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'Cloud Nine' At 50: Otis Williams Reflects On The Temptations' "Experimental" Era
"Time flies when you’re having fun!" says Otis Williams.
The frontman and only original surviving member of The Temptations is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of the legendary Motown group's ninth album, Cloud Nine, on Feb. 17.
The album's title track earned the group — and Motown — their first GRAMMY Award, for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance by a Duo or Group, Vocal or Instrumental.
"It was a surprise,"" Williams recalls of the win. "Cloud Nine was a departure from the songs that we had been recording before, because the previous hit was 'Please Return Your Love to Me,' which is a beautiful ballad. So to come from ‘Please Return Your Love’ to psychedelic soul was a quantum leap."
Williams credits that "quantum leap" from balladry to psychedelic soul to being inspired in part by Sly and the Family Stone.
"The Temps were in New York City at the time,” he explains, "and Kenny Gamble of Gamble and Huff — he and I were good friends — we were talking one day in the hotel room and we heard Sly and the Family Stone with 'Dance to the Music.' And when they did that little breakdown and started doing that [hums breakdown], I said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty slick!'
"I went back to Detroit and I asked Norman Whitfield, who was our producer at the time, if he had heard Sly and the Family Stone and he said, ‘No, I haven’t heard.’ I said, ‘Well they have a sound I like, we should probably try that,’ because we were going from David Ruffin to Dennis Edwards. So we went out of town and came back to Detroit and Norman had recorded 'Cloud Nine,' and the rest is history."
With the lyrics, "Depressed and downhearted, I took to Cloud Nine/I'm doin' fine, up here on Cloud Nine," "Cloud Nine" the song has always invited comparisons to getting high, but Williams says it came from a sober place.
"It came about through Norman Whitfield and Barry Strong," he explains. "Cloud nine is a saying that’s been around for eons. Those guys, they didn't get high, they were just writing from what they felt and it turned out to be a great song. But cloud nine is something that’s been around a long time. And I guess that’s how it really came about, they just got together and decided to call the song ‘Cloud Nine’ and when they presented it to us we went into the studio and did the best we could do with it. But there’s no real origin other than the expression has been around a long time and they just turned it into a song of expression. You can think however you want to think about ‘Cloud Nine’ and getting high, but Norman Whitfield and Barry Strong didn’t do drugs.”
"Cloud Nine" grabbed the GRAMMY, but it was another song from the album that would truly impact the course of the group's career. While most of the 10 songs on Cloud Nine hover around the three-minute mark, "Runaway Child, Running Wild" came barreling out the gate at just over nine-and-a-half minutes.
"Back then, we and Norman were very experimental,” says Williams. "It wasn’t known for songs to be over three or four minutes to get any real air time, so there were times that Norman would have to shorten the songs so we could get some air time. But in the evening, when it was after six or seven, and disc jockeys had the freedom to play longer songs, thats’ what happened. But we were just very experimental and Norman got in the groove and he decided to ride the groove out with all those different inflections and the tracks that made the Cloud Nine album and the subsequent album very entertaining. Prior to Cloud Nine, our songs were to the point, three minutes, maybe three and a half minutes and that’s it. But in 1968 the format of radio started changing, they had ‘the Quiet Storm,’ where they could play beautiful music a lot longer, love songs a lot longer. It was a different change of airplay and the way radio was being received."
Half a century later, the group is as active as ever. Motown/UMe reissued Cloud Nine on color vinyl in October, and The Temptations are touring around the country for most of the year. Previews for the group’s musical, "Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations" begin February 28 on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre, and the show opens on March 21.
"I first saw it in the very embryonic stage when they were getting together in New York City and I just saw a small portion of it,” Williams says of the musical. "During the intermission, someone came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Williams, how do you feel looking at yourself up on that stage?’ I said, ‘I can’t even put it into words, it’s so interesting to see what we’ve gone through.’ She said, ‘I did not know that you all went through those kind of changes. I said, ‘Oh yes,’ and she said, ‘You have a hit on your hands. I’m going to tell you this, it’s going to be just as big as Hamilton, if not bigger.’ I said, ‘Well if we do anything close to what Hamilton did I will be happy as a cat covered up in caca,’ and she busted out laughing. So it looks like it’s going to go through the roof as far as being accepted and being appreciated because of the music.
“But, I must say, it is not only the music,” he continues. "Naturally, 'Can’t Get Next to You' and the 'Just My Imagination' and 'Ain't Too Proud to Beg' — yeah, the people want to hear those songs, but I find as I look at it and I look at it with objectivity, that the story is touching. Getting shot at on the bus down South, walking into a restaurant with a group of us and getting told, 'We don't serve n****** and we said, ‘Well we don’t eat them' and we had to turn around, walk out and find a place to eat. All that’s being portrayed in the play, so it’s the story as well as the music so it's the best of both worlds. Please check it out because it’s turning out to be something really special."
It's been 60 years since the birth of Motown and the lessons taught there have lasted artists a lifetime.
"Most of the Motown artists had to go to school to learn to be in show business,” he said. "Not for the hit record only, but being able to work and command big dollars whether we ever got another hit record or not. We tried to establish ourselves as performers to help the great music that we made. Like I always tell people, there will never ever, ever, ever — and I try not to use the word never because you never know in life — but i think I’m safe in using it. There will never ever, ever be another Motown Records, no company will ever be like Motown.
"I just love what we do,” he asserted. "Each year is a blessing to be able to be around 59 years later. You could have tipped me over with a feather before I would have believed that we would be around 59 years later."