December 24, 2013

A Christmas note for you

Happy holidays to any who've enjoyed the blog this year. I haven't completely abandoned it and don't intend for two years to fly by without completing a few more posts. I'm still re-listening to a massive collection of CD's after discovering that a few had been damaged by the portable player I had been using. Fortunately most received only superficial scratches that don't effect the sound at all.

I'm somewhat disappointed that the fiftieth anniversary of the Phil Spector produced "A Christmas Gift For You" album seemed completely ignored. Last year there was a 2-disc reissue that weirdly included a second disc of otherwise unrelated non-Christmas songs that happened to be produced by Spector, most by artists not on the original album. I would have thought it more appropriate to see a package including alternate takes or mixes, contemporary radio spots, a booklet containing all of the different sleeve art used by the various labels who've reissued it over the years (and they are legion, if you didn't know)-- something, anything. Since the album was released on the day that Kennedy was shot, I could have predicted that the exact day would have been preoccupied with memorial coverage to the exclusion of nearly anything else. I'm more disturbed about the month since then. No TV documentary? No all-star tribute/remake album? Quel dommage.

Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Beach Boys' Christmas album, admittedly Brian Wilson response to Spector's efforts. If I can rehabilitate this rather dusty blog, a good place to start would be a track by track review. See you here after the New Year. Leave any suggestions for songs whose history you'd like to see detailed in the comments section. No matter how old this post gets, I read all the comments.

Thanks for your interest,

July 6, 2013

Annual link check

The links to external sights have all been checked as of this date. Should readers experience any problems, any comment will be brought to my notice within (probably) 24 hours despite the fact that new posts are sometimes months apart.

February 21, 2012

1968- "Christmas Lullaby"

[Final re-edit March 17th, 2012]

.....Five years after releasing the first Motown Christmas album, The Miracles were in a slightly different position. Warren 'Pete' Moore's military service was no longer an issue, obviously, but Claudette only worked with the group in the studio and even then inconsistently. Reportedly she had feared that the rigors of touring had caused multiple miscarriages and not only endangered the possibilities of her and Smokey having a family but endangered her life as well. When they eventually had two children and Smokey left the group in 1972 she retired from recording entirely. There were no other changes in personnel as of 1968 (Bobby Rogers, Ron White and guitarist Marv Tarplin were still the rest of the group), the name of the group had officially changed to Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. That reflected Robinson's higher profile as a songwriter and producer, as well as Vice President of the label. While The Miracles were still a good selling group one could argue that Robinson's name had lately been appearing on more and bigger hits by other artists than his own group's. Also, although they had perfected their chosen style of performance it was a style that in the late 1960's was becoming passé. Fortunately that wouldn't hurt them when recording Christmas carols.

.....On October 11th, 1968 Warren Moore and Terry Johnson produced a recording session for a traditional Christmas carol and an original of their own. Terry Johnson had been Isaiah Johnson of the 1950's doo-wop group The Flamingos from about 1956 to 1963 and joined Motown as a staff writer from 1964 to 1974, when he left to form his own label. At some point, Johnson and Moore collaborated with Beatrice Verdi to compose the song below. Verdi was also an industry veteran probably best known for co-writing a number of songs for Dusty Springfield but whose roots also go back to doo-wop. Her sister performed as Virginia Verga in The Carmelettes, a group that has become the subject of the theatrical memoir "Girl/Group: A Daughter's Tale" by Susan Murphy. Murphy's mother Angela had been a member and Beatrice worked as their manager, although I haven't seen the play and don't know how much, if any, of a role she has in the stage version. More relevant to Motown's history is that she would later co-write the Jackson 5's hit "I'LL BE THERE".
  • 03:56 "CHRISTMAS LULLABY" (Warren Moore, Terry Johnson, Beatrice Verdi)
  • 03:08 "GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN" (Traditional; see below)
  • performed by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles
  • original source: VALP MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM MOTOWN Motown MS681 (US) 12/06/68
  • reissued as: VALP CHRISTMAS GIFT RAP Motown MS725 (US) 11/70
.....The song "CHRISTMAS LULLABY" is exactly what its title says, a beautiful song sung to children on Christmas Eve without the cloying unction of "BEDTIME FOR TOYS" or "CHILDREN'S CHRISTMAS SONG". Unfortunately that also makes it a poor candidate for an A-side, which may have been in the back or Moore and Robinson's minds when the session was scheduled. Both of these songs (along with the only original number from their 1963 album, "CHRISTMAS EVERYDAY") became The Miracles' contribution to the label's first Various Artists Christmas album two months later, but they were not necessarily recorded with that purpose in mind. The album contains three songs apiece from four acts, the others being The Temptations (whose first Christmas session would be the week following this one) and The Supremes and Stevie Wonder, both of whose contributions were album tracks not used on their previously issued singles. If there had been no plans for a new single from the Miracles, all three of their songs could have come from their 1963 album. The Temptations would record only standards, whereas all of Motown's prior Christmas singles had original A-sides. The expectation would be that The Miracles would be picked for the single, especially in light of the fact that the commercial release of the "CHRISTMAS EVERYDAY" single had been foolishly scrapped five years earlier. That all looks reasonable on paper, but The Temptations' selections had an obvious broader appeal and got the nod for single format.

.....The recording here of "GOD REST YOU MERRY GENTLEMEN" is the first released by a Motown artist and has an arrangement by Wade Marcus that recalls Coltrane's take on "MY FAVORITE THINGS" and some additional production by Smokey Robinson. The title omits the contentious comma altogether. For those unaware of this point, the real title is "GOD REST YE MERRY, GENTLEMEN" but it is more frequently printed erroneously as "GOD REST YE, MERRY GENTLEMEN" which changes the meaning from "may the Lord leave you land owners in a happy state" to "all you happy guys should go to sleep", which has nothing to do with the lyrics. The song has been adapted several times from the poem by John Bell, written in the 1700's. The Miracles' version most closely resembles the first and third verses (of seven) of the version collected and published by William Sandys in 1833. The original tune, almost unrecognizable in its jazz form here, was unattributed but published by E. F. Rimbault in 1846. It ends with an additional half verse I didn't recognize, but will now look for as I plow through the rest of my collection.

