Funky Holiday Music

Title: In the Christmas Groove

Artists: Various

Label:  Strut/!K7

Format: CD

Release Date:  September 29, 2009

No doubt the funkiest holiday CD released this year, In the Christmas Groove is guaranteed to spice up your parties.  The compilation features 12 rare soul, funk and blues tracks from the golden era of ‘60s and ‘70s soul music “when the good groove met the jingle bells to devastating effect.”  Selections include “Boogaloo Santa Claus” by J. D. McDonald, “Funky Funky Christmas” by Electric Jungle, “Soul Santa” by the Funk Machine, a rocking “Auld Lang Syne” by Seattle’s Black on White Affair,  and  an upbeat “Black Christmas [in the ghetto]” by the Harlem Children’s Chorus.  An extensive booklet with original sleeve artwork and liner notes by James Maycock accompanies the CD (unfortunately not included with my promo copy).

Title: Blues, Blues Christmas Volume 2

Artists: Various Label: Document

Format:  2 CDs

Catalog No.: DOCD-32-20-15

Release date: December 2009

Following up on the success of “Blues, Blues Christmas: 1925-1955” (Volume 1, DOCD-32-20-9), Document has just released a second volume of Christmas songs “in the blues, jazz, boogie-woogie and gospel spirit.”  The budget priced two-CD set includes illustrated liner notes by Jeff Harris and 44 tracks that offer a grab bag of holiday themed entertainment.  Selections range from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s  “Christmas Eve Blues,” and Lightnin` Hopkins’ “Merry Christmas” to Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph, Run,” Fats Waller’s “Swingin’ Them Jingle Bells” and the MoonGlows’ “Hey Santa Claus.”  There’s also plenty of “gospel spirit,” including “When Was Jesus Born” by the Heavenly Gospel Singers,  “There Was No Room At The Hotel” by the Lucy Smith Jubilee Singers, “Silent Night, Holy Night” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” by Wings Over Jordan.

Title: Have a Crazy Cool Christmas

Artist: Kermit Ruffins

Format: CD; MP3

Label: Basin Street Records

Release date: November 10, 2009

New Orleans jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins offers a swinging take on holiday classics ranging  from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” to “Little Drummer Boy,” along with his own holiday compositions “Crazy Cool Christmas” and “A Saint’s Christmas.”  Special guests include Irvin Mayfield on organ, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, and members of the Rebirth Brass Band.  Ruffins also adds some respectable vocals to the mix.  This gets our vote for best new holiday release of 2009 in the non-gospel category.

Title: A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

Artists:  Various

Label: Sony Legacy

Format: CD; MP3

Release Date: October 26, 2009

Originally released in 1963, this compilation has been called “the greatest rock & roll Christmas album of all time” due, in part, to the legendary “wall-of-sound” added by producer Phil Spector.  Featured artists include the Ronettes (“Frosty the Snowman,” “Sleigh Ride,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”), the Crystals (“Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers”), Darlene Love (“White Christmas,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home,” “Marshmallow World”), and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans (“The Bells of St. Mary,” “Here Comes Santa Claus”).  Many thanks to  Sony Legacy for getting this classic back in print.

Title: Ultimate Christmas Collection

Artist:  Jackson 5

Format:  CD; MP3

Label:  Motown

Release Date:  October 13, 2009

Many tribute albums, videos and films have already been released this year, but who can get enough Michael Jackson, especially little Michael with the Jackson 5? This compilation includes the group’s 1970 Christmas album along with other fun bonus tracks, such as MJ’s version of “Little Christmas Tree” and some funky new remixes.  A wonderful bit of nostalgia for us older folks, and an album you’ll want to share with the kids during the holidays.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Notable Holiday CDs

This Christmas– Aretha Franklin (DMI Records)

Fifty years into her career, the Queen of Soul has released her first dedicated Christmas album.  (An earlier collection, 2006’s Joy to the World, was merely a compilation of existing material cobbled together from various older releases.)  Released in an exclusive deal with Borders booksellers, This Christmas Aretha focuses on less commercial aspects of the holidays: faith, family, fun (of the grown-up variety), and, of course, food.  Plenty of the standard old chestnuts appear here (“Silent Night,” “Ave Maria”), but the more gospel-infused offerings (“The Lord Will Make a Way,” “One Night With the King”) make for more interesting spiritual fare.  Franklin’s earthiness and humor shine through on two tracks in particular:  the title track “This Christmas,” a soulful duet with her son Edward, in which she frets about burning her collard greens and swearing off chitlins, then teasingly interjects comments such as “Eddie, you mustn’t upstage your mama with those high notes!”; and her recitation of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” rewritten as a decidedly adult parable best listened to once the kids have been tucked away to dream of sugar plums.  The holiday standards on this album are perhaps more pedestrian and less vibrant than might be hoped from Aretha Franklin, but overall, This Christmas Aretha is a solid holiday offering with some rich and funny moments.

