R&B Xmas CD: Some Assembly Required

Holiday Heroes band together with Feed the Children to put some soul under the Christmas tree

When the holiday hordes descend from the suburbs to swarm the gallerias every year on the day after Thanksgiving, many a dutiful consumer snaps up at least one of the Yuletide albums that magically appeared on the shelves overnight like presents under a tree. But few probably wonder how the recordings got there.

One thing's for sure--elves had nothing to do with it. Santa's little helpers don't have the stomach for the record business.

Luckily, producer/songwriter/bandleader Jon Tiven had the stomach, and the savvy, to pull together the finest Christmas album in many a season. Holiday Heroes (Soul Purpose Records) boasts an all-star soul lineup, including Jerry Butler, Bobby Womack, Dennis Edwards, Felix Cavaliere, Graham Parker, Chuck Jackson, Johnny Colla, Johnny Kemp, Mavis Staples and the Chi-Lites.

Two years ago, Tiven and executive producer Dave Tucker began laying the groundwork for this R&B Christmas album. Since then, Tiven's become something of an expert on how to get a Christmas album to market (and how not to get a Christmas album to market). So have the aforementioned artists, many of whom make their maiden attempt at a Noel number on Holiday Heroes.

So tag along if you will, while Tiven--joined by Colla, Cavaliere, Edwards and Tucker--takes us step by step through the process of making a high-end Christmas album. Who knows--with the flimsy requirements for celebrity in America these days, any one of us could wind up on a recording taking a karaoke stab at "Silent Night."

Then, God help us. Every one.

Step 1: Securing a Record Company
Step 2: Having the Recording Wrapped Up by July
Step 3: Securing a Charity

"You have to have a one-page description of your Christmas album to the buyers by June," Tiven explains. "If you can do the solicitations for a Christmas record in the middle of the year, then you can rack up pretty good sales. RCA was interested [in the spring of 1994], but then decided it wastoo late to make their Christmas release. It would've been after July before we got the record made for them."

Instead, a friend of Tiven's started up Dakota Records last summer and convinced the producer to put out a single of "New Year's Revolution," the track he'd already cut with British singer-songwriter Graham Parker. Parker, normally known for his biting essays on the human condition, took a crack at scribing two more jolly numbers, "Soul Christmas" and "Christmas Is for Mugs." The resulting CD single on Dakota sold well, and Tiven was primed to go ahead with the Christmas album the following year.

"And then the same thing happened," he says with a groan. "Dakota Records ran out of funding to do a full record. I figured since all the buyers had done their solicitations for Christmas, we weren't going to make it again this year.

"Then, at the end of August, I get a call from Dave Tucker saying, 'I think we can make the Christmas album.'"

Tucker, who did some TV work with Feed the Children, was friendly with the charity group's founder, Larry Jones. Jones was receptive to the idea of combining Christmas songs with songs about feeding hungry children for Christmas. Feed the Children put up the money to make the CD, Tucker started up Soul Purpose Records to distribute it and Tiven had roughly three weeks to put a recording together.

Step 4: Soliciting New Songs
Take 15 typical Christmas albums and you'll get at least ten versions of "Jingle Bells," maybe seven or eight "Rudolph"s and enough versions of that "chestnuts" song to make you puke eggnog.

None of the selections on Holiday Heroes, however, is a done-to-death "favorite."

"You don't have any repetition of songs, that's for sure," notes Tiven, who wrote five songs for the set, two of them within the harried three-week window between cutting the deal and cutting the recording. His songs "Holiday Heroes" and "Give All the Children Christmas" were specifically written for Feed the Children--"something they could use in their television appeals."

In addition, legendary Memphis songwriter Dan Penn was tapped to dig into his plentiful back catalogue of holiday material. Penn has penned some of soul's most enduring masterpieces of inner turmoil--including "Dark End of the Street" and "It Tears Me Up"--but here he turns in the album's most cheerful contribution, "Make Someone Happy for Christmas."

"The key to writing a Christmas song," says Tiven, "is saying something different about Christmas, not having to do the standard 'chestnuts roasting on an open fire' imagery. I love Donnie Fritts' 'Sears & Roebuck Santa' because it's unlike any other Christmas song."

Step 5: Securing the Artists
Step 6: Matching the Artists With the Right Songs
In the past, Tiven has produced tribute albums to R&B legends like Don Covay, Arthur Alexander, Curtis Mayfield and Otis Blackwell, leaving him with a Rolodex full of acquaintances that reads like a Who's Who of rock and soul music. Even with all that talent at his fingertips, there was a time element (read: no time) that prevented some from participating in the Christmas package.

"Frank Black and Lucinda Williams couldn't make it work within their schedule," he remarks sadly. "And some of the artists wanted to do songs somebody else chose first. Gary 'U.S.' Bonds wanted to do a straight Christmas song. He thought 'Christmas in the City' was too much of a message song and didn't want to do any more message songs. Dobie Gray wasn't in love with any of the songs that weren't taken."

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