.....After the 1968 compilation was reissued in 1970, the original song rarely turned up on collections, although the carol was included on The Miracles' second Christmas album and remained in print that way. These are the appearances I found:
  • LP THE SEASON FOR MIRACLES Tamla TS307 (US) 11/23/70 - incl. "GOD REST..."
  • VA2LP A MOTOWN CHRISTMAS Motown M795V2 (US) 09/25/73 - incl. "GOD REST..."
  • VALP IT'S CHRISTMAS IN MOTOWN Music For Pleasure SPR90010 (UK) c.1973 - incl. "CHRISTMAS LULLABY"
  • VALP WE WISH YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS Natural Resources NR4011T1 (US) 10/78 - incl. "GOD REST..."
  • LP THE SEASON FOR MIRACLES Motown 5253ML (US) 07/82 - reissue of the 1970 LP
  • VA2LP A MOTOWN CHRISTMAS Motown 5256ML (US) 07/82 - reissue of the 1973 VA2LP
  • CD THE SEASON FOR MIRACLES Motown 3746352532 (US) 08/01/92 - reissue of the 1970 LP
  • VACD 20 CHRISTMAS CLASSICS Motown/Universal 731453-01092-5 (?) c.1993 - possibly British, this uses the cover art of the 1978 VALP but contains both songs
  • VACD CHRISTMAS IN THE CITY Motown Master Series 37463-6326-2 (Germany) 10/19/93 - incl. "CHRISTMAS LULLABY"
  • VACD MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM MOTOWN MCA Special Products 737463-85002-5 (US) 11/24/93 - incl. "GOD REST..." [almost identical to 1978 VALP]
  • CD OUR VERY BEST CHRISTMAS Uptown/Universal 6012153-356-20 (US) 10/12/99 - incl. "CHRISTMAS LULLABY"
  • CD 20TH CENTURY MASTERS/THE CHRISTMAS COLLECTION: THE BEST OF SMOKEY ROBINSON & THE MIRACLES Motown/Universal 6024986-031-78 (US) 09/23/03 - incl. "CHRISTMAS LULLABY" [this is identical to OUR VERY BEST CHRISTMAS with new packaging]
  • VA2CD THE ULTIMATE MOTOWN CHRISTMAS COLLECTION Motown/Universal B0013383-02 (US) 10/13/09 - incl. "GOD REST..."
.....Perhaps next year for the 50th anniversary there will be a package combining the 1963 and 1970 albums as well as "CHRISTMAS LULLABY" and promotional record greetings. All of that comes to less than 70 minutes, leaving room for an outtake or two if there are any.

February 20, 2012

1968- "Winter Wonderland" (Funk Brothers)


.....A year ago I placed this track in 1965 because that was the date given in the liner notes of its first appearance. Having dug a bit further, I'm not sure when it was recorded or even by whom. The song "WINTER WONDERLAND" was recorded in 1963 by The Miracles for their Christmas album that year at a session produced by Ronald White. After that the song did not appear on any Motown single for at least three decades. It also did not on any of the Christmas albums by The Supremes (1965), Stevie Wonder (1967), The Temptations (1970 and 1980), The Jackson 5 (1970) or a second album by The Miracles (1970). It also didn't appear on any of the various artists albums, VALP MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM MOTOWN (1968), VALP CHRISTMAS GIFT RAP (1970; same as 1968 album, repackaged), VALP IT'S CHRISTMAS IN MOTOWN (UK, 1973), VA2LP A MOTOWN CHRISTMAS (1973 and 1982), VALP WE WISH YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS (1978) or VALP CHRISTMAS CHEERS FROM MOTOWN (1989, the only one made entirely of new recordings).

.....So, when this track surfaced:
  • 02:02 "WINTER WONDERLAND" (Felix Bernard) [mono]
  • performed by The Funk Brothers
  • produced by Ronald White
  • previously unreleased, recorded 1965
  • compilation produced by Cary E. Mansfield
  • digitally remastered by Bill Inglot and Dan Hersch at Digiprep, Los Angeles, CA
  • unreleased tracks mixed at Penguin Recording, Eagle Rock, CA
  • original source: VACD CHRISTMAS IN THE CITY Motown Master Series 37463-6326-2 (Germany) 10/19/93
.....Not only was the production attributed to Ron White but the songwriting credit omits Dick Smith, as does the 1963 Miracles album and its 1982 reissue. (It was corrected for the 1987 CD version). However, this track is clearly not the instrumental backing for The Miracles recording, even though it is very likely some of the same staff musicians playing the same song. It's not a radically different arrangement but different enough to distinguish between them. Also, the recording date given was two years after the LP version's release and in 1965 the only notable Christmas project at Motown was Harvey Fuqua's work with The Supremes. If The Funk Brothers were recording with White it must have been for an abandoned single.

