(Written by Mel Torme and Robert Wells)
For American readers, it may feel strange to be reading about a Christmas song – indeed, “the” Christmas song, according to its title – in the middle of May. But I’m British, and so this feels strangely appropriate. Our TV channels here never broadcast American shows when they first appear in the States, British viewers instead having to wait several months to see something that Americans have long since enjoyed. This means our much-delayed American TV shows always broadcast their Christmas specials out of sequence, usually when the sun is shining outside, providing a layer of disconnect neatly reflected here. If that weren’t enough, then – if Wikipedia is to be trusted – this song is even more appropriate for the occasion, as it too was supposedly written in the middle of a summer heat wave.
Being British, I’m also largely unfamiliar with this song, a very obvious symbol of the distance between our nations in the Sixties which hasn’t been narrowed since. Oh, I know it’s a beloved cultural touchstone and standard Christmas trope over there, and I know enough of it from various examples of the aforementioned American TV variety specials – mostly back in the dim recesses of childhood memory, being sung by white crooners of indeterminate age, with ad breaks popping up in all the wrong places – to recognise the tune and first two lines:
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire / Jack Frost nipping at your nose…
Which is all that often gets used nowadays, as a scene-setter, an instant cultural signifier that says “Hey, viewers, it’s Christmas!”; and which, to be honest, is usually enough for me to switch off, my attention wandering.
Cards on the table time: I’ve never actually heard this song all the way through to the end. I’ve never even listened to Nat King Cole’s version (indeed I don’t seem to have a copy, despite owning any number of his best-of collections. Maybe I just didn’t notice its absence). Point is, I never knew what came after those opening few lines.
Until now, obviously.
First, some background. This was a limited-run promo single intended to promote the Miracles’ LP of Christmas songs, Christmas with the Miracles (left), itself only appearing for the 1963 festive season having been delayed from its intended 1962 release. (As the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 3 wryly note, this meant it going head-to-head in the stores with another contemporary LP of reworked festive tunes, Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records. One of these two albums is now universally recognised as a classic, and one is not. Guess which is which.) The single appears to have originally been scheduled for a full release Tamla 54084, but this seems to have been dropped in favour of I Gotta Dance To Keep From Crying, there not being room in the market for two Miracles singles at once, and not long enough left until Christmas to hold this one back.
Anyway. Back to the record. We’ve had a spectacular run of A-sides recently on Motown Junkies, with ten straight releases scoring at least six out of ten, and – just as with Howard Crockett’s The Big Wheel – I was fully expecting this one to snap that streak. But once again, as with Crockett’s record, this is nowhere near as horrible as I’d first feared.
As discussed, the song isn’t part of my cultural vocabulary, except as a naff, cheesy signifier become folk memory (indeed, it always merges in my mind with Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas), and so I can’t really compare Smokey’s version with any others – I have over 30,000 records in my collection, I know lots of obscure facts about electrogrind and Belgian house, but for me this is properly uncharted territory right here.
Actually, it’s unfair for me to call this “Smokey’s version”, as this is group performance by the Miracles in every sense. After those opening two lines, Smokey gets more comfortable with the hokey material, and the group set about making the song their own. Avoiding obvious chords in favour of bolder, slightly eerie choices, is a lovely surprise – the They know that Santa’s on his way at 1:12 is very unexpectedly wistful and aspiration rather than cloyingly nostalgic.
(I don’t know if the original song does that, or whether this is something the Miracles and producer Mickey Stevenson invented for themselves. Perhaps when late December rolls around, I’ll go and investigate; I’ve no desire to scour Youtube for a bunch of renditions of Christmas tunes in May, thank you very much.)
This is very much a Miracles concoction, though; there’s nothing in all of music that sounds like Smokey Robinson floating over the top of the high, haunting harmonies of the rest of the group, Claudette in full effect here. The ending in particular seems to be heading for a final, boring resolution on middle C, but instead sneaks out for an extra twenty seconds of surprisingly effective harmonising, vibes, horns and guitar, off the back of Smokey’s final “…you!” at 2:14.
I was absolutely prepared to hate this going in, but it’s both charming and disarming, and filled with character and what I assume are bold choices. Either way, it’s lovely. Bravo.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
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