The Comfort of Repetition & The Ultimate Christmas Playlist

I am not alone in saying that I always take comfort in the annual repetition of the holidays – revisiting holiday-themed music, film, television… and now internet posts as well. This feeling is in overdrive this year, as I occupy myself at home and skip other annual holiday traditions that involve leaving my apartment. The Rockefeller Center tree looks very nice on my television – and that view will have to suffice this year, thank you very much.

I feel bad for this year’s Rockefeller Center tree – sacrificed to become the most famous Christmas shrub in the world at a time when nobody is allowed to actually go near it. It’s the Just Sam of Christmas trees, which makes the displaced owl Ryan Seacrest.

I find it interesting that we immerse ourselves in certain pop culture favorites for exactly 6 weeks of the year and then pack them up in mothballs with the ornaments until next year. I mean, Bing Crosby, Brenda Lee and Johnny Mathis are rock stars from Thanksgiving through New Years. Are any of them on your 4th of July playlist? They aren’t on mine.

The film A Christmas Story has an even shorter (Elf on the) shelf life. We binge-watch the repeated broadcast for exactly 24 hours each year. I own it on Blu-ray and I’m not sure why: I have never opened it. To pop it in at any other time feels like a betrayal.

In keeping with this revisiting, blog posts of Christmas past are back to haunt you like A Christmas Carol, Mr. Scrooge:

This was my Canine Christmas Tail – a true story about my dog Sunshine and her appetite for tinsel.

Here is my take on the 1987 Motown Christmas Special – which featured few Motown acts.

Last year marked the 85th anniversary of March of The Wooden Soldiers – here are 10 things you may not know about the holiday classic.

Have you watched Christmas In Connecticut yet this year? How about that delivery woman?

Unfortunately, due to copyright issues all the links are broken on my 60 Degrees Girl Group Christmas piece. This also keeps me from posting other episodes of the radio show – hopefully only temporarily, as I find a work-around.

However… I have this to share:

Way back in 2002, when Limewire was a thing and people listened to music on silvery discs, I started creating Christmas CD mixes that I would mail out or give to people. These were received with a combination of feigned delight, veiled indifference and deafening silence. None of these CDs had a pressing of more than 20 copies. I’d like to call them “much sought after” – but no, that’s not really the case, although every once in a while, someone really got into them and would ask for copies of other volumes.

And so, I’m offering this simple playlist…. for kids from 1 to 92. Unfortunately many of the tracks on these dozen CDs are not on Spotify, but I keep adding songs that would be on the current CD volume… if there was one. And now the playlist is over 14 hours of holiday tunes. I recommend listening on shuffle – there’s something to irritate everyone. Enjoy!

A 60 Degrees Girl Group Christmas

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I have always loved Christmas music. I tend to listen to older music all year round, but when it comes to sharing music with the general public, this is the only time of year when Brenda Lee is considered cool. To combat the 60’s holiday tracks that are over-covered and overplayed, I am always searching for more obscure holiday recordings by girl groups and female vocalists that are not on radio or Spotify playlists.

60DegreesWhen I began hosting my internet radio show 60 Degrees back in 2008, it started an annual tradition of putting together a holiday program full of female 60’s singers and girl groups, interspersed with vintage commercials and sound clips from classic holiday movies and television shows. You can listen to the Halloween show here.

East Village Radio was a pirate radio station that went legit and switched to the internet, broadcasting from a storefront in New York’s Lower East Side. This first 60 Degrees holiday show debuted on December 22, 2008 and was repeated annually throughout the shows 5 year run. By 2012, the holiday programs had gained such a following that 60 Degrees was given an uninterrupted 16 hour marathon on Christmas Day.

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At the beginning of Part 2, I read a Christmas poem that I wrote about an incident from my childhood involving our tinsel-eating dog Sunshine, which has previously been posted here and also on The Good Men Project website. You can’t say I don’t recycle!

Other than my speedy vocal delivery (someone tell that guy to slow down) and some minor sound level issues, the show holds up pretty well. There are a few mis-statements that I wish I could fix:

  • I said that Maya Rudolph’s mother, the late great Minnie Riperton was not singing lead on The Gems tracks when she is.
  • I mis-pronounce the Meditation Singers as “The Mediation Singers” and would add that soul singer Laura Lee was a member of the group, having replaced Della Reese in the 1950’s.
  • Janice Orenstein sang There’s Always Tomorrow from the Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer soundtrack.

