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A Motown 'Silent Night' That Echoes Down the Years

Watching the gleaming tree

If I had one wish in this world

It would be that all men would be free.

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

"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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