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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Soul Singer Ben E. King

King began his career in the '50s with The Drifters, but it was the '61 hit "Stand by Me" that sealed his musical legacy. He spoke with Terry Gross in '88 about his career and his childhood in Harlem.


Other segments from the episode on August 29, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 29, 2017: Interview with Ronnie Spector; Interview with Ben E. King; Interview with Otis Williams.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're continuing our series marking our 30th anniversary as a daily NPR program with a retrospective collecting some of our favorite interviews from our first two years. Let's start today with my 1987 interview with Ronnie Spector in the early '60s. She was the lead singer of The Ronettes, perhaps the greatest girl group of the era, with records like, "Baby I Love You" and "Walking In The Rain."

Their first big hit, "Be My Baby," was later used in the opening scene of Martin Scorsese's film "Mean Streets." A few years after "Be My Baby" rose to the top of the charts, Ronnie married her record producer, Phil Spector. At his insistence, she retired from the music business. After they divorced in the early '70s, Ronnie Spector started to record and perform again. She had a new album when I spoke with her. We started with this 1963 classic.


THE RONETTES: (Singing) The night we met, I knew I needed you so. And if I had the chance, I'd never let you go. So won't you say you love me? I'll make you so proud of me. We'll make 'em turn their heads every place we go. So won't you please be my, be my little baby? Say you'll be my darling. Be my, be my baby. Be my baby now. I'll make you happy, baby, just wait and see.


GROSS: Ronnie Spector, welcome to FRESH AIR.

RONNIE SPECTOR: I'm glad to be here, Terry.

GROSS: How did you first hear this song? Did the songwriter sing it for you before you performed it the first time?

SPECTOR: Well, the first time I heard it, you know, Phil and those - you know, were - and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, we met in a little studio, and they started writing around me and I guess I was very - I was 16 years old and very shy. And I liked Phil at the time and he liked me. I think they wrote it all around that. You know, our - the love affair at the beginning. I think it was all a part of that, the lyrics and stuff.

GROSS: Do you remember the recording session?

SPECTOR: Like it was yesterday (laughter).

GROSS: What was it like?

SPECTOR: It was - it was incredible because there I was in California, recording, and I'd never left New York. I'd never been out of New York in my whole life. And there I am on a plane going to California by myself, without the other two Ronettes, just to do a lead part. And I mean, I remember being in the ladies' room at the New York airport just singing in the bathroom, (singing) be my 'cause I don't read music or anything, and I don't play any instruments. So it was like you had to just learn it over and over.

And then Phil asked me to come to California and do it at Gold Star Studios, and that's where we recorded it - just a record that I remember that day being in the studio. I remember what color dress I was wearing. I remember everything.

GROSS: Now, as we'll hear, one of the things you do on this record is your famous - I can't - I can't even imitate this. But your...

SPECTOR: (Singing) Whoa, oh.

GROSS: Yeah, your famous woah, oh, oh (laughter)...


GROSS: ...Which you do a lot in "Be My Baby" and in a lot of your early records. How did you come up with that? Was that something you just started singing?

SPECTOR: No, it was like Frankie Lymon used to sing, (singing) why do birds sing so gay? And why do lovers await the break of day? Why do they fall in love?

And so I sort of got it from him, and it was like my own little (singing) oh, oh's came out.

You know? I think it was like, I was 3 years old. I was singing this song. What was it called? I can't even remember. But it was, like, one of those yodeling songs for my family. And I think it's just something that I started and it stuck. The (singing) oh, oh. Oh, oh, oh, oh. Oh.

As a matter of fact, when I did the Eddie Money song "Take Me Home Tonight," I did the ho-oh's without any music, anything, and then they added that to the track (laughter).

GROSS: Can we talk about some of those old memories about how you started to sing? You formed The Ronettes with two of your cousins when you were all teenagers.

SPECTOR: No, a sister and a cousin.

GROSS: A sister and a cousin. OK. And how did you learn to sing harmonies?

