Dear Michael and Caroline,
Out we bopped onto the stage in the auditorium of our high school for our big number, then, Larry and Eric and I, strutting out in front of the footlights and hundreds of spectators, our families, friends, neighbors and classmates out there in the dark beyond. And streaming over the public address system came the guitar riff with the wah-wah pedal that signaled the overture of “Cloud Nine.” And for the next three minutes and 27 seconds – that’s how long the song ran – with the curtains now parted and each of us at center stage with microphones in hand, Larry was lead singer David Ruffin, Eric baritone Paul Williams and I Eddie Kendricks, he of the creamy tenor falsetto.
We performed onstage that night just as we had practiced in my bedroom for weeks beforehand. We mouthed the words, our lips in sync to the lyrics of the first stanza – all about a guy raised in the slums, in a one-bedroom shack, along with ten other children, and hardly ever enough food to go around – hard times alien to our affluent suburban experience. To the thrumming bass line, the pounding congas and the blasting horns, we, too, shimmied and sashayed. As we fake-sang – all about the lazy father who “disrespected” his wife and treated his kids “like dirt” – we stepped lively, first forward, then back, then to the left and then to the right. We clapped and swayed our hips and twirled and sliced our hands through the air. We pranced and boogalooed and walked The Temptation Walk, a glide to our stride, always in unison.
Yes, we had the patented Temptations moves down cold, or at least lukewarm. And all along, even though our grasp of hardship in general and poverty in particular was highly suspect – we each occupied our own bedrooms, never lacked for food and had fathers gainfully employed who treated us and our mothers reasonably well – we each nonetheless strove to make like super-cool, bad-ass, dudes from the most hardcore slums. We bobbed our heads peacock-style and bit our lips, keeping it real for the rest of society, as if we somehow now embodied the very essence of Motown soul.
And then, about halfway through, I stepped out in front for my little solo as Eddie Kendricks, co-founder of the Temptations, who arranged most of the vocals. “And every man, every man, has to be free,” I “sang” in an ever-ascending falsetto, the word “free” elongated into four syllables, my hands flung aloft overhead, fingers fluttering, as if in holy-roller, glory-hallelujah prayer. And at that moment, the audience, to a person, exploded in laughter. About thirty seconds later, I stepped forward again to offer the refrain, “I wanna say I love the life I live/And I’m gonna live the life I love,” and laughter again erupted. That laughter, so sudden and so loud, stunned me with its tidal-wave force. I was unsure what to make of it.
Someone else won the talent show, though I forget who or why, perhaps conveniently so. No matter. Our routine had come off without a hitch. For those three minutes, we three performed with a sense of control, of owning the night, such as we’d never felt before. It was ours, that moment, all ours. Our appearance mimicking the legendary Temptations, the coolest of the cool, brought another bonus, too, and turned us briefly into the talk of the school. Classmates came over to us in the hallways to compliment us, at least for the next week or so.Do your solo again, some urged me. I had finally verified my longstanding suspicion, once and for all, that I, too, had soul.
P.S. – Please see part 3 tomorrow.