A Motown 'Silent Night' That Echoes Down the Years
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page C01

In the winter of 1989, I lost my mind and moved from the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Detroit, an inexplicable adventure that led me to discover sub-zero temperatures, some of the best musicians in the Western Hemisphere and my nominee for the best Christmas songs ever recorded.

A bold claim, I know. But this is a Christmas story about a time and place largely gone now, and I remember them both with great affection, and if I am swayed by season and nostalgia, then I just don't care. Because the first time I heard the Temptations' once-in-a-lifetime take of "Silent Night" -- the most Detroit, Motownized, gospelized Christmas song that it is possible to squeeze into six minutes -- was late one night in a Motor City bar where old Motown session musicians could sometimes be found.

The Temptations' lineup when they recorded "Silent Night": From left, Otis Williams, Richard Street, Melvin Franklin, Dennis Edwards and Glenn Leonard. (AP)

It was a freezing, gloomy winter, and I was living alone in a rough, unfinished loft in a rough, unfinished part of town. The loft was above a pizzeria and down the alley from the morgue. There were mornings I walked down the alley, my footprints the only ones in the crunching snow, and they would be loading or unloading a heavy black bag from a hearse. It put the day in a certain perspective.

I worked at a newspaper for my pay, and in the evenings I ran a tab at a jazz dive called BoMacs, about three blocks from the morgue. They had terrific live music, greasy fish sandwiches and a generous pour. They were scarce with the lights and heavy with the heat in the winter and I liked it. You could sit at the bar and if you didn't start none there wouldn't be none.

It had to be closing time just before Christmas when, perhaps after the last set, someone turned on the recording of a deep voice reciting the start of " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" over some twiddly organ-sounding thing. I rolled my eyes and started to drain the last of my drink when someone cranked up the volume. The song took a sharp turn. The drums kicked in with a downbeat intro, a da dum da dum, and then an electrifying preacher's voice said:

In my mind . . .

The guy next to me, I recall, said: "There go Dennis."

The drums and bass and a male chorus swooped in: tenor, baritone, bass. Together they took an irresistible four-note walk up the scale, whoo-ooh-ooh-OOH, and then the gritty preacher's voice said: I want you to be free . . .

And then they came back down the same doo-wop staircase, OOH-ooh-ooh-ooh.

For all of our friends, I want you to listen to me . . .

The bass was so deep and the music so loud the stool beneath me seemed to vibrate. I was transfixed, there in the dim light and cigarette haze.

We wish you a meeeeeerrrrrrryyy Christmas . . .

All the voices came together and then out of nowhere an unearthly falsetto voice appeared in the darkness of the bar. It was gliding, swooning, sailing over the rest of the voices. It was the first time I had any idea of what they were singing.

Siiiilllleeennntttt Niiiiiggghhhtttt. . . . HooOOOllly NiiIIIIggghtttttt . . .

The guy next to me said: "That's Eddie there."

Somebody else: "Nah, man, that ain't Eddie. That's the brother what replaced him, what's his name."

"You don't mean David."

"Hell no I don't mean David. David was original Temps. I mean, what's his name. That other brother."

I was half listening to this conversation -- it would turn out the name they were looking for was Glenn Leonard -- and half listening to the song fill the place. Some people were at the tables, talking, finishing their drinks, the lights coming up now. It was late and time to go home. And yet I sat there.

Go on and rest your mind . . . and slllllleeeeepppp . . .

Melvin Franklin, he of the basso profundo voice, took a turn on the second verse, and what was most striking about the song unfolding was that this group known for Motown romance and the dance step known as the Temps Walk was doing a song of the Christian faith seriously.

The original five members of the Temptations had grown up in the Deep South and in the church, by which I mean the Protestant black church -- Baptist, really, of the type where it is pronounced "Babdist" -- and it was always one of the group's hallmarks that the gospel influence of their youth had infused the voices of their adult years.

But this was something else entirely. This was gospel emotion over a Motown beat with the lyrics of a classic European hymn. "Silent Night" was written nearly 200 years ago by a Austrian priest and a composer. The first time it was played was on Christmas Eve, 1818, in Oberndorf. By 1900 it had become a sacred classic, narrating the birth of the Christ child, God's son on Earth.

Alllllllll issssss callllmmmm, allllLLLLllll iisss brrriiiIIIght.

I had grown up down south in the Babdist church, too -- my mother played piano and organ in the church for 40 years -- and I had heard and sung that song since I was a tot. It was church. You didn't play with it.