SPECTOR: Actually it was, like, a bunch of cousins. I had so many first cousins, and I remember being on the rooftop, you know, rehearsing and trying to get our routines together and stuff for the Brooklyn Fox. We had a sort of strict upbringing so we couldn't go out and - we could look out in the street and watch other girls walk and everything, but we couldn't go out because our grandmother was very strict. So we stayed in the house, and that's how we all just started singing because out of boredom, (laughter), and out of all the people in our neighborhood were, like, becoming stars, like Frankie Lymon and stuff. And when I met him, I was in love with him when I - I didn't even know him and I was in love with him. I was in love with his voice.

GROSS: What kind of neighborhood was it that you grew up in?

SPECTOR: I grew up in Spanish Harlem, which was terrific because it was, like, every race, every color, every language. It was wonderful.

GROSS: You broke in through - into the music business by being a dancer at the Peppermint Lounge, being a dancer on the "Murray The K" show, singing backup vocals. Did you do things in those early days to help get yourself noticed? Did you either, like, dress in such a way as to draw attention to yourself?

SPECTOR: Yeah. Are you kidding?

GROSS: OK. What'd you do?

SPECTOR: First of all, we tried to be - you have to have a gimmick in this business, we figured. And so we wore our hair extra high. You know, the beehives in the '60s. And we wore eyeliner, you know, like Chinese eyes almost. And we wore slits up out - up the side of our dresses because we sang and danced. So we really looked different. And - what was the question? I forget. I get so excited.

GROSS: About things you did to call attention to yourself when you were trying to break in.

SPECTOR: See, when we first - we decided to dress up, and we had a lot of aunts. My mother has, like, six sisters. And so that's seven of them dressing us, and they told us to put a cigarette in our mouth. And we stood outside the Peppermint Lounge dressed just alike, and I was so glad because at 14, I was smoking. They just didn't know it. And it was great because we stood on line and we had to look older. So we had to exaggerate everything because all of us were underage.

So it was very hard, but we had our gimmick. And it was amazing because before we even had "Be My Baby" as a hit record, being at the Brooklyn Fox as Murray the K's dancing girls, we would come out for lunch and there was actual girls dressed like us and our hairstyles. It was knocking me out. I couldn't believe it.

GROSS: You had some of the highest hair in the whole music business.

SPECTOR: (Laughter). Well, that's what I said. You had to have a little attention, and we certainly brought attention with those high hairdos. I mean, we must have worn our hair at least 10 inches high.

GROSS: Now, you know, it always made me think that you were really tough, really streetwise.


GROSS: Were you? No?

SPECTOR: No, not at all. As a matter of fact, when we heard about people being junkies or dope addicts, I would ask my mother, where? Let me see one. Because I wasn't a tough, streetwise kid at all, but I just - we just did all the dances, you know. And by living in Spanish Harlem, you learned all the dances anyway. I mean, you could just look out the window and people were on the corner singing and stuff. And it was just how we - and I loved it, from the time I was 3 years old when my whole family applauded me. I remember the song. It was (singing) Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and a file gumbo 'cause tonight I'm going to meet my ma cher amio. Pick a spot filled with sky and be gay-o. Son of a gun, we're having fun on the bayou.

And I think that's when I got my (singing) ho, oh, oh. Oh, oh, oh.

And then my family just started applauding me, and I was, like, 3 years old. And I said, that's what I want to be the rest of my life. I want to perform.

GROSS: Let's get to more of your recordings with The Ronettes. You first signed with a small label called Colpix Records.

SPECTOR: That's right.

GROSS: But those records never really became hits. How did you sign with Phil Spector, with whom you really recorded your best-known records?

SPECTOR: Well, what we did - we were still with Colpix at the time when we met Phil, and he had my mother go down to Colpix Records and tell them that we didn't want any part of show business, we wanted to go back to school and we just didn't want to sing anymore. And this was all Phil's plan. And my mother - my mother and Phil's plan to get us on his label. So they released us, Colpix. And actually, we hadn't had any hits from them so it wasn't like they were letting go of these big stars. You know, we hadn't had any hit records. So it was perfect. And my mother went there one day and she got them to release us because we were underage, and my mother said, they don't want to sing anymore (laughter). And about six months later, we had a no. 1 record so...

GROSS: Fooled everybody (laughter).

SPECTOR: Yeah. So that's how that - that's how we got to be with Phil and Philles Records. But that's not the - that's not how we met him, you see. My sister and myself and my cousin got together one night, and we said, how are we going to meet this Phil Spector? We hear he's the best producer in the world. And my sister said, well, why don't we pretend we're making - we're dialing him. We knew the number to his office.

We called his office one day, and we said hi. We pretended - we said, oh, we're calling for an audition. We're The Ronettes. Her name was Jonie (ph), Phil's secretary. She said, well, maybe - I don't know if Phil is auditioning. Da, da, da (ph), hold on. So we held on. And next thing we know, Phil was on the phone. And he said, I'd like to meet you girls the next night at Mirror Sound here in New York. And we couldn't believe it. And we did.

And yeah, we sat down at the piano at Mirror Sound. And Phil said, sing me some songs that you guys just, you know, know off the radio. And of course by my loving Frankie Lymon, I started singing "Why Do Fools Fall In Love," "ABC's of Love." And he immediately fell in love with my voice. And he said, that's the voice I've been looking for.

GROSS: Once he started working with you, did he make suggestions to you and the Ronettes about changes he wanted to hear in either the harmonies or the lead vocals?

SPECTOR: No because first of all, the backgrounds weren't just my sister and my cousin. It was, like - we had about 10 people. There was Cher. There was Sonny. There was Darlene Love. He had, like, 10, 20 - and he would make those - double those voices. So it was - I don't know. It was very complicated in his studio. But it was - watching him work was a miracle to me - watching Phil Spector work in his studio.

GROSS: You both became lovers. Did that add a certain drama to your performances when you worked together?

SPECTOR: It may have. But I guess because I was, you know, performing so much before I met him, I just had that - I loved performing. And I don't think he - by falling in love with him made me any better as far as my singing. I just think he knew what materials to pick out for us, you know, song-wise, like "Be My Baby," "Walking In The Rain." And he was just a great producer.

GROSS: "Walking In The Rain" - we've heard some of "Be My Baby." Is "Walking In The Rain" one of your favorites of the records that you recorded?

SPECTOR: At - well, "Be My Baby" is my number one. I'll love it forever. And "Walking In The Rain" - I love it, too. Yes, I really do.

GROSS: I love that, too. Why don't we hear a few seconds of it? And then we'll talk some more.


GROSS: OK. This is The Ronettes.


THE RONETTES: (Singing) I want him, and I need him. And someday someway, woah, woah, woah, I'll meet him. He'll be kind of shy and real good looking, too. And I'll be certain he's my guy by the things he'll like to do, like walking in the rain and wishing on the stars up above and being so in love.

(Singing) Oh, oh, oh.

GROSS: Oh, Ronnie, that sounds great. That's Ronnie Spector singing along...

SPECTOR: (Laughter) I couldn't help it.

GROSS: ...With the record from the 1960s of "Walking In The Rain."

SPECTOR: I couldn't help it, Terry.

GROSS: Oh, it's terrific. You gave up rock 'n' roll for a while when you married Phil Spector.

SPECTOR: That's not the right way to put it (laughter). I didn't give it up. As a matter of fact, I didn't know when I got married that I would never sing again. I thought, as a matter of fact, I would be recording a little bit more and maybe touring a little less. But I had no idea I would never record again or sing again or perform again. I sang again, but I didn't perform again.

GROSS: So it was kind of against your will that you stopped.

SPECTOR: Yeah, yeah. It was something I didn't expect.

GROSS: Well, during that period, did you sing a lot in the house just to keep your voice in shape?