.....The release of CHRISTMAS IN THE CITY came at the onset of a succession of domestic Christmas compilations from Motown. The Miracles' version of "WINTER WONDERLAND" showed up on VACD A MOTOWN CHRISTMAS CAROL (1995) and VACD A CHRISTMAS PRESENT FROM MOTOWN VOLUME 2 (UK, 2001), while The Funk Brothers' version was on the simultaneously released VACD A CHRISTMAS PRESENT FROM MOTOWN VOLUME 1 (UK, 2001). A month later a new wrinkle emerged:
  • 02:02 "WINTER WONDERLAND" (Felix Bernard, Dick Smith) [stereo]
  • performed by The Funk Brothers
  • produced by Norman Whitfield
  • previously unreleased alternate mix, "recorded September-October 1968, as an instrumental only during the sessions for the Temptations' album CHRISTMAS CARD"
  • "First issued with a different mix on the Various Artists album CHRISTMAS IN THE CITY Motown 6326, October 1993."
  • compilation produced by Harry Weinger
  • digitally remastered from original sources by Kevin Reeves at Universal Mastering Studios-East
  • mixed by Suha Gur
  • original source: VACD A MOTOWN CHRISTMAS VOLUME 2 Motown/Universal 440 016 364-2 (US) 11/06/01
.....I don't have the next appearance of the track, VACD 20TH CENTURY MASTERS/THE CHRISTMAS COLLECTION: THE BEST OF MOTOWN CHRISTMAS [VOLUME ONE] (2003). I also don't have either pressing of the Temptations' collection CD THE BEST OF TEMPTATIONS CHRISTMAS (2001 and 2003), which doesn't list the song but I would like to be able to confirm whether or not it appears as an unlisted track at the end. The only other appearance I can confirm is on VA2CD THE ULTIMATE MOTOWN CHRISTMAS COLLECTION Motown/Universal B0013383-02 (US) 10/13/09. It has four things in common with the liner notes of the 2001 stereo mix: it gives the correct composer credit; it attributes the production to Norman Whitfield; this new collection is supervised by Harry Weinger; and the mastering was again done at Universal Mastering Studio-East (this time by Ellen Fitton).

.....Only one thing doesn't make sense. If the track was intended for The Temptations' first Christmas album, produced by Barrett Strong and Clay McMurray, why was this track produced by Norman Whitfield? Whitfield produced almost all of the Temptations albums from 1968 until the the label moved its studios to California in 1973 and he was a songwriting partner with Strong, so it is possible that Whitfield initiated the sessions for the backing tracks assuming that he would take on the project and backed out, allowing Strong to take over. Considering the direction Whitfield steered the group after the departure of balladeer David Ruffin, into psychedelics and black consciousness politics, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to see him becoming disenchanted with the prospect of recording holiday standards. I was hoping to see some kind of tie breaker (is it a 1965 recording produced by White or a 1968 recording produced by Whitfield?) by consulting the website "Don't Forget The Motor City". The site confirms the recording date as October 11th, 1968 but attributes the recording to The Temptations, not The Funk Brothers, and attributes the production to Barrett Strong. A week later Strong would begin work with The Temptations on their Christmas single (which I'll get to in a later post). If the notations in DFTMC are correct, The Miracles were recording a Motown original on the 11th, the subject of the next post.

