Rhythm & Blues Christmas

Posted on December 16, 2010 by

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…


Artists: Various
Title: Rhythm & Blues Christmas
Label: United Artists UA-LA654-R
Released: 1976
Genre: R&B

Rhythm & Blues Christmas runs the gamut of the broad title, offering blues, doo-wop, vocal group harmony and rock and roll. It’s a good primer for an R&B neophyte.

The album leads off with one of the many versions of Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” (I believe its from the 1956 Aladdin session). No matter what version of it by Mr. Brown, it is the all-time R&B Christmas standard. It sets the tone for the remainder of the album; this is benchmark, let’s see how the other tracks stack up.

Baby Washington’s “Silent Night” isn’t Big Maybelle’s version, but it fits well in this collection. We used to sing “Silent Night” in church when I was growing up, but our church never had the church that Baby Washington brings to this carol.

The next track is “White Christmas” by the Clyde McPhatter lead Drifters. Some people will argue with me preferring to hear this jingle by Der Bingle, but I’ll take the Drifters version any day. I like the cadence of the doo wop better for this holiday number. The interplay between McPhatter and the bass of Bill Pinkney is just plain joyful.

The doo wop slows itself down to a near halt, drifting more into the vocal group territory with the 1951 version of the Five Keys’ “It’s Christmas Time.” It’s a nice contrast to the Drifters take on Christmas. The Keys owe more to the sound of the Ink Spots than the doo wop that would become prevalent in the later years of their recording career. With lyrics stating, “…our dream cottage…” and “…we loved in a younger prime…” the sentiment is from a different generation than what the Drifters represented.

Side one ends with the Chuck Berry rocker, “Run, Rudolph Run.” It too is an R&B Christmas standard, but on the other end of the spectrum in relevance to Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby.” In fact, it was music like this that made Brown’s career fade in the sixties. Brown and Berry are a couple of good bookends to side one.

Side two breaks out with the big band blues sound of B.B. King. Originally recorded for Kent in 1966, King’s signature guitar is augmented by a driving horn section. Nearly crossing over into soul music, it is a good companion to Lowell Fulson’s “I Wanna Spend Christmas With You,” which shows up later on this side. Fulson’s number was also recorded for Kent, his in 1967, making these two cuts the most “modern” representations of R&B on the album.

Back in the vocal group vein we have one of the leaders of all the bird groups, The Orioles with (It’s Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas.” Only the Ravens could challenge the Orioles for supremacy amongst the R&B warblers. The Orioles built the bridge between vocal group harmony and doo-wop and nested highly upon it. The flipside of this release in 1949 was “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” which is sadly not included in this collection.

“Let’s Make Christmas Merry, Baby” by Amos Milburn was also recorded in 1949. It is more in the style of Charles Brown’s cut but lacks the refinement. Not to say it is not smooth, but in comparison, you can hear the wonderment of Brown’s voice.

The album closes with Marvin & Johnny’s “It’s Christmas.” It is closest in style to The Drifters but recorded in 1957, three years after “White Christmas.” It exemplifies a shift from doo-wop to straight R&B.

The album succeeds at providing the listener with a survey of R&B styles, they just so happen to be all holiday numbers. If you have the desire to hear some classic R&B Christmas tunes, dig through the used bins at your local record stores. The artwork is rather cheesy so it is often overlooked as a poor quality budget album. It is not. It’s worth the quest.

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