“I’m like a little boy waking up on Christmas,” says Williams, 81, in a video call shortly before the musical opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles where it runs through Jan. 1. “It’s a wonderful feeling.
“Like I always tell people, I’m a little country boy from Texarkana, Texas, running down the gravel roads with hot-water cornbread in my hand, and coveralls on, barefooted,” he says. “To come from that to where I am now and the way I live now, that’s a quantum leap.
Williams was joined on the call by Shelly Berger, who in 1966 was asked to manage the Temptations by Motown founder Berry Gordy, and has done so ever since, helping Williams navigate the departures and arrivals of subsequent members of the group, which still performs on stage today.
“Ain’t Too Proud,” though, doesn’t include Williams or any of the other current Temptations. Actors play the roles of real-life characters including Berger and Williams, as well as the Temptations and the Supremes, in a show that packs a few dozen classic Motown hits into its run time.
The musical originated at the Berkeley Rep in 2017 and played the Ahmanson in 2018 before arriving on Broadway, where it opened in 2019 and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards including best musical.
“It’s not surprising at all that the play is running the way it is running,” says Berger, 84, like Williams, a Los Angeles resident. “The same way it is not surprising that 61 years later the Temptations are running the same way they were in all those years before.
“Great is great,” he says. “Audiences love the story and love the music. So I would be surprised if it wasn’t doing great, to be frank.”
Living the dream
“Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” is based on Williams’ memoir, and tells the story of the group’s journey from the March 1961 audition that led Gordy to sign the five singers to Motown, through the highs and lows of the years that followed.
The classic lineup of the group — originals Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams, with David Ruffin who joined a few years later — have the spotlight in the show, performing hits including “My Girl,” “I Can’t Get Next To You,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” and, of course, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”
“And to be part of something that will produce so many wonderful hits, so many wonderful artists, that was no happenstance,” he says. “That came long because at that time the world, but especially America, we needed that, those songs, to help get free of some of the craziness that was going on.
“You could have tipped me over with a feather before I believed all that would happen,” Williams says of his life as a Temptation. “I’m just happy that God chose Detroit, and me coming from Texarkana, Texas, to be there with the Classic Temps, David, Eddie, Paul and Melvin, who made such, I would like to think, profound history in the music that we made.”
To Berger, there’s never been another group like the Temps, as the group informally is known.
“If you were doing a movie about the Temptations and you went to Central Casting and said, “OK, give me five guys who are great looking, who are 6 feet tall or more, who can sing better than anybody, who can dance better than anybody, that’s what I want to be a group called the Temptations,” he says.
“Well, that’s who they are,” Berger says. “They are something that you couldn’t dream up.”
A wake-up call
In the earliest years, the Temptations were managed by Berry Gordy’s sister Esther Gordy, Williams says. Around 1966, though, the Motown head asked Berger to take over management of both the Temptations and the Supremes.
The two men built a relationship based on “trust, love and understanding,” Williams says.
“Sometimes that’s hard to do in business, because it can get kind of murky,” he says. “But we’ve been able to keep the water clear enough so where you can see the bottom.”
Berger had the vision to take the Temptations off the road playing one-nighters in the informal collection of venues in the South and Midwest known as the Chitlin’ Circuit and into bigger venues for longer residencies, Williams says.
“Oh yeah, we had a black belt in doing the Chitlin’ Circuit,” he says. “But he took us out of that to the Copacabanas, the Aladdin casino, the Las Vegas. Shelly paved the way for us to be able to go into those, as we referred to them, smart rooms.”
Berger says he’s always felt fortunate to have made the relationships that Motown provided.
“Otis Williams and Berry Gordy are the two closest people to me in my life,” he says. “Closer in a way than my children or my grandchildren.
“I mean, I speak to Otis every single morning,” Berger says. “When I wake up and he wakes up, we talk. To know that we both woke up, and, you know, we got another shot.”
The power of Temptation
At least 26 men have been Temptations over time with Williams the sole constant over the decades. And while the road’s not as easy as once it was, he doesn’t plan to stop performing any time soon.
“I have been with some of the singing-est brothers that God ever created and I’m the last man standing,” he says. “All those that have continued to believe in the Temps are why we’re still around.”
It’s the fans, and knowing that these songs mean things to them still, that makes him appreciate what he does, Williams says.
“We get a lot of fan mail,” he says. “So this one day I got some fan mail, it was from a daughter, and it says, ‘Otis, we love the Temptations. Would you please call my mother? She would love to speak to you.’”
Williams called, and the daughter asked him to wait a moment while she got the phone to her mother, who was gravely ill.
“The mother came on the phone and she said, ‘I asked God to don’t take me until I talk to Otis Williams,’” he says. “It caught me by surprise. I’m sitting on the edge of my bed, and she ran down what the Temps music meant to her during the course of her lifetime. I sat there, tears running down my eyes.
“And when she got through she said, ‘Now God, you can take me,’ and hung up,” Williams says. “I had never thought that I would get a phone call that powerful. That’s powerful stuff there.
“So that’s why we still do it,” he says. “Because we touch people. That’s kind of special.”
‘AIN’T TOO PROUD’
When: Dec. 13-Jan. 1
Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
How much: $40 to $160
What: Otis Williams and the Temptations have two Southern California concerts in January.
Jan. 13: The Canyon at the Saban Theatre, Beverly Hills
Jan. 14: Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, Indio
For more: For details on the shows and ticket information go to Temptationsofficial.com/tour