december 2009


Of Soul, As An Affirmation Of Our Common Humanity

By David McGee

motown-christmasThe Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection
Various Artists


The best reason to buy all the classic ‘60s Christmas albums from legendary Motown artists such as the Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations, among others, is because those albums are so good in and of themselves. However, the two-CD, 51-track The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection is pretty great on its own, too, in that it serves up some of the finest performances from Motown greats along with some worthy installments by good artists who followed the label’s Golden Era. Make no mistake, though—the big names carry this double-disc set, and they alone elevate it to the rank of Yuletide essentials.

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, ‘Deck the Halls/Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella,’ from the group’s first Christmas album and also featured on The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection.

Though later Motown artists such as Johnny Gill (solo) and Boyz II Men (with Brian McKnight) are represented, the label’s standard bearers rightly carry the day on both discs. That much is made clear by the heavyweight roundhouses thrown one after another on Disc 1, starting with young Michael Jackson’s feisty rendering of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” from the J5’s lone Christmas album, followed in quick succession by Stevie Wonder (a full-throttled celebration of “What Christmas Means to Me”); a mellow “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” from the Tempts, with a superb, falsetto lead by Eddie Kendricks (who precedes it with a spoken holiday greeting—one of many such interludes by Motown artists throughout the collection); a lush, Broadway-ish version of “My Favorite Things” by the Supremes, featuring a spirited Diana Ross's kinetic lead vocal; a tender, graceful, polyphonic rendering of the beautiful “Deck the Halls/Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella,” from Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ first, magnificent Christmas album; and an austere, reverent “Ave Maria,” sung in Latin by Stevie Wonder, from his first Christmas album. As this point the beauty of the Motown Christmas music is almost overwhelming—no album sounded like any other, and each one made an impression based as much on the exquisite craft evident in each song’s construction and execution as on the genuine feeling infusing each performance on a given long player. If the Supremes hewed to an upbeat, pop-flavored approach, then Smokey & the Miracles offered more complex, jazz-based vocal arrangements with unusual harmonies oftimes rooted in classical music and similarly ambitious arrangements, whereas Stevie explored more of the shadows of the season as well as its spiritual nature—there was something for everyone in Motown’s conception of Christmas music’s possibilities. Then for comic relief you could always count on Jr. Walker to be the irrepressible Jr. Walker—his spoken greeting commences with a screeching sax blast followed by “Hi! This is Jr. Walker of Motown  Records! I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!” followed by a mellow taste of “Auld Lang Syne” on sax ahead of the Funk Brothers living up to their name during a lively frolic through “Winter Wonderland.” (The Funk Brothers actually make two appearances, popping up near the end of Disc 2 in their first Motown incarnation as the Twistin’ Kings—so named on the only two singles they recorded for the label—working out on “Xmas Twist.”)

stevie-wonderTo the point of Motown’s conception of Christmas music’s possibilities consider too that the majority of these recordings were made during tumultuous times in American history. So it is that two artists directly addressed one contentious social issue, the war in Vietnam, in Christmas songs. Stevie Wonder was the first to go to the mat, with the Ron Miller-Bryan Wells gem, “Someday at Christmas,” the title track from his Christmas album. It opens with church bells tolling and music box chimes heralding Stevie’s entrance, when he sings the pointed lyric, “Someday at Christmas, men won’t be boys/Playing with bombs like kids play with toys/One warm December our hearts will see/A world where men are free, mmmm….when we have found what life’s really worth, there’ll be peace on earth.” Strings, humming background voices and a gradually ascending score support Stevie’s plaintive pleading of the hopeful but guarded sentiment (“someday maybe all our dreams will come to be/someday in a world where men are free/maybe not in time for you and me/but someday at Christmastime…”). The lyrics are admirably  idealistic, and unfortunately timely, too—with more than 5,000 American soldiers dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, “Someday At Christmas” is as urgent a message now as it was when our Vietnam dead were accumulating in frightening numbers. What a sad state of affairs.

Stevie Wonder, ‘Someday at Christmas,’ featured on The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection. ‘Someday maybe all our dreams will come to be/someday in a world where men are free/maybe not in time for you and me/but someday at Christmastime…”

At least Stevie’s song has been out there making its mark, staying in memory, all these years. Marvin Gaye’s “I Want To Come Home For Christmas” has had a more complicated path to the public arena. Recorded as a Tamla single in 1972, co-written by Gaye and Forest Hairston, the song is arranged like a classic Christmas blues ballad, but it’s not about a man missing his woman—its lyrics describe an American prisoner of war’s longings for home and family at Yuletide, and include a wrenching recitation by Gaye near the end (“If I can’t make it home in time, I know you’ll be keeping my spirits bright, by wearing my name, and trying to stop this fight; oh, but I’d give anything to see you, the family and that little Christmas tree”) when the arrangement suddenly breaks into a jittery rhythm with bells ringing excitedly in the background. After a stop-time break, the ballad returns, and Gaye is singing with even more aching urgency, employing a full-on gospel cry to underscore the depth of his lament as the song slowly fades out. Recorded around the time Gaye was also cutting his Trouble Man album, "I Want To Come Home For Christmas" reflects the socially conscious themes he had adopted in his music, while the swirling arrangement and falsetto-rich vocal swoops mirror the sort of other-worldly maelstrom forming the sonic backdrop of his early ‘70s art. Another song in this collection, the burbling, synth-heavy “Christmas In the City” instrumental composed by Gaye himself, was to be the B side of Tamla 54229, but the single was never released, for reasons still unknown to his co-writer Hairston, who only learned of its release on the 1990 four-CD box set, The Marvin Gaye Collection, when the U.S. mail brought what he describes as “a huge royalty check” for his share of the song’s earnings. “I Want To Come Home For Christmas” finds its proper home, finally, as the denouement of this fine Christmas celebration, one with real soul—not “soul” as a genre but soul as an affirmation of our common humanity, articulated most eloquently in the song following Gaye’s and concluding the journey on an uplifting note, Smokey Robinson’s spoken plea on behalf of adopting homeless children as a prelude to his tender, soothing rendition of “A Child Is Waiting.” Thus does The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection rise above the commonplace among Christmas fare and become more than the sum of its parts—pieced together from various sources by someone operating with vision and love, it sings of the season in all dimensions, the frivolities, the melancholies, the spiritual quest and the appeals to the good in our hearts, in considering the possibility of peace on earth, good will towards all.

Check out Forrest Hairston’s personal account of writing “I Want To Come Home For Christmas” with Marvin Gaye and its aftermath here.

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