ALBUM OF THE MONTH
FIVE REASONS TO LISTEN:
- Motown’s superstars: Diana Ross & the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.
- Holiday classics such as “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “White Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”
- Rare Marvin Gaye tracks, such as “I Want To Come Home For Christmas.”
- Original Motown Christmas songs as recorded by the Supremes, the Jackson 5, the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations.
- Kim Weston’s “Wish You A Merry Christmas,” recorded early in her Motown career.
FOUR FAST FACTS:
- Original release date: September 22, 2008.
- A total of 33 holiday songs.
- Featuring seven major Motown acts.
- Recorded in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York.
FULL TRACK LISTING:
- The artists of Motown began recording Christmas songs early in the company’s history. Marvin Gaye, the Miracles and Kim Weston did so in 1962, for instance, and Motown’s first holiday album was Christmas With The Miracles, released the following year. The front cover featured a photo of the group – minus Pete Moore, who was in military service at the time – in front of a welcoming fireplace, complete with Christmas stockings on the wall (for the story behind that LP image, read here). There was a second holiday album by Smokey’s group, The Season For Miracles, released in 1970. The Temptations also recorded enough material for two Yule albums, namely, The Temptations’ Christmas Card in 1970 and Give Love At Christmas in 1980.
- The first Hitsville holiday compilation was 1968’s Merry Christmas From Motown, featuring three tracks apiece by Diana Ross & the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. The liner notes declared that it was “an indelibly etched greeting from SOUL people, pure and simple, dedicated to the proposition that there is absolutely nothing more that they can give to you, their discerning public, but the very best of their artistic efforts.” The same sentiment applies to this, Motown Christmas, which draws on material made between 1962 and 1970, combining holiday standards with original songs by Motown writers. Most of them were recorded in Detroit, although the Supremes committed some vocals to tape while in Los Angeles and New York, and the Jackson 5’s Christmas long-player was done in California, too.
- The Miracles’ “Christmas Everyday” is the earliest recording here, completed at the height of summer: August 21, 1962. It’s an original Smokey Robinson song, just like another of his (“You Beat Me To The Punch,” co-composed with Ronnie White and sung by Mary Wells) which was climbing the Billboard Hot 100 as the Miracles were trying to get into the festive spirit. Also on August 21, the group wrapped up their version of a 19th century chestnut, “O Holy Night,” and another Yule gift, “Noel,” two days later. The following week, the final touches were applied to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” originally written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent to honor soldiers serving overseas (“I’ll be home for Christmas/You can count on me/Please have snow and mistletoe/And presents on the tree”). The song was first a Top 10 hit for Bing Crosby in 1943. The Miracles’ version was produced by their bass singer, Warren “Pete” Moore, and singing lead on this occasion is Ronnie White.
- The Miracles got back into the Christmas spirit in July 1963, to record “Let It Snow,” a song from 1945 by Tin Pan Alley giants Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, which the pair wrote during a heat wave in Hollywood that year. The Motown group’s interpretation was produced by Ronnie White, with lead vocals by Claudette Robinson. In August ’63, the Miracles tackled another holiday standard, “Winter Wonderland,” with White producing once more. Both recordings were included in Christmas With The Miracles.
- “Christmas Lullaby,” an original song co-written by Pete Moore, was cut by the Miracles in late ’68, and included in the aforementioned Merry Christmas From Motown. For their second seasonal album, The Season For Miracles, the group turned to Stevie Wonder for a pair of songs. One is included here: “It’s Christmas Time,” written by Stevie and Syreeta, and recorded in Detroit shortly after the two were married; Wonder produced the track, too. You could say that he signed, sealed and delivered it.
- By that point, Stevie was well acquainted with holiday songs. In 1967, Motown recorded and released his Someday At Christmas long-player, from which are taken two tracks on this collection: “The Little Drummer Boy” and “What Christmas Means To Me.” Wonder, no mean drummer himself, recorded the first of those in August ’67, not long after rebellion and riots ripped through Detroit, only a short distance from the Motown HQ. The next month, Stevie cut “What Christmas Means To Me,” produced by two important Motown architects of sound, Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol. The song was written by Berry Gordy’s sister Anna, his brother George, and Allen “Bo” Story, a Fuqua associate. Subsequently, “What Christmas Means To Me” was covered by the likes of En Vogue, CeeLo Green, Al Green and Darlene Love. For more about Stevie’s Someday At Christmas album, read here.
- The Supremes recorded a mix of originals and holiday standards for their own seasonal long-player, Merry Christmas, in 1965. Of the remakes, the best-known song is almost certainly “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” composed by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie, and first made popular in the mid-1930s. Since then, it has been covered by more than 200 singers, including Perry Como, the Four Seasons, the Crystals, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra and Mariah Carey. It was also popular at Motown: in addition to the Supremes, there were versions by the Miracles, the Temptations and the Jackson 5.
- Two of the Supremes’ tracks on this collection, “Children’s Christmas Song” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me,” were coupled by Motown for release as a single in November 1965, the same month that Merry Christmas came out. The former was written by Harvey Fuqua and Isabelle Freeman, the latter by Ron Miller and William O’Malley; the instrumental tracks were cut in Los Angeles, with vocals cut in Detroit and New York. Fuqua produced both, as he did for the balance of the album.
