August 16, 1973 – Paul Williams was born on July 2nd 1939 in Birmingham, Alabama.
He was the son of Sophia and Rufus Williams, a gospel singer in a gospel music vocal group called the Ensley Jubilee Singers. 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. As teenagers, Williams, Kendricks, and Kell Osborne and Willie Waller performed in a secular singing group known as The Cavaliers, with dreams of making it big in the music industry. In 1957, Williams, Kendricks, and Osbourne 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.
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.”
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), a cover version of “Hey Girl” (1969), and his signature song “Don’t Look Back” (1965).
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.
Williams suffered from sickle-cell anemia, which frequently wreaked 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 was starting to take its toll on Williams as well, and, having previously consumed nothing stronger than milk, he began to drink alcohol heavily, namely Courvoisier, which, according to Otis Williams, was hard to take.
In the spring of 1969, Williams and Brown opened a celebrity fashion boutique in downtown Detroit. The business was not as successful as planned, and Williams soon found himself owing more than $80,000 in taxes. 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, but Williams’ health, as well as the quality of his performances, continued to decline and he refused to see a doctor.
Otis Williams and the other Temptations decided to resort to enlisting an on-hand fill-in for Paul Williams. 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. 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, The Temptations continued to pay Williams his same one-fifth share of the group’s earnings, and kept Williams on their payroll as an advisor and choreographer, and Williams continued to help the group with routines and dance moves for the next two years.
By early 1973, Williams made his return to Motown’s Hitsville USA recording studios, and began working on solo material. Kendricks, who had quit the Temptations just before Williams left, produced and co-wrote Williams’ first single, “Feel Like Givin’ Up”, which was to have been issued on Motown’s Gordy imprint with “Once You Had a Heart” as its b-side. However, after Williams’ death was ruled a suicide in August 1973, Motown decided to shelve the sides, because the song “Feel Like Givin’ Up” was just too literal to bear and the single was not released.
On August 17, 1973, Paul Williams was found dead in an alley in the car having just left the new house of his then-girlfriend after an argument. He was 34. A gun was found near his body. His death was ruled a suicide by the coroner; Williams had expressed suicidal thoughts to Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin months before his death.
The circumstances surrounding Williams’ death caused the Williams family to suspect that some form of foul play was the actual cause of Williams’ death. According to details in the coroner’s report, there were three reasons to suspect foulplay: 1. Williams had used his right hand to shoot himself on the left side of his head. 2. A bottle of alcohol was found near Williams’ left side, as if he had dropped it while being shot. 3. The gun used in the shooting was found to have fired two shots, only one of which had killed Williams.
As a member of the Temptations, Paul Williams was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2013. Both of his solo recordings were later released by Motown on Temptations-related compilations in the 1980s and 1990s.
A DETROIT MOTOWN STORY:
Detroit— Kenneth Williams went to prison for strangling his great-aunt with a telephone cord in 1989, the same year his father Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Before entering prison, the younger Williams asked his sister to save his share of royalty checks he inherited from his dad, Paul Williams, one of the original members of the Temptations, the superstar Motown group known for the hits “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
“I figured I was well off,” Kenneth Williams, 49, told The Detroit News.
The Redford Township man was released from prison in July after serving more than 20 years and discovered the money — estimated at more than $200,000 — was gone. His sister, Paula Williams, spent it, according to a complaint he filed against her in federal court in Detroit.
The accusation serves as another sad footnote to the legacy of Motown legend Paul Williams, the baritone singer who choreographed the group’s stylish dance moves, and who died in 1973 under murky circumstances. And it is the latest in a long line of fights over one of the most consistently lucrative commodities to come out of Detroit in 51 years: Motown royalties.
The accusations add a new layer of drama to one of the most successful, and tragic, acts in the Motown Records stable. It is a stable filled with stars whose success and tragedies — including premature deaths, murder, drug addiction and legal woes — have inspired Broadway musicals, TV movies and reams of tell-all books.
Federal and Wayne County court records expose a fight within a family dogged by disaster in the decades after Paul Williams and four friends topped the charts.
Thanks to all those hits, Williams’ heirs split about $80,000 a year in Motown royalties based on sales of the group’s music, Paul Williams’ likeness and other rights. The royalties were paid out twice a year.
Motown money fights, which are not unique to the Williams family, are somewhat ironic, said Peter Benjaminson, author of “The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard.”
“When Motown started, there weren’t any significant royalties for most people,” he said. “The average rock star had one hit, then tried for another one, failed, and went to work at a factory.
“One of the big surprises for Motown and everyone who worked for it is how long the songs have lasted and sold.”
It’s hard for Paul Williams Jr., who was 7 years old when his father died, to say whether the royalties are a blessing or a curse.
“Money, ugh,” Paul Jr. said. “What money does to people, I don’t understand.”
His sister Paula declined comment through her lawyer.
The Williams family has been fighting for Motown royalties since Aug. 17, 1973, the day Paul Williams died at age 34 of what police said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had left the Temptations in 1971.
He was coping with health and personal issues at the time and was estranged from his wife, Mary Agnes Williams. A divorce was pending.
In 1987, 14 years after he died, the family reopened Paul Williams’ estate to pursue royalties owed by Motown and determine his rightful heirs, a complicated task because Williams died without a will.
Williams’ family accused Motown of not paying any royalties after the singer died.
The family claimed it was owed $195,000. But Motown said the family could not pursue royalties that were more than 6 years old.
The family eventually settled in March 1988 for $96,520. That covered the years 1981 through June 1987.
Next, Wayne County Probate Judge Joseph Pernick had to divide the royalty pie and determine shares and heirs.
Williams had three daughters and two sons — Sarita, Paula and Mary and Kenneth and Paul Jr. — with wife Mary Agnes.
Before he died, Paul Williams acknowledged fathering a sixth child, son Paul Williams Lucas.
The royalty pie was about to be divided — when a seventh child surfaced, a son born in 1968 to one of Paul Williams’ girlfriends.
Derrick Vinyard, who was 5 when Paul Williams died, wanted a share of the Motown royalties.
Paula Williams denied that Vinyard was an heir.
The Motown star’s brother, however, disagreed.
Johnny Williams said his brother never denied being Vinyard’s father, according to a 1988 deposition transcript filed in the probate case.
Johnny Williams said he saw Paul and Vinyard’s mother on dates at the Fox Theatre and the Twenty Grand nightclub. And there were rumors Paul Williams had fathered twins in Cleveland.
“He’s a breeder,” Johnny Williams said of his brother during the deposition.
The judge concluded Vinyard was an heir — and divided the late Motown star’s past and future royalties.
Paul Williams’ widow would get one-third. The seven children would split the rest equally.
In January 1989, the family agreed to have Paula parcel out the royalty checks to her four siblings and mother twice a year.
The two half siblings receive their money directly from the record company.
‘Prison saved my life’
Kenneth Williams didn’t have long to enjoy the windfall.
On July 18, 1989, he killed his 81-year-old great-aunt Mary Bryant inside her bungalow on Detroit’s northwest side. She was shot in the head and strangled with a telephone cord, which a neighbor found wrapped three times around the woman’s throat, according to a published report.
Kenneth Williams was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison.
“I was out of my mind on crack cocaine,” Williams said. “I was out of control. Prison basically saved my life.”
Young Kenneth had lived a charmed life before the death of his father.
Kenneth spent nights on the road with his father and the group in Las Vegas, Miami and Atlanta.
“Where the show went, I went,” he said.
Kenneth, nicknamed “Bossman” by his dad, spent afternoons learning from Temptations frontman Dennis Edwards how to make paper airplanes, which he threw out a window from an upper floor of Motown headquarters along Woodward.
Kenneth was 11 when his father died. The outgoing youngster turned angry, rebellious and “was put out of every school in Detroit.”
“I was lost,” he said. “I lost my best friend.”
At 19, he smoked his first joint.
At 25, he tried cocaine.
At 27, “that —- took me to another place,” he says.
That’s how old he was when he strangled his great-aunt. He turned 28 just before heading to prison.
“I was trying to deal with why I was in prison and what made me go there,” he said. “The money? I wasn’t even thinking about it.”
He thought the cash was safe during the 7,536 days he spent in prison. He was released July 23, after serving more than 20 years.
Money was gone
He soon learned his cash was gone and confronted his sister, who admitted spending the money, he alleges in a court filing.
“She thought he was never going to get out of prison,” his lawyer Kenneth Burger wrote in a lawsuit.
Paul Williams Jr., told The Detroit News he hasn’t received his full share of royalties in years from Paula.
“She’s doing it to all of us,” Paul Jr. of Sterling Heights said. “She did right by us for 10 years, but she’s been slipping since then. It’s greed.”
Kenneth, meanwhile, works 15-hour days at construction sites while his lawsuit against his sister and Motown successor Universal Music Group is pending in federal court. He alleges breach of contract, negligence, fraud and conspiracy, among other charges, and wants unspecified damages.
It’s a complicated fight because his sister filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in Detroit in December.
The bankruptcy filing provides rare insight into the value of Motown royalties because Paula had to list how much she received in recent years.
She received $40,594 in 2008. A year later, the Motown royalties rose to $58,036, according to the filing.
Kenneth Williams has asked Universal to send future payments directly to his house.
He refuses to be bitter or angry despite the fight with his sister.
“I’m still there for her if she needs me,” Williams said. “But I don’t trust people after what I’ve been through. We live in a wicked world.”