Falling hard for the Temptations’ “Silent Night”
I first fell for the Temptations’ “Silent Night” like a woman in love. I couldn’t get enough of hearing Dennis Edward’s stirring lyrics and Melvin Franklin’s deep barrel of a voice. And who was that guy singing so high that it gave me goose bumps?
I don’t exactly remember when I fell for this soulful version of the 1818 Austrian song heralding the birth of Christ. I do know that it captured my heart and my head and wouldn’t let go. To most folks, it is a religious song, but the Temptations sang it like it was secular.
It’s almost like listening to Marvin Gaye singing the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. I’m certain it’s not what Franz Gruber/Joseph Mohr or Francis Scott Key had in mind when they wrote their tunes, but the Temptations gave new meaning to both of those classics.
“Silent Night” is essentially a love song – albeit a spiritual one – and these five talented men imbibed it with an energy that reshaped its message and transcended its origins. It reached down into a place that made you want to dance and sway and praise all at the same time to the slow sensual beat of the background music.
The song is on the Gordy LP “Give Love At Christmas,” eight tracks recorded in 1980, with “Silent Night” the longest at 6 minutes. Here are two versions of the song: one the LP recording and a live version with Richard Street (not the Temp on the album) singing tenor. The Temps had recorded a standard rendition 10 years before on “The Temptations’ Christmas Card” with Eddie Kendricks but it apparently didn’t match this one.
I loved the song so much that I played it over and over again. I played it so often – not every now and then but continuously – that a friend would chide me for doing so. She never tired of telling me the story of how another friend who lived in an apartment above mine would tell her about how I played the song to death. I heard that story for over a decade, but that didn’t dissuade me. It was a song to be played and listened to repeatedly.
Lately, though, I wondered if I were the only one in love with it. Googling, I found other odes to the song, along with YouTube videos. I was not alone.
I had always seen the song as a group effort, recognizing the voices of Edwards – who could forget his intro that made the song so personal? – and Franklin, but never considered the identity of the singer with the high-pitched voice. He was Glenn Leonard, who joined the Temps in 1975 after Paul Williams left (and committed suicide in 1973) and had gone through a string of replacements. They were not my Temps of the 1960s so I had drifted away from them.
Leonard replaced Damon Harris who had been with the Temptations since 1971, replacing Kendricks. (Edwards had replaced David Ruffin back in 1968.) Leonard would remain with the group until 1983. Street also came on board in 1971 (for years he had been in the background singing for Paul Williams, who was battling alcoholism). Street and Harris died within a week or so of each other earlier this year.
The new version of “Silent Night” was produced, arranged and conducted by Gil Askey, with most of the work done at his home in Los Angeles during the summer of 1980, according to a 2004 article by Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker who recalled when he first heard it and was as smitten as me. Along with Edwards, Franklin and Leonard, the other Temptations at the time were Otis Williams and Street. The album was released in August 1980.
Askey was a songwriter/composer, producer, musical director and musical arranger at Motown. A jazz trumpeter, he was in the thick of creating the Motown sound and is a legend in its history.
The reporter Tucker mentioned a little about the production of the song, based on his conversations with several of the members:
“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,” Otis Williams told the reporter. “Then we went to the studio. I think it took a couple of hours.”
Edwards said that he was reaching back into his days of singing in his preacher father’s storefront church in Detroit for those impromptu lead-in lyrics that set the tone for the song.
In my mind
I want you to be free
For all of our friends,
To listen to me
Now hear what I say
We wish you a Merry Christmas (Merry Christmas)
To each one of you (To all of you)
“There was nothing written, nothing scripted,” he told the reporter.
The lyrics were clearly from the soul, and maybe that’s why the song sounds so good and is so touching. They were singing from a belief that ran as deep as that espoused by Langston Hughes in his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
On the album, Leonard’s first name is misspelled – it has two n’s. Franklin is identified with his birth name – David “Melvin” English. Franklin is his stepfather’s surname, which he took as his stage name.
“Everybody liked ‘Silent Night’ when we did it but I don’t think anybody really thought that it was going to be played every year,” he said.” But it caught on and now it’s become a classic.”
A classic that I will continue to play over and over again each Christmas. If you’re also mad for this song, drop me a line and tell me about it.