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Artist of the month

Santa Claus

ARTIST OF THE MONTH

 

Once, a very young Berry Gordy was given a bright red scooter for Christmas.  In turn, Motown Records has been giving the world the gift of music since 1959.  And every one of its superstars has recorded songs – sometimes, entire albums – for the holidays.  Sample the best of them here, and learn more about the Christmas fun at Hitsville U.S.A.

  • “Christmas for us was family and friends, the Motortown Revue and the famous Fox Theater in Detroit,” recalled Claudette Robinson of the Miracles a few years ago. “We decked the halls of the theater with our family of Motown entertainers.” Claudette also remembered that being home for Christmas was the greatest gift that “we, the Miracles, could have been given. Even though we were working non-stop with multiple shows, we were blessed to be with our families and friends, and they were afforded the opportunity to see us do a live performance.”
  • The Christmas performances of the Motortown Revue at the Fox were, indeed, legendary, and music fans flocked to see their hometown heroes playing four shows a day over the holidays. New Yorkers caught them around Christmas, too. In 1962 – the first year that the Revue toured the U.S. – Motown artists played the Apollo theater for a week in December, including the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Contours, the Marvelettes, Mary Wells, the Supremes and Little Stevie Wonder. What’s more, Marvin’s in-concert version of “The Christmas Song” was recorded there, and released on a compilation album, Christmas In The City, years later.
  • christmas with the miraclesMotown Records’ first holiday LP was Christmas With The Miracles, issued in October 1963. On this 10-track set, the group tackles such seasonal standards as “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas,” plus a Smokey Robinson original, “Christmas Everyday.” Their second Yule offering came seven years later: The Season For Miracles. The 12-track album includes two songs penned and produced by Stevie Wonder, “I Can Tell When Christmas Is Near” and “It’s Christmas Time.” Smokey himself wrote “I Believe In Christmas Eve,” while the man who helped to bring the Jackson 5 to Motown, Bobby Taylor, produced two tracks on The Season For Miracles, “The Christmas Song” and “Jingle Bells.”
  • merry christmas the supremesAmong the most-recognized holiday albums from Motown – not least, for the cover art – is Merry Christmas by the Supremes, first released in November 1965.  The 12 tracks feature both classic and new songs; among the former are “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  The fresh festive material includes “My Christmas Tree,” by a writer newly signed at the time to Motown’s publishing wing:  Jimmy Webb.  On “Children’s Christmas Song,” among those invited to accompany Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard on vocals are Berry Gordy’s children Joy, Berry and Terry, and Diana’s brother, Chico.
  • The Supremes’ Merry Christmas reached No. 6 on the Billboard Christmas charts in 1965, and charted again in subsequent years. “Children’s Christmas Song” was released as a single by Motown in November ’65, with the trio performing it (in Santa hats!) on television’s Hullabaloo. Later, outtakes from Merry Christmas were made available, including two tracks which put Florence Ballard front and center, “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night.” In 2015, Universal Music issued a 50th anniversary edition of Merry Christmas, with the entire original album in both mono and stereo. It also contained a number of the outtakes, and two previously unissued recordings, an in-concert performance of “My Favorite Things” from 1967 and an alternate version of “Silver Bells,” with an additional second verse.
  • Two years after Merry Christmas came another of Motown’s superstars, bearing gifts of holiday music. Stevie Wonder’s Someday At Christmas arrived in November ’67, preceded by a single of the title song. This was a Henry Cosby production of a composition by Ron Miller and Bryan Wells, the pair responsible for Stevie’s Top 10 pop hit, “A Place In The Sun,” the previous year. After the 45 came the album, with a 12-track mix of traditional tunes (“Ave Maria,” “The Christmas Song,” “The Little Drummer Boy”) and several Motown originals. Among the latter: “What Christmas Means To Me,” co-written by Marvin Gaye’s wife, Anna, and produced by Marvin’s mentor, Harvey Fuqua. Stevie’s youthfulness is apparent throughout, although the title track features an adult lyric – and one which resonates through the decades. In 2015, Stevie and newcomer Andra Day duet on a brand new version of the song used in an Apple TV commercial.