SPECTOR: No because there was no rock 'n' roll allowed in my house then. It was only classical music played throughout the whole house. And how can I sing to classical music - you know, rock 'n' roll. And I just didn't sing. I just - I would - at night, I would go to sleep, I remember, and just turn over and just think about being on stage and singing. Occasionally when I was in the bathroom, in the bathtub, I'd sing songs and stuff but never too loud because he'd get angry.

GROSS: Yeah. There was no rock 'n' roll because your husband of the time, Phil Spector, didn't want it in the house. When you left that marriage and you left him and you tried to re-enter the music business again, had you lost your bearings for a while? Was it hard for you to find your place? You'd been out of the scene for a while, and you hadn't even been listening to the music for a while.

SPECTOR: Right. No. But I never lost my bearings. It's like - I guess it's like riding a bicycle. Once you, you know, learn - once you fall off, you get right back on. And that's how I was with my singing. Of course it was much tougher. I remember I came back in '74, and I went to Buddah Records. And they auditioned me. They loved me.

And a few weeks later, Phil sent them a letter saying that I was still his wife - because it took me two years to get a divorce. And immediately they let me go. So I had a lot against me because of Phil. You know, people just said, well, we don't want to be bothered with him because he was known for suing people and, you know, making scenes and keeping people in court. And that's basically why I didn't get started as fast as I wanted to, you know, because when I - everywhere I went, he sort of, like, you know, stuck his two cents in at the time.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you're back...


GROSS: ...Recording and performing again. It's a pleasure to hear your voice again.

SPECTOR: Thank you, Terry. I'm so glad to be back.

GROSS: And I thank you very much for spending some time with us on FRESH AIR.

SPECTOR: Oh, anytime.

GROSS: Ronnie Spector recorded in 1987. After a break, we'll continue our 30th anniversary retrospective and listen back to my 1988 interview with Ben E. King, who was the lead singer of The Drifters before going solo and recording hits like "Stand By Me" and "Spanish Harlem." This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to continue our 30th anniversary retrospective and go back to 1988 when I interviewed Ben E. King. From 1958 to 1960, he sang lead with The Drifters on songs like "Save The Last Dance For Me," "There Goes My Baby" and "This Magic Moment." As soon as he left The Drifters, he started a solo career. His biggest hit was a song he co-wrote.


BEN E KING: (Singing) When the night has come, and the land is dark and the moon is the only light we'll, no, I won't be afraid. Oh, I won't be afraid just as long as you stand, stand by me. So darling, darling, stand by me. Oh, stand by me. Oh, stand, stand by me. Stand by me.

(Singing) If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall or the mountain should crumble to the sea, I won't cry. I won't cry. No, I won't shed a tear just as long as you stand, stand by me. And darling, darling, stand by me. Oh, stand by me.

GROSS: "Stand By Me" made it to No. 4 on the charts in 1961. Twenty five years later, "Stand By Me" was used as the theme for the film of the same name and landed back in the Top 10. Other Ben E. King solo hits include "Spanish Harlem," "Don't Play That Song" and "I (Who Have Nothing)." Before Ben E. King ever sang onstage or in the recording studio, he sang with his friends on the streets of Harlem.


KING: I was born in Henderson, N.C., so I wasn't familiar with the street-singing thing until I came to New York, which - I was about 11 years old when my parents first moved to New York. And I heard about it, and then gradually, by being in the streets of Harlem, I walked around, and surely enough, bumped into different little guys singing and doo-wopping (ph) on the stoops and stuff like that. So I were more or less introduced to it when I first got to New York.

GROSS: Did singing in a vocal group on the streets give you the same kind of security as belonging to a gang?

KING: Yeah, well, it gave me, I would imagine, a means of communicating with other people because I was a very shy person when I first got to New York. I guess just a fear of New York itself made me that way. And it gave me a chance to meet nice people, nice guys to hang out with, kind of. And it was the alternative to other type of gangs. They were - we had gangs during our time, as well. But I - fortunately, for myself, I bumped into I think the right kind of people, you know.

GROSS: Now, you also sang before you started recording. You sang at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Did you all have matching suits in your group?

KING: Yeah, we had - what'd we have? We had pink jackets.

