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. Learn more here about the Christmas fun at Hitsville U.S.A., including the 2017 expanded-edition of the Supremes’ classic holiday album, Merry Christmas.

  • “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: 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, the late Bobby Taylor, produced two tracks on The Season For Miracles, “The Christmas Song” and “Jingle Bells.”
  • merry christmas the supremesThe all-time most-celebrated holiday album from Motown is, of course, Merry Christmas by the Supremes, first released in November 1965. It featured both classic and new (at the time) songs, including “My Christmas Tree,” by a writer newly signed to Motown’s publishing wing, Jimmy Webb. On another track, “Children’s Christmas Song,” Berry Gordy’s children Joy, Berry and Terry, plus Diana’s brother, Chico, were among those invited to accompany Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard on vocals. The Merry Christmas album reached No. 6 on the Billboard ranking of seasonal best sellers in 1965, and charted again in subsequent years. “Children’s Christmas Song” was released as a single by Motown in November ’65, with the Supremes performing it (in Santa hats!) on television’s Hullabaloo.
  • Universal Music issued a 50th anniversary digital-only edition of Merry Christmas in 2015, with the entire original album in both mono and stereo. It also contained a number of outtakes, and two previously unissued recordings. The 2017 two-CD edition, The Ultimate Merry Christmas, is newly released by Motown via Real Gone Music/Second Disc Records with even more seasonal surprises, including a recently-unearthed, alternate vocal by Diana Ross of “White Christmas” and a solo version by her of “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Liner notes in the set by Supremes aficionados Andrew Skurow and George Solomon detail the background of every track, including what they called “the biggest Christmas surprise”: the discovery of a Mary Wilson lead on the same track as the released Diana version of “The Christmas Song.” For the new package, it has been coupled with an alternate Diana lead.
  • Two years after Merry Christmas was released 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 track. This was a Henry Cosby production of a song by Ron Miller and Bryan Wells, the pair responsible for Stevie’s Top 10 pop hit, “A Place In The Sun.” The album offers a 12-track mix of traditional tunes (“Ave Maria,” “The Christmas Song,” “The Little Drummer Boy”) and several Motown originals, including “What Christmas Means To Me,” co-written by Marvin Gaye’s wife, Anna, and produced by Marvin’s mentor, Harvey Fuqua.
  • Stevie Wonder revisited “Someday At Christmas” in 2015, singing a fresh version of the song as a duet with new star Andra Day in an Apple TV commercial. Now Day is among the artists set to join Stevie at the 2017 edition of his annual House Full of Toys charity fundraising concert in Los Angeles. The event benefits children, people with disabilities, and families in need during the holidays. This year, the concert takes place Dec. 10 at the Staples Center, and Wonder will perform his albums Talking Book and Innervisions in their entirety. Other guest stars include Pharrell Williams, Dave Matthews and Tony Bennett. Meanwhile, a special vinyl edition of the Wonder-ful Someday At Christmas album is newly available from Universal Music. For more details, see here.

  • temps christmas cardThe Temptations, like the Miracles, dropped two Christmas albums into their fans’ laps within the space of ten years. First up: The Temptations’ Christmas Card, issued in October 1970. Ironically, this traditional festive package – its tracks include “Silent Night,” “Let It Snow,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” – came at the close of a year in which the group had one of its most lyrically provocative hits, “Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today).” Nonetheless, goodwill to all men oozed from the album’s grooves, and it reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Christmas charts in 1970, ’71 and ’72. The Temps repeated the trick in 1980 with Give Love At Christmas, a Motown set mixing standards – the group even recorded “The Christmas Song” for a second time – and 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.
  • It’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 available by year’s end. By the time of its release, the boys from Gary, Indiana, had already accumulated 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 further holiday greetings, 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 kids themselves? 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 an original, “Christmas Won’t Be The Same This Year.” This entire album is newly available from Universal Music in its original vinyl LP form. For details, check here.
  • four tops xmasThirty years after first 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 the title song, plus “Silent Night” and “White Christmas.” Members of the Tops 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 asked. “Some of the string players’ chairs squeaked every time they moved. That brought a lot of laughter (as well as a few re-takes).” Merry Christmas!
  • Not every Motown star made an entire Christmas album. One such artist was maverick Marvin Gaye, although he did cut several holiday songs. The most intriguing is “Purple Snowflakes,” co-written and co-produced by Clarence Paul, and recorded 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 in 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 late 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 remains 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.”

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.

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