He was, quite simply, the Voice. The name Ali Ollie Woodson may not be familiar to large numbers of readers, but to those in the Soul music business he was known as one of the greatest singers of his generation. In a career that spanned over three decades, he worked as lead singer for the Drifters and (the post-Teddy Pendergrass) Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. He also served as guest vocalist on dozens of recordings of artists from Freda Payne to Paul Jackson, and as a backing vocalist for Whitney Houston, Rachelle Ferelle and Aretha Franklin. However, his true coming out was as the lead singer of the Temptations from 1984-1996.
Temptations fans consider the late 70s as perhaps the group's darkest days, culminating with the departure of lead singer Dennis Edwards and the group's ill-fated move to Atlantic Records. The group's return to Motown in 1980 brought some commercial life (and Edwards) back to the group, but the continuing revolving door of group members and producers resulted in a series of mediocre albums. Then, when Edwards again quit the Tempts in 1984, the group called upon Woodson to take over lead vocals and former Earth Wind & Fire guitarist Al McKay to produce Truly for You. The result was the greatest Temptations album of the decade, and a permanent place for Woodson alongside Edwards and David Ruffin in Temptations history. His gritty, expressive voice was the perfect contrast to the classically smooth Temptations' harmonies, and his ability to delicately handle ballads gave the group a versatility it generally didn't have during the Edwards years. He also brought along songwriting skills, co-penning "Treat Her Like A Lady," the smash hit from that album.
His work on the next year's To Be Continued... was equally impressive, particularly the powerful ballad "Someone," perhaps Woodson's finest recorded moment. Oddly, Edwards rejoined the group, replacing Woodson in 1987 for Together Again, but was gone again within a year. Woodson then reassumed the lead vocals spot through a handful of lesser albums, as the group struggled to find a contemporary sound. Finally in 1995 the Temptations released For Lovers Only, a disc of covers of classic pop songs that brought renewed interest in the group.
By 1996, Woodson left the Temptations for good, and fans anticipated that a solo album would soon be on the horizon. Instead, he worked on a number of different projects, performing in a series of stageplays, providing backing vocals on several soul and jazz albums, touring with other former Temptations Damon Harris and Richard Street , and briefly forming a group with two former Supremes. Ultimately, he created the Emperors of Soul, a touring group covering Tempations' and other Motown hits which received positive reviews around the US.
It would be five years before Ralph Tee of Expansion Records would get Woodson back into the studio to record Right Here All Along, Woodson's long overdue first solo album. It was a solid disc, and received kudos in most Soul music publications, which especially raved over his version of the ballad "Turn Out the Stars" (also covered at around the same time by the Manhattans).
In 2002 Woodson was offered the lead vocalist position in the Spinners when poor health forced John Edwards to leave the group, but he instead recommended friend Frank Washington, who is now successfully fronting that group. Woodson continued to tour with Emperors of Soul, and was seen on national TV as Aretha Franklin's dynamic duet partner on the Spring 2003 PBS concert special, "Rhythm, Soul & Love." He also appeared on Juewett Bostick's 2003 album It's Not So Easy, singing "You Need Love." Woodson later joined Dennis Edwards' group, the Temptations Revue, ironically singing alongside the former Tempts member he replaced during his second stint with the mothership.
Reports began circulating in early 2009 that Woodson was ill. But by Spring of that year he had released his second album, Never Give Up, on his own Ollywood Records and continued his public appearances. Sadly, he died on Sunday, May 30, 2010 of cancer. He will be terribly missed by soul music lovers.
by Chris Rizik