February 19, 2012

1967- Stevie Wonder Album

.....In 1967 a Stevie Wonder A-side from the previous year, "SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS" (see two posts ago), became the title track of a full album of otherwise newly recorded material. The sessions were produced by Henry Cosby (except for the last track, as noted) and included a number of original songs co-written by Ronald Miller, who co-wrote both sides of the single. There were at least a half dozen on one day.
  • 03:08 "THE CHRISTMAS SONG" (Mel Tormé, Robert Wells)- Recorded 08/08/67 and previously released by The Miracles. At the time there were also unreleased versions by Marvin Gaye and The Supremes.
  • 02:50 "EVERYONE'S A KID AT CHRISTMAS TIME" (Ronald Miller, Aurora Miller)- Recorded 08/15/67, but the only song here not included on the album. It's like a slightly more buoyant versions of "THE MIRACLES OF CHRISTMAS", the B-side of the 1966 single. The post for that single has already detailed its appearances.
  • 02:43 "ONE LITTLE CHRISTMAS TREE" (Ronald Miller, Bryan Wells)- Recorded 08/15/67. Boy, Charles Schulz has a lot to answer for. Just for the record, The Supremes recorded Jimmy Webb's "MY CHRISTMAS TREE" months before the first broadcast of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" in December 1965. Although, truth to tell, most of these stories can be traced to Hans Christian Anderson's "The Fir Tree" (1845). For the curious with a little time to kill:
  • 03:35 "THE DAY THAT LOVE BEGAN" (Ronald Miller, Deborah Miller)- Recorded 08/15/67. Musically this really doesn't have a hook but lyrically it fits with "LITTLE DRUMMER BOY" and "WE THREE KINGS" among songs that try to find a new perspective on the Nativity through the lives it directly intersected.
  • 03:29 "BEDTIME FOR TOYS" (Ronald Miller, Orlando Murden)- Recorded 08/15/67 with arrangements by Wade Marcus. It was also used as a B-side in 1971. While "EVERYONE'S A KID AT CHRISTMAS TIME" and the aforementioned B-side went over pretty smoothly, this one made it on to the album while they didn't. I find that curious, because all three involve childhood at Christmas and Stevie Wonder had been moving away from being 'Little Stevie' for just a few years, so it would be understandable that he would want to put a low quota ceiling on this sort of thing, but on this song more so than the other two it sounds as though he's singing it through clenched teeth. If so, he was right to resent it, the song is awful regardless of how it's performed. I'm not sure at what point during the day this track was recorded but it's worth noting that the four songs recorded on the following two days were covers.
  • 03:14 "TWINKLE TWINKLE LITTLE ME" (Ronald Miller, William O'Malley)- Recorded 08/15/67 and previously recorded for the 1965 Supremes' album. This might be the first time an original Motown Christmas song was covered. I'm certain it's the first time such a cover was released.
  • 03:26 "A WARM LITTLE HOME ON A HILL" (Ronald Miller, Bryan Wells)- Recorded 08/15/67. This would be at the opposite end of the spectrum from "BEDTIME FOR TOYS". Although Wonder was not yet 18 years old (and this song would be more appropriate for someone ten years older) he actually sounds convincing as someone looking at a wife and two children and seeing domesticity as a refuge instead of a dead end. Although technically a Christmas song because of the passing mention of Santa and stockings it is more of a New Year's song in the sense of assessing one's life and the state of your surroundings. It might be my favorite song on the album, but it rarely appears on the label's domestic compilations such as 1994's VACD A MOTOWN CHRISTMAS GIFT.
  • 02:23 "SILVER BELLS" (Jay Livingston, Ray Evans)- Recorded 08/16/67 and the third Motown version to see light after The Miracles (1963) and The Supremes (1965).
  • 02:32 "CHRISTMAS TIME" (Sol Selegna)- Recorded 08/16/67. This should be a good time to point out that producer Henry Cosby is no relation to the more famous Dr. William Henry Cosby, better known as the comedian Bill Cosby. 'Bill' grew up in Philadelphia and 'Henry' grew up in Detroit. The reason I mention this now is that my attempts to find an earlier recording of this song took a strange turn. The composer's name, 'Sol Selegna', doesn't appear anywhere in Don Waller's book "The Motown Story" (Scribner's, 1985), a book whose whole raison d'être is to name-drop. An online search yielded numerous credits in the last ten years, one in the 1980's and this song in 1967. We can reasonably assume that the more recent credits are for someone else with the same name, but there is one earlier credit for a single track on a Bill Cosby spoken word comedy album, also called "CHRISTMAS TIME". The track is credited to Cosby and Selegna, but while I remember listening to that album as a kid I can't remember if there was any music on it. Most of Cosby's early stand-up albums (this was his second) were in front of live audiences and I know he wasn't singing on any of them. I can't imagine that when his career was starting that he would splurge on having a live band sit on stage waiting to play a minute of music for a particular bit. The short version? I'm willing to believe that this recording is the first commercial release of the song, but I'm more than willing to listen to other opinions and any clues as to whether Selegna c.1967 was a real individual or a pseudonym.
  • 03:58 "AVE MARIA" (Franz Schubert)- Recorded 08/17/67 and needless to say not the first recording but a notable arrangement. Wonder sings in Latin, reverently and passionately, and even on a Christmas themed album it must have turned a number of heads among listeners expecting R&B remakes of "JINGLE BELLS", et al. Then, halfway into into it, he inserts a harmonica break, still in keeping with the original tempo and following the dynamics you would expect for a first violin in an orchestral arrangement. The take (if it is a single take and not an edited overdub) is seamless and yet still jarring by the mere fact that the harmonica is there. I've read people disagreeing over whether this was a statement to be taken seriously as an adult musician or just a bratty prank and I would argue that the superior quality of the performance demands serious consideration regardless of what the intentions were in the planning stages. This is beautiful and has earned its spot on numerous compilations over the last forty years, as well as being released as a single in its own right in Italy in the mid 1970's.
  • 03:05 "THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY" (Katherine Davis, Henry Onorati, Harry Simeone)- Recorded 08/17/67 and the third song to also have been recorded for the Supremes' album.
.....Over a month after those sessions one further recording was made, produced by Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol and providing them with a real kicker to close the album:
  • 02:28 "WHAT CHRISTMAS MEANS TO ME" (Anna Gordy Gaye, Allen Story, George Gordy)- Recorded 09/26/67 and inevitably an A-side, although not until 1971. It went on to appear on most of the major label compilations (1968, 1973, 1995 and 2009) and must be what these groups were hoping for every time they went into the studio.
.....The first pressing of the album jacket had a large circular photo of Stevie Wonder on an orange background. The 1978 reissue and all subsequent pressings replaced that with a square painting of a 'warm little home on a hill' tilted on a background of red and green ribbon stripes. The releases I've managed to find are below:
  • 7" Tamla T-54142 (US) 11/22/66 "SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS" b/w "THE MIRACLES OF CHRISTMAS" (see earlier post)
  • LP SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS Tamla TM(mono) or TS(stereo) 281 (US) 11/27/67
  • 7" Tamla 54214 (US) 12/71 "WHAT CHRISTMAS MEANS TO ME" b/w "BEDTIME FOR TOYS"
  • LP SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS Tamla T7-362R1 (US) 10/78
  • LP SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS Motown 5255ML (US) 07/82
  • CD MERRY CHRISTMAS/SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS Motown/MCA MCD08041MD (US) 1986 [This CD combines the 1965 Supremes album with the 1967 Stevie Wonder album without cutting any material. There are no bonus tracks. The catalogue number I've given is the correct one, impressed on the inner ring of the disc and printed on the spine and back of the jewel box. However, the number is altered to '8141' when printed on the disc surface and I've seen online auction and retail sites use this number instead. If buying from them, be certain to find out if the jewel box is included.]
  • CD SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS MCA Special Products 737463525527 (US) 08/09/00 (same as LP)
  • CD 20TH CENTURY MASTERS/THE CHRISTMAS COLLECTION: THE BEST OF STEVIE WONDER Motown/Universal Booo283102 (US) 09/21/04 [This isn't really a 'best of'; it's the 1967 album in the original program order plus the B-side "THE MIRACLES OF CHRISTMAS" and the outtake "EVERYONE'S A KID AT CHRISTMAS TIME"]
.....The only other Christmas recording I can find from Wonder is a 1973 promotional greeting, but there may be some covers in his later career.