GROSS: Oh, great.

KING: I know, right? That's what I said - pink jackets, and black shirt and black trousers. I mean, it was a sight to behold, yeah.

GROSS: That's great. Singer Ben E. King is my guest. Now, you sang with the crowns - The Five Crowns. And you sang bass before you started singing lead. Can your voice still go that low?

KING: (In baritone) I think so.


KING: Yeah, it can. I'm naturally a bass-baritone. I guess that's what - my voice tend to go very heavy. I'm naturally a bass-baritone, so I can sing bass still, I think, yeah.

GROSS: Did it have a certain prestige to be the bass man in a vocal group?

KING: Well, girls always thought so. Girls like the bass singer, I guess because they have that more mature depth to his voice. And they tend to pal around. And at that time, you have to realize that most of the bass things were done in the doo-wop groups, and stuff like that was the featured thing in the song.

You know, so the bass singer was the one that was doing the (vocalizing) - all that stuff, see? So you couldn't go wrong with that. You know, so I had the chance to do all those things. And the girls was just stand around, and giggle and stuff. So I think that that was, you know, one of the key things that helped me, as far as getting me introduced to the females there.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1988 interview with Ben E. King. We'll hear more of it - and listen back to my 1988 interview with Otis Williams, a founding member of the Motown group The Temptations - after a break as we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


KING: (Singing) This magic moment, so different and so new, was like any other until I kiss you. And then it happened. It took me by surprise. I knew that you felt it too by the look in your eye - sweeter than wine, softer than the summer night. Everything I want, I have.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective featuring some of our favorite interviews from our first two years as a daily NPR program. We'll pick up where we left off in the middle of my 1988 interview with Ben E. King. From 1958 to 1960, he was the lead singer of The Drifters. Then he went solo and had the hits "Stand By Me" and "Spanish Harlem."


GROSS: You went from bass singer with The Crowns to lead singer with The Drifters.

KING: Yeah.

GROSS: And before I ask you to tell us a story about how The Crowns became the new Drifters and how you got to sing lead, I want to play the first song that you recorded singing lead as the lead singer of The Drifters. And this is "There Goes My Baby."


THE DRIFTERS: (Singing, vocalizing). There she goes. (Vocalizing). There she goes. (Vocalizing, singing) There goes my baby moving on down the line, wondering where, wondering where, wondering where she is bound. I broke her heart and made her cry. Now I'm alone, so all alone. What can I do? What can I do? There goes my baby...

GROSS: That's Ben E. King singing lead with The Drifters on "There Goes My Baby." So tell us how The Crowns, who you sang with, became The Drifters.

KING: Well, that's one of those strange stories, really. I - I joined The Crowns because the guy that was managing them, by the name of Lover Patterson, lived across the street from my father's restaurant. So he came in one day and asked me to join The Crowns. I brought him into the store and we rehearsed in the back of my father's restaurant, and I became a member.

And The Crowns were - I would imagine a very good, like, vocal type group, semi-pro. And we opened up at The Apollo with Ray Charles, and I think it was Faye Adams on the bill and of course The Drifters were on the bill as well. And we were the opening act. During that week, we were approached by their manager, George Treadwell, and he had mentioned to us that he had been watching us and he thought we were a very good group, and would we be interested in becoming a new set of Drifters?

GROSS: Now, he had just - what, fired Clyde McPhatter, who had been the lead singer?

KING: Yeah, well, what had happened - and that - I think - Clyde really wasn't in the group at that time. Clyde had more or less gone solo. But the other members were in the group. And he had, I guess, had problems with the group or the group had problems with him, and they decided to just split company and they did so, you know.

GROSS: Right. So Clyde McPhatter had left the group and then the producer fired the rest of The Drifters. That's the way it was. Right.

KING: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And when the producer decided that your group would be the next Drifters, did they do anything different with you or tell you to do anything different for you to become Drifters?

