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.
- 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.
- 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.”
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.
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.