If there is anyone in the music business to consult about the changing face of R&B, it’s Otis Williams. Born in Texas in 1941, he would go on to be a founding member of The Temptations, the vocal group that defined sixties American music with hits like ‘My Girl’ and ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’.
The group began performing in a difficult time for black artists in the US, but their career took hold as the first motions of the civil rights movement were tentatively beginning to build momentum and the group speedily rose to become one of the best-selling vocal groups of all time.
Otis is the last founding member of the group to continue performing today, and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ask him for some musical wisdom, all bestowed in that inimitable Detroit drawl.
When asked about what he thought were the issues that R&B artists had to handle today, his immediate response was of no surprise:
“I do not denigrate any of the artists that have aspirations of making it today…but I’m just saying that they don’t have to face what we faced during the sixties and the early seventies.”
Their career, spanning over 50 years, has seen the US move from a segregated and racist society to one in which an African-American has made it to presidency, and Otis describes it movingly:
“We used to have to perform in a place in South Carolina that had a rope right down the centre of the auditorium, blacks on one side and whites on the other side. When we came back to the same place the next year the rope was gone and blacks and whites were sitting side by side enjoying it. If it wasn’t for that we were sweating so bad you would have seen the tears in our eyes…so, you know, it’s a whole other energy thing going on.’’
So, what’s the business like today?
“Now they got the record deals and they make the hit, and how to make that money and keep that money…because you see we’ve had to break down a lot of barriers for artists today to come along and make money quick.’
Here is modern music’s fatal flaw; the groups that managements forge and pump out aimlessly into the stratosphere, the focus groups called in to discuss band names and song titles.Where’s the hard graft and the naturalism of spotty teenagers forming groups in their attics and growing together as they find success? This might speak more for rock music than R&B but R&B, hip hop and rap have all seen the same synthetic prolapse. Female artists get plastic surgery, male artists get toned, and everyone sings about money and sex. It’s a distant cry from the honest reality of Motown love songs. Think about The Temptations’ ‘My Girl’, or Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’…it’s another world away.
Otis has long been credited as The Temptations’ businessman, so I had to ask him whether it’s important as an artist to have a good mind for business.
“Oh, absolutely, because you see the money is greener now. You see back during the day the companies, you know, were telling us nothing. Now I tell artists, anybody, you write a song? Well, when you gonna publish it? Cause that’s where the money’s made in the copywrighting and publishing of the song. That was unheard of back during the 50s and 60s.”
It’s surprising that nowadays songwriters are still relatively unknown; people only tend to know whose behind the writing of the song if they have a special interest in the business, or if it was the artist themselves. However, Otis is right to bring up songwriting since it is now, more than ever, a ploy to grab more attention and make more money. Miley Cyrus controversially demanded a ‘ratchet sound’ from her songwriting team for her latest album Bangerz, proving that pop music, the most populist of genres, is really getting screwed over by artists and their songwriting teams that are willing to do anything to get a bigger fan base. In this same vein I asked Otis about his thoughts on choreography today, since The Temptations are well-known for their smooth, sharp yet understated moves (and, pointedly, no twerking necessary). He ended up saying a lot more about how an artist in fact should not only dance but carry themselves.
“We were surrounded by guys instilling in us about how to carry ourselves as a consummate performer, and how to always be ingratiating to our fans and be in it for our vocation not our advocation…we came along at a right point in time because we had to go to school for it, you know.
“Motown had artist development and from ten in the morning to five or six in the evening we went to school learning about show business. It’s almost unheard for artists to think on those lines today. To them, it’s almost like that’s too much.”
However, not all artists are like this. There is one that has to come to mind – is it by any chance a ‘Crazy in Love’ lady who has managed to both have a baby and work on a huge visual album in the space of two years?
“I’ll tell you the one that I admire and respect to the utmost and that’s Beyoncé. As young as she is, she’s old school and I admire and respect her for her success. So when I hear people trying to talk about her, I have to walk away, because I get mad when you start talking bad about Beyoncé . She’s a marvelous, talented person but she’s old school, she work s***, she don’t take that stuff for granted. I admire that about her. She’s the one that comes to my mind, first of all, over any other young artist today. Beyoncé is a bad young lady.”
I tell him that they don’t quite make them like him anymore (other than, of course, Beyoncé) and the response was a bashful:
As Otis said himself, “I’m still in the business. It’s not like I’m once removed and I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m still out there.” The Temptations’ success lies in their hard work and their respect for their fans and their business alike. They are playing the Newcastle Metro Radio Arena on the 27th March and I urge anyone to go if they want an insight into the golden age of Motown; one that has passed, but one that might see glory again in its modern day rhythm and blues manifestations.
Photograph: The Publicity Connection