In addition to all the albums and CDs I dig out at Christmas time, I also dig out one cassette tape.
I can play it in only one place in the house — who has more than one tape deck, if any, anymore? — but I always play it.
I taped it off the radio one night in the late ’80s. It was from a show on a most remarkable radio station in Madison, Wisconsin.
WORT, 89.9 FM, was — and is — listener-sponsored, volunteer-run, free-form Back Porch Radio. They spin a staggeringly diverse mix of local bands, indie rock, R&B, soul, dance, jazz, punk, country and performance art. (You can stream it live if you live outside Madison.)
The DJ called himself Willie Wonder, and he played R&B, soul and jazz late at night one night a week. One December night, he was dropping Christmas tunes into the usual mix.
I probably was listening to the show as I drove home from the paper, started digging it, and popped in a tape when I got home. I say that because the tape picks up in mid-program and Willie Wonder signs off before the 90-minute tape ends.
In the 20 or so years since I taped it, I’ve been collecting the Christmas tracks from the tape. Here are three of them.
“This Christmas,” Donny Hathaway, 1970, from “Soul Christmas,” a 1991 compilation.
Widely covered, this is the smooth original, written by Hathaway and Nadine McKinner. It was recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York in November 1970 and released as Atco single 6799 on Nov. 30, 1970 — 37 years ago tomorrow.
“You’re All I Want for Christmas,” the Salsoul Orchestra, from “Christmas Jollies II,” 1981.
One of my guilty pleasures has long been the Salsoul Orchestra’s “Christmas Jollies” from 1976. I had it first on CD and recently found a vinyl copy. Call it dance, call it disco, it’s certainly of its time, a blend of Philly soul, funk and Latin sounds orchestrated by Vincent Montana Jr.
I’ve long been looking for “Jollies II” and recently tracked it down. It’s out of print and hard to find. But dig a little on the web and you might find it.
“Christmas Blues,” the Ramsey Lewis Trio, from “Sound of Christmas,” 1961.
This cool, laid-back bit of instrumental jazz — just Lewis on piano, Eldee Young on bass and Red Holt on drums — might have been the hardest to track down. I don’t think Willie Wonder name-checked it that night.
But it all fell into place when I came across this cut — still not knowing its name — on a budget Christmas CD found at Fleet Farm three or four years ago.
(Midwest folks will know how odd it is to find it there. Fleet Farm is a big discount farm and home supply place, with everything from guns to fishing tackle to jeans to tires to work boots to tools to light fixtures.)
Then “Sound of Christmas” was re-released on CD in 2004, and I snapped that up. The first side, the first five cuts, has the trio only. The second side, the next five cuts, has the trio backed by a string section for a lusher sound. I prefer Side 1, but you can’t go wrong with either side.
From the original liner notes by Nelson Noble of radio station WILD in Boston:
“While you’re listening to The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s Sounds of Christmas, please keep in mind that all of us wish all of you a very Merry, Swingin’ Christmas.”
I’ll second that. Enjoy. More to come.