February 18, 2012

1967- "Won't Be Long Before Christmas"

.....In the latter half of the 1960's The Supremes sporadically worked toward an album of songs from Walt Disney films. It appears to have been abandoned in 1970 after Diana Ross left, but more than half an album's worth finally saw light in the early days of CD. When aging music fans were showing reluctance to replace their collections with a different format and the hardware to play it, there was and industry-wide effort to encourage people to invest in a CD player by offering them music that had been withheld from them by the same industry for twenty years. The Supremes' Disney songs that hadn't yet found their way to other outlets became part of CD THE NEVER-BEFORE-RELEASED MASTERS Motown/MCA MCD09075MD (Japan/US) 07/31/87. This post concerns only two of them, both recorded on April 26th, 1967 in a session produced by Frank Wilson. The first to consider is:
  • 02:10 "TOYLAND" (Victor Herbert, Glen MacDonough)
.....The song was originally from the 1903 operetta "Babes In Toyland", which has a Christmas theme. When the song was performed on stage, it was sung by the male character Tom Tom and a male chorus. It has since been recorded numerous times as the play has been adapted for different media. When it was adapted by Disney for film in 1961, therefore, the fact that it was noticeably newly arranged wasn't perceived as being as radical as the unauthorized trashing of Stravinsky in "Fantasia". In fact, the story was rewritten and other songs were given different lyrics, so some believe "TOYLAND" got off easy. In the Disney film the song was sung by Tommy Sands (as Tom Tom) and Annette Funicello with a chorus of children. The music was arranged by George Bruns and the lyrics were adapted by Mel Leven. The Supremes' version that appears on the 1987 CD could be the second finished take, but I can't find the song anywhere else in the group's catalogue.

.....The second song has become a bit more accessible.
  • 02:41 "WON'T BE LONG BEFORE CHRISTMAS" (Richard Sherman, Robert Sherman)
.....This song was written for a Disney film, but its history starts with a book called "My Philadelphia Father" by Cordelia Biddle Duke Robertson. The book was adapted into a play and the play was adapted into a musical film by Disney in 1967. The Supremes' version of the song was recorded while the movie was still in production, apparently anticipating their album's release to benefit from a tie to a current movie. Unfortunately, during 1967 they had to replace Florence Ballard with Cindy Birdsong and had to consider whether to complete the album or rerecord the existing portions. By the time the movie came out at end of the year, Disney had edited a further 20 minutes from what should have been the final edit. The song was among the pieces removed, which would have made its inclusion on the album problematic, had the album not been shelved. In the past decade (2004) there has been a DVD release of the movie restored to its full, near three hour length. In it, Greer Garson performs the song, although the soundtrack CD (released two years earlier) credits Anne Shelton as the performer. Of course, the song wasn't included on the original 1967 Buena Vista label soundtrack album and without being able to compare the CD to the DVD I can't tell if Garson is singing herself or lip-synching. It's more likely that the Shelton recording comes from her own single, 7" Buena Vista Records DF 476 (UK) 1969. Then, it only becomes a matter of determining whether Garson or The Supremes made the earlier recording.

.....The Motown "WON'T BE LONG BEFORE CHRISTMAS" was reissued at least twice before the restored DVD came out. Once on VACD CHRISTMAS IN THE CITY Motown Master Series 37463-6326-2 (Germany) 10/19/93 and again on VACD A MOTOWN CHRISTMAS- VOLUME 2 Motown/Universal 440 016 364-2 (US) 11/06/01 in a previously unreleased stereo mix, which is recommended.

February 17, 2012

1966- "Someday At Christmas"

.....When this single debuted, Ron Miller had been keeping busy around Motown as a pianist and increasingly as a composer since the early 1960's. During that time, as Stevie Wonder got older there came a period after the novelty of his being a prodigy had worn off and before he eventually became a capable composer in his own right. Unlike many child performers, he grew gradually into an adult repertoire without derailing. If there was any awkwardness, it wasn't in his adolescence but in attempts to market him when he was no longer 'Little Stevie' (for example, the 1964 album STEVIE AT THE BEACH could have been rethought). Many of Wonder's early writing credits were collaborations with Sylvia Moy and producers Henry Cosby and Clarence Paul. In 1966 Ron Miller contributed "A PLACE IN THE SUN". A month after it was recorded (but a couple weeks before it would be available as an A-side) Wonder entered the studio to record two more Miller originals for a Christmas single.
  • 02:48 "SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS" (Ron Miller, Bryan Wells)
  • 02:23 b/w "THE MIRACLES OF CHRISTMAS" (Ron Miller, Aurora Miller)
  • performed by Stevie Wonder
  • original source: 7" Tamla T-54142 (US) 11/22/66
  • and my source: (A-side) CD MERRY CHRISTMAS/SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS Motown/MCA MCD08041MD (US) 1986 and (B-side) VACD CHRISTMAS IN THE CITY Motown Master Series 37463-6326-2 (Germany) 10/19/93
.....The following year the A-side, "SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS", would become the title track to a full album produced, as these were, by Henry Cosby. There would be more songs co-written by Miller but none of them would be as arresting as this one, an anti-war song that contrasts Nativity promises of hope against persistent global problems. Both sides were recorded October 9, 1966, the day before the release of the Simon and Garfunkel album LP PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY & THYME Columbia CS9363 (US) 10/10/66 which ends with the duo singing "SILENT NIGHT" over a simulated Seven O'Clock News broadcast. There must have been something in the air, although the tone of the Stevie Wonder single is unquestionably hopeful and the Simon and Garfunkel track seems cynical but is arguably ambiguous and probably deliberately so. That may explain the comparative durability of the Stevie Wonder song. In 2009 Justin Bieber performed "SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS" at the White House for President Obama and the first family (well, let's be honest; the Obamas had two daughters under the age of 14, so this wasn't really for the President). Because the concert was televised as a charity fundraiser there are multiple postings on Youtube. [In a weird coincidence, the performance was recorded shortly after Bieber released his debut EP containing the original song "DOWN TO EARTH", which was also the title of the Stevie Wonder album containing the Miller song "A PLACE IN THE SUN".]

