For whatever the reasons, Christmas blues albums are few and far between. Sure, there have been plenty of holiday-themed songs performed by blues greats like Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, and Lightnin' Hopkins, among others, and these tunes have since been anthologized to death on a handful of major label albums. A few single-artist Christmas collections have also been released through the years by talents as diverse as B.B. King and Canned Heat, but mostly it was as if the holiday didn't exist for blues fans...until Alligator Records head Bruce Iglauer donned his Santa hat and delivered The Alligator Records Christmas Collection in 1992 to good little boys and girls everywhere in the blues world.
The Alligator Records Christmas Collection
With a couple of notable exceptions, which we'll address below, the Christmas tunes found on The Alligator Records Christmas Collection are mostly original rather than traditional, which only adds to the festive nature of the album. It kicks off with the great Koko Taylor and her "Merry, Merry Christmas," a mid-tempo sort of houserocker with some fine guitar picking and Taylor's larger-than-life vocals. Bringing the same sort of joy and energy to the song as she does to any of her material, Taylor cranks up the amperage and gets this Christmas party started right.
The underrated Kenny Neal delivers his original "Christmas Time In The Country," a slow-walking groove resting behind Neal's fluid harpwork and Lucky Peterson's measured keyboards. The song is a fine fusion of blues and what would be considered holiday pop music, and aside from the loping rhythms, it's Neal's lonely harp that makes it a blues classic. Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials always find the goodtime groove in a song, and Ed's "I'm Your Santa" is a barely-restrained juke-joint romp with a holiday theme and plenty of good cheer...not to mention Lil' Ed's wonderful guitar tone, wrapped around notes that fall like snow.
Deck The Halls With Boogie Woogie
The playful nature of the boogie woogie style of blues lends itself perfectly to Christmas, and pianist Katie Webster delivers a raucous original arrangement of a traditional tune in "Deck The Halls With Boogie Woogie." Banging at the keys with reckless aplomb, and with more than a little New Orleans jazz flavor (think Professor Longhair), Webster's gleeful performance is simply infectious. The great R&B singer Charlie Brown carries on the theme with "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus," his rolling 88s slipping and sliding beneath his warm, soulful vocals. Saxophonist Harold Ousley lays down a fat groove behind Brown's piano stomp as drummer Kenny Washington's energetic cymbal brushwork, and guitarist Bully Butler's dulcet tones, make for one jumpin', jivin' performance.
It wouldn't really be a blues Christmas without a little guitar pickin', and The Alligator Records Christmas Collection offers a pair of fine performances from two blues greats, Son Seals and Lonnie Brooks. Seal's "Lonesome Christmas" brings a pure blues edge to the holiday, the song's lyrical longing punctuated by the guitarist's mesmerizing fretwork and keyboardist Sidney James Wingfield's humming organ fills. Brooks is joined by son Ronnie Baker for "Christmas On The Bayou," taking us down to the swap for a Cajun holiday, a little country twang and zydeco zeal thrown in behind Brooks' rowdy vocals, tag-team father-and-son roadhouse guitar (sometimes mimicking an accordion), and Tom Giblin's honky-tonk piano-bashing.
We don’t want to forget the harp players, and William Clarke's original "Please Let Me Be Your Santa Claus" sizzles and pops like a log on the fire. Clarke's rolling harp notes wang-and-bang throughout the song, overshadowing even Greg Verginio's stellar fretwork and Fred Kaplan's tinkling keys. Clarke is highly underrated as a vocalist, however, and his take here is pure honeyed whiskey, both bluesy and lustful, leaving no mistake about what the singer wants in his Christmas stocking. By turn, Little Charlie & the Nightcats spank out a swinging performance of Rick Estrin's "Santa Claus." Estrin's upbeat vocals jump around the mix like "seven lords a leaping," blasts of his harp laid down alongside Little Charlie's background rhythm guitar and the rhythm section's solid groove.
The two traditional Christmas songs here come from Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite. Bishop imagines the difficult "The Little Drummer Boy" as an instrumental, letting his guitar take the melody line to new heights while Randy Forrester's piano and the horns of Ray Arvizu and Ed Earley carry the rest of the weight. Musselwhite takes on the more religious-oriented "Silent Night," the legendary harpist accompanied only by pianist Stu Blank. Musselwhite's harmonica captures the grandeur of the song while Blank's piano fills in around the edges, bringing the album to a close with a fitting reverent finish.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Along with artists like the aforementioned talents, The Alligator Records Christmas Collection also features tracks from Tinsley Ellis ("Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'"), Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women ("One Parent Christmas"), and the great Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown ("Christmas"), fourteen joyful performances in all, ready to brighten up your holidays. Shake up your holiday playlist this year, set aside those tired old Bing Crosby and Mel Tormé songs, and have yourself a blues Christmas! (Alligator Records, released October 6, 1992)
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