The important thing to remember about Motown's Christmas songs is that they
were more Motown than Christmas, translating the big beat
and pop savvy of Hitsville USA into yuletide cheer. To name just a few of
the highlights: the Temptations' lush "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer;" the
Jackson Five's frenetic "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town;" and Stevie
Wonder's earnest "Someday At Christmas." In addition, two tracks
are otherwise hard-to-find: Michael Jackson's "Little Christmas Tree" (recorded
specifically for the original 1973 LP), and Marvin Gaye's gently pacifist "I
Want To Come Home For Christmas" (recorded but not released in 1972, then added to the CD reissue).
Even at their most maudlin - the Supremes tracks, for instance - these songs
hipper than almost anything else released for the holidays throughout the 60's
and early 70's.
Motown Christmas culls tracks from a variety of sources. These include six
full-length albums, all of which yield their own rewards. Foremost
among them is the Temptations' mighty Christmas
Card (1970) and the Jackson 5's wonderful Christmas
Album (1970). Smokey Robinson and the Miracles contributed two solid albums, Christmas
With The Miracles (1963) and A
Season For Miracles (1970), followed by lesser efforts from the Supremes
(Merry Christmas, 1965) and
Stevie Wonder (Someday At Christmas,
1967). Even further, Motown released a handful of non-LP Christmas singles and
a 1968 compilation entitled Merry
Christmas From Motown. Collectors should note that the latter album
was repackaged (literally - the record label remained unchanged) in 1970 as Christmas
Gift 'Rap, and then it was reissued on CD in 1993 in a rather bowdlerized
And, that's a bunch of Christmas records, despite the fact that such Motown
stalwarts as Gladys Knight, the Four Tops, and Marvin Gaye never released formal
Christmas albums - not, at least, during Motown's fabled Golden Decade, if at
all. Which is to say, a lot of great music remains beyond A
Motown Christmas - some of it never even officially released.
Thankfully, the label eventually unleashed a motherlode of such rare treasures,
both as bonus tracks on individual CD reissues and on subsequent compilations.
The first - and still the greatest - such anthology was Christmas
In The City (1993). Consisting exclusively of elusive Detroit pearls, it's
a collector's delight. Among the highlights: the Motown house band (aka the
Funk Brothers), romping through "Winter Wonderland;" Kim Weston's chimerical
"Wish You A Merry Christmas;" an unreleased Supremes track better than
anything on their Merry Christmas album;
and no fewer than four Marvin Gaye cuts, including his lovely "Purple Snowflakes."
2001, the astute marketing department at Motown took the best cuts from Christmas
In The City, added a few more rarities, and tossed in some leftovers from their catalog. They released this hodgepodge as A
Motown Christmas Vol. 2. The inclusion of such heretofore unreleased cuts as the Funk Brothers' "Xmas Twist" (credited to the Twistin' Kings) and the Supremes' "O
Holy Night" (featuring a rare Florence Ballard lead vocal) make Motown
Christmas Vol. 2 more attractive (not less) to major Motown fans (like me). But,
the overall quality cannot compare to the original collection - especially to casual fans. And, at a mere 14
tracks (compared to 25 on the first volume), Motown
Christmas Vol. 2 smacks of exploitation. If, like the first volume, Motown
Christmas Vol. 2 had been stretched to 25 tracks, consumers could have purchased
nearly the complete Motown Christmas catalog in two easy steps.
Christmas Vol. 2 functions as an imperfect - though perfectly enjoyable - sequel
to the 1973 masterpiece. Still, the two discs combined contain about two-thirds of the Motown Christmas songs I consider "essential," and I purchased well over ten CD's to collect them all. Most people have better sense....
But what of all those other Motown Christmas albums - the dozens upon
dozens of choices you'll encounter when flipping through the CD racks or browsing
sites like Amazon?
Motown, you see, has become a master of catalog exploitation, shoddily packaging
brief bits of their rich legacy for impulse purchase nearly everywhere - from record
stores to truck stops. Take, for instance, the widely distributed, 12-song 20th
Century Masters: The Best Of Motown Christmas (2003) (and its 2005 sequel). Those are twelve great songs,
but they'll cost you about the same as the 25 great songs on the original Motown
Christmas. So, buyer beware.
Motown's Christmas legacy is almost as deep as it is broad. All those myriad collections
are mined from the same rich vein, and at least one, A
Motown Christmas Carol (1995), rises nearly to the level of the original Motown
Christmas. Consisting of 19 songs (mainly traditional Christmas carols) interspersed
with spoken greetings from Hitsville's brightest stars, A
Motown Christmas Carol proves what the label can do when they, well, try.
Here, they even threw in a previously unreleased Supremes track (later added as
a bonus track to the girls' Merry
to induce holiday rapture in Diana Ross' legions of fans.
All the same, it's no substitute for A Motown
Christmas. Besides, at the
risk of repeating myself, each individual piece of the Motown Christmas catalog
has wonderful moments not included on Motown
Christmas or similar albums. For instance, the Miracles' "Christmas Everyday" (1963)
- one of the best original Motown Christmas songs - is available only
on discs such as the group's highly recommended Our
Very Best Christmas (1999). Translated, that means I bought them all. A Motown
Christmas will suffice for almost everyone else....
Of course, Motown didn't cease to exist after the "Golden Decade." The
Temptations recorded another holiday record, Give
Love At Christmas (1980), and the Four Tops finally waxed theirs - Christmas
Here With You - in 1995. Gladys
Knight and the Pips recorded nary a noel note for Motown, but they ultimately recorded two Christmas albums after they
left the label for greener pastures (read more).
Then in 1989, the label put together a brand new collection featuring stars from
the present day (The Boys, Johnny Gill) as well as from their glorious past (the
Temptations, Smokey Robinson). Christmas
Cheers From Motown has some nice moments, but it serves mainly to
remind us of what once was - and what would never again be.
Postscript. In 2009, Motown released The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection, a 2-CD, 51-track compilation that pulls tracks from virtually every album described herein. It's great, though less so than it seems. For starters, 16 of those tracks are brief "season's greetings" from the label's roster - charming but inconsequential. Mainly, however, there's just no matching the pure brilliance of the original Motown
If you're not a "collector" in the pure, obsessive sense of the word, then you'll appreciate Classic Motown Christmas (2014), an eleven "disc" digital download featuring just about every holiday track the label has ever released - including the complete original Motown
Christmas. You can't hold it in your hands, but Classic Motown Christmas will provide literally hours of listening pleasure. [top of page]