As the last surviving member of the “classic five” lineup of the great, long-running Motown act the Temptations, Otis Williams still gets old-fashioned fan mail. He recently heard from a woman who implored him to call her mother, a lifelong fan.
He called the number. “The first thing out of her mouth, she said, ‘I asked God not to take me just yet. I got to talk to Otis Williams!’ ”
As the woman explained how much the Temptations’ songs — “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” on and on — meant to her, Williams found himself welling up with tears.
“I was crying like somebody slapped me across the face,” he recalls. “The impact of this group — I never would have imagined that we would touch the human soul and spirit to that degree.”
With the group celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, the tumultuous story of the Temptations — all the internal drama, set against the external unrest of America in the 1960s and ‘70s — comes to Boston for a two-week run beginning Tuesday at the Citizens Bank Opera House. “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which opened on Broadway in 2019, won a Tony Award for choreography and was nominated for 10 more, including best musical.
Williams, a hale 80, watched in awe as the show made its way from its initial production at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California through several stops along the way to Broadway. The touring production, presented here by Broadway in Boston, kicked off in December.
“I’m still in amazement seeing myself and the rest of the guys being open, like an open book,” he says. “It’s a very sobering way of looking at myself, because all we ever wanted to do was just sing.”
Williams joined a recent Zoom call with Marcus Paul James, the singer and actor who will play the man he calls “Uncle O” in Boston. The cast and playwright Dominique Morisseau (”Skeleton Crew”) rely heavily on Williams’s 1988 memoir “Temptations,” James says, and the performers love it when “Big Daddy” (another of Williams’s nicknames) shows up at rehearsal or a performance.
“We milk every morsel of information from him we can,” he says.
At this point more than two dozen men have called themselves a Temptation, but the musical focuses on the lives of the five who brought the group to superstardom. All five were part of the Great Migration of Black Southerners who moved to the industrial cities of the north in the first half of the 20th century.
Williams was born in Texas; frequent lead singer Eddie Kendricks, bass Melvin Franklin, and Paul Williams (no relation to Otis) were all born in Alabama; tenor David Ruffin was originally from Mississippi. All five landed in Detroit, singing in competing vocal groups before coming together in the nascent days of Motown Records.
The audience follows the ups and downs of the group’s collective success and individual challenges through the eyes of James’s Williams.
“I speak, like, 90 percent of the text,” James says. “I only leave the stage three times.”
Inside a soundtrack peppered with enduring songs, from the smooth soul of “The Way You Do the Things You Do” to the hard psychedelic edges of “I Can’t Get Next to You” and “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” the story line features personal strife (Ruffin’s ill-fated relationship with fellow Motown singer Tammi Terrell), addiction (Paul Williams’s unsuccessful battle with alcoholism), and discontent (Kendricks’s unhappiness and eventual departure, at the height of the group’s popularity).
With key figures augmenting the classic five — among them Diana Ross, Motown founder Berry Gordy, producer Norman Whitfield, and singer Dennis Edwards — the team behind “Ain’t Too Proud” faced the daunting task of getting it all in without leaving the audience in a ball of confusion.
The mantra was KISS, Williams says: “Keep it simple, stupid.”
“We try and acknowledge everyone as best we can,” he says, filling the Zoom screen in a wide-brim fedora and a big sweater with the Balenciaga logo splashed all over it.
In Motown’s heyday, walking into “Hitsville,” the modest two-story house at 2648 West Grand Blvd. in Detroit, was an everyday reminder of the astounding talent on hand, Williams says.
“In one room you’d hear [the songwriting team of] Holland-Dozier-Holland,” he says. “In another there’d be Norman Whitfield doing his thing, Berry raising hell if need be.”
The legendary house band, the Funk Brothers, “could play jazz like anybody,” he continues. “But they could also get funkier than an unwashed armpit.”
As one of the label’s most successful and durable acts, the Temptations are “not just a group,” James says. “They’re an institution. It’s an honor to tell their story every night.”
Earlier this year the current Temptations, with Williams still in charge, released an album of original material to mark the group’s 60th anniversary. The milestone and the musical have left the group’s leader in a reflective mood.
“Success can be a strong aphrodisiac. You learn about yourself on the certain duress of success,” he says, stressing the syllables. “When you start out as humble as we were and then have money day in, day out, with people adulating, it can make you almost lose sight. It’s wonderful to have, but harder to keep.”
To quote the lyrics from one of the new songs: “When we were kings, we had it going on so strong.” Clearly, Williams is still going strong.
“When I get off the horse,” he says with a smile, “it’s gonna be bald.”
E-mail James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
AIN’T TOO PROUD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS
Presented by Broadway in Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House. April 19-May 1. Tickets from $44.50. www.BroadwayInBoston.com