KING: Not really. I think that was - that was the strange thing about the whole situation is there weren't any instructions at all given to us, you know. We used to go on the road as the new set of Drifters before the record was released, and we were booed off the stage and we had balls thrown at us and chairs and the whole nine yards. So we weren't given any warning to what to do or how to act.

We got uniforms and I think we got a new station wagon or something like that, but that's the only thing that we received as far become the new set of Drifters, as well as the fact that we had to fulfill the Drifters' recording contracts. And we didn't - we weren't aware of that. You know, we were just four or five kids coming out of Harlem from a very, very amateurish background even during the time with The Five Crowns. So we didn't know about all the particulars that professionals would go through.

GROSS: You got booed because the fans were expecting the other Drifters, and here you were with no explanation.

KING: That's right. Exactly. Well, it's like - it's like going to see the - I want to say it's like going to see The Four Tops, and all of a sudden, the curtain opened and there's four guys about 17 years old. That's the kind of thing that you would face, you know.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another song that you recorded with The Drifters. And this is - of course, you're singing lead on it - this is a song that made it to no. 1 both on the R&B charts and on the pop charts, which was a pretty, pretty big deal, really (laughter).

KING: No, that was a great deal during that time because in that time, you have to allow for the fact that they weren't actually playing a lot of black records. And not only weren't they playing a lot of them, they weren't even thinking about crossing them over.


THE DRIFTERS: (Singing) You can dance every dance with the guy who gives you the eye and let him hold you tight. You can smile every smile for the man who held your hand 'neath the pale moonlight. But don't forget who's taking you home and in whose arms you're going to be. So darling, save the last dance for me. Oh, I know, oh, I know baby, that the music's fine like sparkling wine. Go and have your fun. Yes, I know, oh, I know. Laugh and sing. But while we're apart don't give your heart to anyone. But don't forget who's taking you home and in whose arms you're going to be. So darling, save the last dance for me. Don't you know I love you so? Can't you feel it when we touch?

GROSS: Well, that still sounds very terrific.

KING: Thank you.

GROSS: We were talking a little bit earlier about choreography. Did you have a lot of choreography in your act?

KING: Not a lot. There are there are steps that I'd call short steps. And short steps are done, like, by groups like Platters and Drifters and - and then the fast, wide steps are done - like, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Temptations do wide and fast. And there was a group called The Olympics. They do fast movements and fast steps. We do little short, cute things, you know, things that don't require a lot of sweating and falling down. I'd never learn how to do the split and stuff like that, you know? I left all that stuff out. I don't know that. I don't know nothing about doing the split. I could never get into that, you know.

GROSS: You never took off your jacket and threw it into the audience?

KING: I did that.

GROSS: Did you?

KING: Yeah, I did that. That was - those days was great. That was easy. You know, and throwing your handkerchief away and stuff. I did those brave things, you know?

GROSS: I used to love that at the rock 'n' roll shows, when performers did that.

KING: Lot of fun, that.

GROSS: You know what I'd like to do? I want to ask you about how you started to perform solo. So why don't I play some of the record that launched your solo career?


GROSS: And this is "Spanish Harlem."


KING: (Singing) There is a rose in Spanish Harlem, a red rose up in Spanish Harlem. It is a special one. It's never seen the sun. It only comes out when the moon is on the run and all the stars are gleaming. It's growing in the street right up through the concrete, but soft and sweet and dreaming.

GROSS: Ben E. King, would you explain how you left The Drifters and started singing solo?

KING: Well, what happened in that is that I - once we got involved with all the recordings and we had all the hit records that we had once we started with the Drifters situation, we had - we were on salary as the new set of Drifters, and we were making, like, maybe a hundred dollars a week or somewhere in that neighborhood. And we were all more or less trying to make ends meet because that hundred dollars would have to keep us alive on the road, and of course tried to send some money home.

So in other words, to make a long story short, we had managerial problems. And I, along with Charlie Thomas, Doc Green and Elsbeary Hobbs - we had discussed trying to go to George Treadwell and ask for a raise. And this is a group with a No. 1 record. And once we got to the office - we had set up a meeting. We got to the office to discuss this problem that we were having as far as salary. He told me instead of me standing up to speak for the group to speak for yourself, and I did so. And he fired me.


