This is the sad story of Paul Williams — not the little blond fellow who wrote the songs that brightened the ’70s while simultaneously necessitating punk rock, but the Paul Williams who was the true soul of The Temptations. He had the style, he had the moves, and he had the voice.
Paul Williams taught the Temptations how to dress and how to dance
Early on, Williams was one of the group’s two lead singers (alongside Eddie Kendricks), and the dude who taught them all how to dress and how to dance. When the Motown machine took over, their producers pushed Paul in the background in favor of other singers in the group (first David Ruffin and then Dennis Edwards) while the label’s “charm school” took over the Tempts’ fashion and footwork. Paul still got to shine on occasion — on the hit “Don’t Look Back” and his gut-wrenching take on “For Once In My Life” that was the climax of the Tempts’ live shows — but as his role in his group faded, he turned to a crippling diet of booze and cigarettes that pushed him even further out of the spotlight. Too drunk to remember the lyrics and too wrecked to stay on key, the band resorted to turning his mic off during concerts while another singer belted out his parts from behind the stage. When he was too weak (or too tanked) to pull off even the most basic moves on stage, the group just paid him to stay home. With nothing to wake up for but going back to bed, Paul sat, drank, seethed, and tried to convince the other Temptations to put him back on the road, saying he’d kill himself if they didn’t.
Williams warmed up on the first take and leveled the room on the second
Seeing his groupmate and childhood friend was hitting bottom, Eddie Kendricks tossed him a lifeline by convincing Motown that Paul Williams could make it as a solo artist. Eddie wrote him a song and the label set up the session with the lowest of expectations. After all, if Williams couldn’t even sing backup with his own band, how could he deliver the goods on his own? But somehow, miraculously, he did. He warmed up on the first take and leveled the room on the second. The song is heart wrenching enough on paper (“when I give you lovin’, you don’t return it, you just chalk it up as another conquest, you couldn’t care less”), but through Paul’s tortured performance it becomes a literal suicide note. And, sadly, that’s not hyperbole. A couple of weeks later, Paul Williams pulled his car over a few blocks away from Motown’s famed studio and shot himself. Motown shelved the single, feeling, rightly, that releasing a song like “I Feel Like Giving Up” in the wake of William’s suicide would be too much for anyone to take. It took 25 years to get released, and the song lost none of its power with time. It’s as harrowing and anguished as its backstory promises, and as painfully beautiful as any soul record ever cut. Otis Redding may have claimed the name “Mr. Pitiful,” but he had nothing on what Paul put down in his last, desperate chance to be heard.