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Original Soul ChristmasFar too many times, artists of much grit and verve - including soul men as prominent as Jackie Wilson and Al Green - cut fairly tepid, even lame Christmas albums. Not so here. In 1968, Atco Records (a subsidiary of Atlantic) culled Christmas tracks - some previously released, some newly recorded - from their best and brightest stars, including ones signed to fabled Stax Records. They called this instant classic Soul Christmas, and whoa, baby, this is the real thing! Every single cut is a bona fide masterpiece.

The magic of 60's soul music - the gospel intensity, the ribald humor, the sensual conviction- comes to bear with its most powerful alchemy on Soul Christmas. Nowhere is this as apparent as on the amazing opener, Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa," a wicked festival of double entendre. Carter gets the show started with a bang in every sense of the word. Clarence ain't like old St. Nick, you see, 'cause he don't come but once a year. And then he laughs - "Ho! Ho! Ho!" - in a manner so wicked and lubricious it removes all hint of pretense.

All in all, Soul Christmas is a classic of both genres - soul and Christmas - one that belongs in the collection of anyone who claims to know anything about either. The most amazing aspect of Soul Christmas is that these songs are among the very best that these artists - all giants of soul - ever recorded. Take, for instance, the two tracks Otis Redding contributes. This humble man from Macon radically reinterprets two hoary favorites, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" and Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas, Baby," with able assistance from Booker T. & The MG's. The former song is transformed from a warm Christmas wish into an abject howl of loneliness. The latter, meanwhile, is dramatically rearranged from Brown's sexy ballad into Otis' irresistible stomp - the arrangement Bruce Springsteen copped on A Very Special Christmas nearly 20 years later.

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After Otis Redding's startling achievements, things actually get better! On "I'll Make Everyday Christmas (For My Woman)," Joe Tex turns in one of the best vocal performances of his career, making the birth of his savior seem insignificant compared to his own monumental erotic devotion. In a similar vein, William Bell's "Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday" paints an impossibly idyllic picture of love - and features a standout performance from MG's guitarist Steve Cropper. Solomon Burke's "Presents For Christmas" is an uplifting, magnanimous plea for benevolence befitting the man called "The King of Rock 'n' Soul." Quite to the contrary, saxophonist King Curtis turns mere carols into monumental acts of seduction.

Soul ChristmasThe 1994 Rhino CD reissue of Soul Christmas adds three bonus tracks, including the original 1963 version of Carla Thomas' "All I Want For Christmas Is You" (the b-side to her sexy "Gee Whiz, It's Christmas") and Ray Charles' rare (if unimpresive) 1978 single "Christmas Time." Plus, we get astute liner notes by Jimmy Guterman. Rhino also appends "Original" to its title in a largely failed attempt to avoid confusion with Soul Christmas (1991). That disc, another Atlantic/Atco compilation, overlaps to a great extent with the original album. The newer disc cannot match the pure brilliance of the Original Soul Christmas, but that said, it's pretty great in its own right.

The 1991 Soul Christmas expands the scope of the original LP, collecting 20 tracks spanning more than 20 years. Beginning with the Drifters' drop-dead doo-wop reading of "White Christmas" (1954), Soul Christmas chronicles the very evolution of soul music, concluding with Luther Vandross' disco-fied "May Christmas Bring You Happiness" (1976) - one of several songs rescued from the long out-of-print, sorely-missed Cotillion LP, Funky Christmas (1976).

Add to those riches Carla Thomas' superior 1966 version of the aforementioned "All I Want For Christmas Is You" (released as the a-side of another single) and her 1967 duet with Otis Redding, "New Year's Resolution." And, Brook Benton's "Soul Santa" (1971), a racially-sensitive reverie recorded in the same style as his gorgeous "Rainy Night In Georgia." And, the Sweet Inspirations' stately interpretation of William Bell's "Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday." And, Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" (1970), one of the last universally-recognized Christmas standards ever written.

Ultimately, the second Soul Christmas becomes almost as requisite for soul aficionados as its distinguished predecessor. Personally, I cannot recommend too strongly purchasing both discs - overlap be damned! [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • All I Want For Christmas Is You (Carla Thomas, 1966)
  • Back Door Santa (Clarence Carter, 1968)
  • Christmas Gift (Margie Joseph, 1976)
  • The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) (King Curtis, 1968)
  • The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) (Drifters, 1964)
  • Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday (William Bell, 1967)
  • Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday (Sweet Inspirations, 1969)
  • Gee Whiz It's Christmas (Carla Thomas, 1963)
  • I'll Make Everyday Christmas (For My Woman) (Joe Tex, 1967)
  • Jingle Bells (Booker T & The MG's, 1966)
  • May Christmas Bring You Happiness (Luther Vandross, 1976)
  • Merry Christmas Baby (Booker T. & The MG's, 1966)
  • Merry Christmas Baby (Otis Redding, 1968)
  • New Year's Resolution (Otis & Carla, 1967)
  • Presents For Christmas (Solomon Burke, 1966)
  • Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Booker T. & The MG's, 1966)
  • Silent Night (Impressions, 1976)
  • Silver Bells (Booker T. & The MG's, 1966)
  • Soul Santa (Brook Benton, 1971)
  • This Christmas (Donny Hathaway, 1970)
  • White Christmas (Drifters, 1954)
  • White Christmas (Otis Redding, 1968)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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