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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
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.