Solace and Laughter In a Valley of Tears
By David McGee
Otis Redding: Merry Christmas, baby
Released: 1968; reissued, expanded 1991
Originally released on Atlantic in 1968, Soul Christmas contained a dozen wonderful, even amazing, performances by artists representing southern soul music at its apex during the Stax/Fame Studios heyday. The roster included Otis Redding, William Bell, Carla Thomas, Clarence Carter, Joe Tex, Booker T. & the MG's, Solomon Burke and King Curtis. Okay, Joe Tex recorded in Nashville, for Dial, and King Curtis in New York, for Atlantic, but let's say they belonged, their music and styles fit the occasion to a tee. That album was an instant seasonal classic.
In 1991 Atlantic reissued Soul Christmas on compact disc with an additional eight tracks, and inexplicably excluded the great William Bell, who gave the Stax label its first big national hit in 1961 with his debut single, "You Don't Miss Your Water," and as a writer co-composed one of Albert King's monuments, "Born Under a Bad Sign." Whereas the original album felt like an organic whole, the reconfigured Soul Christmas is a schizoid endeavor with no stylistic center. Which is not to say the added performances are lacking. The loose concept seems to have been to present some kind of overview of secular Christmas music through the years as it's been presented on the Atlantic family of labels. So it now kicks off with the tender 1954 version of "White Christmas" by Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters, and goes on to add some lighthearted '70s pop-funk courtesy Margie Joseph's bubbly, string-rich "Christmas Gift" and a taste of disco-centric pleading by Luther, the Cotillion label aggregate that took its name from its lead singer and founder, one Luther Vandross, who composed and produced the alternately driving and silky arrangement of the ebullient "May Christmas Bring You Happiness." Other new entries include the first album release of Donny Hathaway's infectious "This Christmas," with its funky horns, ascending strings and Hathaway's exuberant piano soloing intact; a 1976 Impressions take on "Silent Night" that melds a contemporary, pulsating R&B rhythm and full-voiced backing chorus to the group's gospel-flavored harmonizing and soloing; the Johnny Moore-led Drifters' lovely, graceful treatment of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song," a 1964 recording replete with beautifully understated strings caressing Moore's tender, plaintive lead vocal; Brook Benton's slinky, blues-inflected 1971 contemplation of a "Soul Santa," "with black kinky hair" and "red underwear peeking over his soulful, soulful jelly roll," all crooned seductively over a cooing background chorus, chunky guitar and whimsical, percolating flute lines; a delicious, crackling duet from Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, "New Year's Resolution," circa 1967; and from a 1969 session at the Fame Studios, the Sweet Inspirations' gritty, horn-driven and gospelized "Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday," which was right at home on the original album in its 1967 rendition by none other than its aforementioned co-writer (along with Booker T. Jones), William Bell. Nevertheless, lead singer Cissy Houston delivered like nobody's business here, with her urgent vocal embodying and articulating the deep well of anguish and irony Bell embedded in his lyrics—a gut-wrenching performance ably abetted by the other gals' tenacious shadowing of Houston's lead, plus ferocious guitar and horn parts.
This now leaves us with the original, immaculate conception of the 1968 Soul Christmas (save, again, for William Bell's version of "Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday"). It may seem like nothing more than a remarkable assembly of Yuletide tunes now, but the album surfaced at the end of a year in which America had been scarred by the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the riots that ensued following the Rev. King's slaying and the Grant Park police riots targeting demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and the mounting domestic fury over the deepening war in Vietnam. On the political front, President Lyndon B. Johnson had declared his intention to step down rather than seek another term; independent Presidential candidate George Wallace had selected as his running mate retired Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis E. LeMay, whose Strangelovian fixations included a pronouncement that "I don't believe the world would end if we exploded a nuclear weapon"; and Republican Richard M. Nixon, running on a platform that included a "secret plan to end the war in Vietnam" that he never revealed to the public, returned from the political graveyard to capture the Presidency with 43 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating Democratic candidate Hubert H. Humphrey, who lost by only 500,000 votes. Students rioted in Paris and generated sympathetic strikes throughout France; the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia; and at the Summer Olympics Games in Mexico City, U.S. medalists Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in a "Black Power" salute during the playing of the "Star Spangled Banner" while on the podium being honored for their performance in the 200-meter dash. To say that the world seemed ablaze with violence and protest is a grievous underassessment of the sense of tumult and sheer insanity wracking the globe and inculcating a sense of pervasive dread in the populace over what dire reports each day's news would bring.
