“Paul Williams, who I always considered the heart of (The Temptations) with his emotional baritone voice, soul, rhythm and style, had sung one of the most heart-wrenching versions of ‘For Once In My Life’ that I have ever heard.” Berry Gordy in his autobiography To Be Loved.
Over the years so much has been written about The Temptations, but it’s rare that group members like Paul Williams were afforded any column inches. Interviews were usually conducted by Otis Williams (no relation) in much the same way as Diana Ross spoke on behalf of the Supremes, or Martha Reeves on behalf of the Vandellas, so we got to learn little about the individuals who, when merged together, formed the ultimate successful group. It’s also a sad state of affairs to admit that Paul’s name did make headline news, not because of his musical achievements but the suspicious circumstances surrounding his sudden death. Let’s TCB…
Paul Williams, born on 2 July 1939, was the son of Sophia and Rufus Williams, a member of the gospel group, the Ensley Jubilee Singers. They lived in the Ensley area of Birmingham, Alabama. In elementary school the young Paul befriended Eddie Kendicks, and their love of singing led them to contribute to church choirs together. From here, and with Willie Waller and Kell Osborne, Eddie and Paul performed as The Cavaliers. Long story short, as Paul’s early life has been well documented over the years, during 1957 Paul, Eddie and Kell left Birmingham to pursue professional singing careers. They moved to Cleveland, Ohio, called themselves The Primes, before meeting manager Milton Jenkins, who later relocated them to Detroit.
It was an unsuccessful relationship because in 1961, The Primes disbanded. Eddie subsequently returned to Alabama, but regularly visited Paul in Detroit. And during one such trip, they discovered Otis Williams, lead singer with The Distants, had an opening in his group for two singers. It was fate: the two youngsters filled the gap. Once ensconced, Paul taught The Distants all the dance steps he had perfected, together with the sophisticated harmonies he and Eddie had developed between them.
Moving on, when the group joined Motown, it was Paul and Eddie who switched lead vocals on songs; their voices blending perfectly with the background music. Producers generally chose tunes that complimented either Eddie’s sweet first tenor falsetto, or Paul with his deep baritone, but rarely both together. The two singers continued to enjoy their close friendship, and worked well together, respecting each other’s talents. However, Paul was prone to being quick tempered if something got to him. Because he was in charge of how their show should run, if a group member slipped up on stage – missed a note, blew a step, whatever – he would come down hard. One time, Eddie messed up; this led to a nasty confrontation, despite their friendship.
The leads changed when David Ruffin replaced (former Distant member) Al Bryant in The Temptations during 1964. However, prior to this, you can hear them on “Oh, Mother Of Mine”, with solo Paul fronting songs like “Romance Without Finance”, “Check Yourself”, “I’ll Love You ‘Til I Die”, “Slow Down Heart” and “The Further You Look, The Less You See”. In 1966 he recorded his final solo lead, “Don’t Look Back”, the flip to “My Baby”, with both songs written and produced by Smokey Robinson. From here on, he was a background singer with Otis and Melvin Franklin, while Eddie’s falsetto voice was the attractive opposite to David’s, which Smokey once called “mellow yet gruff”. (Track information lifted from “The Temptations: Emperors Of Soul” box set. And what a fabulous package it is too.)
Few people today would not be aware, unless they saw The Temptations in the sixties or heard their live albums, that Paul was a fantastic showman. Yet, said Otis ,”He never hogged the spotlight. He might get the biggest applause for a number, but then he fell right back in with the rest of us.”
It’s generally agreed that one of Paul’s pivotal recordings was/still is the beforementioned “For Once In My Life”, a track on The Temptations In A Mellow Mood album from 1967. The song went on to become his showcase number in live shows, yet possibly his most famous performance of it was during the TCB – Takin’ Care Of Business television special in 1968, when The Temptations took centre stage with Diana Ross and the Supremes. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that it wasn’t so long ago that Paul had discovered Diana and recommended her to Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard for The Primettes? And then, years later, he would whip up a quick dance routine for their “Stop! In The Name Of Love”, introducing to the world their famous hand stop signs.
Actually, I’ve just watched this TCB performance on You Tube – it’s quite amazing and remarkably soul stirring. Yet it’s clear, Paul was suffering: his eyes told the story. Maybe he was in conflict because, not only had his position in The Temptations been downgraded, but – despite being in love with his wife, Mary Agnes – he had fallen for Winnye Brown, Florence Ballard’s niece by marriage, who travelled with The Supremes as their hair stylist. Paul had married young, had five children – Sarita, Kenneth, Paula, Mary, Paul Jr – and, by all accounts, was a devoted husband and father, yet was torn between them and Winnye Brown.
It’s said that it was a short while after this personal dilemma occurred, that the man who had only drank milk, drank alcohol, with Courvoisier being his brandy of choice. What anyone has said or written about this unhappy situation was often speculation or hearsay, so I’m not going to play that game. Any comment I’ve made was referenced from Otis Williams’ book Temptations.
The second defining song to come from TCB was “The Impossible Dream” from Man Of La Mancha where Paul and Diana exchanged leads with their respective groups harmonising beautifully in the background. Berry Gordy was so ecstatic about the outcome of what was to be revered by him as ‘the first major black television special in history” that he showered The Supremes with gifts. Not so The Temptations. (Er….note to Mr Gordy. We had The Sound Of Motown three years earlier!)
