What Christmas Means To Me - Stevie Wonder
The classic definitive Christmas album, "A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector" got off to a bad start: it was released the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated, November 22nd, 1963.
However, year by year after that its reputation increased with every festive season so that by 1968 it was generally recognised as THE classic Christmas album even though it was hard to get hold of - it was never rereleased and Spector closed his Philles record label down in 1967.
By 1968 it was generally agreed to have defined the modern pop/rock approach to Christmas. Even today, it is the most common soundtrack to Christmas one hears as we trawl like wounded reindeer through the tinselled shopping malls.
One can imagine Motown boss Berry Gordy chafing at the bit at this - he was never one to miss out on a good sales opportunity, and he was aware that Motown had their own unique sound, and maybe he thought that the unique Motown artist roster along with the legendary Funk Brothers could outdo the Wrecking Crew.
I bought the 1968 "Merry Christmas from Motown" at the time - I was a young Motown fiend - and even then I knew it was rubbish. Each year I give it another chance, hoping I was wrong, but it's not something which matures with age. Compared to the rest of Motown's output it's still awful. You can imagine Gordy coming up to his number two Smokey Robinson and telling him round up the artists and musicians, and them all moaning and saying "do we have to, Smokey?" and "it's been a tough year, can we just give it a break?"
In reality, all the tracks were taken off previously released Christmas albums by each of the featured artists, except for the Temptations whose Christmas offering came out the following year. Goodness knows how bad the other tracks on these records were if this was the best they could come up with for "Merry Christmas from Motown". In the compilation opener "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", Diana Ross spits out the vocals like an SS officer interrogating someone tied to a chair. With the exception of one track, the Miracles feel as though they are only there as a favour to Smokey; the Temptations sound like they're practicing to be lounge lizards at Ceasars Palace and the Funk Brothers, for the most part, just sound bored.
One of only two original Motown songs on the record, "What Christmas Means to Me" was written by Anna Gordy Gaye, wife of Marvin Gaye and elder sister of Berry, their brother George, and one Allen Story, but Stevie's vocal makes it all his own, and, along with his rendering of Schubert's "Ave Maria", was worth the purchase price of the album alone. It's since become a Christmas standard, and has been recorded, according to Wikipedia, by no less than 38 other artists including CeeLo Green and Darlene Love, but none of them have got even close to Stevie's soulful vocal.
And neither does anyone get close to the funky virtuosity of James Jamerson's bass, always the best in the world, always full of Christmas cheer no matter what the time of year.