Successful tips for navigating life on the road? Otis Williams has plenty. As the last surviving original member of Motown supergroup the Temptations, Williams has been touring for most of his life. Rock stars may be known to party, but at 81, Williams knows better.
“When we finish performing, I go to my room,” he says. “You gotta get that rest, you cannot burn the wick at both ends.”
Williams grins from his Zoom box while the three men joining him on the video call nod their heads in agreement, laughing. The person laughing the hardest is actor Marcus Paul James, who plays Williams in the touring version of the musical “Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which is running at the Ahmanson through Jan. 1.
Joining them in the fun is the Temptations’ longtime manager, Shelly Berger, and actor Reed Campbell, who plays Berger in the show. The friends have gathered to chat about what it’s been like taking the successful jukebox musical on the road. Williams and Campbell have quite a bit to say about the surreal and blessed experience of seeing large chunks of their history come to life onstage — along with James and Campbell on the weighty responsibility of inhabiting the stories of living legends.
“We’re telling a story about one man, but one man and a very big legacy,” says James, who in his role as Williams narrates the action in the musical, which was written by playwright Dominique Morisseau based on Williams’ 1988 memoir.
“Ain’t Too Proud,” which traces the origins of one of soul’s biggest success stories, was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, including best musical, when it opened on Broadway in 2019. It won for choreography, honoring Sergio Trujillo’s extraordinary work of actualizing the Temptations’ silky-smooth moves and stylishly synchronized swagger.
After a COVID-necessitated delay, the U.S. tour kicked off almost a year ago — with James and Campbell along for the ride. Williams and Berger have been there in spirit — if not in person — every step of the way.
James says he makes sure he has dinner with Williams as much as possible, in order to make sure that he’s fully understanding the events he’s tasked with dramatizing.
“We have the script, and the script is the story, but we just want to corroborate things,” James says. “As theatrical as it might seem, did that really happen?”
James affects a pitch-perfect impression of Williams’ baritone voice as he describes Williams’ usual response to that question: “Yeah, and there was more.”
The “more” of these stories is always the best part, say both James and Campbell. The tidbits that only Williams and Berger can tell — gathering threads of memories from the vivid tapestry of their extraordinary lives.
Like the time the Temptations sold out the L.A. Forum in the late ’60s, and there were so many fans crowding the stage that the group had to think fast about how to escape after the show. Williams says they didn’t finish their last song, instead running off in different directions. Williams hit a fence and leaped over it, encouraging Eddie Kendricks to do the same. Kendricks did his best to clear the fence, but a fan grabbed him by the seat of his pants.
“He came into the dressing room half naked,” Williams recalls. “And we busted out laughing.”
Berger remembers the Forum show for his own, distinct reason. When the Forum opened, the Supremes were the first act to sell out the venue, he says, adding that he also managed that group. The Temptations were set to play shortly after that, and Berger racked his brain for a way to make the Temptations show extra special.
On the day of the show, he asked the promoter if an extra row of seats was anywhere to be found. He was told that there was a row of six seats sitting around.
“And I said, ‘Could you do me a favor? Could you put those six seats on sale? I don’t care where you put the row, but put the six seats on sale,’ which they did,” Berger says. “So consequently the Temptations broke the Supremes’ record in selling out the Forum.”
The soundtrack to these anecdotes is the cherry on top — the dozens of chart-topping hits that generations of fans have learned by heart over more than 60 years. “My Girl,” “Cloud Nine,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and more.
Campbell recalls singing “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” as a little boy. He says he was always drawn to the drums at the beginning of the song — the way they crash in before settling on the cymbals, and the vocal kicks in, “I know you wanna leave me, but I refuse to let you go …”
“That is so iconic, and the one that 8-year-old Reed was trying to sing on cassette tape and do all the parts,” says Campbell, a shy smile spreading on his face. “The beginning of that song will forever put me in my living room pressing on the tape, trying to get the sound right and the rhythm right.”
Williams has a soft spot in his heart for “My Girl,” recalling how co-writer and producer Smokey Robinson introduced the song to the Temptations and how under their craftsmanship, and with the addition of the strings and horns, it became an instant classic. So much so that when the group played the Apollo shortly after the song’s release, they got telegrams of congratulations for having a No. 1 record from the Beatles, the Supremes and Motown Records founder Berry Gordy.
James loves “My Girl” too, adding that even though he’s probably sung the song thousands of times, it remains fresh. Berger holds a special place in his heart for Paul Williams’ rendition of “For Once in My Life,” adding that the song figures prominently in the musical.
“My heart just fills up with love and pain because I can hear Paul singing that song,” says Berger of hearing it performed in the show.
Williams and Berger will never be casual viewers of “Ain’t Too Proud.” The show will always fill them with pride and joy — and a certain giddiness.
“I’m like a little kid in amazement,” says Williams of having a musical made about his life. “You could’ve tipped me over with a feather before I believed this.”
‘Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations’
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 19; no Dec. 25 performance. Ends Jan. 1. (Call for exceptions.)
Tickets: $40-$189 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, including one intermission
COVID protocol: Masks are strongly recommended.