It’s Christmas– Ledisi (Verve Forecast)

While Aretha upheld tradition with her Christmas classics, New Orleans-born jazz and soul diva Ledisi treads new ground on her holiday album.  It’s Christmas features equal parts covers and original songs, the latter offering a welcome alternative to the glut of commercial standards heard all season long.  Of the album’s covers, only three are holiday standards, and Ledisi breathes fresh life into them:  “Children Go Where I Send Thee” becomes an earthy blues jam, while “Silent Night” is transformed into a cool jazz meditation.  The other covers are less overplayed-though still familiar-Motown and jazz classics, as well as an ecstatic cover of “What a Wonderful World.”  All in all, It’s Christmas is a fine contribution that’s even worth listening to after the tree comes down.

A Night Before Christmas– Spyro Gyra (Heads Up International)

Spyro Gyra‘s A Night Before Christmas received a Grammy nomination this week for Best Pop Instrumental Album.  Their signature light jazz-pop sound pervades this album, rendering the holiday tunes breezy, cool, and less sugar-coated than most other versions of these songs.  Not all of the album is instrumental-“Baby It’s Cold Outside” keeps to tradition with its conversational vocal duet by Bonny B and Janis Siegel, while Bonny B’s scatting and a cappella vocal fireworks pep up “The Christmas Song.”  This is the soundtrack for a holiday cocktail party-chic, sophisticated, and grownup.

This Christmas– Imani Winds (Koch International Classics)

Imani Winds lend holiday music a classical touch with their album This Christmas. While many of the arrangements are tinged with just enough jazz and Latin influence to avoid sounding staid, all of the tracks on this album are familiar chestnuts, both religious and commercial.  That said, their renditions of “Carol of the Bells” and “I Saw Three Ships” are lively and interesting, their “Jingle Bells” sounds like a grand joke, and they go heavy on the swing and blue notes in a Gershwinesque arrangement of “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”  There’s not much that’s new or unexpected on this album, but it delivers classics in fine form.

Jingle All the Way– Béla Fleck & the Flecktones (Rounder)

Stiff competition for Spyro Gyra, Béla Fleck’s Jingle All the Way has also been nominated for the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album.  Clocking in at a whopping seventeen tracks, this album stays true to the Flecktones‘ quirky but virtuosic jazz-bluegrass fusion style while drawing on a broader repertoire of holiday music than any of the other albums reviewed here.  Jingle takes on classical music with excerpts from Bach’s Christmas oratorio and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker; Christmas carol standards such as “Silent Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”; commercial classics such as Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” and Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride”; pop tunes from Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” to Joni Mitchell’s “River”; and even a nod to Jewish tradition with the Klezmer-inspired “Hanukah Waltz.”  Fleck’s arrangements are ever inventive, and occasionally plain weird, but always engaging- and the fabulous Wooten brothers (bass virtuoso Victor and percussionist Roy “Future Man”) contribute their considerable chops.  Jingle All the Way is fun enough for kids, complex enough for adults, and probably the best holiday album of the season.

Posted by Ann Shaffer

Classic Blues 2009 Calendar/CD

Title: Classic Blues Artwork/Songs from the 1920s, Vol. 6
Artists: Various
Publisher: Blues Images
Format: Calendar with accompanying CD
Date: 2008

If you’ve never come across the annual Classic Blues calendars produced by collector, dealer, and blues expert John Tefteller, you’ve been missing out on some of the best blues iconography in existence. Each month when you flip over the page you’ll be thrilled with the beautifully reproduced (and often hysterically funny) graphics from the 1920s and ‘30s that were used to promote early jazz and blues records. And that’s not all- the calendars come packaged with an accompanying CD featuring pre-war blues rarities aplenty, including the 12 songs/artists featured in the calendar, plus 6 additional bonus tracks.

This year Tefteller has really outdone himself. The CD features two newly discovered songs by Blind Blake, “Night & Day Blues” and “Sun to Sun,” plus two more by Ben Curry, “The Laffing Rag” and “Hot Dog”- all recorded in 1932 by Paramount in Grafton, Wisconsin. The two songs by guitarist Blind Blake were from Paramount 13123, recorded at Blake’s penultimate session for Paramount in January 1932. Shortly thereafter, Blake literally vanished without a trace, Paramount folded, and no copy of the record has ever been found- until last summer.

