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a handful of Christmas albums came out of Motown Records during their otherwise
Decade" from 1962 to 1971 - a sign perhaps that such things were no longer
requisite for popular entertainers. During that span of time, in fact, Christmas
albums became rather uncool - a signal that an artist was part of the "establishment."
Motown president Barry Gordy not only wanted to join the establishment,
he wanted to be the establishment. So, most of Motown's major artists
recorded a Christmas album (read
though the Four Tops and Gladys
Knight didn't wax theirs till much later, and Marvin
Gaye recorded but one solitary single - and it went unreleased for years! During
the Golden Decade, however, Smokey
Robinson & the Miracles chalked up two full Christmas albums, including
the label's first-ever seasonal release, Christmas
With The Miracles (1963).
With The Miracles is undoubtedly the lesser of
the Miracles' two holiday efforts - though some great songs emerge - and
it reflects the relatively haphazard approach with which Motown approached
long-playing albums. The finest songs and most skillful producers - and the
lion's share of the studio time - were reserved for singles. Albums were
an afterthought, thrown together quickly from leftovers and half-realized
productions. Simply put, singles were art, albums were product.
And, the single plucked from Christmas
With The Miracles is fine art, indeed. "Christmas
Everyday" is an original composition by Smokey Robinson, who was rapidly
developing into a prolific, poetic hitmaker. Smokey loved to develop complex
allegories, and "Christmas Everyday" uses the holiday as an extended
metaphor for Smokey's abiding obsession - romantic love. Backed by that propulsive
Motown beat, Robinson opines, "I wouldn't need a Christmas tree
if you belonged to me." We never figure out if Smokey gets the girl, but
it's the best holiday song the Miracles ever cut. Sadly, it failed to
dent the charts (and even got left off the otherwise stellar 1973 compilation, A Motown Christmas).
rest of Christmas
With The Miracles is devoted largely to predictable holiday standards played
without much panache - fun for Motown buffs, but no one else. Happily, each of the
Miracles gets a turn in the spotlight, and Claudette Robinson's "Let
It Snow!" is one of the highlights. But, it's
Smokey's "Santa Claus Is Coming Town" that generates the most heat. Over
an incongruous "cha-cha" rhythm, Smokey puts real passion into his performance,
making the old carol sound like a dire warning. "You better mind your ways," he
growls as the song fades, and he sounds like he means it.
In 1968, the Miracles contributed two songs to Merry
Christmas from Motown, a various artists compilation. One was
"Christmas Everyday" (in stereo for the first time), while the other,
"Christmas Lullaby," was
newly recorded. The song is lovely and sweet, but it sounds more like "Brahms' Lullaby"
than something belonging in Motown's cacophonous canon. Better things lay ahead.
In the years between Christmas
With The Miracles and the group's second full-length Christmas
Season For Miracles (1970), Smokey Robinson had been a key player in cultivating
the lush, soulful "Sound
Of Young America" in Motown's creative hothouse. Not surprisingly, A
Season For Miracles is the group's most fully realized holiday effort.
Robinson and a team of collaborators (including Bobby Taylor, Stevie Wonder, and
staff producer Jimmy Roach) yoke that sound to a strong batch of songs, and the
end result is a not just a good Christmas record
- it's a good Motown record.
half of A
Season For Miracles consists of Motown originals, including Stevie Wonder's haunting
hymn "It's Christmas Time" and Jimmy Roach's pro-adoption ode, "A
Child Is Waiting." Best of all, though, is Smokey's own "I Believe In Christmas
Eve," a sly mix of sensuous soul and devout spirituality punctuated by one of
Robinson's trademark extended rhyming schemes.
Perhaps even better, the other half of the record sidesteps the usual rote standards,
dropping uncommon selections like "Bring A Torch Jeanette Isabella," "Go
Tell It On The Mountain," and "The Coventry Carol" alongside more
predictable repertoire. That said, the hoariest of all carols - "Jingle Bells" -
is one of the best cuts on A
Season For Miracles. Smokey's vocals are fine (they usually are), but it's the
legendary Motown house band (a.k.a. the Funk
Brothers) that makes the track pop. In particular, listen to the percolating
bass line, played (probably, musician credits are absent) by James Jamerson. His
performance on "Jingle Bells" is compelling evidence as to why he is one
of the only session bass players ever inducted into the Rock & Roll
Hall of Fame.
So, if Christmas
With The Miracles is good, and A
Season For Miracles is great, then Our
Very Best Christmas (1999) is almost perfect. With
16 remastered tracks, Our
Very Best Christmas does an expert job of
excerpting just the right songs from the Miracles' two Christmas
albums, and it tosses in "Christmas Lullaby." True,
Motown could have easily fit the entirety of both LP's on one CD (curses!), but Our
Very Best Christmas is an otherwise sterling collection - and one of my picks
for the all-time Top 20 Christmas Albums.
Consumer Notes. Our
Very Best Christmas has been deleted, but copies aren't too scarce. Further,
Motown's parent company Universal issued the nearly identical 20th
Century Masters: The Christmas Collection in 2003. Be aware, however, that
the Miracles (minus Smokey Robinson) have recorded some vastly inferior Christmas
sides issued in a variety of guises, starting (I think) with Soulful
Christmas (2001). Stick with Our
Very Best Christmas (or 20th
Century Masters), and you'll be happy.
Postscript. Roughly 50 years later, Smokey Robinson - still looking and sounding great - recorded his first-ever solo Christmas album, Christmas Everyday (2017). Released exclusively through Amazon, Christmas Everyday is way better than your average late-career Christmas album, even if it's no substitute for the Miracles' prime time recordings. Of course, Smokey reprises the title track (with help from Us The Duo), and he takes a sporting stab at modern standards like Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and Charles Brown's "Please Come Home For Christmas," as well traditional favorites such as "O Holy Night" (backed by Take 6). But, the best tracks happen when Smokey brings something unexpected to the party, especially his New Orleans-flavored take on "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" (abetted by Trombone Shorty) and a brand new original composition, "You're My Present" (with soulful support from the Dap-Kings). [top of page]
Christmas Everyday (1963) Top 100 Song
Smokey Robinson and his crew were the only Motown act to release two Christmas albums during the label's "Golden Decade" (1962-1971). The first record, Christmas With The Miracles
, was a more rockin' affair, recorded before Smokey developed the ultra-smooth style that gave us "Ooh Baby Baby" and "Cruising." The album contained but one Robinson original, "Christmas Everyday." Beginning with the kind of drum crack that prompted John Lennon to query whether Motown's drummer "beat on a bloody tree," the Miracles spin a soulful metaphor similar to William Bell's "Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday": if the singer's girl would just acquiesce, everyday could be a special as Christmas. In his inimitable
style, Smokey insists, "I wouldn't need a Christmas tree if you belonged to me." Not receiving
satisfaction, he takes serious measures: "I wrote and told Santa Claus I needed you because it would
be Christmas everyday." (The best of both Miracles Christmas records is compiled on Our
Very Best Christmas
- Christmas Lullaby (1968)
- Deck The Halls/Bring A Torch Jeannette Isabella (1970)
Go Tell It On The Mountain (1970)
I Believe In Christmas Eve (1970)
It's Christmas Time (1970)
Jingle Bells (1970)
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1963)
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (1963)
- Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Smokey Robinson with Trombone Shorty, 2017)
- You're My Present (Smokey Robinson with the Dap-Kings, 2017)
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