We live in fraught times when Christmas standards are suddenly found wanting and creepy, but the world has always been in the process of becoming.
In the meantime, we thought we might help out with some slightly lesser-known Christmas recordings, 10 great seasonal soul and blues cuts that are still safe as far as we know.
The Moonglows’ “Hey Santa Claus” is hopped-up proto-doowop from 1953, the perfect blend of jump, jive and the sweet harmony style that was about to bust the charts open. The ’Glows, a quartet anchored by baritone Harvey Fuqua, would soon succumb to the sweeter, slower side of this formula, scoring hits with “Sincerely” and “Ten Commandments of Love” – fine for those who like that sort of thing, but what they left behind is tougher and more moving. Their huff-and-a-puff run through “Santa Claus” here belongs on the National Register of Historic Sounds.
Hank Ballard & The Midnighters’ “Christmas Time for Everybody But Me” is an eerie minor-key complaint from a great and overlooked singer. It was almost certainly cut in The Midnighters’ prime, at the Cincinnati-based King label in the mid ‘50s. It’s perfection throughout, from Ballard’s stuttering soprano to the weird, truncated ending with an alarm-clock bell and a piano plinking.
Freddy King’s “I Hear Jingle Bells” is vintage Texas boogie replete with Freddy’s high, plaintive vocals, stinging guitar and some deft piano backup. King scored back-to-back holiday masterpieces; his “Christmas Tears” is just as good (both were probably cut in his prime, in the early 1960s). He died in 1976 from bleeding ulcers, three days after his last performance – a Dallas Christmas show.
The Meditation Singers’ “Blue Christmas” comes to you from a Detroit-based gospel outfit, anchored by the sublime Laura Lee when they made this drenched-in-soul mid-’60s recording. With a nod to the Staple Singers, Lee remonstrates and testifies, echoed by a twangy, staccato guitar, with dollops of spirit, sass and precise harmony.
Chuck Berry’s “Run, Rudolph, Run” recycles the rock ‘n’ roll guitar licks he invented into an electrifying whole, reminding you that, while many others did it almost as well later on, no one could rock out with such tasteful simplicity. Singing cowboy Gene Autry hit with “Rudolph” first, in 1949. Berry recut it as the A-side of his 1958 Christmas single, lassoing it all over tarnation – memorable version for, among other things, the conviction he can bring to a leadoff line like “Out of all the reindeers, you know you’re the mastermind.”
Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Santa Claus” is some sweet and lazy harp blues from a master, backed up by Robert Jr. Lockwood’s guitar, and allegedly made up on the studio spot when Sonny Boy was drunk. This 1960 take on Christmas incorporates his typically wacky, egotistical outlook: For some reason, landlords, cops and women hound him, and Sonny Boy’s always innocent. “Who would have thought that rummaging through a woman’s dresser drawers would be a fitting topic for a Christmas song?” James Austin asked. We’re not even convinced they’re her dresser drawers he’s singing about.
The Staple Singers’ “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas” is an explosion of thumping, humming, churchified singing. On this 1970 Stax single, Mavis Staples lends her inimitable moan to the bone her family wants to pick, that the holiday has lost its original spirit. They made the record after a 19-year career in straight gospel and a two-year experiment in crossover pop. “Who Took the Merry” is as good an example as any of the way Pops Staples and his kids melded quartet and jubilee vocal styles with the Stax house band’s big, funky bottom. The result is angelic.
James Brown’s “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year” has a suitably odd start. As the solid, lamentably uncredited female backup dies down, Brown steps up to the plate of this impeccable ‘66 production and says, “Hi America! This is a very, very unusual way to come to you.” As usual, no one has any idea what he’s talking about – but who cares? What follows is six minutes of bliss. Brown alternately chats, croons and unleashes his larynx-shredding cat-screech, while the women bop along in time to the strings.
On Solomon Burke’s live ’66 “Presents for Christmas,” the King of Rock & Soul brags, “I’m fat enough to be the world’s biggest Santa Claus!” Burke was fat for a good reason: Over the last four years he’d devoured any other would-be soul royalty. His “Presents” caps a stunning run of singles that blended an intimate preaching style with a voice thicker and bigger than a bundle of Redwoods – sly, humble and fierce all at once. And as befits this season, enterprising: In the words of the late Joe Tex, “Solomon Burke knock you dead from the bandstand, then he gift-wrap you for the trip home.”
The Sweet Inspirations’ “Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday” is a Booker T. Jones song covered by this Newark-based, sometimes-gospel female quartet. Although it’s not strictly a Christmas song, “Every Day” was still embraced by seasonally-minded disc jockeys when William Bell put out the first version in time for Christmas ‘67; this fiery second take was cut two years later. The Inspirations, led by Emily “Cissy” Houston (Whitney’s mother), worked as house backup singers on Atlantic label soul sessions, leaving their smoldering but anonymous stamp on a handful of hits for other artists. Stepping out here, they incorporate the kind of harmonies that The Staple Singers worked out to such thrilling effect the decade before – and go them one better.