Soul survivors of Motown’s golden age
In the beginning there was the church. For Otis Williams, 80, the only surviving original member of the Temptations, the church was in Texas. “I’m a little country guy from Texarkana, Texas who used to run on gravel roads with a jumpsuit and hot cornbread in my hand, sometimes barefoot,” he recalled. But even before moving from Texas to Detroit (“I was, like, 11 or 12”), he had been steeped in gospel music: The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Soul Stirrers, Mahalia Jackson.
So did Duke Fakir, a Detroit native, six years his senior and the last of the original Four Tops. “All my family and all my cousins sang in church. We were in the choir, a little baby choir. And we sang at least two or three times a week. We were in this choir from the age of five until high school. In fact, it was my mother who pushed me to start trying to sing the solo. I told him that I never wanted and that I didn’t like the solos, that I liked the sound of the choir and the sound of the choir. But she said I had a nice voice and I should. And that’s how life really started for me in the music world.
Between them, as Motown entertainers, Williams and Fakir went on to sing on some of pop’s greatest records – songs you can still hear where the radios are on or at wedding receptions (well that neither was the main soloist of their respective bands). Time gave the world “My Girl”, “Get Ready”, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, “Daddy Was a Rollin’ Stone” and more. Four Tops singles included the incomparable “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, “Standing in the Shadows of Love”, “Bernadette” and “7-Rooms of darkness”.
Almost 60 years on from those halcyon days, the two are still working – both bands tour UK arenas together in September and October – and both have had hits spanning several decades. But their legends are based on those glorious songs from the 1960s. For each group, the breakthrough came when great writers presented them with a great track.
“When Smokey Robinson and Bob Rogers came up with ‘The Way You Do the Things You Do’, I thought that was silly,” Williams says. “When I was reading the lyrics, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a hokey thing – “You got such a bright smile / You know you could’ve been a candle.” “But I didn’t know that. It was a cold January night and Smokey called. Time was supposed to come to the studio, Motown-style. And as we walked, I had a very special feeling. At that time , it was David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin and myself. And it was like something said, ‘Oh, these are the guys who are going to go down in history.’ Once we started doing it [live]and I saw the reaction of the crowd, I said, “Wow, Smokey is a bad young man to come up with stuff that didn’t make sense but made sense.”
The Tops had been touring the country for years — playing supper clubs, Borscht Belt hotels, the Chitlin’ circuit of black-only venues — before Berry Gordy signed them to Motown. At first they tried to record standards, but Gordy put those tracks aside, wanting something suitable for the R&B market. “We were disappointed,” says Fakir. “And we let him know. He said, ‘Well, don’t leave me. I have something to show you guys. There are three screenwriters, Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and I’m sure they can bring you something really good. I think they can make hits for you.
That first song was “Baby I Need Your Loving”, featuring the incredible vocals of Levi Stubbs. “Eddie Holland and Levi were in the engineering room, working on the melody. We went there after we finished learning the song, we said we were ready,” Fakir explains. “And we saw Levi, he was looking at the paper with the lyrics on it. And he said, ‘Eddie, give me a piece of paper and a pen.’ ‘Why?’ ‘I need to write these words.’ Eddie says, “The words are right there, right in front of you. Levi says, ‘No, no, I have to write them down so I can feel those words.’
“And once Levi did that, he started singing like crazy. And that was the start of a wonderful, wonderful relationship with three of the greatest writers of the day. They were like tailors, you know. With The Four Tops, they knew how to write. With the Vandellas, they wrote certain types of songs for themselves. With The Supremes, totally different genres of songs. They made them to order.
While The Tops remains associated with Holland-Dozier-Holland, The Time enters the orbit of another brilliant writer-producer, Norman Whitfield. “Smoke is known as a lyricist and melodic,” Williams says of Robinson. “Norman was punching you in the face with this raw energy, the funky bits. It worked really well because it gave us balance in how we played, with ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’, ‘Ball of Confusion’, ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’, ‘I Can’ t Get Next to you’. So he and Barrett Strong were producing great songs. We had an eight or nine year run with Norman and Barrett. So it was great to be associated with such wonderful producers and songwriters.
Motown’s early optimism hinged on the prosperity of Detroit’s auto industry (“It was the only place you could get equal pay, no matter what color you were,” Fakir says). But below the surface, resentments were brewing in the city’s black population, culminating in the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, in which 43 people were killed, 1,189 injured and 7,231 arrested.
“It was a hell of a night,” Williams said. “That night I started going to this famous club called the Chit Chat Lounge. But something said, ‘Otis, you better go home.’ So I went to my apartment. As soon as I got home, everything erupted on 12th street. I had never heard a .50 caliber machine gun fire. Hearing a .50 caliber machine gun outside my apartment, it was really a thunder. And after they opened up the city for us to travel, the first place I wanted to go, to see if it still held up, was Motown Records. They didn’t touch Motown , during everything that was going on. It was like a divine hand to say you can destroy everything but Motown.
By the mid-1970s, the golden age had passed for both bands, but the work never dried up and the hits still came in from time to time (The Temptations, in fact, released a new album more early this year, Temptations 60). And here, Williams and Fakir are, at a combined age of 166, still going strong, still singing the songs that make you want to hug someone and never let go.
“We live in a world that seems so chaotic: all kinds of craziness is happening,” Williams says. “And if we can bring any kind of happiness and fun, and hopefully let them forget that, let’s try to find as much fun as we can in this world that’s gone crazy.”
The tour begins September 30 at Manchester AO Arena and ends October 11 at London O2 Arena