Gems MinnieMeditation SingersJanice Orenstein

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Part 1 Flirtaitons

  1. Donde Esta Santa Claus – Toni Stante
  2. Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas  – Carla Thomas
  3. My Boyfriend’s Coming Home For Christmas  – Toni Wine
  4. Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day – Brenda Lee
  5. White Christmas – Baby Washington
  6. Snowfall – Doris Day
  7. I Want A Boy For Christmas – The Del-Vetts
  8. You Better Be Good, World – Shirley Ellis
  9. Peace For Christmas  – Gigi Parker
  10. Christmas Calling  – Valerie Masters
  11. Christmas Time – Jan Bradley
  12. All I Want For Christmas Is You – Carla Thomas
  13. Christmas Is The Time To Be With Your Baby – The Orchids
  14. Christmas Time Is Here Again – The Flirtations
  15. O Holy Child – Dusty Springfield
  16. Sleigh Ride – Darlene Love wi/ The Brian Setzer Orchestra
  17. Deep in the Heart of Christmas Darlene Love wi/ The Brian Setzer Orchestra
  18. Christmastime For The Jews – Darlene Love
  19. Xmas (Baby Please Come Home) Live 2005 – Darlene Love

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Part 2: Suprems xmasbboard

  1. Wish You A Merry Christmas – Kim Weston
  2. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! – The Miracles (featuring Claudette Robinson)
  3. Oh Holy Night – The Supremes (featuring Florence Ballard)
  4. Won’t Be Long Before Christmas – The Supremes
  5. Blue Christmas – The Meditation Singers
  6. Blue Holiday – Aretha Franklin
  7. Love For Christmas  -The Gems
  8. Jing Jing A Ling – Honey & The Bees
  9. Silver Bells – Rachel Sweet
  10. Close Your Mouth (It’s Christmas) – The Free Design
  11. The Christmas Song – Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66
  12. I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You – Margo Guryan
  13. Happy New Year Baby – JoAnn Campbell
  14. Happy New Year Baby – The Sisters
  15. January First – Peggy March
  16. Happy New Year – Beverley
  17. Jingle Jingle Jingle – Burl Ives
  18. There’s Always Tomorrow – Janice Orenstein
  19. Auld Lang Syne – Honey & the Bees

I’ll be uploading other episodes of 60 Degrees in the future. I hope you enjoy them. Thanks for listening!Delvettes 45

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A Christmas Without Miracles: The 1987 “Motown” Christmas Special

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I have this pet peeve… it’s a situation that usually occurs at a party or in a bar situation. Someplace with a jukebox or a DJ where the alcohol flows freely. An overplayed 60’s soul hit like Respect or Dock Of The Bay starts to play and some booze bag sloshes over and says “OH I LOVE MOTOWN! I love Aretha and James BROWN and the Shirelles and the Ronettes and OTIS and ALL the rest of the Motown acts.”

Honey. Sit down. Let me get you a glass of water. We need to talk.

While I appreciate your enthusiasm, let’s set the record straight: Sam Cooke. Otis Redding. James Brown. The Shirelles. The Ronettes. They are NOT Motown acts. Never were. And while Aretha Franklin is FROM Motown, aka Detroit, she was never ON Motown records.

Referring to every black artist who recorded soul music in the 60’s as a “Motown” singer is lazy, insulting and possibly a teensy bit racist. Kapeesh? With that said, perhaps I should cut people some slack. I know, we are all very busy and don’t pay a whole lot of attention to minutiae. And besides, sometimes the record labels themselves are a little guilty of causing confusion. Case in point: The 1987 Motown Merry Christmas special.

