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R&B Xmas CD: Some Assembly Required

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."

Fortunately, a few people who had been involved from the time the album was just talk were eager to jump on the sleigh--including Johnny Colla, saxman and songwriter for Huey Lewis and the News, from whom Tiven had requisitioned a Christmas song the previous year.

Colla composed his track with two crucial alumni from Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You album in mind.

"Originally, Jon was trying to get Ronnie Spector to sing 'My Christmas Wish' and I was going to ask Darlene Love, and we'd cut it with the News backing up whichever singer was available," Colla says.

"It was so spur-of-the-moment to get this thing going. Jon said, 'Your demo's great, let's just use that.' I recut it anyway, to make it more record-worthy."

It's surprising when you consider the News' sizable streak of hits in the Eighties (including three No. 1s), that Huey never made a holiday single. But Colla's bouncy "My Christmas Wish" was his first-ever attempt at writing a carol. Unsure if he has another holiday song in him, his wish is for "someone else to cut this tune. I think it could be an annual."

Felix Cavaliere, fresh from touring with Ringo Starr's latest All-Starr Band lineup, also came through on short notice.

"Jon spoke to me about the Christmas album and then six months later he calls and says, 'We've got to do it tomorrow,'" says Cavaliere, snickering. He is now living in Nashville, where the final sessions for the album were held.

The former lead singer for the Young Rascals tackles Holiday Heroes' gospelly title track. It's Cavaliere's first venture into holiday music--but the Rascals came close to going Christmas nearly three decades ago.

"In the old days of the Rascals, around 1968, we had a few worked up," Cavaliere reveals. "There was one, a peace-and-love, Curtis Mayfield-type song I always dug, but we never got around to finishing. The label didn't give us any real assistance there.

"You see, record companies don't really like Christmas records. It's a real pain in the neck for them. They'll say, 'Yeah, yeah, that's a good idea. Make another hit record.' And then let it go."

Cavaliere had hoped to include the unfinished Rascals songs on Heroes, but the basic tracks for all the tunes planned for the Christmas album were already completed. Still, there is a ray of hope that Christmas, Rascals-style, will materialize on a second volume of Holiday Heroes slated for next year.

Step 7: Setting the Right Atmosphere in the Studio
Optional. "Usually when you do a Christmas record," says Tiven, "it's in the middle of summer. But we were already into September, so the weather outside wasn't blazing hot. I know Mariah Carey likes to have a tree up in the studio with gifts underneath to get in the mood. We didn't have the budget for that."

Step 8: Getting Material From Outside Sources
Two prime slices of Windy City soul, served up by Chi-Lites and Jerry "the Iceman" Butler, were procured from an earlier Dave Tucker project--an a cappella recording regionally called Street Carols.

The Butler track, "Little Red Shoes," is especially touching, as it recounts a father's enduring love for his son, now a grown man coming home for the holidays.

Equally moving is Dennis Edwards' "Calling Me Home," which was recruited from an upcoming Edwards album Bobby Womack was producing for Soul Purpose Records.

Temptations fans will recall that it was Edwards' rough and assertive voice that propelled much of the group's latter "socially relevant" material like "Cloud Nine," "Ball of Confusion" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." This year saw the passing of yet another original Temptation, Melvin Franklin, leaving only Otis Williams and Edwards remaining from two Sixties lineups.

"'Calling Me Home' touched so many bases with me," reflects Edwards. "It's a wake-up call to get your life in order, because God will be calling you home soon, like he's gonna call us all. And we need wake-up calls around Christmas as well as every day of the year. It's a time to think about loved ones, and I'm trying to get people to remember my guys that are gone and how lonely it is out there sometimes."

 

"Calling Me Home" and Womack's sizzling "I'll Do Anything for You, Girl" make no direct mention of the holiday, which could help give the album some radio mileage past January.

"They're all-season tracks," says Edwards, who has been fortunate enough to see some of his seasonal recordings become perennials. "The Temptations have two albums, Christmas Carol and Christmas Card, and both were very successful. The Temps' 'Silent Night' is worldwide; it's been played regularly for seven or eight years now," he proudly says.

Step 9: Surviving the First Year
Step 10: Coming Back Next Year
"Usually, the first year is the worst year for a Christmas record," Tiven admits. "We put ours out this year to make a little noise and gain momentum for next year, when we're hoping to do a volume two and solicit orders for both records. This year, we're having a lot of trouble just convincing store owners to take on yet another Christmas record. Fortunately, we're getting a lot of good reviews and airplay on it. So that's generating consumer interest.

"You've got to remember that the Phil Spector Christmas album did much better insubsequent years than it did initially, because it came out on the day President Kennedy was assassinated," says Tiven. "Wehad a parallel thing. The day Feed theChildren gave us a full half-hour to feature the record on BET, they ran it opposite the first installment of The Beatles Anthology."

Stellar Christmas recordings, like The Little Drummer Boy by the Harry Simeone Chorale, do return year after year, gaining in stature as indispensable holiday staples.

As evidence of this reality, Johnny Colla points to the delayed success of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" by John Lennon. And, he says, the public eventually came around to Paul McCartney's 1979 effort, "Wonderful Christmastime."

"Although I don't like that one. You can hear his bubblegum snapping on it," Tiven comments.

Of course, other less notable holiday efforts, like the fad-driven "What Can YouGet a Wookiee for Christmas" by the StarWars Intergalactic Droid Choir, or thedepressing "I Won't Be Home for Christmas" by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, mercifully never made it to a second pressing. Ditto for the insufferable "Christmas Blues" by Canned Heat and the Chipmunks, which paired two Liberty recording artists for no apparent reason other than to try the world's patience.

Everyone involved with Holiday Heroes is determined to make the album a standard issue. "My only regret is that all these great artists weren't able to do it all together in one place," says Cavaliere.

Step 11: The Tree-Trimming Test
My way of gauging a Christmas album's staying power? I pop it on while decorating O Tannenbaum. And if grumpy ol' you-know-who doesn't get in the holiday spirit, it's outta here. Alongside my usual holiday playlist--William Bell's "Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday," Elvis' Christmas Album and, yep, even that sugary Partridge Family concoction--Holiday Heroes passed the test with flying colors. I smiled a lot, and even got goofy once or twice (just like I do when George Bailey finds out what a wonderful life he has).

It's to Tiven's credit that he and Tucker broke virtually every standard marketing procedure and still managed to get Holiday Heroes out in time for Christmas. They've given us a great gift this year, reintroducing some well-loved voices that have been missing in action for far too long and providing a temporary respite from "The Twelve Days of Christmas"--certainly the most interminable, loathsome Christmas carol known to man and beast.

For that alone, these heroes deserve a medal with holly cluster.
Holiday Heroes is in stores now; it is also available for order through Soul Purpose Records. Call 312-922-9378.


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