- Harvey Fuqua had a pre-Motown history as a member of the Moonglows, an influential 1950s doo-wop group (one of its later members was Marvin Gaye). He wrote “Just A Lonely Christmas,” sharing the composer credit with Alan Freed, the celebrated rock ‘n’ roll radio DJ; it was cut by the Moonglows in ’53. Naturally enough, he selected the song while working with the Supremes on Merry Christmas. But the track stayed in the can until the 1993 release of Christmas In The City, a collection of rare Yule recordings by Motown acts. Meanwhile, the 2017 expanded-edition of Merry Christmas includes a version of “Just A Lonely Christmas” with an alternate Diana Ross vocal.
- Motown Christmas features several other tracks first heard on Christmas In The City, including “Wish You A Merry Christmas” by Kim Weston and “Purple Snowflakes” by Marvin Gaye. The latter was co-written and produced in 1964 by Clarence Paul – Stevie Wonder’s early Motown mentor – and its cascading instrumental track was later used for Marvin’s 1965 hit, “Pretty Little Baby.” The powerful Kim Weston ballad, complete with spoken mid-section, was recorded in late 1962, when the singer was new to the record company. It was written and produced by A&R chief William “Mickey” Stevenson – who was also Kim’s husband. Later, Marvin and Kim teamed up for a series of magical duets, including “It Takes Two.”
- Marvin never cut enough material for a Christmas album of his own, which made the two seasonal songs that he did record all the more exciting when they appeared on 1990’s The Marvin Gaye Collection. Both make a return appearance on this album. The first, “The Christmas Song,” is one of the most celebrated holiday anthems of all time, written in 1945 – again, at the height of summer – by Mel Torme and Robert Wells. Among the dozens of interpretations since are those by Nat “King” Cole, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., the Four Seasons, the Carpenters, James Brown, Michael Bolton, Garth Brooks and Justin Bieber. Gaye performed the song live at New York’s Apollo Theater in December 1962, when Motown recorded it. Ten years later, the singer co-wrote “I Want To Come Home For Christmas,” and self-produced it, too. There was a plan for this to be released as a single in ’72, but nothing came of it.
- In 1970, the Jackson 5 were just about the hottest act in music, accumulating a total of four No. 1s on the Billboard Hot 100 within twelve months. Little surprise, then, that Motown decided to record a Christmas album with the brothers as soon as possible. Five tracks from the Jackson 5 Christmas Album (released in October ’70) are featured here. One of the originals is “Christmas Won’t Be The Same This Year,” penned by Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer, best-known for creating Gladys Knight & the Pips’ smash, “If I Were Your Woman.” Another original is “Give Love On Christmas Day,” written and produced by the Corporation, the team responsible for the Jackson 5’s first four chart-toppers.
- A Michael Jackson solo original contained in Christmas Collection is “Little Christmas Tree,” composed by Artie Wayne and George S. Clinton, Jr. (no, not that George Clinton). Several years ago, Wayne explained how he suggested to Motown producers Jerry Marcellino and Mel Larson that Michael could follow his 1972 solo smash “Ben” with a Christmas song. The idea was well-received, but then Motown supremo Berry Gordy decided that there shouldn’t be a follow-up to “Ben” until after Christmas ’72. Eventually, Marcellino and Larson’s production of “Little Christmas Tree” was released on a various-artists compilation, A Motown Christmas, in 1973.
- As noted above, Motown released two holiday albums by the Temptations, in 1970 and 1980. But even before the first of those, The Temptations’ Christmas Card, was shipped to stores, the group’s version of “Silent Night, Holy Night” was issued as a 45 in late ’68, coupled with “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Both sides made it into the Billboard seasonal Top 10 charts. The Temptations’ Christmas Card also contained “My Christmas Tree,” created by Jimmy (“By The Time I Get To Phoenix”) Webb during his brief Motown tenure. The Supremes recorded it first for their Merry Christmas LP, and it was one of 45 songs which Webb composed while under contract to Hitsville. When he left, the songwriter recalled in his autobiography, The Cake and The Rain, the company returned many of his copyrights to him. “My Christmas Tree” was one of those it kept.
“Through these songs, we can spend Christmas with each of you every day of the year. Merry Christmas to our immediate families, and all families everywhere.” – The Temptations, in the liner notes of their 1980 album, Give Love At Christmas.
Producers: Johnny Bristol, The Corporation, Hank Cosby, Hal Davis, Harvey Fuqua, Marvin Gaye, Terry Johnson, Mel Larson, Jerry Marcellino, Clay McMurray, Warren “Pete” Moore, Clarence Paul, William “Smokey” Robinson, William “Mickey” Stevenson, Barrett Strong, Bobby Taylor, Ronnie White, Frank Wilson, Stevie Wonder.
Songwriters: Adolphe Adam, Irving Berlin, Felix Bernard, Ralph Blane, Sammy Cahn, George S. Clinton Jr., Tommie Connor, John Frederick Coots, Katherine Davis, Alan Freed, Isabelle Freeman, Harvey Fuqua, Kim Gannon, Anna Gaye, Marvin Gaye, Haven Gillespie, Berry Gordy Jr., George Gordy, Franz Gruber, Forrest Hairston, Dave Hamilton, Terry Johnson, Gloria Jones, Walter Kent, Johnny Marks, Hugh Martin, Ron Miller, Fonce Mizell, Joseph Mohr, Warren “Pete” Moore, Steve Nelson, William O’Malley, Henry Onorati, Freddie Perren, Deke Richards, William “Smokey” Robinson, Walter “Jack” Rollins, Pam Sawyer, Richard & Robert Sherman, Harry Simeone, William “Mickey” Stevenson, Dick Smith, Allen Story, Jule Styne, Mel Torme, Beatrice Verdi, Artie Wayne, Jimmy Webb, Bryan Wells, Robert Wells, Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright.