(December 12, 2022). As we move deeper and deeper into the digital and streaming age, some longstanding musical traditions are seemingly being left behind.

Or at least they’re not being acknowledged for the true classics they are.

Temptations circa 1980 (l-r: Otis Williams, Richard Street, Mel Franklin, Dennis Edwards, and Glenn Leonard). Only Williams and Leonard are still alive.

There’s no bigger example of this occurring than with one particular Motown classic that stands as perhaps the last great triumph the group The Temptations ever had: their 1980 soul-stirring take on the two-century-old chestnut, “Silent Night.” 

That year, the Temptations’ original bass vocalist Melvin Franklin, lead baritone/tenor Dennis Edwards, and second-lead Glenn Leonard (the one doing that falsetto part that everyone thinks is former member Eddie Kendricks) took us on a six-minute gospel journey through one of the most time-honored European hymns in history, transforming it into a tune more soulful than even some of the more secular R&B jams of the late 20th century.  

Even the late Mel Franklin got to sing a whole verse himself—a rarity for the deep-voiced founding member of the venerable doo-wop quintet.

Indeed, the Temptations’ take on “Silent Night” was the churchiest thing any Motown pop/soul group had ever put on tape, with Edwards’ spoken-word rap (“In my mind, I want you to be free…”) coming across like a pastor sing-preaching the gospel and giving the song far more heft than its Austrian priest lyricist ever could have imagined when he penned it in 1818.

It was easily the most important song the Temps had recorded since “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” some eight years earlier, and far more significant than anything that came after.  “Silent Night” made the Temptations album containing it—Give Love At Christmas—a must-have in Black households and many non-Black ones as well.

The Temptations’ 1980 album ‘Give Love At Christmas’ featuring “Silent Night”

“Silent Night” stood like a beacon of light over every Christmas for years to come, seemingly outshining even Rudolph’s bright red nose and guiding the way for Santa to make his annual trek into millions of households on the eve of Jesus’ birth.

As a song that narrated the details of the Christian faith’s holiest moment, “Silent Night” was most appropriately played on Christmas Eve, but usually heard during the weeks leading up to the actual holiday.  Generations of Black families knew the song—particularly the Temps’ version—and no Christmas season was considered complete without it.

The Billboard holiday charts even reflected the song’s immense popularity back then.  During the mid-1980s, when the trade magazine periodically published its Christmas music charts in December, the Temptations’ Give Love At Christmas album could be found in the top 10 alongside pop nuggets by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and the Carpenters.

Billboard Magazine’s Christmas chart for December 17, 1983 (Temptations’ album is at No. 6)

In addition to their once-in-a-lifetime spin on one of music’s most sacred hymns, the Temps’ “Silent Night” benefited from a still-young rock and roll era where the number of artists vying for attention at Christmastime—and the media options available for consumers to hear them—were far fewer than what exists today.  In the days before streaming and digital downloads, music consumers were largely limited to those artists being supported by mainstream terrestrial radio, and the Temptations were chief among them.  

Today, however, tells a different story.

As the world has moved into the digital and streaming age, the Temptations’ tune has seen less and less of a presence on the charts, namely the Billboard Holiday 100, which tracks radio play, downloads and streaming of all Christmas holiday tunes during the last five or six weeks of each year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

When Billboard began its more modern version of the Holiday chart in 2011–first with 50 positions, then expanding it to 100 starting in 2013–the Temptations’ classic was still a moderately high-charting staple.

During the 2011 holiday period, “Silent Night” began its perennial trek up the chart, entering late in the season—a delay attributed to the song not really flourishing until Christmas Eve approached—and peaking at No. 33.  The following year, the song rose to a high of No. 49.

In 2013, “Silent Night” reached its highest peak yet at No. 27.  The next year: No. 28.

In the years that followed, “Silent Night” saw significantly lower chart peaks. In 2015: No. 36; 2016: No. 42; 2017: No. 78; 2018: 76, and 2019: 75 (as shown on the chart below).

Christmas Year“Silent Night” chart peak

Until finally, in 2020, the Temptations’ light was seemingly extinguished and “Silent Night” was nowhere to be found.  The song didn’t even make the list that year or in 2021. 

Instead, more pop-oriented versions of “Silent Night” by Carrie Underwood, Pentatonix and even Bing Crosby have been dotting the Holiday 100 in recent years. 

And while the jury is still out for 2022, “Silent Night” by the Temptations has yet to make an entry on the Holiday 100 this season, with just a few weeks remaining.  Meanwhile, songs recorded as early as the 1940s continue to make annual treks to the upper reaches of the chart.

While only two of the Temptations’ original members performed on the 1980 tune (Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin had left years earlier, Paul Williams died by suicide in 1973), Mel Franklin, and replacement singers Dennis Edwards and Glenn Leonard came together to create a gospel-pop masterpiece, one that stands as tall in their musical catalog as any of their other big non-holiday hits.

Now with Franklin and Edwards deceased and Leonard long since having left the group, hearing “Silent Night” is a bittersweet reminder of those sweet harmonies often—if not always—heard in Christmases past.  

And while the passage of time makes the recent events understandable, it is a sad testimony to the diminishing presence in American culture of this transcendental tune that was once as ubiquitous in certain households as Santa himself…maybe even more so.

What does all of this mean?  Well, nothing if you’re still among the many who consider the holiday classic a must-hear during every Christmas season—one that continues a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation for four decades and will likely continue to be for years to come…regardless of what the charts tell you.

Still it would be nice to see the Tempting Temptations (and their former members’ estates) get their due.

Perhaps it’s time for longtime Temptations fans to start a TikTok campaign featuring the song on some user-made video…one that, with any luck, will go viral.  

Or maybe the Temptations’ lone surviving original member Otis Williams should start pulling a page from a certain Christmas Queen’s handbook and declaring “It’s Time” before launching each holiday season with a social media reminder of which soul group is still considered among America’s greatest—a group that created the quintessential soul Christmas classic that once was in everyone’s minds around this time of year. 



Keeper of the soul flame DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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By DJ Rob

6 thoughts on “‘In my mind,’ this Temptations’ classic is still THE Christmas tune, despite what the charts (and millennials) say…”
  1. There are several soul/R&B classic Christmas tunes that define the holiday season for me. It’s not Christmas until I hear these songs on the radio which awakens the spirit of the holiday.
    Silent Night by the Temptations,
    Gee Whiz it’s Christmas by Carla Thomas
    Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto by James Brown, Santa Baby by Eartha Kitt, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer by the Cadillacs, Christmas in Hollis by Run DMC, and of course What you want for Christmas by The Quad-City DJs and the 69 Boyz. But, it all starts with Silent Night by the Temptations. Thanks DJ Rob Merry Christmas Bro!

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