Dear Michael and Caroline,
On a Saturday night in May of 1970, my friends Larry and Eric and I, each of us then 17 years old, performed in the annual talent show of Fair Lawn High School in Bergen County, New Jersey. We chose to do an act that came naturally to us. We three upper-middle-class Jewish white boys, just months away from going off to college, impersonated the Temptations, the all-black Motown musical group, lip-syncing the lyrics in our rendition of the now-classic song “Cloud Nine.”
We had practiced our routine for weeks in my shag-carpeted bedroom, its walls then decorated with large posters of Raquel Welch, Sophia Loren, Humphrey Bogart and Paul Newman, in the post-WWII split-level colonial house that I shared, albeit grudgingly, with my parents and sister. We would play the album that contained “Cloud Nine” again and again on my Panasonic turntable as we choreographed our dance moves. Larry took the lead, deciding who would play which member of the Temps and how long we would rehearse and even the steps we would do. Eric and I, much his inferiors both athletically and academically and glad simply to be aboard for this ambitious musical enterprise, complied readily with his every command.
Though the three of us had markedly different personalities – Larry serious to the point of driven, Eric easygoing bordering on lax and I somewhere in between – we had in common something powerful, just a notch below our diehard habit of playing pickup basketball. What brought us together to practice in my bedroom for hours on end for our high school talent show was our love of soul music, and most particularly the soul music that came out of the justly fabled locale known as Motown.
Oh, we loved other kinds of music, too – the Beatles and The Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. But soul music came equipped with a unique agenda. For as much as we loved listening to it, singing along to it, even daydreaming to it, most of all, we loved dancing to it. And the soul music from Motown Records, rhythm and blues tinged with gospel, made us want to dance as nothing ever had before.
By then we’d already known about Motown for a few years, of course. We had bought all the records, seen its stars on “Ed Sullivan” and “American Bandstand,” danced to its tunes at all our school dances, and that special sound had long since seeped under our skin. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Isley Brothers, Junior Walker and The All-Stars, Marvin Gaye and his heavenly honeyed wail – it spoke to us on a level all but molecular. “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” “Baby, I Need Your Loving,” “Dancing In The Street,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “I Second That Emotion,” “Love Child,” For Once In My Life,” “Never Can Say Goodbye” – such tunes from the Motown catalogue mainlined themselves into our bloodstreams.
But perched at the peak of the Motown hierarchy, hard as it was for us back then to pick favorites, were the mighty Temptations. The five young men from Detroit who made up the group debuted in 1962 and broke through in 1964 with “The Way You Do The Things You Do.” Along came other hits – “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” “Get Ready” and “My Girl.” “Cloud Nine” had come out as a single in 1968, the Temps venturing away from romantic ballads and into what came to be called psychedelic soul, landing Motown its first Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Group performance. More than anything, we loved how the Temptations danced, how they shimmied and sashayed, perfecting a signature move known as “The Temptation Walk.” Eventually, over 25 years, with no fewer than 43 top 10 hits, the Temptations would evolve, despite some musical chairs among its members, into the most successful rhythm and blues group of all time.
P.S. – Please see part 2 tomorrow.