There are two ways of tackling the compilation album. You can either use it to promote your label’s obscure artists, chucking in The Banjolele Concept and Three Feet & The Whole Nine Yards alongside your triple-platinum stars, or you can fill it full of top-notch acts and make it as massive as possible. Motown always preferred the latter option: there were virtually no lousy compilations issued during the label’s classic 60s and early-70s era. After all, the label always wanted to sell records and packed its various-artist collections full of, well, Motown chartbusters – and none was more packed than the A Motown Christmas album.
Released on September 25, 1973, A Motown Christmas was full of the acts that really mattered to the label. We get seven tracks by the scions of the Jackson family of Gary, Indiana; five from The Supremes, giving us a taste of Diana Ross; four from The Temptations; and a quartet of Smokey Robinson seasonal specials. Stars of wonder, star of night? You haven’t got to peer at the top of the Christmas tree to find one: Stevie’s here too, singing four songs. And while few of these tracks were outright hits, they’ve certainly been played enough in the intervening years to be familiar to a huge number of appreciative ears: if you haven’t smiled to the opening track, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” bellowed by a Michael Jackson still young enough to believe the lyrics, you’ve never visited a shopping mall in December. Full of guileless, spirit-lifting joy though the song is, the remainder of the A Motown Christmas album brings it plenty of competition.
Stevie Wonder’s crackling “That’s What Christmas Means To Me” follows: a Motown original that deserves its status as a seasonal classic. Rather more intriguing, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is a jazz waltz, with the sort of moody arrangement more associated with The Dells than any Motown act. In the same time signature, The Supremes sway through “My Favorite Things,” its 60s-hip arrangement accompanied by enough sleigh bells to deafen Santa’s reindeer. Talking of which, The Temptations’ deliver “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” in a subtly funky style; Rudolph was never so chilled, even in the sort of weather that delivered Jackson 5’s “Frosty The Snowman.”
The Temptations also offer “Silent Night,” with Eddie Kendricks’ gentle voice sounding impossibly tender: it’s so beautiful that you can forgive the presence of “Little Drummer Boy,” a song the Tempts are way too good for. No matter; it is easily canceled out by a slice of pure Motown soul: Stevie Wonder’s thoughtful and optimistic “Someday At Christmas.” Michael Jackson’s glorious and surprisingly mature “Little Christmas Tree” is also an underrated gem, co-written by Uncle Jam himself, George Clinton. Yes, really. Michael sounds regretful, wistful, even sad: perhaps mischievous ol’ George let slip that Santa doesn’t really exist.
Should you be a sucker for seasonal songs sung soul-style, the A Motown Christmas album also points to other Motown holiday offerings, with some of the songs coming from, to name but three sources, Jackson 5’s Christmas Album, the 1968 collection Merry Christmas From Motown and The Supremes’ Merry Christmas, all pleasing and highly palatable festive fare. But A Motown Christmas is far more expansive, offering 24 tracks spread over four sides of vinyl on its original release. It will last you all holiday season. And since, if the retail superstores are to be believed, Christmas starts in late September, that’s pretty impressive.
Play this, and even Scrooge will be out on the floor, doing a Dickens of a dad dance. As for Santa, he was never in Lapland for Christmas: he knew the parties were far better in Motor City.