Soul Christmas came along with a message of love, conciliation and reconciliation, delivered with conviction, warmth, inclusiveness and a dollop of humor. It was recorded by black and white musicians in studios in New York and Nashville, but mostly in Memphis, not far from the Lorraine Motel where the Rev. King lost his life. It brought the ever-lascivious Clarence Carter to the fore with the most salacious and enduringly hilarious Christmas song to date, "Back Door Santa," replete with all the suggestiveness its title implies, and Carter, an unapologetic and unabashed devotee of adultery-in-song if not in fact, fairly wallowing in delight at the prospect of sneaking into a woman's house while her husband's away and showing her that he's a Santa who "makes all the little girls happy/while the boys go out to play," as sleigh bells ring, horns blurt and the Fame Studios house band settles into a righteously percolating groove behind him. "I ain't like old Saint Nick," he shouts with unbridled glee. "He don't come but once a year-but lookee here, I come runnin' with my sack, girl, every time you call me, dear." He even brings money to buy off the kids, "so that we can be alone." Clarence has all the angles covered—"I leave the back door open/in case somebody smells a mouse/and wouldn't ol' Santa be in trouble/if there ain't no chimney in the house..." as the song high steps to a conclusion with Carter exulting in his follies—"They call me Back Door Santa, and I like for 'em to call me that!" he shouts at fadeout. (For the record, when asked in an interview if he had ever been caught making love to another man's wife, Carter answered, "Only once," and vowed he would never get caught again, emphasizing the word "caught.")
Sixty-minute man Clarence Carter, the Back Door Santa
"Back Door Santa" is the extreme end of the wit informing Soul Christmas. Carla Thomas offers a seasonal re-write of her first hit (#5 R&B, #10 Pop), "Gee Whiz," in "Gee Whiz, It's Christmas," a catchy, girl group-style track that retains the original song's dreamy wonderment at new love but spiffs up the rhythm and melody to capture a sense of joy a-borning as a special time of year approaches. Booker T. & the MG's offer two memorable instrumentals in a languid, after-hours rendition of Charles Brown's classic blues, "Merry Christmas, Baby" and a lighthearted romp through "Silver Bells." Otis Redding tackles "Merry Christmas, Baby," as well, but he takes it at a jaunty, exhilarating pace, making of it a festive romp and seeming to enjoy every minute of his performance, whereas the two other great vocal versions of the song, by its writer Charles Brown and by Elvis Presley, both grind it out in varying degrees of smoky sensuality. Otis's timing in recasting Brown's laments as good tidings could not have been a more soothing balm to seared American psyches as '68 wound down. Solomon Burke, who in fact is a preacher, and Joe Tex, who should have been one, both stand in the pulpit for magnificent sermons: Burke, backed by a powerhouse band numbering Billy Butler on guitar, Jimmy Johnson and Bernard Purdie on drums, a swinging horn section and a rousing arrangement by Eric Gale, hollers and proselytizes to the world Sam Cooke-style (close your eyes and you'll think you're listening to Sam, so close is the resemblance) not about what a wonderful time of year it is, but how much he wishes for next year to be better for everyone, to which anyone listening back then surely would have proclaimed, "Amen!" Tex is in a more ruminative mood on "I'll Make Everyday Christmas (For My Woman)," more hymn than song, partly spoken, partly sung, with Tex plaintively promising that if he is "lucky enough" to "find a woman who would love, want and need me as much as my momma loved, wanted and needed my dad," he will "never go away and leave my woman the way he went away and left his. Well, I found me one, I found me the kind of woman I dreamed of finding as a little boy." Singing softly and tenderly, at times evoking the sound and approach he took on his career launching 1965 hit, "Hold What You've Got" (and really, the message in "I'll Make Everyday Christmas" is exactly the same as that of "Hold What You've Got," but addressed in the latter to other men and women, whereas the Christmas song is solely his vow to his better half), Tex quietly, deliberately shapes an exquisitely beautiful and socially relevant message, no matter the melodramatics he employs. The original album contained two soothing King Curtis instrumentals, but one, a version of Torme's "The Christmas Song," is now absent, leaving a reflective, winsome reading of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" as the penultimate track on the new Soul Christmas where once it closed the book on a moving statement to a troubled land. Soul Christmas abounded in hope without ignoring reality, offered solace and laughter in a valley of tears. It still does; you just have to work a little harder to get there. Nothing's easy any more any way, right?