Christmas has always been a favorite subject of blues singers. For many early-era blues artists, while growing up in the South and Southwest, the holiday might have been the one time of the year that they enjoyed anything close to a feast. The religious implications were ever-present as well, and the Christmas season has inspired a wealth of blues, jazz, and gospel songs as well as fiery sermons and spiritual devotionals. A number of legendary artists recorded holiday songs during the early era of the blues, and these Christmas blues songs have become available on CD and as digital downloads for the 21st century.
Death Might Be Your Santa Claus
Sadly, blues music is often ignored by the major record labels, who seldom cull through their deep archives to reissue anything but the most contemporary of blues artists. Kudos are due, then, to Sony Music for releasing Death Might Be Your Santa Claus through its Legacy Recordings label as a Record Store Day "Black Friday" exclusive on both vinyl and CD. These limited edition, numbered sets feature a treasure of holiday-themed blues, jazz, and gospel music from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s...sixteen tracks on the two-disc vinyl LP, eighteen songs total on the compact disc.
Early Chicago blues legend Tampa Red cuts loose on his 1934 single "Christmas And New Year Blues," the performance featuring plenty of his trademark slippery slide-guitar work and some mighty fine high-lonesome vocals backed by Henry's Scott's subtle piano. Victoria Spivey's "Christmas Morning Blues," dating back to 1927, offers Spivey's powerful warbling vocals backed by a languid Lonnie Johnson guitar line and his occasional flourishes. John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, the original, is backed by talents like pianist Speckled Red and guitarist Robert Lee McCoy on his 1938 recording of "Christmas Morning Blues," the artists and band delivering a bluesy, jazzy take on a Lonnie Johnson song that is so much fun that I'd love to hear a contemporary harp-blower take it on.
The set includes a number of sermons from the firebrand preacher Reverend J.M. Gates, including the blistering title track. Between 1926 and 1941, Rev. Gates was one of the most popular recording artists in America, waxing over 200 sermons for the Okeh, Victor, Bluebird, and Paramount record labels. Gates' natural charisma flows out of the speakers with no little power and glory, and if you don't feel the spirit after experiencing such religious rave-ups as "Did You Spend Christmas Day In Jail?" or "Will The Coffin Be Your Santa Claus?," well, you're probably beyond saving. "Death May Be Your Santa Claus" is a particularly interesting sermon from 1926, Gates' dynamic voice rising and falling, his barely pent-up energy channeled through his emotion and religious fervor.
Death Might Be Your Santa Claus includes a number of spiritual/devotional songs intermixed with the old-school blues with some, like the Heavenly Gospel Singers' "When Was Jesus Born?" featuring wonderful vocal harmonies that weave a mesmerizing performance. Much of the album is more blues-styled, however, such as Bo Carter (of the Mississippi Sheiks) and his spirited, energetic reading of "Santa Claus" from 1938, or Bessie Smith's "At The Christmas Ball." Recorded in 1925, Smith is backed by pianist Fletcher Henderson for a dynamite performance that shows why Smith was, perhaps, the most popular vocalist of the 1920s. The CD version of the album includes a pair of bonus tracks, including the very cool Lightnin' Hopkins' tune, "Santa," recorded in 1962 for the guitarist's Mojo Hand album; with a soulful wail and elegant fretwork, Lightnin' delivers a bluesy, contemporary take on the holiday.
Blues, Blues Christmas, Volume 1 • 1925-1955
The British archival label Document Records scoured its vaults to assemble a pair of fairly comprehensive volumes of Christmas blues from the early years. The first of these Document releases, Blues, Blues Christmas, Volume 1 • 1925-1955 is a two-disc set featuring a whopping 52 tracks of holiday blues, jazz, R&B, and gospel performances from across the decades. Like any other compilation of this sort, there are a lot of songs that modern ears may consider to be "filler" due to the primitive recording techniques, mastering of best available copies, and so on, and the sound quality of many of these tracks may seem a bit slight or harsh here in the digital era.
For discriminating listeners that can get past the uneven sound quality (and, to be honest, only the oldest tracks suffer this fate), there are quite a few gems to be discovered in the grooves of Blues, Blues Christmas, Volume 1 • 1925-1955, beginning with Titus Turner's explosive R&B raver "Christmas Morning Blues." Recorded in 1952, Turner is backed by a spry horn section and combo that rocks the joint with the holiday spirit. The novelty track "Papa Ain't No Santa Claus" by Butterbeans and Susie is also available on the Death Might Be Your Santa Claus set, the domestic discord of the lyrics livened up by a jazzy piano soundtrack. Lonnie Johnson's 1947 single "Happy New Year Darling" is an urbane, sophisticated take on the blues with Johnson's filigree guitarwork and soulful vocals backed by Simeon Hatch's fluid piano play.
