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The Soul Christmas Mix-Tape

 

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 going to 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

'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

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

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 Hollis.’

‘Gee Whiz It’s Christmas’ -- Carla Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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 funky.

‘The Christmas Song’ -- Nat King Cole

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

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.”

 

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of four books, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1998), Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002), Songs in the Keys of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003) and New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity (2005).

 

He is also an Associate Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Program in African and African American Studies and Director of the Institute for Critical U.S. Studies (ICUSS) at Duke University.

 

He blogs as Newblackman

 

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