By now, nearly everyone knows the classic Christmas blues, starting with Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home for Christmas.” Christmas songs, after all, are a perennial favorite throughout the record industry. But how has the tradition survived? Do Christmas songs still have the appeal they once did?
As it happens, contemporary blues has created its own fair share of Christmas releases. Most are compilations rather than individual-artist albums, but that’s consistent with how it’s always been: Seasonal Christmas hits used to be released as singles, and the ones that had staying power ultimately wound up years later on compilations. The difference is that new Christmas songs now usually start out on compilations. After all, it’s tough for an artist to come up with 10 or 12 new Christmas songs, but easy for a dozen artists to come up with one each.
So here’s a Lucky Seven list of modern blues Christmas albums available on eMusic — because this time of year, everyone deserves a little luck.
The undisputed king of Christmas R&B, Brown revisits several of the songs he's been singing since his heyday of the '40s through the '60s. But he's also written some new ones for this mid-'90s album, and his soft, silky voice has become burnished, rather than weakened, by the years; his piano work retains its melancholy intimacy. As befits a bluesman, especially one who specializes in late-night cocktail piano blues, his pet theme is human togetherness and apartness at the holidays. And he's got the mojo to break the slow ones up with an occasional rocker like "Christmas Comes But Once a Year."
Who would ever have guessed that a Christmas album — and a Christmas album of the most obvious songs, at that — would turn out to be one of the latter-day Etta James's best, and most finessed? No metallic blues-rock guitars or overcooked vocals here. That's because she's working with a crack group of jazz musicians, including pianist/arranger Cedar Walton. But make no mistake: As her powerful take on "Silent Night" affirms, all good jazz has more than a little blues to it. She's just as vital proclaiming her holiday joy on the likes of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" or "Jingle Bells."
The premier blues label of the post-blues era mixes Christmas themes up nicely, with Koko Taylor ("Merry, Merry Christmas") and Katie Webster ("Deck the Halls with Boogie Woogie") lifting spirits before Son Seals ("Lonesome Christmas") and Saffire--The Uppity Blues Women ("One Parent Christmas") step in to Keep It Real. But the most powerful one-two punch closes the set out: Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's jovial, big-hearted "Christmas" followed by Charlie Musselwhite's somber harmonica instrumental "Silent Night."
First released in 1983, this album catches the Austin blues boom in its early days, when the music was marked by an infectious sense of discovery. The Fabulous Thunderbirds' "Winter Wonderland" shows just how much can be done with even the most innocuous material, with harpman Kim Wilson and guitarist Jimmie Vaughan both rising to the occasion. If Angela Strehli's shouting, shimmying "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" is a celebration by itself, the revelation of the set is Sarah Brown, best known for her bass playing, singing her original "My Christmas Tree Is Hung with Tears."
Santa checks out the Gulf Coast on this mid-'90s compilation comprised mostly of Texas and Louisiana artists on Black Top Records. Not surprisingly, he finds guitarists from the roadhouse (Anson Funderburgh with harmonica player Sam Myers burning up "Lonesome Christmas") and the New Orleans juke joint (Earl King pleading "Santa Don't Let Me Down"), as well as sax blaster Grady Gaines and the Texas Upsetters ("Grady and Santa Is Coming to Town"). But Robert Ward's powerhouse "Wouldn't It Be a Merry Christmas" is one of the funkiest Yuletime tracks this side of James Brown.
Miss Butch is perhaps better known as Peggy Scott-Adams, who, as Peggy Scott in the early '60s, teamed up with JoJo Benson for pop-soul hits like "Lovers Holiday." For her short-lived blues label, she had the good sense to sign Jimmy Lewis, a sorely underrated soul singer and writer, and together they dominate this 2000 album. Her throaty "Christmas Friends of Mine" is the deepest blues on the set, while he balances wit with sentimentality on his tracks; their duet "Light You Up Like a Christmas Tree" promises a sexy Yule.
With one of the most diverse blues and roots rosters of the modern era, this Canadian label can't help but deliver on its 2000 compilation. Ringmaster Duke Robillard kicks things off with his snappy guitar instrumental "Duke's Christmas," with most of the highlights coming from veterans like pianist Jay McShann offering "Hootie's K.C. Christmas Prayer," balladeer Jimmy Witherspoon crying "Christmas Blues," Chicago harp man Billy Boy Arnold blowing "Christmas Time Part 1" and Rosco Gordon expressing his largesse with "Merry Christmas Everyone."