In a Soulful Christmas Mood
The Christmas song has been given a bad press in recent years, no doubt partly influenced by Simon Cowell and his legacy of X-Factor one week wonders that hijacked the Christmas number one for over a decade. Add in to that the various novelty Christmas songs and generic pop songs that become Christmas number one and a festive playlist of decent quality can be hard to come by.
Soul is the one genre that can often tap in to and produce some wonderfully memorable Christmas songs. In a completely non-scientific poll here’s my run down of the best Soulful Christmas songs.
Stevie Wonder – What Christmas Means to Me
Released in 1967 this was one of the first singles to be credited to Stevie Wonder as the ‘little’ pre-fix had gone out of the window. No longer a boy but a young man the seventeen year old Stevie produced a Christmas single of undoubted joy and energy. Written by Anna Gordy Gaye older sister of Motown owner Berry Gordy and first wife of Marvin Gaye along with Gordy’s brother the song has been covered in various guises notably by Rashaan Patterson and Michael McDonald but it’s Stevie’s version with all the energy of those early years in Detroit that make this song so memorable.
Jackson 5 – Santa Claus is coming to town
Still the most famous rendition – certainly to these ears at least. Taken from the Jackson 5 Christmas album released in 1970 on Motown, this was the group’s fourth studio album. Michael was 12 years old at the time and his youthful exuberance which was such a big part of those early Jackson 5 releases is evident throughout this album. This was one of three singles released from the album along with Give Love on Christmas Day and Up on the House Top but interestingly the only single released in 1970. It was a period of sixteen years in 1986 until the second single was released.
Teddy Pendergrass – Christmas and You
One of the most distinctive voices of Philadelphia released this down tempo gem of a festive treat in 1998. The former lead singer of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes who was paralysed from the neck down after an accident in 1982 reached number 83 in the R&B albums chart with this release but it should be much higher for this track alone.
The Temptations – Silent Night
There can be no more recognisable Christmas song than the Joseph Mohr penned Silent Night, originally composed by Franz Xaver Gruber in a small Austrian village in 1818. The Temptations manage to give it the Motown treatment and make sure that this particular version of that famous old hymn is synonymous with Detroit. Taken from The Temptations first Christmas album ‘Christmas Card’ this period was one of the Temptations most successful coming a year after The Temptations had won their first grammy award for 1969’s Cloud Nine. Eddie Kendricks was still two years away from quitting the group and his distinctive falsetto that marked out The Temptations peak years of 63-69 leads this beautiful rendition.
Donny Hathaway – This Christmas
Covered by many never bettered. Chicago’s finest Donny Hathaway produced a bona fide Soulful treat with this one. Released on Atco Records a subsidiary of Atlantic in 1970 it amazingly failed to chart at the time of release. Following the untimely death of one of 70 soul’s finest acts in January 1979 This Christmas was given a second lease of life as part of the release of Atco Records ‘Soul Christmas’ in 1991. The song finally got the recognition it deserved as part of that re-release and Donny’s lyrics dedicated to spending time with his beloved have been covered many times over by other Soul acts and contemporary acts. Donny Hathaway packed a lot in to a relatively short career but This Christmas is certainly one of his finest moments.
The Ojays – The Christmas Song
Released as a bonus track on The Ojay’s 2004 album Imagination, The Christmas Song is a wonderfully nostalgic song that evokes memories of those sparkling white Christmases that seem to be commonplace for the upper middle class on the East Coast of America but bear no resemblance to the experience of Christmas that we have here. The album Imagination was a return to form for The Ojays and with the distinctive voice of Eddie Levert ringing out this particular version of The Christmas Song is one that should be on any Soulful Christmas playlist.
The Temptations – The Little Drummer Boy
Bing and Bowie it is not but what it is a wonderfully melodic 80’s soul track, our second Temptations selection comes from their second Christmas album. The Temptations Give Love at Christmas was released in 1980 following their return to Motown after a hugely frustrating three years at Atlantic records were the albums Hear to Tempt You and Bareback had flopped. Louis Price had left to be replaced by the returning Dennis Edwards, he joined a line-up including Glenn Leonard along with original members Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin and long-time baritone Richard Street. This song builds throughout with all five Temptations at some point taking lead. It marked a successful year and successful return to Motown following the Power album released earlier that year.
The Emotions – What do the Lonely do at Christmas
A song dripping in pure golden heartache, it wouldn’t be a Soul list if there wasn’t at least one release from Stax and it comes in the form of this beauty from The Emotions. The family group from Chicago produce a wonderfully understated Christmas gem. Floating tenors from all three of the Hutchinson sisters combine with a beautifully melancholy track to produce a heart breaking but mighty fine Christmas song. Written by Homer Banks and Carl Mitchell Hampton and originally released in 1973 and again 1978.
Luther Vandross – Have Yourself a Merry little Christmas
Taken from the ‘Home to Christmas’ album released on Epic records in 1995 this album and indeed this rendition of Merry little Christmas met with mixed reviews as I suppose is the case with a lot of Christmas albums. On this song though I struggle to understand how anybody would have a negative view of this effort. It is so unmistakably Luther and feels as though the perfect accompaniment to a glass of mulled wine, a roaring fire and some form of loved one by your side. Luther left us far too early in 2005. Just ten years after this album was released but the breadth of work he left keeps him right at the forefront of any soul fans mind. This is a worthy entry in to any Christmas song list.
Lonnie Hill – Cold, Cold Winter in the Ghetto
And herein our journey comes to an end, but what a song to end on Lonnie Hill isn’t the most recognisable name on this list and the song certainly does not scream ‘Christmas’ at you but ‘Cold winter in the ghetto’ is probably the most authentic song on this list. Lonnie Hill was a member of a gospel group called the Gospel Keynotes in his early years before branching out and recording ‘You got me running’ which would include the acclaimed ‘Galveston Bay’. In the late 80’s Lonnie spent time working at homeless shelters across his home state and recorded ‘Cold, cold winter in the ghetto’ to raise the plight of the poor and destitute. The song is compelling and heartbreaking in equal measure, a festive backing track – sleigh bells and all provides the perfect accompaniment to lyrics that tell of failure, pressure and isolation at Christmas time. The subject matter may be uncomfortable but this is an entry that needs to be on every Christmas playlist. It was later picked up by Expansion records in the UK and featured on the now out of print 2004 album Luxury Soul.