The story behind these newly discovered Blind Blake disc is the stuff of dreams for record collectors: “Like a time capsule, this small steamer trunk sat unopened for nearly four decades in a trailer park on the east side of Raleigh, North Carolina. Its contents, about one hundred 78 rpm records, still in their original paper sleeves, represent some of the greatest blues artists active during the Great Depression. . . The records were bought new in the 1930s by an African-American couple living in Granville County, NC, adjacent to Durham County, the epicenter of blues activity in the Carolinas. A telephone tip and subsequent negotiations led to the acquisition of the collection by Marshall Wyatt of Old Hat Records.” The whole “Trunk Full o’ Blues” story, along with illustrations and sound clips, can be found on the Old Hat website. Similarly, the previously unknown Curry disc was discovered last February in a pile of old 78s in Missouri. Several other previously unreleased test pressings round out the bonus tracks.

Other selections on the CD that are represented in the calendar include Kokomo Arnold’s “Milk Cow Blues,” Charley Patton’s masterpiece “Shake It and Break It” (recorded in 1929 in Richmond, Indiana), “Nightmare” (featured on the cover) by Elgar’s Creole Orchestra, Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe’s “Cherry Ball Blues,” and two sermons- “The Death of Blind Lemon [Jefferson]” by Rev. Emmett Dickenson, and “Death May Be Your Christmas Present” by Rev. A.W. Nix, who sold thousands of records with his hellfire and brimstone preaching. As Tefteller describes the latter sermon, “One can only imagine the Christmas happiness that was wiped out in a single three minute listening of this amazing record! By the time you get to the end, you won’t want to celebrate Christmas . . . or any other holiday. Talk about having the BLUES at Christmas!”

We predict that you, too, will have the blues at Christmas if you miss out on an opportunity to purchase this amazing package.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Gospel at Christmastime

“Glory, Glory to the New Born King”: Gospel at Christmastime


Today, nearly every popular gospel artist has a Christmas project in his or her catalog. The Mississippi Mass Choir, Luther Barnes, and Yolanda Adams are among those releasing Christmas albums this season. But when did the tradition of gospel artists recording Christmas carols begin? One is inclined to answer that Mahalia Jackson set the standard in 1950 with her Apollo recording of “Silent Night,” but the tradition goes back much further, more than two decades before the release of Mahalia’s disc. In truth, Christmas recordings by African American sacred artists predate gospel by several years.

The Elkins Mixed Quartette, also known as the Elkins-Payne Jubilee Singers, is the first known African American sacred group to record a Christmas carol. In 1926, the quartet, organized by William C. Elkins, sang “Silent Night, Holy Night” for Paramount Records. Two years later, the Lucy Smith Jubilee Singers of All Nations Pentecostal Church in Chicago released their only record, a Christmas-themed disc for Vocalion: “Pleading for Me” and “There Was No Room in the Hotel.” The lyrics of the latter no doubt resonated with African Americans living in Jim Crow America, as it described the Holy Family’s futile search for available lodging.[1]

More than a decade later, in 1941, the stalwart Heavenly Gospel Singers recorded the Yuletide spiritual “When Was Jesus Born” for Bluebird. The Middle Georgia Singers sang this same spiritual for the Fort Valley Music Festival in 1943. Captured on tape, the Middle Georgia Singers’ version can be heard for free on the Library of Congress American Memory website.

Although the Soul Stirrers, featuring the classic tenor voice of R.H. Harris, recorded “Silent Night” for Aladdin in 1948, it was the guitar-toting, Pentecostal-bred Sister Rosetta Tharpe who demonstrated the lucrative sales potential of Christmas records by gospel artists. In 1949, Tharpe, accompanied by her new background group, the Rosettes (formerly the Angelic Queens), recorded “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” for Decca. The two-sider was a smash hit, hitting #8 on Billboard‘s R&B Hit Singles chart and earning Tharpe and the Rosettes a coveted spot on CBS Television’s Supper Club with Perry Como on January 1, 1950.[2]

While Sister Tharpe’s record took the country by storm, it also took her gospel contemporaries and their record labels by surprise. Autumn 1950 witnessed a flood of Christmas singles by popular gospel singers and quartets. This is when Mahalia Jackson released her timeless arrangement of “Silent Night,” coupled with another Christmas chestnut, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” on Apollo. These were the first of dozens of Christmas recordings Mahalia would make during her career. Not to be outdone, the Ward Singers released their version of “Silent Night” in 1950 (Savoy).

Also in 1950, Philadelphia’s Gotham Records released eight odes to the season by its top gospel sellers, namely Brother Rodney, the Davis Sisters, the Harmonizing Four, and the Angelic Gospel Singers. The Angelics’ “Glory, Glory to the New Born King” became an instant classic. Thereafter, no Christmas program in the African American community would be complete without a performance of “Glory, Glory to the New Born King.” A couple of years later, the Angelics released another Christmas single, “A Child is Born.” The song’s similarity to “Glory, Glory” in melody and arrangement was no coincidence: back then, record companies deliberately created sound-alike versions of hits, hoping that they could strike gold twice.

