(Editor’s Note: ‘Tis the season to hook back up with Mark Anthony Neal. Some of you might remember his Revolutionary Mixtape from March. This time around, just in time for the holidays, it’s the Soul Xmas edition.)
By Mark Anthony Neal
As a child growing up in the “boogie down” Bronx in the early 1970s, there
was very little illusion that Christmas Day would bring the snowy white
scenes that were so often depicted on holiday greeting cards. I always
understood that the toys and things that I peeped in the Sears and Spiegel
catalogs were not gonna make it to my apartment come Christmas morning.
Instead, so much of the joy I took from Christmas came from the music.
Now on the other side of childhood, calls for “joy” and “peace on earth”
ring hollow when coming from some department store chain only a week after
the beginning of autumn. But like my childhood, I never fail to become
overtaken by the Christmas spirit the first time I hear Jermaine Jackson
sing the opening lines of the Jackson 5’s version of ‘Have Yourself a Merry
Little Christmas.’ For those of you also suffering the doldrums of another
disenchanted holiday season, here’s a soulful Christmas music roundup to
lift your spirits.
Merry Christmas Baby‘ — Otis Redding
From 7″ (B-side of “White Christmas”) (ATCO, 1968). Also on Soul Christmas.
‘Merry Christmas Baby’ is a song that is forever linked to legendary
rhythm-and-blues (not R&B) artist Charles Brown, but Otis Redding brought
his own take on “down-home” soul to his 1967 version of the song.
White Christmas‘ — The Drifters
From 7″ (Atlantic, 1954). Also on Soul Christmas.
Perhaps lead bass Bill Pinkens was signifyin’ on Bing Crosby in his opening
verses to The Drifters’ 1954 version of ‘White Christmas,’ but by the time
the incomparable Clyde McPhatter literally soars in with that third verse —
“I, I, I, I, I’m dreamin’ of a white Christmas .” — it’s clear The Drifters
had made the song their own. A whole new generation of folk were introduced
to this version of the song when it was featured in the film ‘Home Alone.’
Back Door Santa‘ — Clarence Carter
From 7″ (Atlantic, 1968). Also on Soul Christmas.
Clarence Carter is as nasty as they come — his chitlin’ circuit favorite
‘Strokin” is a great example. With ‘Back Door Santa’ Carter made Christmas
nasty, too. Years later, Run-DMC would sample the song for ‘Christmas in
Gee Whiz It’s Christmas‘ — Carla Thomas
From 7″ (Atlantic, 1963). Also on Soul Christmas.
The daughter of Rufus Thomas (he of ‘Funky Chicken’ fame), Carla Thomas was
the first lady of the Stax label. ‘Gee Whiz It’s Christmas,’ a sweet little
ditty about running into a long lost love, was co-written by Thomas with
Steve Cropper of Booker T. and the MGs. The song was a riff off of Thomas
best-selling ‘Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes).’
O Holy Night‘ — Vanessa Bell Armstrong
From The Truth About Christmas (Jive, 1990).
Arguably the most talented female gospel vocalist of the past 20 years,
Vanessa Bell Armstrong brought us a sanctified Christmas on her 1990 album
‘The Truth About Christmas.’ The highlight was a God-fearing, heart-stopping
rendition of ‘O Holy Night.’
Silent Night‘ — The Temptations
From The Christmas Card (Motown, 1970).
In 1970, the Temptations recorded ‘Christmas Card,’ which was one of the
last albums that featured the most classic Temptations lineup. A decade
later they recorded ‘Give Love on Christmas’ with Dennis Edwards, Glenn
Leonard and Melvin Franklin’s booming bass giving ‘Silent Night’ a much
needed Temptations update.
Let It Snow’ — Boyz II Men
From Christmas Interpretations (Motown, 1993).
At the peak of their fame and artistry, Boyz II Men teamed with Brian
McKnight on an original version of ‘Let it Snow’ that was penned by McKnight
and Wanya Morris. The album it appeared on, ‘Christmas Interpretations,’ may
be the best holiday album recorded by any contemporary R&B act.
At Christmas Time’ — Luther Vandross
From 12″ (Cotillion, 1976). Also on Slow Jams Christmas Vol 1.
Years before Luther Vandross became Luther Vandross, the emerging soul
singer recorded ‘At Christmas Time’ (1976). Given Vandross’ reputation as
the greatest soul vocalist of his generation, that means that ‘At Christmas
Time’ is indeed something special.
Hallelujah‘ — Handel’s Messiah
From Handel’s Messiah:A Soulful Celebration (Word, 1992)
In 1992, Mervyn Warren and Quincy Jones brought together a veritable who’s
who of black music to record ‘Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration.’
Included among them were Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, Take 6, Jeffrey Osborne,
Gladys Knight, Andre Crouch, Dianne Reeves, Stevie Wonder, The Boys Choir of
Harlem, Vanessa Williams, as well as actors Clifton Davis, Charles S.
Dutton, Phylicia Rashad and Kim Fields, many of whom appear on the album’s
closing rendition of ‘The Hallelujah Chorus.’ Handel ain’t never sound so
The Christmas Song‘ — Nat King Cole
From 7″ (Capitol, 1946). Also on The Christmas Song.
In all honesty, you haven’t really experienced the Christmas season if you
haven’t heard Nat King Cole doing his thing. Arguably Cole’s version of ‘The
Christmas Song’ has surpassed even Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ as the
quintessential American Christmas song.
This Christmas‘ — Donny Hathaway
From 7″ (B-side of Roberta Flack’s 25th of Last December) (Atlantic, 1978). Also on Soul Christmas.
Donny Hathaway is so deserving of the tag “genius” that it is somewhat
ironic that ‘This Christmas” might be his most well known song. Nevertheless
if black America has a clear-cut holiday anthem, it’s this Hathaway
original. Like the man said, “Shake a hand, shake hand.”