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Bass Transcription: The Jackson 5’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”

Note: It is not certain who the bassist was on The Jackson 5’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” but it’s likely to be Wilton Felder, who played on many of their early recordings after they moved to Los Angeles in 1969. There’s relatively little information about the studio musicians who worked for Motown in L.A. during this period, so if you have any further information on this recording, we’d love to know.

Once The Jackson 5 had been signed by Motown in March 1969, they were very quickly put to work in the label’s legendary “Hitsville” studios in Detroit. However, label owner Berry Gordy was only happy with a few of the recordings, and he decided to relocate the band to work out of their Los Angeles headquarters. The new Jackson 5 recordings took place at The Sound Factory in Hollywood, and these sessions produced their first number one hit, “I Want You Back”. By the end of 1970, the band had racked up three more number one singles; “ABC”, “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There”, along with three top five albums; Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5, ABC and Third Album.

Motown artists The Miracles and The Supremes had previously released Christmas albums, so, following in their footsteps, The Jackson 5 released The Jackson’s Christmas Album in October 1970. It became the biggest selling Christmas album of the year (and achieved that feat again in 1972) and went on to sell 3.5 million copies. The album was a mix of novelty songs; “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “Frosty the Snowman”; the jazzier “The Christmas Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”; and the more traditional “Up on the House Top”. The songs on the album were arranged by “The Corporation,” a team of songwriters and producers, who also composed “Give Love on Christmas Day”, the only original track on the album.

The Jackson 5 continued to record for Motown but found it difficult to replicate their initial success. They didn’t have another number one single or album after 1971, and their record sales gradually waned as they struggled to keep pace with changes in musical fashion. Although the band changed record labels to Epic in 1976, primarily to escape the restrictions placed on them by Berry Gordy – they were obliged to record songs written by the Motown songwriting team – this did not revive their fortunes. Michael Jackson’s solo career was to eventually eclipse his work with his brothers, and although 1980’s Triumph and 1984’s Victory were top ten albums, 1989’s 2300 Jackson Street, the first without Michael, sold poorly, and the band chose to cease operating as an ongoing unit.

(The following is under the assumption that Wilton Felder played bass on the track.)

Wilton Felder was born in Houston in 1940, and in his late teens, he joined “The Swingsters” as a saxophone player. This band was a straight-ahead jazz group, which eventually moved to Los Angeles and was re-named “The Jazz Crusaders.” This group recorded eighteen albums between 1960 and 1971. In 1969, Motown had begun to distribute products from Chisa Records, a label that was using The Jazz Crusaders as their house band, and it may have been this connection that led to Felder being hired to play bass on The Jackson 5’s early studio recordings in L.A. With a move into a more jazz-funk style as “The Crusaders,” they recorded a further twenty-eight albums between 1971 and 2006, and Felder also played bass on sessions for Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Dizzy Gillespie, Steely Dan and Randy Newman amongst many others.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was composed by Hugh Martin, Felix Bernard, and Ralph Blane, although Martin later stated that the composition was entirely his own work. It was first sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in St Louis. “Merry Little Christmas” is the third most covered Christmas song, and has been recorded by artists such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, John Denver and, surprisingly, Twisted Sister, among many others.

The song begins with a short two-bar introduction and the bass enters with a slide down to F at the start of bar three. Although Felder keeps the bass line relatively restrained at the start of the song, he includes some very tasteful and inventive ideas as the song unfolds;

The use of rising chromatic approach notes, such as in bars 3 and 4, and some descending ones in bar 10, and also in bar 56, where Felder mixes straight and triplet semiquavers.

The inclusion of a higher F note over the open D root in bars 13 and 56.

The use of encirclement – notes above and below the target note – moving from beats 2 to 3 in bar 14.

The use of a slide up to the ninth in the very tasteful melodic fill in bar 22.

The gradual development of the bass line in the Dm to A+/C# sequences that precede the middle sections, as seen in bars 17-18 and 45-46.

After a pause at the end of the song, the bass brings in an up-tempo version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” with a slide down to F (much like the intro to the main track). The chord sequence uses a cycle of dominant to tonic movements, and Felder’s bass line hits the root of the first chord and then approaches the third of the next one by a semitone each time. Felder also funks it up a little, leaving space in the second half of each bar, and then creates an inventive fill at the end of each four-bar sequence, perhaps the highlight being the semi-quaver descending F blues scale in bar 78.

Follow along with the transcription (PDF download) and video:

Many thanks to Martin Alker for advice regarding the chords for this piece.

Happy holidays!