Few collections have successfully melded soul and Christmas music as well as the Jackson 5 Christmas Album, a disc that has sold over three million copies worldwide and remains a mainstay on holiday playlists. While their enthusiastic versions of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" receive annual radio airplay, the album track "Up on the House Top" encapsulates the Jackson 5's charisma and the incredible artistry of Motown's production team.
By October 15, 1970, the Jackson 5 were at the peak of their popularity. They had already released three smash albums featuring the number one singles "I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There." Wanting to cash in on this success, Motown brought the Jackson 5 into the studio in July 1970 to begin work on a holiday album. The gamble paid off--the Corporation-produced effort immediately soared to the top of Billboard's Holiday albums chart upon its October release. Indeed, Corporation members Deke Richards (guitar), Freddie Perren (keyboards), Fonce Mizell (keyboards), and label CEO Berry Gordy wisely selected traditional carols and a few originals to showcase the young band's energy and soulfulness.
"Up on the House Top" dates from 1860 and was composed by Benjamin R. Hanby, an American composer, educator, and pastor. According to William Studwell's The Christmas Carol Reader, the song may have been the first carol to focus exclusively on Santa Claus, and was one of the first entirely secular carols to be written in the United States. Its lyrics tell the story of Santa Claus' annual journey, the reindeer-powered sleigh landing on rooftops to let Santa deliver presents to good girls and boys. Hanby most likely based the lyrics on the Clement Clarke Moore poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," most famous for the opening line "'Twas the night before Christmas." The 1822 work mentioned Santa Claus' sleigh landing on rooftops, and Hanby clearly built his verses on that image.
When the Jackson 5 tackled the track in 1970, they put a decidedly modern spin on the traditional song. Listen to "Up on the House Top" through headphones or high quality speakers to fully appreciate the backing track. The bass particularly stands out, the dizzyingly fast notes sounding like the Funk Brothers' James Jamerson's technique. Unfortunately no musicians were credited on Jackson 5 releases except under the "Corporation" moniker, so one cannot say definitively that Jamerson played the bass part. Nonetheless, the funky bass and heavy percussion stress that this version is firmly rooted in soul. The horns blare, accenting the rhythm and enhancing the childlike excitement surrounding Santa's impending arrival.
The Jackson 5's cover also plays with the original lyrics. At the song's onset, the Jacksons briefly croon lines from "Here Comes Santa Claus," chanting "Here he comes!" to introduce Michael Jackson's lead vocal. As usual, the twelve-year-old sang with astonishing precision and sincerity, at first singing the traditional lyrics. But he soon launches into a description of his brothers' wish lists, proclaiming that Tito wants a new guitar, and Jackie a three-foot tall basketball hoop ("Jackie's almost six feet tall . . . Maybe he'll play like a pro," jokes Michael). He states that Marlon needs new shoes for his dancing, and engages in banter with Jermaine. "Did you read Santa Claus my list?" Jermaine asks. "All the girls you're waiting to kiss?" Michael responds. When Jermaine protests that the comment was a joke, Michael exclaims "Too late, Jermaine, he's bringing you mistletoe!" At the end Michael reveals that while he would love toys, he particularly wishes for love and peace.
Just try to sit still when Michael begins listing the reindeer; in the background, the Jackson brothers chant "pitter, patter" in perfect synchronization with the drums. The section adds surprising danceability to "Up on the House Top," in essence turning the original on its head. The Jackson 5's spirited vocals and the superior musicianship result in a charming and funky take on the familiar Santa Claus tale.
This marks the last DeepSoul for 2014, but it will return in 2015 with more buried treasures. I thoroughly enjoying sharing my love of soul and R&B, and I thank you for following the column. I wish you a joyous holiday season and a happy and healthy new year.