Early on, legendary Motown group The Temptations lacked a certain onstage sizzle.
“When we first got together, we’d just stand and sing,” recalled Otis Williams, the only surviving member of The Temptations’ original lineup.
It was bandmate Paul Williams who came up with the idea of dressing the singers in snazzy matching suits and teaching them a few dance moves, including the “Temptation Walk.”
Flashy outfits and skillful choreography remain hallmarks for The Temptations, along with a long string of memorable songs. Over the decades, they’ve recorded 18 No. 1 hit singles, sold tens of millions of albums, and received four Grammy Awards, including a 2012 lifetime achievement award.
On Valentine’s Day, The Temptations will bring their special brand of stagecraft to the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo. A local band, the Damon Castillo Trio, will open the concert, which is organized by the Rotary Club of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and benefits local youth organizations.
The right lineup
Otis Williams, who lives in Woodland Hills, has served as the leader of The Temptations since the start — a position he earned due to his punctuality.
“I never knew that being on time would bring such responsibilities,” the 72-year-old Detroit native said.
Williams created The Temptations in 1961 by bringing together members of two rival singing groups, The Primes and The Distants.
“We went through a lot of changes to find the right nucleus of guys,” he said, which originally consisted of Elbridge “Al” Bryant, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks and Otis and Paul Williams (no relation). David Ruffin replaced Bryant in January 1964.
Even with the right lineup, it took a few years before the Temptations scored their first major hit in 1964 with “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” which was co-written and produced by Smokey Robinson. It reached No. 11 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart.
“We wanted that hit coming out of the gate,” Otis Williams recalled, but he ultimately didn’t mind the delay.
Waiting, he explained, “just sharpens your appreciation (and) let’s you know that some things are earned.”
The Temptations’ next song, “My Girl,” set off a string of hits that included “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” “I Wish It Would Rain” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me).”
“I knew that when we finished recording ‘My Girl’ … it was going to be a hit,” Williams said. “When you have a song and it’s got great lyrics and beautiful melodies and great orchestration around it, the gut says ‘This is a hit,’ and the gut feeling is on point.”
As the musical tides shifted in the late ’60s and early ’70s, The Temptations moved from classic R&B tunes to songs with political and psychedelic elements, such as “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Psychedelic Shack.”
Williams said the group’s sound — which centers on a “growling bass, rich tenor soaring way up high and beautiful harmonies in the middle” — evolved naturally.
“We’ve always been the kind of group that can sing almost anything, no matter which way the business turns,” Williams said, from gospel songs to more progressive material. “Our strong suit is being able to adapt to whatever is necessary.”
Searching for dedication
The group’s lineup has proven especially adaptable, changing several times over the course of its history. The current incarnation of The Temptations includes Joe Herndon, Ron Tyson, Terry Weeks and Bruce Williamson.
When looking for new members, “You want to find guys who know The Temptations, guys … with the same dedication to carry on what was there before they got there,” said Williams, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with five other band members in 1989.
“I’m more concerned with heart more so than (with) talent,” he added. “If you get someone who’s not dedicated and focused, who doesn’t have that heart, then you negate what we’re trying to do.”
Williams plans to remain with The Temptations “as long as I have the health and strength and energy to do it,” he said.
Asked what keeps him going, Williams said it’s “seeing people light up when we come out on stage to sing all the hits they’ve come to know and love.”
“Our songs have become a blueprint (for) a lot of people’s lives,” he said. “It’s a great joy to know that our songs have touched so many hearts, and they’re still listened to today.”
IF YOU GO
8 p.m. Friday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$38 to $85
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.