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.
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.