Former Temptations lead singer Otis Williams is not as famous as some of the other stars minted by the legendary Motown supergroup, including David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, but he is the last living survivor. It is his 1988 book, "Temptations," that forms the basis of "Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations," the Broadway musical whose tour lands Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre.
Actor Marcus Paul James, who was an in-cast standby for seven principal roles in the Broadway production of "Ain't Too Proud," plays Williams on the road. We caught up with him by phone last week when the tour was playing Kansas City, and James shared why he looks up to Williams.
"We call him Uncle O, because he checks in with us about every two weeks," James said. "And he's full of wisdom and encouragement, like how to take care of yourself on tour. When he says that we have to focus on the work, that's the most important thing, we listen. That's 60 years of experience talking."
James also talked about why the Tempts are special, both then and now, and why the audience should not sit silent during the show. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: Have you met Mr. Williams?
A: Living legend, that's what we call him. And, yes, he's been a part of the process from the beginning.
Q: I read that he once was engaged to Patti LaBelle and that that was called off because he wanted her to stay home and be a housewife?
A: I actually don't know about that. I only know things that pertain to the show. We ask him so many questions and he's such an open book. I find it kind of shocking that someone with such a career and experience will sit down, listen to your questions and answer them wholeheartedly.
Q: The nation was going through tremendous turmoil and yet the Tempts were bringing people together with music of such beauty.
A: I think Dominique Morisseau, the book writer, said something that always resonates with me. Just our presence as Black people at all was an act of activism. The fact that these Motown artists, especially the Tempts, were always looking good, always eloquent, made a statement. [Motown Records founder] Berry Gordy did a wonderful thing in making sure that the product was top-notch.
Q: When I saw the Broadway production, I found that the music drove the whole thing, without breathing. Talk to me about the pacing.
A: Look, we would be there for days if we told the story of what happened word for word. When you think about the experience of Motown, no one worked alone. There was always another group of people — like the Supremes and behind them, the Four Tops. There was so much happening that just one day would be a play in itself.
Q: And yet this is a show about America, as well.
A: The Tempts were so big and yet their bus still got shot at in the South. Or they still had to walk to the back of the theater to go perform. The story is centered around Otis and his question, was it all worth it. We ride that line through to show the choices. These are the big things that changed the course of the group.
Q: The Tempts' experience in the South is captured in the play, and is pretty frightening?
A: We're in such a climate now where we're the most divided we've been in a long time. So, I feel that. To be fair, we haven't played Alabama yet or Texas. We played Atlanta, but it doesn't feel like the South. Again, the music is such a buffer of love and appreciation, I think it will still resonate. I even say a line in the play that is poignant. Otis says, "You never know who's hating you and singing along to your record." We all love this music. And that's what brings us all together.
Q: What's so special about the Tempts?
A: Why not the Tempts? Also, to be honest, you remember "Summer of Soul." Well, what got me was the explanation for why it took 50 years to see the light of day. When they shot it, no one was interested in Black stories like that. It was not as interesting as the moon landing or Woodstock. When I was doing the show and was offered the opportunity to play Otis around the country, it became an honor to tell this story because it has so long been not interesting to people. Being able to tell these Black stories, even in the past, is fascinating. And they were superstars. They were the NSYNCs of the '60s, spawning all these mega groups in the '90s. They laid the foundation for what music would become.
Otis said he's blessed to have sung with the group. The Temptations are still touring together because it's not about the individual, but the group.
Q: Generations of Americans owe their existence to this music?
A: Of course. My mother would stop everything she's doing when she hears Melvin [Franklin's] voice. She would go, "Ooh, is that Melvin?" I'm like, "Mom. MOMMM!"
Q: This show opened before COVID. Have you noticed anything different about how the show is received?
A: Pre- or post-, people connect with this music so deeply. It transcends sense to a degree. This is not a theater etiquette show. You sit down, put the Playbill in your lap and be quiet. No. I talk to you. I talk to the audience, and their response is important. And I'm allowed to snap and dance along. If you know a part of the song, sing a little — but not too loud. People react, ooh. They go, "Sing, David!"
'Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations'
Who: Music and lyrics by the Temptations. Book by Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Des McAnuff.
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 8 p.m. Fri., 2 & 8 p.m. Sat., 1 & 6:30 p.m. Sun. Ends July 10.
Tickets: $40-$139. 1-800-982-2787 or hennepintheatretrust.org.