.....The B-side is less weighty, despite the title. It simply lists random images of Christmas decorations and winter scenarios. Although neither song was included on the 1968 company album, "SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS" has appeared on most of the major Motown Christmas compilations including those in 1973, 1995 and 2009 and numerous minor midline and bargain items in between. It also appears on the full album of the same name, which has been reissued regularly in different formats. "THE MIRACLES OF CHRISTMAS" is a bit scarcer but I have found at least three CD pressings containing it and no other vinyl since the single. In all three cases it appears with a similar song called "EVERYONE'S A KID AT CHRISTMAS TIME", an outtake from the 1967 album sessions and also written by Ronald and Aurora Miller. They appear on:
  • VACD CHRISTMAS IN THE CITY Motown Master Series 37463-6326-2 (Germany) 10/19/93
  • VACD A CHRISTMAS PRESENT FROM MOTOWN Volume 1 Spectrum 544 672-2 (UK) 10/05/01
.....That last title simply adds the two non-album tracks to the end of the 1967 album. That may seem unimaginative, but it does reunite the two sides of the single for the first time in almost forty years.

February 16, 2012

1966- "Season's Greetings From Motown"

.....In 1966 Motown had a Stevie Wonder single in the works for Christmas (see next post), but the rest of their holiday music catalog consisted of two single-artist albums, one redundant single and a fistful of out-of-print and unreleased songs. To the less savvy, the obvious answer would be to get use out of the non-album recordings by collecting them together as a various artists album, throwing in some choice tracks from the Miracles' and Supremes' albums to sweeten the pot. But we are not Berry Gordy.

.....Whatever else was going on in Gordy's life, what those of us who didn't know him personally knew for certain amounted to three things: he had an ear for what worked as pop music; he loved making money; and he wanted to project a positive, assimilationist image of African-Americans that countered images he saw growing up. More than anything he wanted black Americans to control their own image and not have it controlled by everyone else. If Mitch Miller and Bing Crosby sold Christmas albums, Motown would sell Christmas albums. But he wasn't going to be selling dated material. From this point on, for the foreseeable future, the only item prior to the Supremes' album to be returned to print would be the original Miracles song "CHRISTMAS EVERYDAY". The album it came from would sell through its remaining stock and eventually return to print years later, but the emphasis would be on new recordings. Eventually there would be a holiday product that could project the whole Motown brand identity and not just a single act. Inching towards that end, Motown released a promotional single with spoken greetings from Motown artists. Many of them hadn't recorded, and wouldn't record, Christmas songs for Motown. Some never recorded Christmas material ever. The single shipped only to radio stations and was known to be pressed on red vinyl. I wouldn't be surprised if plans existed to press it on green vinyl as well.

.....Except for Shorty Long every act was represented by two greetings. One greeting would specifically mention Christmas and/or New Year's and the other greeting would be deliberately vague so that it could apply to different holidays as well. Everything ranged from five to ten seconds in length. Below I'm going to transcribe the texts, which are generally spoken by a single person. Where another group member interjects, their part will be marked by parentheses. Where an entire group speaks, that part will be marked by double brackets, i.e., {{, }}.

.....7" EP SEASONS GREETINGS FROM MOTOWN Motown 2482 (US) 11/66 [promo]
  • 1-) "Hi, this is Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a glorious New Year."
  • 1A) "Hi, this is Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas sending season's greetings to everyone everywhere."
  • 2-) "Hi, this is Eddie of The Temptations speaking for the rest of the guys wishing you a Merry, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."
  • 2A) "Hi, this is Eddie of The Temptations wishing you the best holiday season ever."
  • 3-) "Hi, this is Smokey Robinson (and Bobby of the Miracles) wishing you all a Merry Christmas (and a Happy New Year)."
  • 3A) "Hi this is Smokey (and Bobby of the Miracles) and we'd like to extend a season's greeting to all."
  • 4-) "This is Bad Shorty wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year."
  • 5-) "Hi, this is Carolyn of the Velvelettes wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year from all of us."
  • 5A) "Hi, this is Carolyn of the Velvelettes extending season's greetings from all of us."
  • 6-) "{{Hello, we're The Spinners}} and we'd like to take this occasion to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."
  • 6A) "{{Hello, we're The Spinners}} and we'd like to take this occasion to wish everyone the best of season's greetings."
  • 7-) "Hi, this is Duke of The Four Tops. I'd like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from all of The Four Tops."
  • 7A) "Hi there, this is Duke of The Four Tops. I'd like to wish you the very best of season's greetings from all of The Four Tops."
  • 8-) "{{Merry Christmas}} and a Happy New Year from The Elgins."
  • 8A) "{{Season's greetings}} from The Elgins."
  • 9-) "{{Hi, we're The Supremes wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.}}"
  • 9A) "{{Hi, we're The Supremes wishing everyone a pleasant holiday.}}"
.....Tracks 1-5 are on side A, tracks 6-9 are on side B. The entire contents above appear as an unlisted fifteenth track on VACD A MOTOWN CHRISTMAS VOLUME 2 Motown/Universal 440 016 364-2 (US) 11/06/01, plus a Michael Jackson greeting from 1973. The order of the artists speaking is the same as the order on label scans of the original single, but I'm only assuming that on the original single that the Christmas-specific greetings always precede the general greetings for each artist as they do on the CD track. Although there was no picture sleeve, label scans can be found intermittently on resale and auction sites, both general ones like eBay and music-only sites, for however long it takes that copy to sell.

