Paul Williams (The Temptations singer)

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Paul Williams
Williams performs with The Temptations on The Ed Sullivan Show
Williams performs with The Temptations on The Ed Sullivan Show
Background information
Born(1939-07-02)July 2, 1939
Ensley, Alabama, U.S.
OriginBirmingham, Alabama, U.S.
DiedAugust 17, 1973(1973-08-17) (aged 34)
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
  • Singer
  • choreographer
Years active1955–1971

Paul Williams (July 2, 1939 – August 17, 1973) was an American baritone singer and choreographer. Williams was noted for being one of the founding members and original lead singer of the Motown group The Temptations. Along with Elbridge "Al" Bryant, Otis Williams, and fellow Alabamians Eddie Kendricks and Melvin Franklin, Williams was a member of The Temptations. Personal problems and failing health forced Williams to retire in 1971. He was found dead two years later as the result of an apparent suicide.

Early years[edit]

Paul Williams was born and raised in the Ensley neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama.[1] He was the son of Sophia and Rufus Williams, a gospel singer in a gospel music vocal group called the Ensley Jubilee Singers.[2] He met Eddie Kendricks in elementary school; supposedly, the two first encountered each other in a fistfight after Williams dumped a bucket of mop water on Kendricks. Both boys shared a love of singing, and sang in their church choir together.[3] As teenagers, Williams, Kendricks, and Kell Osborne and Willie Waller performed in a secular singing group known as The Cavaliers,[4] with dreams of making it big in the music industry. In 1957, Williams, Kendricks, and Osborne left Birmingham to start careers, leaving Waller behind. Now known as The Primes, the trio moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and eventually found a manager in Milton Jenkins, who moved the group to Detroit, Michigan. Although The Primes never recorded, they were successful performers, and even launched a spin-off female group called The Primettes, who later became The Supremes.

In 1961, Kell Osborne moved to California, and the Primes disbanded. Kendricks returned to Alabama, but visited Paul in Detroit shortly after. While on this visit, he and Paul had learned that Otis Williams, head of a rival Detroit act known as The Distants, had two openings in his group's lineup. Paul Williams and Kendricks joined Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, and Elbridge Bryant to form The Elgins, who signed to the local Motown label in 1961, after first changing their name to The Temptations.[5]


The Temptations[edit]

Although the group now had a record deal, Paul Williams and his bandmates endured a long series of failed singles before finally hitting the Billboard Top 20 in 1964 with "The Way You Do the Things You Do". More hits quickly followed, including "My Girl", "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and "(I Know) I'm Losing You".

Although Williams had been the group's original lead singer during its formative years, by 1965, his role had been eclipsed by David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, who had both sung lead on Temptations hit singles. As such, Williams was often overlooked for leads, even on album tracks and B-sides, prompting him to complain, "shit, I can sing too!" In response, he was given lead vocals on the song, "Don't Look Back" (1965).[6]

Williams sang lead on several of the group's songs, and served as the main lead singer during the group's early years. His early leads include, "Your Wonderful Love" (1961), "Slow Down Heart" (1962), "I Want a Love I Can See" (1963), and "Oh, Mother of Mine" (1961) (the group's first single) and "Farewell My Love" (1963) both shared with Eddie Kendricks. Considered the Temptations' best dancer, Williams served as the group's original choreographer, devising routines for his group and The Supremes (most notably their trademark "Stop! In the Name of Love" routine), before Cholly Atkins took over that role for all of Motown's acts. Williams' later leads on Temptations songs include, "Just Another Lonely Night" (1965), "No More Water in the Well" (1967), and a cover version of "Hey Girl" (1969).

Williams also sang lead with Dennis Edwards, who joined in 1968, on Motown's first Grammy Award-Winner "Cloud Nine". One of his best-known lead performances is his stand out live performance of "For Once in My Life", from the television special TCB, originally broadcast on December 9, 1968 on NBC. The live version of the song "Don't Look Back" is also frequently cited as one of his standout performances. He also took over the lead vocal for live performances of "My Girl" following David Ruffin's departure from the group.

Personal problems and decline[edit]

Williams suffered from sickle-cell anemia, which frequently brought havoc on his physical health. In 1965, Williams began an affair with Winnie Brown, hair stylist for The Supremes and a relative of Supremes member Florence Ballard. In love with Brown but still devoted to his wife and children, Williams was also depressed because Cholly Atkins' presence now made Williams' former role as choreographer essentially, but not completely, obsolete. Life on the road led to Williams developing alcoholism, which was in strong contrast to drinking nothing stronger than milk. Otis Williams recounted, "So to see a guy come from drinking milk to drinking, sometimes, two to three fifths of Courvoisier a day—that was kind of hard to take."[7]

In the spring of 1969, Williams and Brown opened the Celebrity House West, a celebrity fashion boutique, in downtown Detroit.[8] The business was not as successful as planned, and Williams soon found himself owing more than $80,000 in taxes (US$591,143 in 2021 dollars[9]).[10] His health had deteriorated to the point that he would sometimes be unable to perform, suffering from combinations of exhaustion and pain which he combated with heavy drinking. Each of the other four Temptations did what they could to help Williams, alternating between raiding and draining his alcohol stashes, personal interventions, and keeping oxygen tanks backstage. Ultimately, Williams' health, as well as the quality of his performances, continued to decline and he refused to see a doctor.[11]

