Soul Christmas Songs
Many of the best known Christmas songs have soul, an integrity that not only offers a funky sound but also bears a personality that sees it impervious to the ravages of time (and a billion Christmas parties). Christmas soul music can be traced back to the early 1950’s and a smoking ‘Santa Baby’ performed by Eartha Kitt. It may have lacked the swagger and dynamics of future soul Christmas gems but Kitt was responsible for more palpitations than all of the other singers of her generation put together thanks to her vocal on ‘Santa Baby’.
Similarly slow in its delivery is Otis Redding’s ‘White Christmas’ which ships many of the decorative features of Bing’s original for a funkier vocal. For much of the time you’ll forget you are listening to Irving Berlin’s song which is to Redding’s credit given the colossus of what was set in motion by Crosby. Louis Armstrong’s ‘Winter Wonderland’ is another study in fine manners put to music, but not the snooty kind because Louis’ vocals are never less than inviting.
The best soul Christmas songs come in two shades, the quieter chin strokers and the ones with a glint in their eye. Like Clarence Carter’s ‘Back Door Santa’ which provided the sample which would so propel Run-DMC’s ‘Christmas In Hollis’ many years later. James Brown’s ‘Soulful Christmas’ grooves through the season with a puffed out chest and an admirable sense of purpose. It was just one moment of intense festive chemistry in an album that was full of them (Brown’s 1968 album ‘A Soulful Christmas’).
Soul Christmas music went through a golden period during Motown’s peak in the 1960’s and 1970’s with everyone from the Jackson 5, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles turning out classic soulful Christmas albums. The best known is undoubtedly the Michael Jackson led Jackson 5 whose ‘Jackson 5 Christmas’ yielded a clutch of tracks that are mainstays in the annual Christmas playlist. Christmas hardly seems like Christmas unless you’ve heard the Jackson 5 belting out their ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ or ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’. Smokey Robinson proved to be a prolific Christmas writer with two Christmas albums seeing the light of day on the Motown label. 1970’s ‘The Season For Miracles’ was chock full of soul Christmas songs like the heart-rending ‘I Believe In Christmas Eve’.
‘Motown Christmas’ is an essential collection of the best of that label’s yuletide outings and it is the only place you’ll find Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Want To Come For Christmas’ which was his ode to the US soldiers who pined for Christmas back home during the Vietnam war. You’ll feel your heartstrings being pulled like never before. To put the colour back in your cheeks you can always rely on Stevie Wonder to work his magic and a couple of his Christmas songs are among the best soul has given to the season. ‘Someday At Christmas’ and ‘Everyone's A Kid At Christmas Time’ crackle with the intensity of a log burning in the hearth.
Aside from the greats we all know there are plenty of soul Christmas gems that rarely get an outing come December. Luther Vandross’ 1976 ‘May Christmas Bring You Happiness’ is a case in point and this despite sporting a genuine uplifting demeanour and playing with an alluring lacquer. Isaac Hayes’ ‘Mistletoe and Me’ is also hardly ever given the attention it deserves, which is a shame given the slowly rendered personal account of what Christmas means to the soul singer. ‘This Christmas’ may have been recorded by artists as diverse as Diana Ross to Cee Lo Green but the original by Donny Hathaway in 1970 remains the best. Pity then that it is almost forgotten save for those who were there to witness its greatness first time around.
Finally if you are on the lookout for a soulful Christmas compilation there really is only one definitive statement which came out on Atco Records in 1968. ‘Soulful Christmas’ features many of soul’s greatest exponents and their most well-known contributions to the season. So settle back for a set of glorious festive rhythms from the likes of Booker T. and the MG's (‘Silver Bells’ and ‘Merry Christmas, Baby’) and Solomon Burke (‘Present For Christmas’) as well as many of the artists and songs mentioned above.
Further Reading: Soul Train’s Top 10 Classic Soul Christmas Songs.