.....There are no details on the single itself to identify speakers who don't explicitly identify themselves. I also don't know exactly when during 1966 these were recorded. I've identified below what could have been the line-ups of the various groups during 1966, with the groups alphabetical but numbered by their respective track on the single.
  • 8) THE ELGINS: Sandra (Mallet) Edwards, Johnny Dawson, Cleo 'Duke' Miller, Robert Fleming
  • 7) THE FOUR TOPS: Levi Stubbs, Lawrence Payton, Abdul 'Duke' Fakir, Renaldo 'Obie' Benson
  • 3) THE MIRACLES: William 'Smokey' Robinson, Ronnie White, Bobby Rogers, Claudette Rogers-Robinson, Warren 'Pete' Moore, Marv Tarplin
  • 6) THE SPINNERS: Henry Fembrough, Billy Henderson, Pervis Jackson, Bobbie Smith, (?)George W. Dixon
  • 9) THE SUPREMES: Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard
  • 2) THE TEMPTATIONS: Otis Williams (or Otis Miles?), Melvin Franklin (or David English?), David Ruffin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks
  • 1) MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: Martha Reeves, Rosalind Ashford, Betty Kelly
  • 5) THE VELVELETTES: Betty Kelly, Sandra Tilley, Carolyn Gill
.....Since 1990, these greetings and the ones from a similar 1973 single have been used as 'bumpers' between tracks on label compilations. The two tracks from The Supremes appear, again unlisted, five seconds after the ending of the bonus track "SILENT NIGHT" on the 1999 remaster of their MERRY CHRISTMAS album (see two posts back). If you know of any unmarked uses of these tracks, please leave the details in the comments section. Thank you.

February 15, 2012

1965- "A Child's Prayer"

.....Briefly, I want to mention a candidate for the list of Motown Christmas originals that I have ultimately decided to exclude. Just as the Motown group was a set of labels with a common owner, Golden World was also a Detroit-based group of labels, albeit on a smaller scale. Motown would eventually acquire the group, but for a while some of the Funk Brothers would moonlight doing sessions on one of the Golden World labels, Ric-Tic Records, with members of The Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the pseudonym San Remo Strings. When a single did surprisingly well in the summer of 1965 they recorded a full album, LP HUNGRY FOR LOVE Ric-Tic Records MLP901 (US) 12/65, produced by Robert D'Orleans and arranged and conducted by Gil Askey. It was the only full album Ric-Tic issued and it contained the instrumental:
  • 02:32 "A CHILD'S PRAYER" (Van McCoy)
.....In the summer of 1967 Motown reissued the album as Gordy GS923 (US) 08/67 and a year later obtained the entire Golden World group. As with Gwen Gordy's labels from earlier in the decade, the best acts from Ric-Tic such as Edwin Starr and Fantastic Four continued as Motown artists. Van McCoy, of course, became famous himself a little later for a dance craze called "The Hustle". In 1975 Hot Chocolate would record and release the song with the lyrics. While similar in tone to some of the songs included on James Brown's late 1960's Christmas albums, lamenting the state of the world and concerned for the future of its children, "A CHILD'S PRAYER" doesn't specifically mention Christmas. It is more like Marvin Gaye's "WHAT'S GOING ON" in that sense. I mention it here more for purposes of disambiguation, because there are a number of unrelated songs with the same title.

February 13, 2012

1965- Supremes sessions 2

.....In the previous post the first half of the Supremes' recordings for their 1965 Christmas album were covered. Of the nine songs known to have been completed by September 14th, only the last one, "LITTLE BRIGHT STAR", was a Motown original. The next nine include a few more. As before, the instrumentals were recorded in Los Angeles in August and the vocals in Detroit in September (see previous post). The sessions were produced by Harvey Fuqua with Hal Davis and Marc Gordon. The dates used below were found on the website Don't Forget The Motor City. Research on the origins of the songs was done using a variety of books and sites, including Allmusic, Wikipedia (US and UK), Discogs, BMI, ASCAP and imdb.

