Paul Williams, The Temptations’ Unsung Hero
Paul remained a lesser-known name than either David Ruffin or Eddie Kendricks, despite his great vocal presence and pivotal role in the rise of the classic five-piece line-up.
In many ways, Paul Williams was the Temptations’ unsung hero. He and Eddie Kendricks were their original lead singers, but when of the Motown group broke worldwide and became soul heroes with “My Girl” in 1964, it was David Ruffin’s voice that rang out.
Paul would remain a lesser-known name than either Ruffin or Kendricks, despite his great vocal presence and pivotal role in the rise of the classic five-piece line-up, alongside Melvin Franklin and the sole survivor in the modern-day Temptations, Otis (no relation) Williams. But Paul’s key place in the group is well represented by actor James Harkness in the widely acclaimed Broadway production Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations.
Williams was not a Detroit native. He was born on July 2, 1939 in Birmingham, Alabama, where he knew Kendricks from elementary school days, going on to form the Cavaliers with friend Kel Osbourne. They became the Primes, moving to Cleveland in search of work and then, as fate decreed, Detroit.
The Primes didn’t make it, and Osbourne went home, but after more personnel changes and an effective merger with the Distants (featuring Otis Williams, Franklin and others), they became the Temptations and signed to the young Motown label in 1961. When they released the spirited “Oh Mother Of Mine,” their first single on the Miracle subsidiary in July that year, Paul Williams shared lead vocal duties with Kendricks.
Indeed, Paul would be prominent on many early Tempts sides, including the terrific, doo-wop-flavoured follow-up 45 “Check Yourself” late in 1961 and, a year later, “Slow Down Heart,” their first track produced by Smokey Robinson, who also wrote it. The Temptations had made their R&B chart debut earlier in 1962 with the Top 30 entry “Dream Come True.” Listen too for Paul Williams’ confident lead on the group’s first Robinson-composed A-side, 1963’s “I Want A Love I Can See.”
Once Ruffin arrived to replace “Al” Bryant in the line-up in 1964, Williams would often play third fiddle, so to speak, behind him and Kendricks, who shared the (fully deserved) acclaim for many of the classics of the line-up’s vintage years. His starring roles were often on album tracks or B-sides, but they’re all fine performances, and he was also crucial to the group’s visuals, in choreographing many of their slick dance moves.
Try, for example, his lead on a lesser-heard but vital Tempts cut from 1965, “Don’t Look Back,” which was the b-side of “My Baby” but charted Top 20 R&B in its own right. The song went on to be covered by everyone from Bobby Womack to Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger, on a duet single.
What was hidden from public view was that Williams suffered from sickle-cell anaemia. He turned to alcohol as a way of dealing with the group’s relentless touring and recording schedule, and later in the 1960s also had serious financial problems. In 1971, with the Tempts apparently at the peak of their powers and producing one classic single after another, Williams’ health and unreliability eventually led him to leave on medical advice, after a doctor discovered a spot on his liver.
He remained in their close circle, especially as choreographer, and started to record solo material in early 1973. On August 17, that year, he was found dead in a Detroit alley, a gun close by the body. Williams’ death was ruled a suicide, although certain circumstances led some to suspect foul play. Either way, the title of one of his last recordings, “Feel Like Givin’ Up,” proved heartbreakingly prescient.
The story of Paul Williams is punctuated by tragedy, but his contribution to the legacy of the Emperors of Soul is indelible. As another prime example, his masterful lead vocal on the Temptations’ string-laden version of “For Once In My Life,” from the 1967 album In A Mellow Mood, sets the mood for his soulful eloquence.
Listen to uDiscover Music’s Paul Williams playlist.
August 17, 2014 at 5:05 pm
“Don’t Look Back” was the finale when I saw the Temps at UMass in the summer of 1967, and Paul did REALLY show his dance moves.
“Just Another Lonely Night” from the album “Temptin’ Temptations” told the story of lonely nights better than any song ever sung.
July 2, 2018 at 10:00 pm
August 17, 2014 at 5:10 pm
“Don’t Look Back ” was the extended finale when the Temps performed at UMass in the summer “Just Another Lonely Night” from the Temptin’ Temptations album told the story of lonely nights as well as any song that’s ever been sung.
August 17, 2014 at 8:33 pm
Probably the best and biggest wheel in that Great Temptations Wagon!!
August 17, 2014 at 8:51 pm
May his soul rest in peace!
August 18, 2014 at 3:31 am
Paul Williams was the cream of the Temptations. I sung his songs and loved listening to his voice and the feeling presented behind his tones and words. I am happy to know he is being remembered and honored as a great. The day he left this life I felt a part of my spirit touched with sadness and emptiness because Paul truly touched my mind just listening and watching him perform. RIP with harmony my dear special brother.
August 30, 2015 at 6:46 pm
Will they do a TV bio of Paul’s life on TV One’s Unsung? Would love to see it. He certainly deserves that at least. Gone but not forgotten.
August 31, 2017 at 12:45 am
I would love to see a unsung about Paul William sr.
September 24, 2017 at 11:49 pm
Thank you for that unsung little bit of his life story.
September 24, 2017 at 11:57 pm
CHECK out Richard Streets .Ball of Confusion of the temptation Story of them
September 25, 2017 at 7:53 pm
I loved Everything Paul Soulful from the ❤ heart voice touched it stirred my soul! Paul .Eddie touched My Inner Soul like no other!! I havent come a crooss another like them!!! David was a soul stirrer of my Soul. Melvin touched my guts with his Bass!! I love these guys still to this day!! Dennis Edwards just keep it coming i love your music!! You are all that i still want to hear Get well!!
Harold Copeland - Philly
October 6, 2017 at 3:44 am
Paul Willians was the heart and soul og the Temptin Temptations or Emperors of Soul.
He will ALWAYS be my all-time favorite Temptation. His version of ” For Once In My Life” cannot be touched by anyone – EVER.
R.I.P. My Favorite Temp!
December 26, 2017 at 6:24 am
Paul….. so young so beautiful….. a voice out of this world. The chronography was just Awesome! You mattered.! You were loved…. we miss you!! RIP
February 19, 2018 at 2:53 am
Paul and Eddie,were my favorite of the original Temps Eddie s false to was always so smooth,and effortless, and Paul had a soulful ,and intense quality iin his voice,there will never be another Eddie Kendrick, or Paul Williams may they both rest in peace. Incredibly blessed,
August 23, 2018 at 2:01 pm
Lovely piece on Paul – thank you. But please check the ‘Hey Girl’ selection on the playlist – which I think is Richard Street from Masterpiece. The other ‘Hey Girl’ from (I think) Cloud Nine is (I think) Paul, and is one of his very best.
August 30, 2018 at 10:39 am
Paul was the reason Motown signed them. Them brothers were some smooth cats. It was real singing back then. There weren’t any computers to make voices sound good back them. R.I.P. Paul, Eddie, David,Melvin and Dennis.