Paul Williams’ welfare began to concern the group and those who came into contact with him. As concerning as his drinking was to those who knew him, his real problem had always been his health. He had to cope with the debilitating pain of sickle cell anaemia, and, he said, used alcohol to help deaden that pain. Otis wrote, “I saw a general physical breakdown. Onstage, he started having trouble keeping up until it reached a point where he would be gasping for breath. Even so, he kept smoking cigarettes. Eventually, we travelled with a tank of oxygen, which we kept in the wings for Paul.”
Otis also believed the change in Paul had been unbelievably swift and this in turn was affecting the rest of the group. However, as ill as Paul felt, and no matter how much he drank, he promised he wouldn’t let anyone down. Eventually he did. Missing or messing up shows, where the four strived to cover for him on stage, could not go on indefinitely. As Otis was a true group founder, it was up to him to bring in a replacement when the situation became untenable. “Paul was our soul, our creative leader, and the thought of having to go on without him killed us all. Just imagining the look on his face when he heard the news, was enough to stop me.” As it turned out, that situation never arose because in 1971 Paul was persuaded to seek help from his doctor, whereupon a spot on his liver had been discovered, with the recommendation that he retire from performing.
Before this decision had been made, Otis knew had no choice but to bring in a replacement, and chose Richard Street. As you know, he was an ex-member of The Distants, later The Monitors, and part of Motown’s Quality Control Department. He stood backstage behind the curtain and sang all Paul’s parts, except for Paul’s special numbers. “It was painful to witness the deterioration of such a talented, intelligent man,” wrote Otis. “Understandably, the ordeal was uncomfortable for Richard. There was an unspoken understanding that if Paul ever left the group, Richard would take his place. It was only a matter of time.”
When that time arrived, Paul remained on Motown’s payroll, thanks to Berry Gordy. He worked as consultant to the group, which included being an advisor and working out their new routines. He was also paid a one-fifth share of the group’s future earnings. Within three years, The Temptations had lost three members: Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams were the only remaining originals.
During 1973, Paul recorded solo material: Eddie Kendricks – who had by now also left the group – co-wrote and produced Paul’s first single “Feel Like Givin’ Up”/”Once You Had A Heart”, listed as Gordy 7125 due for release in February 1973, the same month as The Temptations’ “Masterpiece (vocal)”. His disc was canned.
Outside the music business, Paul and Winnye had opened the Celebrity House West, a celebrity fashion boutique in downtown Detroit in the spring of 1969. Unfortunately, it eventually turned out to be an unsuccessful venture, and before long Paul was in debt to the tune of $80,000 in unpaid taxes.
On 17 August 1973 ,Paul was found dead inside his car, having just stormed out of his girlfriend’s house following an argument. A gun was discovered near his body. He was 34 years old. Tony Turner in his Deliver Us From Temptation added some substance to this by writing, “Paul came home from work to find his girlfriend Winnye partying with friends. Upset, he promptly left again. He was found some time later, dead with a bullet in his brain. The verdict was suicide.” Tony further commented that Eddie Kendricks had had his doubts about this verdict because he had seen Paul a couple of days earlier “and had found him to be in a relatively positive mood.” It was this tragedy that prompted Motown to can Paul’s single, but years later, it could be found on various compilations.
The coroner ruled Paul’s death as suicide because he had expressed suicidal thoughts to Otis and Melvin months prior to his death. However, Paul’s family suspected foul play, and there were at least three reasons to support their claim. Paul had used his right hand to shoot himself on the left side of his head. A bottle of alcohol was found near his left side, as if he had dropped it while being shot. And finally: the gun used had fired two shots, yet Paul only had one bullet wound. Despite these details, the coroner refused to change his original verdict, which prompted David Ruffin to tell Tony Turner, “Why would anyone get into his car with only his underwear on, drive to within a few blocks of Motown and, using his right hand, shot himself in the left side of his head? It didn’t make sense.” And even all these years later, Paul’s death still beggars belief. I don’t suppose we’ll ever learn what really happened. Following his passing, however, it became public knowledge that he also fathered three other children by three different partners.
Over two thousand people viewed Paul’s body in the day’s prior to his funeral at the Tried Stone Baptist Church, on 24 August, which was filled with his family, friends, Motowners and fans. Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, Dennis Edwards and Otis Williams were among the pallbearers. During the service, Dennis began singing “The Impossible Dream”. When he became overwhelmed, Melvin, Otis and Eddie sang him through the song to the end. Motown’s Mrs Esther Edwards told mourners, “In Europe, in Africa, in Asia, all over the world, young men sing in groups now in a fashion created by The Temptations. They dance with choreography that so closely matches The Temptations, one might think Paul had personally tutored them.” (Detroit Free Press dated 25 August, 1973)
After the service, The Temptations took one last ride with Paul to the Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery, in Macomb County. At the graveside, the casket was reopened. Before it was closed for the last time, Eddie Kendricks bent down and kissed his friend gently on the cheek.
Sharon Davis, September 2023
“I Need You More Than Ever” is a beautiful song recorded by Paul Williams in 1973. This was the last of the three known songs that he recorded for his debut solo album.