picture?’ We were nice enough to do the picture. We’re in the 21st century, but some things just don’t change.”

The chart-topping group, founded by Otis in 1961, clocked up an incredible 14 number one hits, both in the UK and their native America, but their rise to fame coincided with racial segregation and civil unrest in the States.

“We were performing with other Motown acts and it was tough,” Otis recalls.

“When The Four Tops went on stage, the chaps in my group were on both sides of the stage, so if anybody jumped up at the Tops it was going to be craziness. And the Tops took the same form when we were on.

“When we finished the show, we got on our bus and these white guys came by shooting guns at us. Thank God, none of us was hit. I was scared.

“You’re talking about people who have another purpose and a determination to stop you or take your life. One time we got off the tour bus to go into this restaurant and when they saw it was black people coming in, one of them said: ‘Oh, we don’t serve n*****s’ – they used the N word. We turned around and walked out.

“You still have people who think like that to this day. It might be a bit soothing when you think it’s not as bad as it was back then, but in some places it’s constant. You have people who raised their family with those kinds of ideologies.”

The Temptations (back) and the Supremes (fore), early 1968

The Temptations (back) and the Supremes (fore), early 1968 (Image: GETTY)

While Otis, who was born in Texas but grew up in Detroit from the age of ten, is at pains to stress that he is not political, he is a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and also backs the current campaign in the US for slavery reparations for black Americans.

The debate gathered speed following nationwide protests for racial justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police, and lawmakers are being urged to push through legislation entitling black citizens to payments of up to £280,000.

“I’m not political, but I think it would be more helpful than harmful – whatever rights can be done to correct a wrong that was done a long time ago,” Otis says carefully.

“Black Lives Matter, I truly believe in that. Here we are in the 21st century with a lot of craziness going on now like it was back in the 1960s. There’s still work to be done with race relations.”

In the early and mid-1960s, The Temptations were one of the biggest groups in the world, best-known for their slickly co-ordinated dance moves and unmistakable harmonies on hits from Get Ready to Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.

But by the late 60s they had branched out with more political songs including Message From A Black Man and Ball Of Confusion.

Willie Green, Otis Williams, Terry Weeks, Tony Grant, and Ron Tyson

Willie Green, Otis Williams, Terry Weeks, Tony Grant, and Ron Tyson (Image: GETTY)

“The 60s were the most tumultuous decade in the last 100 years, but the music that came out of Motown helped break down barriers,” Otis explains.

“In 1965 we played Charlotte, South Carolina. When we got there, there was a rope down the centre of the auditorium – blacks on one side, whites on the other. We said: ‘You got to be kidding.’

“Music is such a powerful force. You think no-one can build bridges other than politicians, but music is the best way to bring people together.”

Within the group, though, music was not always enough to heal conflict and over the years several singers were fired and replaced.

There were drugs and alcohol issues, suicide and several members of the original line-up passed away at a young age.

A new West End show, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, retells the group’s remarkable journey from the streets of Detroit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The award-winning Broadway show transferred to London earlier this year and has proved such a hit that booking has now been extended to January next year.

Otis says: “I can’t find the words to express how shocked I am to have a show telling my life story. For a little country boy from Texas to be able to rise to such heights – I still pinch myself.”

Over the years there have been 27 different singers in The Temptations. As the owner of the rights to the Temptations name, Otis continues to perform with them. But now he’s 81 years old, those energetic signature dance moves aren’t as easy as they used to be.

“I was chatting to a fan about it recently and he said people would not accept The Temptations coming out on stage and just standing and singing, so we are branded with it,” Otis smiles. “It’s such a mainstay of The Temptations, we’re going to continue with it. The choreography goes hand in hand with what we do.

“I can still do all the dances. But 81 is not 21, so when I’m not on stage I need to rest as much as possible. At 21, I’d be able to party all day – hanging out, or doing a whole lot of crazy stuff – and still be full of vim and vigour.

“Now when we’ve finished a show, I don’t do anything; I try to rest my body. I come to my room and read or look at the TV.”

Away from the stage, Otis has experienced heartache. His first two marriages broke down and his construction worker son Lamont died in a workplace accident in 1985. Perhaps not surprisingly, music was his salvation.

“I was grieving because I lost my son, but when I got up on stage, I realised I was bringing people happiness, so whatever sorrow I had within me, I let it transfer out into that audience having a wonderful time and enjoying our music,” he explains. “I’ve always taken negativity and turned it into a positive.”

Happily married to third wife Arleata, Otis now lives in Los Angeles and has no plans to stop performing the hits that have provided the soundtrack to millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic.

“I’m real with myself. I know there’ll come a time when I have to do something else and have The Temps continue on without me, but right now I’m going to ride the hair off the horse,” he smiles.

“When I get off the horse, the horse is going to be bald. If you ride a horse until it’s bald, that’s a lot of riding. God ain’t through with me yet.”

  • Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is at the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End. Visit for more information.

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