In October 1970, Motown released the Jackson 5 Christmas Album, ostensibly an attempt to cash in on the group's enormous popularity. What few knew then was that the album would become a modern classic, with their covers of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" receiving frequent radio airplay every year. While the LP may be a staple of many music collections, few may be aware that Michael Jackson later recorded another holiday song: "Little Christmas Tree," a track co-written by P-Funk's George Clinton.
Three years after the Jackson 5 Christmas disc, Michael was recording as a part of the family group and as a solo artist. Earlier in the year he had released his third solo effort Music & Me, while Jackson 5 efforts Skywriter and G.I.T. (Get It Together) showcased his maturing vocals. Further capitalizing on Michael's popularity, Motown planned a compilation in time for the gift-giving season. The album would not be entirely new--in fact, Christmas classics performed by Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and Stevie Wonder had previously appeared on the 1968 compilation Merry Christmas from Motown. Five years later, Motown updated and reissued the album as A Motown Christmas, adding tracks from the Jackson 5 holiday album as well as a new Michael Jackson song, "Little Christmas Tree."
The story behind the little-known song was told by co-writer Artie Wayne in a June 29, 2009 blog posting. At the time, Wayne was the general professional manager and director of creative services for Warner Bros. Music, and was interested in having a Motown artist cover a composition by one of the company's songwriters. Knowing that a song performed by the Jackson 5 or Michael would be a feather in Warner Bros.' cap, Wayne called upon staff composer Clinton to deliver a modern Christmas carol with an R&B feel. Next, Wayne met with two Motown producers who had previously worked with Clinton and Michael: Jerry Marcellino and Mel Larson. The duo had overseen Michael's two hit covers of "Rockin' Robin" and "Little Bitty Pretty One," and were interested in producing another hit for the young singer.
According to Wayne, he met with Marcellino and Larson to pitch a new Christmas song he and Clinton had just penned. There was just one problem: they had not actually composed the tune yet. While Wayne could not play a sample of the song or even provide a title, he did inform them of the subject. "It's a true story of how my girlfriend left me out in the cold like the last tree in a Christmas tree lot, which is left unsold on Christmas Eve," he said. Promising to deliver the song that Monday, Wayne left the meeting, later calling Clinton with the great news. However, they had only two days to write the track! Meeting at Wayne's office on a Saturday morning, the pair threw "ivory snowflakes around the room" in order to get in the Christmas spirit--after all, they were composing a holiday tune in the middle of summer in 90 degree weather. They started with the first verse: "Little Christmas Tree, looking sorta' sad and lonely just like me / No one seems to care, they just went away and left him standing there...All alone on Christmas Eve."
Monday morning Wayne and Clinton polished the song, with Clinton laying down the demo, singing lead vocals and playing piano. Upon hearing "Little Christmas Tree," Marcellino and Larson loved the song and cut the track with Michael immediately. Originally intended to be released as a single, it was instead included on the double album A Motown Christmas. After the 1973 release, "Little Christmas Tree" fell into relative obscurity until 2003, when it was included on a reissue of the Jackson 5 Christmas Album. It appeared again on yet another rerelease, this time called Ultimate Christmas Collection.
"Little Christmas Tree" is one of the more interesting holiday tracks in that it addresses loneliness and heartbreak--hardly typical topics for a Christmas carol. The narrator experiences the sights and sounds of the season, but feels isolated. He sees Christmas from the outside looking in: "I hear the Christmas bells / The happy people singing," Michael croons, longing permeating his voice. Yet he most identifies with the neglected tree in the title; people "just left away and left it standing there." The line is rephrased in the bridge, as Michael pleads "why did you have to leave me" during "the season of love." While the lyrics may sound maudlin, Michael's clear, pure voice evokes the innocence of first love (perhaps different from Wayne and Clinton's original intentions), which in turn reflects the wonder of the holidays. "Little Christmas Tree" may not be as well known as the Jackson 5 Christmas album tracks, but it deserves a place on playlists.
For information on "Little Christmas Tree" and other Michael Jackson, Jackson 5, and Jacksons songs, check out my new book Michael Jackson FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the King of Pop, out now on Backbeat Books. It covers MJ's legacy in music, dance, and art, and how his influence lingers in today's artists.
This column marks the last DeepSoul for 2015; it will return in January with more lesser known songs in the R&B and soul worlds.