It’s Christmas season again. What to play? You could opt for yet another go-round with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” Johnny Mathis’s “Sleigh Ride,” and the like, but how about—as Monty Python used to promise—something completely different?
I’ve long owned a CD called Ultimate Christmas that contains the aforementioned tracks, but its title is rendered completely obsolete by a gargantuan new nine-CD collection called Cool Blue Christmas that offers more than 10 hours’ worth of vintage and, for the most part, rarely heard holiday music. It might have been called Cool Black Christmas, because black artists dominate the track lists, which mostly feature R&B, soul, and jazz, but there’s also a disc of superb country recordings by acts like Bob Wills and Hank Snow. The sound quality is excellent, especially considering the age of some of these tracks. And the fun doesn’t end on December 25, as most of the discs in the set incorporate some songs about New Year’s.
It’s likely that never has so much great holiday music been gathered in one place.
On the 221-track menu:
- Two discs of blues and jazz recorded between 1924 and 1948. Featured acts include such giants as Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Leadbelly. But the program also makes room for some wonderful relative obscurities like Butterbeans & Susie, whose comic “Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus (Mama Ain’t No Christmas Tree)” sounds reminiscent of Fats Waller. Also here: “Christmas Night in Harlem,” a Dixieland-spiced number by Jack Teagarden and Johnny Mercer; and “Christmas in Jail” by 1920s blues singer Leroy Carr.
- Four discs of classic R&B and blues cuts dating from 1945 to 1961. These CDs include spectacular performances by B.B. King, Huey Smith & the Clowns, Jesse Belvin, the Moonglows, and many more. There are a few well-known tracks, such as Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” and Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters’ “White Christmas,” but chances are you’ve never heard most of these gems, such as the Ravens’ “White Christmas,” Harmon Ray’s “Xmas Blues,” and the Penguins’ doo-wop-flavored “A Christmas Prayer.”
- One disc of soul and R&B that originally appeared between 1961 and 1963. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles deliver an impassioned “Christmas Everyday,” Carla Thomas sings “Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas,” the Shirelles offer “Blue Holiday,” and Little Eva (of “Locomotion” fame) sings up a storm in duets with early rocker Big Dee Irwin on “The Christmas Song” and “I Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The disc also includes four tracks by Darlene Love, the Crystals, and the Ronettes, all from Phil Spector’s classic Christmas album. And then there’s Johnny Flamingo’s “Drive Slow,” an anti-drinking song that includes this memorable holiday verse: “You know I want you here to greet the new year in / We’ll laugh and dance with all our friends / So please don’t be in a hospital bed / With your head in pain or with a broken leg.”
- One disc of classic jazz from 1948 to 1963. This features such names as Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane, the latter with his spectacular interpretation of “Greensleeves.”
- One disc of classic country and western tracks from 1947 to 1963. This CD offers such treats as Bob Wills’s “Santa Is on His Way,” Bill Monroe’s “Christmas Time’s a-Coming,” George Jones’s “New Baby for Christmas,” Kitty Wells’s “Christmas Ain’t Like Christmas Anymore,” Ernest Tubb’s “I’ll Be Walking the Floor This Christmas,” and Hank Snow’s “Blue Christmas.”
My only complaint about this collection is that its compilers obviously didn’t spend as much time documenting its treasures as they did compiling them. An anthology this rich should have been accompanied by essays about the music, notes about the performers, and details about each track, including release years, songwriters, and chart positions. Instead, we’re given only lists of songs and artists (several of whose names are misspelled). Oh well. What matters most of course are the performances, and the ones here are so consistently good, they make me want to have a holiday party just so I can spice it up with this music.
Incidentally, those whose tastes aren’t as diverse as mine and those on a budget will be glad to hear that these albums—which include a two-disc set and seven single CDs—are available individually. Good luck choosing what not to buy, though. There’s not anything here I’d want to be without.
Samantha Fish, Belle of the West and Chills & Fever. Samantha Fish hails from Missouri but may be less known in the States than in Europe, where her five albums have been issued by Germany’s Ruf Records. That situation ought to change, because she is a first-rate blues guitarist and versatile vocalist who deserves wider recognition. The new Belle of the West is impressive, but I’d rather point you first to Chills & Fever, a collection of frequently exquisite 60s and 70s covers that came out last May. That album features a New Orleans horn section and such tracks as Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger,” the Ronettes’ “He Did It,” and a blistering rendition of the title number, which has previously been recorded by Tom Jones. Mining such classic soul, R&B, rock, and Motown with impassioned vocals, Fish sounds redolent of Amy Winehouse—and potentially just as talented.
The Searchers, Another Night: The Sire Recordings, 1979–1981. For years, one of my most reliable sources of musical pleasure has been the Searchers’ Greatest Hits, a CD that preserves all of their many British Invasion–era hits, including “Don’t Throw Our Love Away,” “Needles and Pins,” “When You Walk in the Room,” and “Love Potion No. 9.” But I’d forgotten about the group’s second coming, beginning at the end of the 70s, when they issued multiple editions of two albums, The Searchers and Love’s Melodies, with varying track lists. Now, all the songs from the assorted versions of both LPs have been collected on the two-CD Another Night, which consistently features the resonant guitar work and ear-candy harmonies that made the group’s early work so much fun. Another plus is the material, which taps a rather surprising list of songwriters, including John Fogerty, Big Star’s Alex Chilton, John Hiatt, Tom Petty, and even Bob Dylan (represented by “Coming from the Heart” an obscure Street-Legal outtake that he cowrote with the uncredited Helena Springs).