And yet, I was sitting on a bar stool in urban Detroit these many years later, the streets outside were deserted and some of the deadliest in America, and there was the gritty voice of Dennis Edwards, the guy who did the lead on "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," and he was straight out preaching over the song's sacred verses.

As I sit around by the fireplace

Watching the gleaming tree

If I had one wish in this world

It would be that all men would be free.

"It was like magic," recalls Gil Askey, the veteran Motown composer, in an e-mail from his home in Australia. "If you've ever been in the Holiness Church, and seen those sisters scream when they're filled with the Spirit, you will know how I felt, or shall I say how the Temptations felt. They didn't want to stop, just grooved on out."

I don't know if the folks at BoMacs played that song from the radio or from a tape in the back. But it ended soon enough and the end-of-the-night clatter resumed. I drank up, paid up and left. I walked home to my loft and I felt both exhilarated and empty. Thrilled at how the song seemed to still hum in my bones. Empty because it was over and the night was long and there was no one to talk to. When something reaches out and touches your soul in the dark, it's not something you turn on the TV and forget.

The Temps' version of "Silent Night" is now nearly 25 years old. You can hear it on any pop radio station this time of year. Their "Christmas Collection" CD, which features the song, is No. 1 on Billboard's chart for older R&B albums this week.

Mark Anthony Neal, professor of popular black culture at Duke University and the editor of "That's the Joint!," rated the song in a recent article as one of his Top 10 Soul Christmas songs. "It's maybe half the original Temptations members on that record, it's one of the last things Dennis Edwards did with them, and I think you just have to call it the last really great Temps song," he says.

Leonard Pitts Jr., a music critic for 18 years, author and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, wrote the liner notes for the Temps compilation CD. There's no doubt, he says, that "Silent Night" is a transcendent moment.

"The arrangement is extraordinary. But spiritually, emotionally, it catches something above the hubbub, the lights, the shopping and Santa Claus, to what Christmas is actually all about," Pitts says. "It took the song back to its Christian origins and didn't do it in lip-service fashion. . . . If the hair on your arms isn't standing up by the second verse, you need to check your pulse."

So this is the part in the story when I tell you how the song was recorded at Motown in Detroit, at the tiny "Hitsville USA" studios on West Grand Boulevard on a snowy winter night back in the day, with the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Aretha's daddy) doing the arrangements, and I would love to, except for the fact that it isn't true.

The best Christmas song ever put to disc was recorded off Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles in a couple of hours on a sunny day in the summer of 1980, according to Otis Williams, the only surviving original Temptations member.

"Gil Askey had the arrangements there when we went over to his house, so we sat down and worked out the melody line and vocals," says Williams, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. "Then we went to the studio. I think it took a couple of hours."

Dennis Edwards, who replaced the legendary David Ruffin as the group's lead vocalist (but who was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the others), earlier this week was shivering at his home in St. Louis, where the wind chill was 8 below. He bursts into a laugh when asked about his preachifying.

"It came from my background, being a preacher's son," he says. His father "had a little storefront church, the Macedonia Church of God in Christ, at 964 East Canfield in Detroit. Started out with about four members. I had grown up in that church, so sure, I knew 'Silent Night.' But this arrangement was so different. They played back the tape to us and there was an empty spot at the front. They said, 'Do something right in there.' So it just came out, like I was back at church. There was nothing written, nothing scripted. . . . Each year, I have to go back and listen to it again before we do Christmas concerts so I can remember what it was I said."

The passing of the years has lent the song, and the place where I first heard it, a bittersweet history.

The bar, BoMacs, is long gone, as are many of the older Motown session musicians I sometimes saw there.

Four of the five original Temptations are dead. Paul Williams, a suicide victim, has been dead for 31 years. David Ruffin died of an overdose in 1991. Eddie Kendricks died of lung cancer the next year.

Melvin Franklin, the sweet man whose deep voice is so prominent on "Silent Night," died after a series of seizures in 1995. In the wildly popular 1998 television miniseries about the group, it is his death that is the emotional coda to the film and the group's history. Sitting there, watching Smokey Robinson sing "Really Gonna Miss You" at Melvin's funeral, I confess I had a knot in my throat.

Perhaps that is why, as I walked home on a recent, frosty evening, when the radio on my headphones turned to "Silent Night," my step slowed and I paused, there in the cold. I closed my eyes waiting for the stoplight to change and remembered the winter in Detroit and the frost on the window glass and the first time I heard that song.

Lost among the footsteps and pinched faces of a million strangers headed home in the falling darkness, I wished that it wasn't all over. I wished that I could turn the corner and walk back into that bar in Detroit for one more round, one more song, before they closed the place and left us walking, streetlight to streetlight, through the long and empty night to come.

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