First, a little context: In 1984 the Motown 25 TV special was a blockbuster ratings success, Motown 25with all the former stars of the record label coming home to celebrate Motown’s 25th Anniversary and kiss the ring of founder Berry Gordy. Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The 4 Tops, The Temptations, Martha Reeves, Mary Wells and many others made appearances. Lionel Richie reunited with the Commodores! Smokey Robinson reunited with the Miracles! Diana Ross reunited with the Supremes for a minute and half before Miss Ross allegedly pushed Mary Wilson out of her way! That last part was edited out of the broadcast…. but anyway… the real highlight of the show was the reunited Jackson 5, followed by Michael Jackson’s performance of Billie Jean, which introduced the moonwalk to the world and we were never the same again.

Fast forward three years – the Motown brand was still being milked for all it was worth, even if their current roster of artists were not exactly burning up the charts. I mean, even DeBarge had left the label by this point. But a nostalgic look back at Motown with a Christmas special seemed like a good idea, as most of the top Motown acts had released holiday LPs during the label’s heyday. In fact, The Temptations and Smokey Robinson & Miracles each released two Christmas LPs on the label. But… you do have to get the acts to come back and perform for a TV special, right?

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For whatever reason (read: money) only the Temptations and Smokey Robinson are on hand for this star-studded Motown Merry Christmas, which was taped – not in Detroit – but at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood, California.

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The show aired December 14, 1987 on NBC, hosted by Philip Michael Thomas, the guy who wasn’t Don Johnson on the hit NBC-TV show Miami Vice. Interesting spot of trivia: Philip Michael ThomasThomas, notorious for his over-inflated ego, is credited with coining the acronym EGOT for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony wins, as he often crowed in interviews that he would win one of each. As of 2018, he has never been nominated for any of them.

The show opens with our humble host reading a version of “Twas The Night Before Christmas” that name-checks some Motown artists, including Stevie Wonder, who is not there.

This segues into a performance by the 1987 version of The Temptations (which means no Eddie Kendricks or David Ruffin). They are wearing nightshirts and slippers as they Temptations White Christmasperform a doo wop version of White Christmas. Although the group had recorded the song as a ballad on their 1970 Christmas album, that version is scrapped in favor of the Drifters uptempo arrangement, originally released on Atlantic records in 1954. In any case, it’s a fun showcase for the deep bass voice of original member Melvin Franklin.

Pointer Sisters MJNext, The Pointer Sisters sing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, a track from the very first A Very Special Christmas album, which had just been released and is now considered a classic. Their performance is spirited, but once again a reminder: The Pointer Sisters have nothing to do with Motown, although a kid imitating Michael Jackson does makes an appearance.

Redd Foxx Lola Falana

For the comedy portion of the program, Redd Foxx arrives onstage dressed as a pimped-out Santa Claus along with Marsha Warfield of NBC’s Night Court and Lola Falana of many a Las Vegas lounge. Redd performs a rap and the result is exactly what you would imagine a Redd Foxx rap might sound like. Then things get serious as they read a fake letter from an imaginary homeless child and Santa Foxx promises to find him on Christmas. So I guess the kid will have to fend for his imaginary self until then.

Side Note: Although Redd Foxx is best remembered today for Sanford and Son and his other sitcom work, he was also known as “The King of the Party Records” -with over 50 raunchy comedy LPs released on a dozen different record labels. None of these labels was Motown.

Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love deliver a medley of songs from the Phil Spector Darlene RonnieChristmas Album, which, of course, was not a Motown production. Darlene sings a generous portion of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). Just the previous Christmas, she had performed the song on David Letterman’s show for the first time, launching a tradition that would continue for the next 28 years.

I forgot to mention: as this is the 1980’s, there is a large gaggle of dancers present throughout the entire show. During this segment they are dressed primarily in gold mylar, gyrating around Ronnie and Darlene as they herd from one end of the stage to the other. One of the more prominent dancers is Michael Perea, a staple of 80’s music videos for many artists including Michael Jackson, Cher and especially Madonna, having appeared in her videos as well as on the Virgin Tour and Live Aid performance. In the mid-80’s, I wanted to BE Michael Perea, shaking my tambourine to Dress You Up and Dancing On The Ceiling with Lionel Richie. I was sorry to learn recently that he died of AIDS complications in 1989.

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Next up – another medley: Desiree Coleman, one of two artists appearing here (besides Smokey) that was actually signed to the Motown label at the time. Desiree sings Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Desiree ColemanShe is decked out in a tacky 80’s outfit full of sequins and linebacker shoulder pads. I mean… all the costumes in this show are hideously dated, but this one is at the top of the very flammable acrylic heap.

