As Temptations announce 60th anniversary album, Otis Williams is energized, nostalgic

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When it came time to pick a closing track for the Temptations’ 60th anniversary album, Otis Williams reached back. Way back.

Williams, the iconic Motown group’s lone surviving original member, decided to dust off and remake the 1960 song “Come On” — the very first release by the baritone singer and his proto-Tempts group the Distants.

And so the wide-ranging album “Temptations 60,” due Jan. 28, will close with a poignant shot of throwback doo-wop soul as Williams and his latest Temptations lineup mark six decades of music from one of the preeminent vocal groups in the history of popular music.

As Temptations announce 60th anniversary album, Otis Williams is energized, nostalgic

For Williams, the diamond-anniversary project has been invigorating and sentimental — a chance to look back on a musical life of shared triumphs and personal tragedies, of groundbreaking artistry and career perseverance, and a story forged all those years ago in Detroit.

It’s a journey, he says, that often has seemed “guided from above.”

“All we ever wanted to do was sing — get a successful group, have fun, sing to the ladies, all that,” Williams said. “But we never had any inkling we’d still be doing it 60 years later, even with all the guys that have been in the group and helped us make those transitions. The world has still accepted and loved this group in spite of ourselves. So I’m sitting back and reflecting on that. This has been an amazing ride, and I’m enjoying it to the max.”

As Temptations announce 60th anniversary album, Otis Williams is energized, nostalgic

The new album, formally announced Friday by Universal Music after months of teasers, is the cornerstone of a yearlong 60th anniversary campaign unveiled by the Temptations in the spring. The hoopla includes a three-part video series rolling out this month, and the Tempts — Williams, Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks, Willie Greene Jr. and Mario Corbino — have resumed touring after a year-plus pandemic layoff, the longest performance break in the group’s history.

“Ain’t Too Proud,” the hit musical based on Williams’ memoir, resumed its Broadway run this fall, and the show’s touring company is also back on the road, with scheduled dates to include an August stop at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre.

The 12-track “Temptations 60,” living up to its title, was designed as a musical retrospective, covering assorted bases from the group’s artistic journey: There are love songs, socially conscious numbers, some funky stuff, some jazzy stuff. Old pal Smokey Robinson, whose early songwriting work for the Tempts included classics such as “My Girl,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “Get Ready,” steps in with the ’60s-flavored “Is It Gonna Be Yes or No,” which also features him on guest vocals.

“A lot of planning and energy went into making sure this was a staple kind of album,” Williams said.

There’s plenty of nostalgia. “When We Were Kings,” the first track recorded for the project, kicks off with a drum lick that sounds straight off a Funk Brothers Motown session circa ’65. (It’s in fact performed by producer Narada Michael Walden.) The song is a tribute to the Tempts’ Classic Five era — the lineup of Williams, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams and Melvin Davis that stormed radio airwaves, television screens and concert stages in the 1960s.

“We were trying to recapture the Classic Five, trying to come close to what we were doing 60 years ago,” Williams said. “Once we got that in motion, all the pieces (for the album) started coming together.”

As Temptations announce 60th anniversary album, Otis Williams is energized, nostalgic

“Temptations 60” will open with what Williams calls “a surprise attack” — a dose of lean hip-hop-jazz titled “Let it Reign,” featuring New York rapper K. Sparks. It’s the second Temptations recording to feature a rap segment, following the group’s 1991 remake of “Get Ready” with MC Misa.

“Most of the time with a Tempts album, either we’re going to start off with a luscious ballad or something funky. I decided no: We’re going to open with what I call rap-jazz,” Williams said, humming the song’s opening horn melody. “It’s that old jazz I used to listen to growing up in Detroit.”

And then there’s “Time for the People,” a stormy social-justice song cowritten by Tempts tenor Ron Tyson and harking back to message music like “Ball of Confusion” and “Cloud Nine.”

“We’re living in those turbulent times again, so it was really suitable,” Williams said. “We’ve been a controversial group with those kind of songs throughout our history, so it works right in. We just wanted everybody to know we’ve still got the magic touch as far as that goes, and then we can turn right around and go into the sweet ballads, the midtempos, the wash-under-your-arm kind of funk.”

As the album’s executive producer, Williams says he was pulled “six ways to Sunday” as the record came together this spring: “Ask Otis! Tell Otis! When will Otis be here?”

“It was such a mental and emotional thing because this is our 60th anniversary album,” he said. “There was a lot of concentrated effort that went into doing it, and it left me drained. When I was finished, I got back to my house and almost dropped to my knees.”

“Come On” — the old 1960 song redone by the Tempts for the new album — is especially meaningful for Williams. He opens the track with a spoken-word segment recounting the Temptations’ beginnings, including a 1960 record-hop at Detroit’s St. Stephens Community Center where he met Gordy for the first time.

“Man, I like that record you guys have out,” he recalls the young Motown boss saying. “Come see me. I’m starting my label.”

As Temptations announce 60th anniversary album, Otis Williams is energized, nostalgic

Sixty years later, Williams is proud of his work’s impact, moved that his group’s music has resonated through time. He cites the periodic stories he hears from fans telling him of dying loved ones who asked that a Temptations album be placed with them in their resting places.

“When you hear that, it gives you another kind of perspective,” Williams said. “Like, wow. I never would have imagined something like that all because we wanted to sing.”

However any future albums may or may not pan out, the Temptations founder has no intention of slowing down.

“They’re still turning out to see us. I’ve been told the music Motown made will last forever. And sure enough, when we go out there and start singing those songs the world has come to know and love, they’re standing up and singing right along with us,” he said. “So this is a heck of a journey, still.”

Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or bmccollum@freepress.com.

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