There are sounds it feels like you’ve known forever, sounds that have been in your ear so long, it’s hard to believe they were ever new. One of those sounds is this:
James Jamerson thumps a heartbeat on the bass. Robert White’s guitar corkscrews out in reply. And the immortal David Ruffin sings, in a voice of sweetness shadowed by sorrow, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.”
Hard to believe that sound was ever new, but it was. Released four days before Christmas in 1964, “My Girl” by the Temptations reached the top of the pop charts in the first week of March — 50 years ago this week. Maybe you remember hearing it during that portentous late winter when Malcolm X had just been killed, and Martin Luther King’s forces were gathering on a bridge in a town called Selma.
If so, you are probably humming it right now, recalling the airtight harmonies and the way the horns and strings danced elegant pirouettes of sound.
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Or maybe you were born years later, during the energy crisis, or around the time of the Challenger disaster or even in that more recent era when Bryant Gumbel found it necessary to ask Katie Couric, “What is Internet, anyway?” Doesn’t matter. You’re humming it, too.
“My Girl” by the Temptations is one of those songs everybody knows. It is the most perfect thing ever recorded.
You may disagree, of course, and that’s fine. You have the right to be wrong and to celebrate whatever song suits your fancy in your newspaper column. Here on this piece of real estate, however, the judgment stands.
That said, we’re not here to celebrate the greatness of the song, nor even its endurance, but rather, the simple fact that you can sing it, that it is a song everybody knows. Songs like that are fewer and further between now. The phenomenal success of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” last summer is the exception that proves the point. Yes, you knew that song, Grandma knew that song, kindergarteners knew that song.
But how many songs of the last 10 years can you say that about? How many from the last 20?
One of the fascinating, albeit unintended, byproducts of the tech revolution is that what used to be called the mainstream of American popular culture has fractured into near obsolescence. This is particularly obvious with television. The medium’s biggest new sensation — “Empire” on Fox — drew 13 million viewers for its Feb. 18 episode. In 1952, “I Love Lucy” averaged 10 million viewers more in a nation with less than half the current population.
There are more options now, more than three networks, more than a handful of radio stations, more demands on our time and attention. So there are fewer television programs “everybody” watches, fewer songs “everybody” knows, fewer things that bring us all together. As a result, it’s easier now to ensconce ourselves in bunkers of individual interest, so that sometimes, it feels as if there is no larger “us.” Which makes you value all the more those remnants from a distant era that still bind Americans across generations, skin color, religious affiliation, party lines.
One of them is a deceptively simple song Smokey Robinson and Ronald White wrote about a boy and girl in love. Most of the men who sang it are long gone. Paul Williams, died in 1973, David Ruffin, in 1991, Eddie Kendrick, in 1992 and Melvin Franklin, in 1995.
And right this moment, somewhere in the world, 73-year-old Otis Williams, the last of the men who sang that song, is probably getting ready to go onstage with four other men — one of them not yet born in 1965 — to sing it once again. It’s hard to imagine that anyone in the house won’t be singing along.
Fifty years and counting. And still, we’re talkin’ about “My Girl.”