The world of legacy Soul, Rock and Pop musicians — sometimes called “oldies acts” — rarely overlaps with the cutting-edge of contemporary popular culture. These acts have their own circuit, their own show-biz niche, often appealing to nostalgic fans that want to thank them for the hit records of the past.
On one level, the Friday, July 26 show featuring The Temptations (and The Righteous Brothers) at PNC Pavilion fits the above description. The Temptations were an integral part of Detroit’s Motown Records at its zenith, when the label combined Soul music with Rock awareness to become “the sound of Young America.” From 1964 through 1973, the dynamic vocal group had an unstoppable string of now-classic hits — “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” “I Wish it Would Rain,” “Cloud Nine,” “Just My Imagination,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and many more. Their live shows also had exciting dance moves and stylish outfits.
But at the same time that the current Temptations — centered around 77-year-old baritone singer Otis Williams, the last surviving member of the original quintet — are on tour, a much younger version of the group is exciting Broadway theatergoers in the new, much-talked-about musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. Opening in March to immediate crowds, it went on to receive 12 Tony nominations (winning one for choreography) and be hailed as the best musical of its kind since Jersey Boys (about The Four Seasons). It will begin a 50-city national tour in July 2020.
The musical is based on Williams’ 1988 memoir Temptations, which tells the story of the group’s career — both triumphant and tragic — through his eyes and thoughts (Williams is played on Broadway by Derrick Baskin).
“I think the history we have is so rich, with not only having hit songs and great choreography but the things we have gone through,” Williams says. “When you sit and read about it, then you think it should be told on Broadway. Luckily for us, we were able to get the right producers… to really make it happen, and they got the right people together to make this Broadway play.”
Ain’t Too Proud also is about Detroit in the 1960s, when international success came to African-American-owned Motown and its sound but also when a 1967 riot devastated that great American city. As actor Baskin’s Otis Williams says in the musical, “Outside, the world was exploding. And inside, so were we.”
Williams today well remembers living through the 1967 Detroit rioting.
“You cannot help but realize and understand that at that point in time, it was just a hotbed of unrest, even though a lot of great music was coming out of Detroit by way of Motown,” he says. “It was rough to live through seeing our city being torn apart.”
Ain’t Too Proud has non-stop hits, and also a modernized version of the famously hip, jubilant Temptations-style dance choreography devised by the late choreographer Cholly Atkins. But it also has tragedy — the original group’s two primary lead singers, falsetto Eddie Kendricks and the deeper-voiced David Ruffin, left amid discontent and group division, and Ruffin later died from drug use. A third member of the original five, Paul Williams, committed suicide; the fourth, Melvin Franklin, was weakened by chronic illness before dying in 1995. (Kendricks died in 1992.)
Dennis Edwards, the singer brought in to replace Ruffin and share vocals with the others for the group’s “psychedelic Soul” string of rhythmically propulsive, lyrically provocative hits of 1968-1972 (“Cloud Nine,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”), died last year, having left the Williams-led Temptations earlier. He is also portrayed in the musical.
Before getting to Broadway, Ain’t Too Proud had residencies in several cities, starting with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California. That’s when Williams realized the story’s deep impact.
“During intermission in Berkeley, when we were just getting it into shape, a young lady came up to me and said, ‘How do you feel about having your life portrayed up there onstage?’ ” Williams says. “I said I was close to tears. She said it was the same thing for her. Every step along the way, people who saw it said, ‘Your story is just as strong as your music.’ ”
The road to Broadway for Ain’t Too Proud started in the mid-’80s, when Marilyn Ducksworth — an executive with G.P. Putnam’s Sons publishing — visited the group backstage in New York.
“She said, ‘I was sent here because we think you would make great copy,’ ” Williams says. “I said, ‘What’s great copy?’ She said, ‘We’d like to do a book about you and The Temptations.’ You could have tipped me over with a feather if I would have believed I would have this kind of rich history.”
After the book, which Williams wrote with Patricia Romanowski, came out, there was a 1998 NBC miniseries based on it. Williams long has wanted to see a Broadway musical, but had to wait until after Motown: The Musical, based on a memoir by label founder Berry Gordy, was produced in 2013.
Now, while Williams hopes for an Ain’t Too Proud movie, he’s still touring with his current Temptations. (To date, there have been a total of 26 members of the group.)
“We’re coming up on our 60th anniversary,” Williams says. “People say they want the Temptations to be around forever. I say, ‘If I’m 80, you still expect us to come out?’ They say, ‘Yes sir, we still love seeing you guys move.’ Wow, I never would have imagined I would be told that at 80 people would still want to see us out there doing those steps. It’s a wonderful way of being loved.”
The Temptations perform with The Righteous Brothers July 26 at Riverbend’s PNC Pavilion. Tickets/info: riverbend.org.