Philip Michael Thomas is onstage with her but thankfully does not sing. Apropos of nothing, Desiree hits a Mariah Carey dog-whistle note at the end of her segment and Thomas leads her away. I’m not a fan.

Smokey sings a portion of a forgettable ballad before Natalie Cole comes in with her soulful rendition of Donny Hathaway’s This Christmas (Side note: do yourself a favor and check out Dave Holmes dissection of Patti LaBelle’s disastrous version of this song from the 1996 National Christmas Tree lighting. Really.)Natalie Smokey2

I remembered This Christmas as a highlight of the program, thinking that Smokey and Natalie had some real chemistry. Re-watching it now, I see that it’s all Natalie’s doing. SHE has chemistry. All we see is the back of Smokey’s head as she sings her way towards him. Together they segue into Give A Little Love On Christmas Day, and it sure does seem like someone’s gonna get a little love before Christmas day even gets here. Oh – Philip Michael Thomas and Desiree Coleman are still onstage too. Thankfully, Philip Michael Thomas still does not sing.

The Temptations are back with a very nice version of Silent Night, featuring the tight Temptations Silent Nightsoulful harmonies that are their trademark. They end their performance with a declaration: “Merry Christmas from the Motown Family…” as if they are here to represent the rest of the “family” who had to go visit the in-laws and just couldn’t make it this year.

After some more Redd Foxx shenanigans, Run DMC (who were on Profile records) performs Christmas In Hollis, which was also on the A Very Special Christmas LP. Quick geography lesson: Hollis is in Queens, New York, which is about as far from Detroit, Michigan as the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood, California.

Stephanie Mills sings the R&B ballad When You Love Someone (It’s Christmas Every Day), a song that they twice mention was written by our very own Redd Foxx. What they don’t mention is that the song was recorded by former Motown artists Gladys Knight and The Pips, who are not here.Stephanie Mills2

It’s ironic that Mills appears on a Motown special for a couple of reasons: Not only was she never a Motown artist, but her greatest success was playing 13 year old Dorothy in The Wiz on Broadway, but when Motown produced the movie adaption, 34 year old Diana Ross was given the role.

Smokey and the Temptations are back again to sing The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire). This is fine. But where are the Miracles? Where are the 4 Tops? Gimme some Pips! My kingdom for a Marvelette!

Marsha Warfield

Marsha Warfield reappears dressed as a glittery bag lady as we head into the closing 8+ minute medley. Carrie McDowell is introduced. She is the only caucasian on the bill and the only other artist besides Desiree and Smokey signed to Motown at the time. Carrie McDowellThat said, she was dropped shortly after her debut LP tanked that same year. McDowell has the featured spot here… and this girl can SANG, that’s for sure, but…. this also means that all the other great singers behind her: Natalie Cole, Darlene Love, Pointer Sisters, etc. are given much shorter solos – some are reduced to a single line of a song. Poor Ronnie Spector has one duet line with Stephanie Mills.

Lola finaleLola Falana has a very brief solo with some very odd stilted physical movements, which I always attributed to the severe multiple sclerosis flareup that plagued her at the time. But upon repeated viewing, she moves quite naturally when she steps back in line with the others. So I don’t know what that was about.

The cast sings approximately 15 seconds of every holiday song ever written. Phillip Michael Thomas is singing now but nobody gives him a mic. And then we’re done. Credits roll. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

In 2000, Diana Ross attempted to launch a Supremes reunion – the first time they would have performed together since the Motown 25 special. Unfortunately, very little money was offered to Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong and both declined to participate. In their place were installed Lynda Lawrence and Scherrie Payne (Freda’s sister), both members of the Supremes in the 1970’s – years after Ross had left. Fans didn’t buy it and the tour fizzled out quickly. As with this program, it was just another example of the Motown name being slapped on something and fans were expected to eat it up.

Of course, if we are talking about drunk people at a party, maybe they do fall for it. But some of us are bound to stand up and say… Honey, no. We need to talk.

Motown Merry Christmas TV guide