  • temps christmas cardThe Temptations, like the Miracles, dropped two Christmas albums into their fans’ laps within the space of ten years – and at least one track, “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” continues to decorate the holiday airwaves today.  “Rudolph” comes from The Temptations’ Christmas Card, first issued in October 1970.  Its other tracks include such staples as “Silent Night,” “Let It Snow,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town,” and, ironically, the album came at the close of a year in which the Temps had one of their most lyrically provocative hits, “Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today).”  Nonetheless, goodwill to all men oozed from the grooves, and the LP reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Christmas charts in 1970 and beyond.  The Temps repeated the trick in 1980 with Give Love At Christmas, a Motown set which updated several standards – the quintet even recorded “The Christmas Song” for a second time – and mixed in newer songs.  The latter included “Give Love On Christmas Day” and “Everything For Christmas,” both co-written by the onetime owner of that bright red scooter, Berry Gordy. 
  • j5 xmasIt’s December once more, and Santa Claus is coming to town. The Jackson 5 arrived on the music scene in 1970 with such impact that it was no surprise to find an LP of J5 holiday material released at year’s end. By this time, the boys from Gary, Indiana, had racked up three consecutive Top 5 albums, and so when Billboard published its “Best Bets For Christmas” sales guide in early December, what else would be at the top of the list? The Jackson 5’s Christmas Album. To spread more holiday goodwill, Motown released the Jacksons’ electric take on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” as a 45. In fact, exuberance surges through most of their Christmas Album – and why not, considering they were really just kids themselves? As for the record, it contains seasonal staples such as “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “Frosty The Snowman” and “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer,” and one new song, “Christmas Won’t Be The Same This Year,” written by Motown’s Leon Ware and Pam Sawyer.
  • four tops xmasThirty years after signing to Motown, the Four Tops made their first Yule album: Christmas Here With You, released in 1995. On the title track, they recruited their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews to sing along. For extra seasonal cheer, they invited a longtime friend from Detroit to join them: Aretha Franklin. She guests on that title song, plus “Silent Night” and “White Christmas,” leading the Tops’ Lawrence Payton to declare that “Aretha’s spirit permeates through the entire project.” Members of the group produced every one of the album’s 12 tunes, while Ronnie McNeir, yet another Detroit music maker – and future member of the Tops – co-wrote and co-produced “Christmas Delight.” The whole recording session was obviously fun. “How about those chairs at United Sound Studio in Detroit,” the album liner notes noted. “Some of the string players’ chairs squeaked every time they moved. That brought a lot of laughter (as well as a few re-takes).”
  • Yet not every major Motown artist recorded an entire Christmas album. One who did not was maverick Marvin Gaye – although he did cut several holiday songs. The most intriguing was “Purple Snowflakes,” co-written and co-produced by Clarence Paul, and taped by Marvin in Detroit in November 1964. The instrumental track of “Snowflakes” is the same as that of his 1965 hit, “Pretty Little Baby.” The holiday version of the tune was unissued until 1993’s Christmas In The City compilation.
  • Christmas In The City featured another Marvin Gaye gem: “I Want To Come Home For Christmas,” in which the singer takes the character of a Vietnam prisoner-of-war, yearning for home. Recorded in Los Angeles in 1972, it was scheduled for release as a Tamla single, then cancelled. Also on the album: a track by one of Marvin’s partners in song, Kim (“It Takes Two”) Weston. “Wish You A Merry Christmas” is an unadorned, big-voiced ballad recorded in October 1962, when Kim was 22 years of age, and new to Motown. It was written and produced by Mickey Stevenson, the company’s A&R manager, and it’s one of the most engaging of Motown’s seasonal works. Perhaps that’s because Kim’s birthday is five days before Christmas.

IN BERRY GORDY’S WORDS:

“By Christmas of 1962, I owned [the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit] and we began holding our Christmas parties there.  My brother Robert dressed up as Santa Claus and went around handing out our first bonuses to employees.  We also presented a ‘Motown Spirit Award’ to the person who most exemplified what Motown was about…The first year it went to Smokey, the following year to Melvin [Franklin of the Temptations].  For five years, they were the only two people so honored.”

ITUNES:

Santa Claus is coming to town, so check out the Motown room on the store for all your favorite artists singing the songs of Christmas.

PLAYLIST:

Feeling festive yet? Then why not try out our Motown Christmas playlist, featuring a treasure trove of special Christmas covers and rare greetings from some of your favorite Motown superstars. Listen here.

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