Celebrating “A Motown Christmas,” 40 Years Later
Posted by Andrew C on Wednesday, December 18th, 2013
Twas the month of December, 1973, and Toby Allen—the eldest member of Human Nature—was but a mere babe, celebrating his very first Christmas in the tropical heat of a New Guinea summer. Meanwhile, roughly 8,639 miles away, in snowy Detroit, Michigan, Berry Gordy’s world-famous Motown label had just released what would become one of its most beloved records of all time. It was the double-album A Motown Christmas—a compilation of soulful holiday classics selected from the label’s superstar-laden catalog.
Even if you’ve never owned the actual record, you almost certainly have a soft spot in your heart for the songs. There was Stevie Wonder’s ridiculously joyous “What Christmas Means to Me,” the Supremes’ lush take on “Silver Bells,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles doing “Deck the Halls,” the Temptations sweet “Silent Night” lullaby, and of course, the Jackson 5’s classic “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Every song was delivered with boundless enthusiasm and genuine soulfulness—a much welcome antidote to the paint-by-number shopping mall stylings of the era’s aging crooners.
For that Christmas of 1973, and all forty that have followed, the songs collected on A Motown Christmas have inspired millions of music listeners to appreciate the songs of the season in a whole new way—including Toby Allen and his future bandmates in Human Nature, who would all grow up listening to and singing along with the hits from that very same compilation.
It seems rather poetic, then, that Human Nature’s own holiday record, The Christmas Album, is coming out on the 40th anniversary of A Motown Christmas. For a group that’s devoted years to honoring the amazing legacy of Motown’s heyday—both in their recordings and Las Vegas stage show—covering the similarly timeless classics of the holiday season seemed almost like a logical next step.
“Yeah, I think there’s a lot of truth to that,” Phil Burton says. “They’re a bit the same in a way, aren’t they– Motown music and Christmas music—in the sorts of feelings they elicit in people.”
And for Human Nature, that’s really what this project was all about—not trying to replicate the tracklist or specific arrangements on A Motown Christmas, but striving for some of those same powerful feelings that Smokey, Diana, and The Temps masterfully stirred—and continue to stir– in all of us. With Motown, after all, it was never simply about great songwriting or great singers. It was about tearing down the wall between artist and audience. It was having the willingness to bare one’s own soul, with all the joy and pain therein, in order to reach someone else’s. And it was also the somewhat revolutionary idea that a collection of performers from the mean streets of Detroit could make music the entire world could relate to.
“Just thinking about that time in music,” Burton continues, “it’s almost like everything just came together perfectly at the right time, you know? Some of the greatest artists the world has ever seen working with some of the best producers of all time. These were artists on top of their game, and this man Berry Gordy– with this amazing, grand vision of what it all should be like. …Everyone was so driven, ambitious, and talented—and there they all were essentially in this one room at the same time. It was just that perfect mix. I’m not sure that’s something we’ll ever quite see the likes of again.”
“When we were just kids, we knew of the songs,” adds Michael Tierney. “But when we decided to do our first record of Motown covers, we dug more into the whole history of Motown and the entire catalog of music. And we were amazed at some of the great songs we never even realized were Motown songs—including some great Christmas songs.
“When you think how that label all came about from this one little house in Detroit, packaging up their own singles upstairs and sending them out… it was a real family kind of business they started. And it just went from there. It’s a pretty amazing story.”
In recent years, of course, Michael and the rest of Human Nature have had the thrill of working with and befriending many of the same Motown legends they grew up listening to during those Christmases of their youth. And now, with the release of The Christmas Album, they’ll have the unique opportunity to stir some holiday souls just as their heroes did. The question is, is this just the beginning? Will the newborn babies of 2013 have additional Human Nature Christmas albums to grow up listening to?
“Oh, quite possibly,” says a now fully grown-up Toby Allen, whose own newborn twins will be celebrating their first Christmas this year. “If it’s a success, we’d definitely look at doing another [Christmas album]. There are certainly a whole lot of songs we didn’t get to do on this one. You have to remember, we started out singing Christmas songs together 24 years ago. It really does suit our voices, and we love performing them.”