Eventually, Gotham had sufficient holiday product from its gospel lineup to produce a various artists LP, most likely the first gospel Christmas LP. The album, Gotham X-1, is impossibly rare. Constellation reissued it in the early 1960s as The Christmas Story (SS-106). The album is part of Constellation’s “The Scripture in Song Series,” a seven-album collection of gospel from Gotham’s vaults. Thankfully, the reissue is much easier to find.

Nineteen fifty-one witnessed new Christmas product from Savoy, including the Patterson Singers’ “Jesus, the Light of the World” and “Christmas Morn” by Charles Watkins. Watkins’ gentle crooning of “Christmas Morn” is not as well remembered today as it should be. Truth be told, had race relations been better back then, Watkins’ version would have climbed the pop charts, it’s just that good. Charles Watkins was that good. He later became a Bishop in the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.

That same year, Sister Tharpe’s protégé Marie Knight delivered a double-sided Christmas single of her own for Decca (“Adeste Fideles”/”It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”). In 1953, the Pilgrim Travelers gave Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” an uncharacteristically morose treatment. While Bing’s original articulated the wistful yearnings of World War II soldiers, the Travelers’ version suggested a darker and less optimistic mood surrounding the Korean Conflict. Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith heralded the coming of a new decade by releasing a beautiful Christmas LP on Savoy in 1959. Marion’s “O Holy Night” in particular enchanted many a music critic.

Christmas gospel-style reached its apex in 1962 when Vee Jay Records issued the original soundtrack album of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. The Christmas musical starring the Alex Bradford Singers, the aforementioned Stars of Faith, and Princess Stewart was a sensation: it toured Europe and continues to be presented the world over. Another full-length ode to Christmas released in 1962 came from a group that formerly recorded for Vee Jay. The Staple Singers’ marvelous The Twenty-Fifth Day of December was released on the group’s new label, Riverside, with Vee Jay-era accompanists Maceo Woods and Al Duncan on organ and drums, respectively. In Cincinnati, the Galatian Singers crafted a Yuletide LP of their own for King Records.

In 1963, Vee Jay released a various artists album called A Treasury of Golden Christmas Songs, featuring holiday fare by gospel artists under contract to the label, such as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Swan Silvertones, Caravans, and Charles Taylor. One lone track by the Gospel Clefs, the frenetic “Mary’s Boy Child,” has long confused collectors, since the Clefs were not Vee Jay recording artists. A review of Vee Jay internal documents, however, suggests that the company considered signing the Savoy artists at the time the Christmas LP was compiled, but the deal was never consummated.

Rev. Cleophus Robinson released Christmas Carols and Good Gospels for Peacock in 1967, an album that included a chilling version of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” In 1968, Checker Records released singles and an album of classic and new Christmas songs from its stable of artists, including the Soul Stirrers, Meditation Singers, and Salem Travelers, the latter two neatly folding anti-war sentiments into their holiday lyrics. Meanwhile, Brother Joe May, James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir, and countless other artists contributed singles and LPs to the gospel Christmas catalog throughout the 1960s.[3]

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a stream of Christmas releases by artists such as Singing Sammy Lewis, the Gospel Keynotes, and various artists collections from Peacock, Malaco, and New Jersey-based Glori Records. Even Chicago’s venerable First Church of Deliverance choir contributed an EP of Christmas cheer. Among the Clark Sisters’ early LPs for the Sound of Gospel label was a Christmas album, New Dimensions of Christmas Carols, although it does not represent their finest work. In 1985, Edwin Hawkins released The Edwin Hawkins Family Christmas for Birthright, a project that featured Richard Smallwood’s “Follow the Star.” This breathtaking piece presaged the majestic beauty of Smallwood’s later compositions, such as “I Love the Lord” and “Total Praise.”

Sadly, the Hawkins album, like so many others mentioned in this essay, remains out of print and was never reissued. Still, each Christmas recording extended the tradition begun by the Elkins Mixed Quartette 81 years ago.

Posted by Bob Marovich (Copyright 2007 by Robert M. Marovich)

[1] Dixon, Robert M.W., Godrich, John, and Rye, Howard W. Blues and Gospel Records, 1890-1943. 1964, 1969, 1982, 4th ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.[2] Wald, Gayle F. Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-And-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.[3] Hayes, Cedric J. and Laughton, Robert. The Gospel Discography, 1943-1970. Vancouver: Eyeball Productions, 2007 (this was reviewed in the July 2007 issue of Black Grooves). Editor’s note: see also Bob Marovich’s contribution to the December 2006 issue of Black Grooves, titled The Twelve Classic Gospel Songs of Christmas.