Because Williams's voice had become ravaged due to his respiratory illness and alcoholism, the Temptations decided to resort to enlisting an on-hand fill-in for him. Richard Street, then-lead singer of fellow Motown act The Monitors and formerly lead singer of The Distants, was hired to travel with The Temptations and sing all of Williams' parts, save for Williams' special numbers such as "Don't Look Back" and "For Once in My Life", from backstage behind a curtain.[12][13] When Williams was not well enough to go on, Street took his place onstage. In April 1971, Williams was finally persuaded to go see a doctor. The doctor found a spot on Williams' liver and advised him to retire from the group altogether. Williams left the group and Street became his permanent replacement. In support of helping Williams get back on his feet, he was paid his one-fifth share of the group's royalties, and kept on the payroll as an advisor and choreographer for the next two years.[14][15]

Attempted solo career[edit]

By early 1973, Williams began recording solo material for Motown. Kendricks, who had quit the Temptations just before Williams left, produced and co-wrote Williams' first single, "Feel Like Givin' Up", with "Once You Had a Heart" as its b-side. However, by the following summer, Motown declined to release the single.[16]


On August 17, 1973, Williams was found dead inside a car parked in an alley having just left the new house of his then-girlfriend after an argument. A gun was found near his body. His death was ruled as an apparent suicide.[17][18] According to Otis Williams, Paul had expressed suicidal thoughts to him and Melvin Franklin months before his death.[19]

Williams's funeral was held on August 24, with his family and former bandmates in attendance. He was survived by his wife, Mary Agnes Williams, and five children: Sarita, Kenneth, Paula, Mary and Paul Jr.[10] Paul Jr later joined a Temptations splinter group, The Temptations Review featuring Dennis Edwards. Williams also had three other children, Paul Williams Lucas, Anthony Johnson, and Derrick Vinyard, with three girlfriends.[20] Williams is buried at Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery, Clinton Township, Macomb County, Michigan in Lot 275, Grave #4, Section #G.

The circumstances surrounding Williams's death caused the Williams family to suspect that some form of foul play was the actual cause of Williams's death. According to the coroner, Williams had used his right hand to shoot himself on the left side of his head. In addition, a bottle of alcohol was found near Williams's left side, as if he had dropped it while being shot. The gun used in the shooting was found to have fired two shots, only one of which had killed Williams.[21]


As a member of the Temptations, Paul Williams was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999, and the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2013.[22][23][24] Both of his solo recordings were later released by Motown on Temptations-related compilations in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1998, NBC aired The Temptations, a four-hour television miniseries based upon an autobiographical book by Otis Williams. Paul Williams was portrayed by actor Christian Payton.

The music video for the Diana Ross song "Missing You" pays tribute to Marvin Gaye, Florence Ballard, and Paul Williams, all former Motown artists who had died.


  1. ^ Ribowsky 2010, p. 10.
  2. ^ Ribowsky 2010, pp. 10–12.
  3. ^ Ribowsky 2010, pp. 12–3.
  4. ^ Ribowsky 2010, pp. 26–7.
  5. ^ Williams & Romanowski 2002, pp. 45–9.
  6. ^ Williams & Romanowski 2002, pp. 91–2.
  7. ^ Pierce, Scott D. (November 1, 1998). "Tale of the Temptations". Deseret News.
  8. ^ Williams & Romanowski 2002, p. 141.
  9. ^ 1634–1699: McCusker, J. J. (1997). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States: Addenda et Corrigenda (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1700–1799: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1800–present: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved April 16, 2022.
  10. ^ a b Boyer, Edward (August 25, 1973). "Fans, Family Mourn Singer". Detroit Free Press. p. 10-D. Retrieved February 18, 2020 – via open access
  11. ^ Williams & Romanowski 2002, pp. 137–42.
  12. ^ Williams & Romanowski 2002, p. 142.
  13. ^ Ribowsky 2010, p. 219.
  14. ^ Williams & Romanowski 2002, p. 155.
  15. ^ Ribowsky 2010, p. 236.
  16. ^ Ribowsky 2010, p. 241.
  17. ^ Ribowsky 2010, pp. 242–3.
  18. ^ "Former Temptations Singer Found Dead". Detroit Free Press. August 19, 1973. p. 3-F. Retrieved February 18, 2020 – via open access
  19. ^ Williams & Romanowski 2002, p. 161.
  20. ^ Snell, Robert (June 25, 2011). "Temptations heir sues sister over lost royalties". The Detroit News. Archived from the original on March 3, 2013.
  21. ^ Ribowsky 2010, pp. 244–6.
  22. ^ Fricke, David; Rogers, Sheila (March 9, 1989). "The 1989 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony". Rolling Stone. Retrieved February 18, 2020.
  23. ^ Masley, Ed (April 29, 1999). "Vocal Hall of Fame". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. D-5. Retrieved February 18, 2020 – via
  24. ^ Bhatia, Kabir (August 19, 2013). "R&B Hall of Fame makes Cleveland its home... for now". WKSU. Retrieved February 18, 2020.


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