.....From LP MERRY CHRISTMAS Motown MT(mono) or MS(stereo) 638 (US) 11/01/65
  • 02:48 "BORN OF MARY" (Don Gustafson) Recorded 09/15/65. For the life of me, I can't find a single other song written by Gustafson, nor an earlier recording of this one. The name might be a pseudonym. Or it could be the work of someone motivated by the subject who doesn't ordinarily write music. In any event, it's not a bad song but very obviously a pastiche of Christmas-evoking musical sounds (finger-cymbals for the Middle East, chimes for Dickensian England, a too-loud string section for soaring spirits) used as a backdrop for the story of Christ's birth. The music and lyrics coincide but it doesn't feel like either one is naturally growing out of the other. Pretty but not hummable. And I'm not sure if there are any other recordings of the song. The only compilation I've seen it on is the redundant CD CHRISTMAS TIME WITH MOTOWN (1995).
  • 03:02 "TWINKLE TWINKLE LITTLE ME" (Ronald Miller, William O'Malley) Recorded 09/15/65 and certainly a Motown original. Miller was a staffer and will show up a few more times in this month's posts. This became the B-side of the single accompanying the album. In contrast to the previous song, this is a perfect example of how a song can be slight or weaker on paper but hold up much better in the execution. "BORN OF MARY" might have been better served without the string section and instead allowing the Supremes' vocals to stand out as they do here. They take lyrics that should be cloying and manage to make them warmer and sweet. Although often licensed out to other companies, I could only find it on the second volume of the 20th Century Masters Motown Christmas compilations.
  • 02:51 "CHILDREN'S CHRISTMAS SONG" (Isabelle Freeman, Harvey Fuqua) Recorded 09/16/65 and another Motown original. This became the A-side of the single mentioned above. The liner notes of the album's 1999 remastered edition identifies the children Diana Ross instructs in the spoken parts as her own brother Chico and Berry Gordy's children Joy, Berry, Jr. and Terry (for whom his publishing company, JoBeTe, is named). Picking a children's sing-along as an A-side is an odd marketing strategy and I'd put this down to the senior Gordy giving his kids (or himself) an expensive gift.
  • 03:07 "THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY" (Katherine Davis, Henry Onorati, Harry Simeone) Recorded 09/16/65 and a cover of the Harry Simeone Chorale's one time hit that almost every holiday album dutifully and mechanically acknowledges. I don't know why; the success of the original was, I thought, obviously tied to its multi-voiced delivery and whatever combination of elements were in place at its release, unlikely to ever be duplicated. Of all the songs on the album, it's the only one that nearly fifty years later has never been used on a company compilation. It's not because of the quality of the recording; there's just no point in hearing three women in chiffon dresses and bouffant hairdos sing "I am a poor boy, too".
  • 03:10 "MY CHRISTMAS TREE" (Jimmy Webb) You should probably sit down for this if you're not reading at a PC. Webb was a country boy from Oklahoma studying music in Southern California in 1964. Early in 1965 his mother died and his father was unable to pay for his studies. Rather than return home he dropped out to turn professional as a songwriter. He signs with Gordy as a publisher and this song becomes his first to be released commercially. As was common in pop music, the song's genders were transposed so that Ross (in the lead vocal) refers to herself as "a girl" and the song seems to be about a meager looking Christmas tree representing her life after her boyfriend left. But the line "there's no little angel on top where it used to be", in fact most of the lines, echo Webb's loss of his mother: "the best little present a [boy] could have has gone away from me", "I have been so lonely since you left me all alone". There's nothing specific to the lyrics that state that the missing person was a romantic partner or even that they left willingly. It is an archetypal image of a young person living on their own for the first time in their lives in a strange city in an almost empty room and realizing that the feeling of being alone in the world isn't just a feeling. They really are alone. The one note of hope is a line about "one lonely present" early in the song, one tenuous connection to some other person, still there unopened after "the New Year's already gone". If the song really is a way of dealing with his grief and the unopened present is in some way a last piece of his mother it could be that the song and the present are one and the same. By inspiring the song that months later launched a prolific career as a songwriter, she may have left him a gift he had yet to open. The song was recorded 09/16/65, a month and a day after his 19th birthday. It must be the most historically significant original song on the album, but after being used on the 1968 Motown compilation I've only found it on a 1973 UK LP and no other domestic label sets.
  • 01:08 "SILENT NIGHT" (Joseph Mohr, Franz Gruber) Recorded 09/16/65 with Florence Ballard as the lead vocal. This edit has only the first verse.
.....From VACD CHRISTMAS IN THE CITY Motown Master Series 37463-6326-2 (Germany) 10/19/93
  • 02:40 "SILENT NIGHT" (Joseph Mohr, Franz Gruber) Recorded 09/16/65 with Florence Ballard as the lead vocal. The oldest recording I have of this song is from 1911, but it's sung in German. I'm aware of contemporary English recordings but I haven't acquired one yet. "SILENT NIGHT" has been translated into over 200 languages and there are numerous conflicting English translations. What many people don't realize is that the original German poem by Mohr has six verses and none of them mention the Virgin Mary. She was added for the English and many subsequent translations. Considering how many variant translations exist, it is likely that many have never had a "first recorded version" and I'm not sure if any recordings predate 1900. Comparing and even locating recordings of different verses is a major headache. There's an entire website devoted to this one song and even they don't bother documenting the different recordings. Even so, I'm betting that I'm safe assuming that this is not the first recording of this version.
  • 02:23 "JUST A LONELY CHRISTMAS" (Harvey Fuqua, [Alan] Freed) Recorded 09/16/65 and previously recorded by the Moonglows in 1953. Alan Freed's first name isn't used either for this 1993 debut or as a bonus track for the 1999 remastered album. For an explanation of Freed's involvement, refer to the post of January 18, 2011 about the Moonglows' version.
.....From VACD A MOTOWN CHRISTMAS CAROL Motown Master Series 73145-30433-29 (US) 10/24/95
  • 02:31 "OH LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM" (Phillips Brooks, Lewis Redner) Recorded 09/16/65 and credited to 'Traditional', but I found the actual composers' credits in Ian Bradley's "The Penguin Book Of Carols" (Penguin, 1999). When The Supremes' Christmas album was remastered for 1999 only three tracks of the nineteen I'm examining were not included: "O HOLY NIGHT", which wouldn't be released until 2001; the one-verse edit of "SILENT NIGHT", which was replaced by a longer edit; and this song, which was the only unreleased song on VACD A MOTOWN CHRISTMAS CAROL, although it did include some of the rarely heard 'Season's Greetings' from old promotional singles. A better source for this song would be VACD A MOTOWN CHRISTMAS VOLUME 2, the compilation that debuted their recording of "O HOLY NIGHT" (see previous post).
.....From LP MERRY CHRISTMAS Motown MT(mono) or MS(stereo) 638 (US) 11/01/65
  • 02:58 "SILVER BELLS" (Jay Livingston, Ray Evans) Recorded 09/21/65 and previously recorded by The Miracles. There should be no trouble finding this recording, as it ties with "WHITE CHRISTMAS" for the Supremes Christmas song most frequently on the company compilations.
.....The different pressings of the album are:
  • LP MERRY CHRISTMAS Motown MT638 (US) 11/01/65 [mono]
  • LP MERRY CHRISTMAS Motown MS638 (US) 11/01/65 [stereo]
  • LP MERRY CHRISTMAS Natural Resources NR4010 (US) 10/78
  • LP MERRY CHRISTMAS Tamla Motown STMS 5084 (UK) 1982
  • CD MERRY CHRISTMAS/SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS Motown/MCA MCD08041MD (US) 1986 (combined with Stevie Wonder album)
  • LP MERRY CHRISTMAS Motown 5252ML (US) 1988
  • CD MERRY CHRISTMAS Motown/MCA MCD09085MD (Japan/US) n.d.
  • CD MERRY CHRISTMAS Motown/Universal 012 153 355-2 (US) 10/12/99 (four bonus tracks)
  • CD 20TH CENTURY MASTERS/THE CHRISTMAS COLLECTION: THE BEST OF THE SUPREMES Motown/Universal 602498-60343-7 (US) 09/23/03 (same as 1999 with new art)
  • CD MERRY CHRISTMAS Spectrum 600753224397 (UK) 2009 (without bonus tracks)