KING: He was great at firing people, you know? And I walked out of the office assuming that the other guys would follow, and they didn't. The only guy that followed me was the same one that came across the street to my father's restaurant and convinced me to join the Five Crowns, who was Lover Patterson. And it was his determination and his, I guess, feeling that I had something in my voice that should keep on. He insisted that I stayed in the business. And he's the one still I find very responsible for me still being here now. I hold him very near and dear. He's long passed away for many years now. But to answer your story, he's the reason why I more or less stayed and started a solo career.

GROSS: But did you think of "Spanish Harlem" as a solo record or a Drifters record?

KING: No, no, no, it should have been a Drifter record. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who at that time - we had developed a very strong friendship as writers and producers and friends. And they're the ones that went to Atlantic and spoke to Ahmet Ertegun and asked him, would he consider "Spanish Harlem" being a Ben E. King record opposed to a Drifter record? And that's how I started a solo career with that record there, really.

GROSS: Ben E. King recorded in 1988. He died in 2015 at the age of 76. After a break, we'll continue our 30th anniversary retrospective and return to 1988 for an interview with Otis Williams, a founding member of the Motown group The Temptations. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective. In 1988, I spoke with Otis Williams, who sang with The Temptations, the great soul harmony group that had the hits "My Girl," "The Way You Do The Things You Do," "I Wish It Would Rain," "Since I Lost My Baby" and "Papa Was A Rolling Stone."

The Temptations were one of the most successful groups on the Motown label. Williams started the group and kept it together with various singers long after the departure of lead singers David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks. Williams is the last surviving original member and continues to tour with The Temptations as the group's leader and organizer. In 1961, this became the first Temptations record to reach No. 1.


THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) I got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May. I guess you'd say, what can make me feel this way? My girl. My girl. My girl. Talking about my girl. My girl. I've got so much honey the bees envy me.


GROSS: Welcome...



WILLIAMS: Thank you.

GROSS: You point out in your group The Temptations were subtler and more romantic than a lot of the other guys and that there was no sweating or grunting...


GROSS: ...Stage. So I want to ask you how you think that was reflected in your songs and in your style onstage.

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that Paul Williams, who was one of the original members, he always believed in us trying to convey selling sex as well as keeping the class. And I wish I could take credit for not sweating, but him and I especially were sweaters.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: But we always tried to do things in a top-notch fashion.

GROSS: Berry Gordy, the head of Motown Records, liked your singing, liked your style and finally signed you to Motown Records. Did he tell you once he took you in what he had in mind for the group, changes he wanted to make?

WILLIAMS: Not necessarily. Berry was very into the creative end of it more so than anything else. And he left that up - that's why artist development came to be, because of he knew that he had to have somebody that, well, I've got all these talented artists here - The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, The Miracles - somebody needs to come in there and refine and polish them so we wouldn't be just like everybody else and know - knew how to get on and off the stage while we were onstage.

GROSS: Now, you said that Gordy really had more respect for producers and writers than he did for the performers. You describe how if a group didn't show up in the studio on time for their recording date he'd have another group come in and record the song.

WILLIAMS: That's true. We had that happen to us with "Do You Love Me?" But it was not because of us not coming to the studio and knew that we had to be there. It was that this one particular day we were at St. Stephen's Community Church and watching The Dixie Hummingbirds and harmonizing for it 'cause we were very into gospel groups.

And so the next day when we came up to the company - and they said, man, where were you guys? Mr. Gordy were - you know, he was looking for you all over town because he had to see a song for you guys. We said, well, we were at church. At church - and so we said, well, we were into spirituals and we just had to watch those guys sing. He said, well, he gave the song to The Contours. And it was "Do You Love Me?"

GROSS: I - now, see, I can't imagine the Temptations singing "Do You Love Me?" It's - you know, I know The Contours version so well.


