december 2011


Of Soul, As An Affirmation Of Our Common Humanity

By David McGee

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 the Motown legends along with some worthy installments by good artists who followed the label’s Golden Era, such as Johnny Gill (solo) and Boyz II Men (with Brian McKnight) . Make no mistake, though—the big names carry this double-disc set, and they alone vault it into the rank of Yuletide essentials.

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

On Disc 1 the label's standard bearers make every day Christmas, 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, featuring a superb, falsetto lead by Eddie Kendricks (who sets up the track with a spoken holiday greeting—one of many such interludes by Motown artists sprinkled throughout the collection); a lush, Broadway-ish version of “My Favorite Things” by the Supremes, sparked by 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’ magnificent first Christmas album; and an austere, reverent “Ava Maria,” sung in Latin by Stevie Wonder, from his 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 evident in every performance. If the Supremes hewed to an upbeat, pop-flavored approach, then Smokey & the Miracles offered more complex, jazz-based vocal arrangements with unusual harmonies rooted in classical music framed by similarly ambitious arrangements, whereas Stevie more explored 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. 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 Wonder, ‘Someday at Christmas,’ the title track of his Christmas album, is featured on The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection

To 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 in song an especially contentious social issue, namely the war in Vietnam. Stevie Wonder was the first to go to the mat, with the Ron Miller-Bryan Wells gem “Someday at Christmas,” his Christmas album title track. The song opens with church bells tolling and music box chimes heralding Stevie’s entrance. He gets to the point immediately, singing, “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 nearly 6,300 American soldiers dead in Iraq and Afghanistan as of mid-November 2011, “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.

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. Co-written by Gaye and Forrest Hairston and recorded as a Tamla single in 1972, 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 an emotional 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”) over a jittery rhythm as bells peal in the background. After a stop-time break, the ballad begins again, and Gaye is singing with even more urgency, employing a full-on gospel cry 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 Forrest Hairston, who only learned of its inclusion in 1990 on the 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, namely Smokey Robinson’s tender, soothing rendition of “A Child Is Waiting,” which he precedes by urging listeners to consider adopting orphaned children. 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 the story of its aftermath here.

The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection is available at

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