15 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Motown vs. Spector

A Christmas Gift from Phil Spector vs. A Motown Christmas

Today we're hitting some soul pop tunes, and another album battle, the wall of sound vs the might of Berry Gordon's motor city empire.

A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (originally ... from Phillies Records)
1 White Christmas - Darlene Love
2 Frosty The Snowman - The Ronettes
3 The Bells Of St Mary - Bob B Soxx & The Blue Jeans
4 Santa Claus Is Coming To Town - The Crystals
5 Sleigh Ride - The Ronettes
6 (It's A) Marshmallow World - Darlene Love
7 I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - The Ronettes
8 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - The Crystals
9 Winter Wonderland - Darlene Love
10 Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers - The Crystals
11 Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - Darlene Love
12 Here Comes Santa Claus - Bob B Soxx & The Blue Jeans
13 Silent Night - Phil Spector & Artists

This is a whole piece of work. Spector brings together Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals and Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans, fantastic session players such as Jack Nietzsche (also arrangements), Leon Russell, Barney Kessel, Tommy Tedesco and even Sonny Bono, and a consistent production aesthetic, which spins out a near perfect seasonal collection. It's hard to say which is the best Ronettes track on here, Frosty, Sleigh Ride or Mommy? Similarly the Darlene Love tracks are of fantastic quality, I bet you can't even think of another version of Marshmallow World although it's from 1949 and had been a hit for that crooner we saw earlier with that Bowie fellow, and later from that tipsy guy from the Rat Pack.

(It's a) Marshmallow World - Darlene Love

The Crystals rendering of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, with its upward inflected declaration of the title before the verse, became the template for future versions including the big hit for Bruce Springsteen. It's hard to believe this album actually failed on its initial release, until you consider that it was released the day of the JFK Assassination (I wonder if there is a conspiracy theory that has tied the Clarkson shooting to Marilyn and John?). Apparently Brian Wilson rates it as the best holiday album ever made, and that fellow knows about records.

A Motown Christmas
1973 Original Double LP
Side 1
1 Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town - The Jackson 5
2 What Christmas Means to Me - Stevie Wonder
3 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - The Temptations
4 My Favorite Things - The Supremes
5 Deck the Halls/Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella - Smokey Robinson
6 I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - The Jackson 5
Side 2
1 Ave Maria - Stevie Wonder
2 Silent Night - The Temptations
3 Little Christmas Tree - Michael Jackson
4 God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen - Smokey Robinson
5 The Christmas Song - The Jackson 5
6 Joy to the World - The Supremes
Side 3
1 The Little Drummer Boy - The Temptations
2 Silver Bells - The Supremes
3 Someday at Christmas - Stevie Wonder
4 Frosty the Snowman - The Jackson 5
5 Jingle Bells - Smokey Robinson
6 My Christmas Tree - The Temptations
Side 4
1 White Christmas - The Supremes
2 One Little Christmas Tree - Stevie Wonder
3 Give Love on Christmas Day - The Jackson 5
4 It's Christmas Time - Smokey Robinson
5 Children's Christmas Song - The Supremes
6 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - The Jackson 5

Part of the problem with this compilation of Motown Christmas music is that it is just that, a compilation. It comprises much of the Christmas output of the Motown label from the 1960's and 1970's, and has their iconic stars, but suffers from a kitchen sink rather than selective approach. Cramming 24 of these tracks together issues diminishing returns as the result is uneven. Almost all the tracks can be heard more sensibly on their own individual Christmas albums: Jackson 5 (The Jackson 5 Christmas Album - 1970), Stevie Wonder (Someday at Christmas - 1967), The Supremes (Merry Christmas - 1965) and The Temptations (The Temptations Christmas Card - 1970). Although The Miracles released Christmas with The Miracles in 1963, the only overlap of their work here is Jingle Bells. Even the best of the Jackson's tracks included here, Santa Claus is Comin' To Town has distinct echoes of The Crystals version.

Although a Marvin Gaye track is included on the CD re-release, other contemporaneous Motown artists are unrepresented including, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, The Velvelettes, Jr. Walker & the All Stars, and Gladys Knight & the Pips. It's sad to imagine that it would have been easy enough to get any of them to do a single each to add to this record.

Many of the tracks have not dated well. You would think that the Supremes doing My Favorite Things would be a no brainer, but it's smothered in production. Even removing the constant layer of shakin' sleigh bells would instantly improve it. The Diana Ross vocal is great, you almost want to strip it out on it's own and leave the syruppy strings behind. She suffers even more when frog marched through Joy to the World which is made so up tempo that they may as well have done it to speed guitar instead of fustily fuguing strings with poorly interpolated Handel Allelujah's in-between verses. The only track The Supremes really get away with is Silver Bells, which, although attacked by now contextual, though unnecessary sleigh bells has the lightness of touch their other tracks here lack.

My pick out of this mish mash is The Temptations cover of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Finally, it should be noted that Motown have continually issued other Christmas compilation albums, some including or excluding these tracks, but they've never done anything definitive, unless you count the 35 track "Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection" which updates the canon to include, ahem Boyz II Men. Of course, if you're just being all inclusive, you'll never be definitive.

Winner: Phil Spector. I know it's small compensation for 19 to life. The Spector album is a quintessential, purpose built artefact of its time. I doubt there's a contemporary holiday movie that doesn't raid it for its soundtrack. It stands with the best non-seasonal work of its artists, which is something you certainly can't claim of the Motown songs.

Sleigh Ride - The Ronettes

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