The legendary Leadbelly, Huddie Ledbetter, dips into his folk-blues bag for a lively, engaging 1941 performance of "The Christmas Song" that perfectly displays his enormous charm, while the enigmatic "Black Ace" (B.K. Turner) lays down some seriously slinky slide-guitar work on his 1937 recording of "Christmas Time." Accompanied by a second guitarist that may have been Smokey Hogg, Ace wails the blues while banging out a greasy rhythm reminiscent of Blind Willie Johnson. Pianist Leroy Carr is backed by guitarist Scrapper Blackwell on the mournful 1929 track "Christmas In Jail," his emotional vocals assisted by his low-slung keyboards and Blackwell's weeping fretwork.
Blind Lemon Jefferson is represented by his 1928 take on "Happy New Year Blues," his subtle guitar licks overpowered by his strong, emotional vocals. The second Sonny Boy Williamson (a/k/a Rice Miller) makes an appearance on 1951's "Sonny Boy's Christmas Blues," the singer downplaying his raging harp in favor of Willie Love's elegant piano and Elmore James' almost-hidden rhythm guitar. Blues, Blues Christmas, Volume 1 • 1925-1955 offers a lot more for the old-school blues and R&B fan, from singers like Amos Wilburn, Jimmy Weatherspoon, and Roy Milton to piano-pounders like Roosevelt Sykes and even gospel tunes and sermons from the likes of Rev. J.M. Gates and Rev. A.W. Nix as well as extensive, informative, and entertaining liner notes.
Blues, Blues Christmas, Volume 2 • 1926-1958
Document Records' Blues, Blues Christmas, Volume 2 • 1926-1958 is another massive two-disc set, this one featuring 44 total tracks and focusing on more modern (i.e. 1950s-era) holiday recordings from a diverse selection of blues, jazz, gospel, and R&B artists. Blind Lemon Jefferson returns with a 1928 recording of "Christmas Eve Blues," the poor sound quality doing little to dampen his great performance, his voice rising from the grooves like force of nature, his delicate acoustic guitar playing providing a magnetic counterpoint to his bluesy vocals. The Moonglows were a great R&B band, and their 1953 take on "Hey Santa Claus" shows why, singers Bobby Lester and Harvey Fuqua leading the band through a boogie-woogie flavored romp that will get your holiday spirit flowing freely (especially when the great Red Holloway cuts loose on his tenor sax!).
Lowell Fulson is an underrated singer and guitarist from the R&B age, and his "Lonesome Christmas, Part One" displays his many talents. The 1951 record features Lloyd Glenn on piano, weaving his magic, while drummer Bob Harvey caresses the skins, but this is entirely Fulson's show. His vocals are lively but emotional, his guitar understated but energetic when need be. The entire performance sounds at once both bluesy and jazzy, its muted enthusiasm simply infectious. Piedmont bluesman Blind Blake doesn't really cut loose with his legendary fretwork on the 1929 recording of "Lonesome Christmas Blues," but his voice carries the freight, expressing every bit of the anguish of the song's title as a pianist bangs away in the background. Blues, Blues Christmas, Volume 2 • 1926-1958 includes a fair amount of gospel fare, all of it lovely, but I'm partial to the Pilgrim Travellers' 1952 recording of "I'll Be Home For Christmas," their beautiful vocal harmonies hotter than a roaring fireplace.
Chuck Berry's "Run Run Rudolph" is a Christmas rock 'n' roll classic, and it still thrills every time I hear it. What I didn't know until checking out the extensive credits found in both volumes of Blues, Blues Christmas is that Berry was backed by the cream-of-the-crop of Chess Records' studio wizards, including Willie Dixon on bass, Fred Below on drums and, of course, the great Johnny Johnson on piano. Lowell Fulson returns on disc two for "Christmas Party Shuffle," a swinging, bluesy instrumental vamp with Earl Brown blowin' the alto sax, Lloyd Glenn again banging the ivories, and Fulson embellishing it all with his tasteful, albeit understated guitar playing. Guitarist Andrew "Smokey" Hogg is a real find, his 1947 take on "My Christmas Baby" offering up plenty of frenetic fretwork and twangy, growly vocals backed by an unknown pianist.
The Orioles were another great R&B vocal group from the 1950s, and they get two spots here, beginning with their lovely 1950 recording of "Oh Holy Night," which perfectly frames the group's near-perfect vocal harmonies. Sonny Til, Alexander Sharp, and George Nelson had voices that fit together perfectly, and that's particularly true on their 1949 single "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve," an early hybrid of R&B, jazz, and gospel influences that would help define the coming rock 'n' roll era. Backed by guitarist Ralph Williams and bassist Johnny Reed, this is simply beautiful music. Chuck Berry's classic 1958 single "Merry Christmas Baby" has since become somewhat of a standard, but in its original form it's delightfully bluesy, Johnson's piano tinkling away behind Chuck's languid vocals to create a holiday torchsong without peer.
Like the first volume, Blues, Blues Christmas, Volume 2 • 1926-1958 offers lengthy and informative liner notes, extensive per song credits, and more great holiday music than you could fit into a single listening. Any one of these three albums would make a great addition to your blues collection, but why not just grab all of 'em? There are only a few duplications of songs between the sets, but the strength, sincerity, and quality of the performances are something you should hear for yourself!
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