For its first decade or so of existence, Detroit-based record company Motown was the American Dream in excelsis. Founder Berry Gordy nurtured his small, local business into a worldwide success. Gordy was smart, resourceful and hard-working. Most importantly, he knew white kids could dig R&B just as much as the black kids. The label’s slogan, “The Sound of Young America,” was not chosen lightly.
Berry adopted an assembly line approach to preparing his groups. Acts were coached on how to speak and move. Choreographers fashioned their stage moves. Motown’s songwriting staff provided the material. And Motown’s house band provided the instrumentation.
The Temptations stuck to this model and scored hit after hit through the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The group’s story and music will come alive in Morsani Hall when Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations is presented May 2-7.
Even with the departure of both primary lead singers – David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks – the Temptations continued scoring hits, including their fourth and final No. 1 single, 1972’s “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
Motown, though, was changing in ways that didn’t help the Temptations. Gordy relocated the company from Detroit to Los Angeles, a move that didn’t sit well with many of Motown’s acts. Gordy’s preoccupation with Motown’s fledgling film division moved his focus away from music.
Motown acts such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder insisted on taking control of their recordings, writing or choosing the material themselves, and began crafting now-classic albums such as What’s Going On and Innervisions, respectively.
The Motown assembly line that the Tempts were part of was no more. The group, with only Otis Williams left from the original quintet, continued making new music, but their bread and butter, and the lion’s share of their concert setlists, were hits from their glory days.
Nostalgia may not be the most artistically-fulfilling route to take, but it keeps the audience happy (and it sells tickets). And Williams still leads the group, which continues to tour and which released a new album, Temptations 60, in 2022.
The Temptations’ current lineup with original member Otis Williams (center).
Bio-musicals tend to feature performers who have passed or retired, or at least slowed down to a near stop. Surely some of the appeal of TINA: The Tina Turner Musical is that Turner has retired from touring.
There’s a sense of that with Ain’t Too Proud as it recreates the group’s prime with actor-singers assuming the roles of the original five (all deceased save for Williams).
Ain’t Too Proud is a must-see for fans of the Temptations, Motown or just great music.
But if the chance arises, go see the still-active Temptations. Both the musical and the current lineup are part of the group’s legacy. And despite the title, Otis Williams and Co. are too proud to let that legacy die.