For the past few weeks, I have had a fixation on a man, unfortunately long dead, who I barely knew existed - one of the original five Temptations, Paul Williams.
There were two catalysts for this - a miniseries on the group based on member Otis Williams' (no relation) autobiography, and a priceless dvd I haven't been able to return to Netflix called The Temptations: Get Ready (1965-1972).
When the original Tempts were alive and kicking, I rarely saw them perform on TV. Odd, because they did a lot of that sort of thing. Nonetheless, I had little awareness of who the actual members were and the magic that resulted when they worked together as a unit.
No more. Now when I listen to their songs I can picture faces and mannerisms and hear each distinctive voice and, having just bought the 5-CD box set The Temptations: Emperors of Soul, nirvana has set in. Somehow the experience is so much deeper because their level of performance was so utterly evolved. It makes all the difference.
It is to Paul Williams that a lot of that difference is owed. The original Temptations came about when two Detroit-based groups joined forces. Paul and Eddie Kendricks performed in the Primes, and Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin were in the Distants. David Ruffin was a later recruit, and it was after he joined that they started having big hits.
Paul had a singular talent for choreography and it was his influence, later expanded by Motown's house choreographer Cholly Atkins, that made the Temptations the glorious and polished performing group that they were. He is a joy to watch in every recorded performance that I have seen thus far. I refer you to his rollicking antics in The Way You Do the Things You Do (he's to Eddie Kendricks' right). Oh, to have been in that audience!
But Paul also was a lead singer, as they all were at various times, although that role was eclipsed to a large degree when Ruffin became the most well known front man, with Kendricks sharing a roughly similar amount of the spotlight. Paul's stunning performance of Don't Look Back on the Ed Sullivan Show, which I never saw at the time but is on the Get Ready dvd, stopped my heart. The song apparently has legions of followers, and I am now one of them.
Written by Smokey Robinson and fellow Miracle Ronald White, Don't Look Back was a B-side to My Baby but somehow broke out onto the R&B charts, which was unusual at the time. As delivered via Paul's smoky and nuanced baritone, the emotional message of the song has become an inspiration to me, amplified by having seen his performance (unfortunately no longer on youtube).
Paul Williams was a tormented soul with more personal and health problems than anyone should have to bear. He died at 34, either of a self-inflicted gunshot wound or one fired by someone else, depending on who you ask. Knowing the tragic backstory makes watching him having the time of his life in performance a bit of a balm. I guess I'm glad I wasn't aware of him when he died - it would have been heartbreaking.