Like most kids who didn’t grow up in a house, I guess I was perplexed for much of my childhood, trying to find out how some 300-plus pound man in a red suit—in the absence of a fireplace and a chimney—managed to deliver gifts every year to the five-story walk up I lived in. One more that one occasion I asked my mother whether or not he had keys to our apartment and in that classic “shrug—don’t ask me no more questions—I don’t know” mode that I have now perfected for my five-year-old daughter, my mother dodged yet another life altering question from her budding seven-year-old ghetto existentialist. I was perhaps also perplexed by the Christmas music that my parents played every Christmas—music that I never heard in the department stores where we did Christmas shopping, never played during television commercial breaks and we for damn sure never sang in grade school. In my young mind the Christmas music my parents listen to, didn’t venture too far from the down-home, down and out soul music that they listened to every other time of the year. Somehow the voices of Otis Redding, Joe Tex and Clarence Carter, never seemed to conjure the “White Christmas” dreams I thought I should be having. My sense of Christmas and Christmas music forever changed when my mother bought me a copy of The Jackson Five’s Christmas Album. It was 1972, I was seven, and the Jackson Five were the most important people in my life. And true indeed, more than 30 year later, I can’t imagine a Christmas without hearing The J5’s Christmas Album or The Temptations’s Christmas Card, both recently re-issued as The Best of the Jackson Five: The Christmas Collection and The Best of The Temptations: The Christmas Collection (Universal/Motown).
Released in October of 1970, The Jackson Five Christmas Album remains not only one of the most exciting pop Christmas albums (The J5’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” ranking with Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” in my mind), but also of the great performances by the J5 in their developing years. The Jackson Five were at the height of their popularity when The Christmas Album was released having dropped three albums from late 1969 through 1970 and achieving four number one pop singles in succession with “I Want You”, “ABC”, “The Love You Save”, and “I’ll Be There” and the group didn’t disappoint bringing their pop-inflected proto-funk to Rudolph, Frosty, and a host of other melodious icons of holiday cheer. To this day, the Christmas season begins for me the first time I hear Jermaine’s plaintive and still underrated tenor singing “Have Your Self a Merry Little Christmas”, the song that opens The Christmas Album. Though the first part song is performed in a fairly traditional mode (the same with Jermaine’s reading of “The Christmas Song”), it is the hoot and hollerin’ breakdown that begins mid-way through the song that announces that “Christmas Wont Be the Same” after the Jackson Five gets done celebrating it. And make no mistake about that energy had everything to do with the still evolving soul prodigy who would one day become the biggest pop star on the earth.
Throughout The Christmas Album the then 11-year-old Michael Jackson captures all of the bright-eyed joy of Christmas. When he yelps “Wow! Mommy’s kissing Santa Claus” on the album’s closing tune, your heart tugs at the fear, bewilderment and naiveté that only a child could express in that situation. It was a fleeting early glimpse into the world of a young man, who would always perform in his music, the childhood that he was never able have as a pre-pubescent pop star. Michael sounds on the verge of a head explosion as he yelps “Santa Claus is coming to town” turning the always happy holiday tune into a JB-inspired fit of frenzy. And “Up on the House Top”, a Motown original, sounds right out of the session that gave the world “ABC”. The combination of Michael’s earnest vocals and classic J5 funk, makes for a joyous and ebullient holiday recording.
Unlike the Jackson Five, The Temptations were past their commercial prime, when they released Christmas Card in November of 1970. Two years removed from the classic Temptations formation that featured David Ruffin as lead vocalists, the group was still in transition trying to compete in an ever-changing industry, in which the stamp of Motown no longer guaranteed hit records. This partially explains why Christmas Card was the group’s first holiday album. If Motown wanted to exploit the J5’s immense popularity with The Christmas Album, with Christmas Card they wanted to squeeze what they perceived as the last bit of commercial viability out of the Temps. Though the group would have its biggest hit in 1972 with the very capable Dennis Edwards at the helm of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, the essential core of the group would be gone after Eddie Kendricks’s departure in 1972 and the death of Paul Williams in 1973. In this regard, Christmas Card represents one of the last sonic glimpses at that core group.
Given that they were The Temptations, the quintet is to be commended, for not phoning it in and actually delivering a project that spoke to why the group was so important in the first place. Given ample and inventive arrangements by producers Clay McMurray and Barrett Strong, on tracks like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (bottomed by Melvin Franklin, of course) and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, it is hard to hear these songs without imagining the Temps up on stage showing the world why the were pop music’s greatest dancers. But the clear favorite on Christmas Card has always been the Temptations’s rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” which suggest that homie was hearing that Motown back-beat when he rolled up in the manger that night. Eddie Kendricks shines throughout particularly on tracks like “White Christmas” and “My Christmas Tree” (unforgivably left off the Best of collection)
The history of the Temptations has been rife with debates over which version of the group was the best and it’s no different in a discussion of Temptation Christmas albums. A decade after the release of Christmas Card, the Temps (minus all of the originals, except Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams) went back in the studio and recorded Give Love at Christmas. Dennis Edwards’s always commanding vocals were on display on tracks like the group’s remake (and tribute to) of Donny Hathaway’s Christmas standard “This Christmas” and “The Christmas Song”. But the highlight of the recording and arguably the best Christmas song ever by the Temps, is their six-minute version of “Silent Night” which draws on Edwards’s sanctified riffs, Glenn Leonard’s lilting falsetto and the oceanic boom, that could only be the voice of the late Melvin Franklin. Christmas Card may have been the better album, but the later version of “Silent Night” represents the Temps at their best.