The Grinch says Hell is other people's music. Anyone who's ever worked in a mall at Christmas understands: That sugary choir doing "Winter Wonderland" could make Santa reach for a revolver. And a small Central American country used to employ "Jingle Bell Rock" during rebel interrogations (it often worked).
But just because most versions of Christmas standards are insipid doesn't mean you should give up on the form. Great soul/blues players know that holidays are more than eggnog and party dresses--they're about longing, too. And that most bittersweet of seasonal affects has provided an impressive number of indelible performances--just as great talents even get on Star Search now and then.
What follows is an even dozen--one each for the 12 days of Christmas--of the most soulful Yule tunes on record. Making the list was easy; deciding what to leave out was not. The deciding criterion? I picked the recordings I still like in July.
Day One: Charles Brown, "Merry Christmas Baby" (Rhino's Christmas Classics and Hollywood's Rhythm and Blues Christmas): A former ninth-grade chemistry teacher, Brown pioneered a smooth piano blues style that inspired a flood of distinguished imitators, including the young Ray Charles. But there's still no one who does it better. Brown recut "Merry Christmas Baby" in '56 for the Aladdin label, and again in 1960 on King, along with a slew of such nuggets as "Please Come Home for Christmas," "Wrap Yourself in a Christmas Package" and the sublime "Christmas Comes but Once a Year." A reissue of the King album pops up now and then on CD (I found one for $3.99). In any form, Brown's music--the epitome of urbane cool--is the soul Yule touchstone.
Day Two: Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, "Christmas Time for Everybody but Me" (Hollywood's Rhythm and Blues Christmas): An eerie, minor-key complaint from a great, overlooked singer. There's no recording information on the Hollywood disc, but this song 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.
Day Three: Freddie King, "I Hear Jingle Bells" (Hollywood's Rhythm and Blues Christmas): Vintage Texas Christmas boogie from one of the three blues Magi, replete with Freddie's high, plaintive vocals and stinging guitar. King scored back-to-back holiday masterpieces; his "Christmas Tears" is just as good (both were probably cut in his prime, in the early '60s). He died in 1976 from bleeding ulcers, three days after his last performance--a Dallas Christmas show.
Day Four: The Moonglows, "Hey Santa Claus" (Chess/MCA's Have a Merry Chess Christmas and Collectibles' A Rhythm & Blues Christmas): Hopped-up proto-doo-wop from 1953, this one's a genre-buster--the perfect blend of jump, jive and the sweet harmony style that was about to bust the charts open. The Moonglows, a quartet anchored by baritone Harvey Fuqua, would quickly go over to the sweeter, slower side of the formula, but what they left behind is tougher and more moving. Their huff-and-puff run through "Hey Santa Claus" belongs on the National Register of Historic Sounds.
Day Five: The Meditation Singers, "Blue Christmas" (Chess/MCA's Have a Merry Chess Christmas): The Detroit-based Meditation Singers were a gospel outfit anchored by 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. An instant masterpiece, buoyed by dollops of spirit, sass and precise harmony.
Day Six: Chuck Berry, "Run, Rudolph, Run" (Collectibles' A Rhythm & Blues Christmas and Chess/MCA's Have a Merry Chess Christmas): Berry 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--as even Keith Richards can attest--could rock out with the tasteful simplicity of the Steely Duckwalker. Singing cowboy Gene Autry hit with "Rudolph" first, in 1949. Berry recut it as the A-side of his 1958 Christmas single (the flip is a stunning rendition of Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby"), and lassoed it all over tarnation. A memorable version for, among other things, the conviction Berry can bring to a leadoff line like "Out of all the reindeers, you know you're the mastermind." Weird, and fun. Listening to almost any '50s Berry tune is like being present at The Creation.
Day Seven: Big Jack Johnson, "Jingle Bell Boogie" (Rhino's Blue Yule): Big Jack, originally a guitarist for Frank Frost, has remained close to the juke joints around his native Mississippi, and it shows. This 1990 instrumental sizzles with his signature clean electric playing, and conveys more holiday brio than any dozen festive lyrics could muster.
Day Eight: Sonny Boy Williamson, "Santa Claus" (Chess/MCA's Bummer Road and Rhino's Blue Yule): 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. His 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 asks in his liner notes to Blue Yule. Uh-huh. I'm not even convinced they're her dresser drawers he's singing about.
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.
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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.