GROSS: It doesn't seem like the perfect song for the group. I don't know.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I guess we'll never know now because...

GROSS: That's right (laughter).

WILLIAMS: ...He wanted to try it out on us. And I think it would have been designed for Paul Williams had, you know, we had the chance to do the song. But I think the record went to No. 2. And we were kind of jealous, but we were happy for The Contours as well 'cause we felt that our time would come.

GROSS: The first song that you had that really made it onto the charts, that crossed over onto the charts was "The Way You Do The Things You Do." Now, this song was the result of a competition in-house, right?

WILLIAMS: Well, Berry always - like I stated in the book, he always had that competitiveness with his writers and his producers. Every Friday, Motown was noted for the thing of having a quality control meeting where they would bring all the material that was recorded that week. On that Friday, they would have, like, an evaluation of who would get the release and what did they think would be this and that and the yeas and nays. So with Smokey having so much success with us, Berry was kind of torn between, yeah, I like that "Ain't Too Proud To Beg," but Smokey did have the hit on "Ain't Too Proud To Beg;" I meant "My Girl" and "Get Ready."

So he said, here's what I'll do. If "Get Ready" - I'm going to go with "Get Ready." And if it should go to the top 10, Smokey would get the next release. Now, if "Get Ready" didn't go to the top 10 nationally, Norman, you have the next release because "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" was so strong that it could not be denied any longer. So "Get Ready" must have gotten to the top 20, didn't crack the top 10. And so Norman came in there with "Ain't Too Proud To Beg," and we had seven years of hit making with Norman Whitfield.


THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go. If I have to beg, plead for your sympathy, I don't mind 'cause you mean that much to me. Ain't too proud to beg, and you know it. Please don't leave me, girl. Ain't too proud to plead, baby, baby. Please don't leave me, girl. Now, I've heard a crying man is half a man with no sense of pride. But if I have to cry to keep you, I don't mind weeping if it'll keep you by my side. Ain't too proud to beg, sweet darling. Please don't leave me, girl. Ain't too proud to plead, baby, baby. Please don't leave me, girl.

(Singing) If I have to sleep on your doorstep all night and day just to keep you from walking away, let your friends laugh. Even this I can stand 'cause I want to keep you any way I can. Ain't too proud to beg, sweet darling. Please don't leave me, girl. Ain't too proud to...

GROSS: You described how some of the producers would have the singers sing slightly above their range.

WILLIAMS: Yes, yes. Motown was noted for recording their songs like a step higher because they wanted the tension, the vocal dynamics, the stressing point, the pleading sound. So when you would hear it, you could say, wow, I feel what he's saying - like, pain in the voice. They didn't want you to sing too relaxed because the song wouldn't come across with that emotional outlet, that meaning where you could really feel it. So they would always cut the tunes, especially Norman and Holland-Dozier-Holland - would cut it a step higher because that's the way "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" was recorded.

It was recorded just a key too high for David. But he was able to do it, but it was not without us having to stop the tape and let him rest because he was straining his vocal chords. And his glasses was sliding all off his face, and sweat was popping off. But we were, you know, just saying, go ahead, David. You can do it; you can do it. And it turned out to be one of our biggest sellers.

GROSS: You described a little bit the competition between songwriters...


GROSS: ...About who would get to write the next song for the group. Was there competition between the group? Did you have to compete, say, with the Four Tops over who would get the song that you wanted to do?

WILLIAMS: No because Berry never let that happen. He would always let - OK, Holland and Dozier had the Supremes and the Four Tops even though we really like what they were doing, speaking of Holland-Dozier-Holland. But he said, no, you guys are having too much success with Smokey Robinson or Norman Whitfield. And then he didn't want all the songs to start sounding alike, you know? So he wanted to always make sure that there was that division, that separate kind of identity. And so he would never let that happen, whereas Holland and Dozier would just do, you know, more than what they should have done. And the sound would have became too saturated.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1988 interview with Otis Williams, a founding member of The Temptations. We'll hear more of the interview after a break as we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective. This is FRESH AIR.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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