"I had Michael Jackson on my knee at 10 years old."
Ahead of his most gruelling tour in four decades, former Temptations singer Richard Street spoke to Charles Thomson about dating Diana Ross, mentoring Michael Jackson and coping with the aging process.
Thur 20th Sept 2012, Yellow Advertiser
RICHARD Street’s story could have been a sad one. By sheer bad luck, he left the group that would become the Temptations just months before they signed to Motown. As his former band mates enjoyed chart success, Richard worked in a nightclub.
However, in 1964 Richard took a job at Motown and eventually rejoined the group just in time to record the biggest hit of their career.
Speaking as he prepared for the longest tour he has performed in at least five years, the 69-year-old confided he wasn’t sure how he would hold up.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said, “but at one point we’ve got 11 shows right after one another. I haven’t done that since I was in my 20s.
“A few things have slowed down now. The voice is still there but I have to pace myself with the dance part. My mind says yes but my feet and legs say no.
“I have the other four guys for that. Every now and then I join them. I’m good for one show – I can give you all what I’ve got – but when it starts getting into five and six shows, I have to pace myself.”
In 1955 Richard joined R&B group the Distants with future Temptations Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams.
Motown folklore has been that Richard coached Diana Ross before either of them joined the label, but he denied the story when we spoke.
“Diana Ross was my girlfriend,” he exclaimed. “So I wasn’t going over there to rehearse her, I was going over there to date her!
“Melvin from the Temptations – he was going with me to hang out with the girls. We were in the Distants then with Otis, Al and Pee Wee.
“We went over there and one day they started singing and we were like, ‘What?! You all sing too?’ And they were good! So we were encouraging them.”
When Motown sprang up in Detroit in 1960, Richard was there for its official opening.
“I heard that Motown was going to open up a recording studio so I walked about 20 blocks over there to see them open the door,” he said. “I was all over that. I wanted to see it.
“I was there when they put the key in the door. None of us knew then how big Motown would become, not only in Detroit but in the whole world. It totally blew our minds away.”
Not long after the opening, the Distants had a chance encounter with label boss Berry Gordy.
“We went to watch Smokey Robinson and we saw Berry Gordy in the aisle,” Richard recalled. “We took him in the bathroom, because the bathroom always had the good echo, and we sang for him. He said he’d sign us but then it was months and we heard nothing.”
With no money coming in, Richard made the tough decision to leave the group.
“My mom needed help at home and I had to get a job, because we weren’t working back then, we were just rehearsing all day. There was no money coming in. “So I got a job and the next thing I know, they became the Temptations.”
A few years later Richard had the opportunity to begin working at Motown in a different capacity. In 1964 producer friend Norman Whitfield invited him to work in the label’s Quality Control Department.
He explained: “The engineers in the studio would cut the track and they would send it straight up to us and we would listen for faults, like if you couldn’t hear the words properly or anything like that. If there was anything wrong, we would send a memo back down to the engineer.
“Then, every Friday, we would take the finished tracks into Mr Gordy’s office and there would be 10 people in there. They would all rate each song out of 10 and that’s how they would decide what was coming out.”
The job saw Richard rub elbows with the label’s biggest stars, including Michael Jackson.
“I had Michael on my knee when he was 10 years old,” he said. “I used to play basketball with his brothers. He always wanted to be like the Temps but I told him, ‘You’re better than the Temps. Even at the age you are, you’re already something else’.”
By the late 1960s, Richard had secretly rejoined the Temptations.
Alcoholism had diminished singer Paul Williams’ ability to perform so Richard would stand backstage, secretly singing Paul’s parts as he mimed onstage.
“It really hurt me to see Paul become so sick,” Richard lamented. “The whole situation was embarrassing so they would never acknowledge me to the audience.”
Paul Williams left the group in 1971 and Richard replaced him just in time to record the group’s last two US number ones – Just My Imagination and Papa Was A Rolling Stone.
The latter became the group’s most celebrated hit, winning three Grammy Awards.
Richard recalled: “People were saying, ‘It’s over for them’ when Paul left. It was great that we proved them wrong. We came back bigger! I was just glad to be back with my brothers.”
While chart success largely evaded the group after Papa Was A Rolling Stone, awards kept rolling in and in 1989 Richard and his fellow Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Now, in-between tours, Richard is recording new music and working on a book.
“It’s songs that the Temptations made before,” he said of the album, “but with a different sound and different beats to bring them up to now. I’ve got six done and I’ve got four more to do.”
The book is ‘almost done’: “Every time I think it’s done, I want to put some more stuff in there. I don’t want to rush it out. I want to put in everything I remember.
“I’m telling my version. It’s one man’s point of view as a black man growing up in America. Because it’s not just about the Temptations, it’s about my life. The struggles, the ups, the downs, the fights, the failures. A lot of stuff went on that I didn’t like. It’ll all be in the book.”
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