Santa Gets Down

Twelve Yuletide carols that'll put a lump of soul in your stocking

Day Nine: The Staple Singers, "Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas" (Rhino's Bummed Out Christmas): 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. The Staples made this 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 how Pops Staples and his kids melded quartet and jubilee vocal styles with the Stax house band's big, funky bottom. The result? Angelic.

Day Ten: James Brown, "Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year" (Rhino's Santa's Got a Brand New Bag): As the solid, lamentably uncredited female back-up 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." 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. Between '66 and '70, Brown cut three albums' worth of Christmas-linked soul. Rhino cut its compilation, but copies still surface. I found one this year for $7.99. Last year, PolyGram did everyone a favor and rereleased 17 of JB's Xmas tunes; at least one, "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto," narrowly missed my list.

Day Eleven: Solomon Burke, "Presents for Christmas" (Rhino's The Best of Cool Yule and Atlantic's Soul Christmas): "I'm fat enough to be the world's biggest Santa Claus," the King of Rock & Soul brags on this '66 live cut. Burke was fat for a good reason: Over the last four years, he'd just 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 than a bundle of redwoods. Burke is 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." Hallmark, hang your head in shame.

Day Twelve: The Sweet Inspirations, "Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday" (Atlantic's Soul Christmas): 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 back-up singers on Atlantic soul sessions, leaving their smoldering but anonymous stamp on a handful of hits for other artists--and they opened for the Beatles on their first U.S. tour. 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. Perfection.

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