As this holiday season arrived, I just couldn’t bring myself to listen to Christmas music. I used to collect it. I’ve heard so much of it. The most popular, most familiar, most mainstream Christmas songs … yeesh.
Then, after Thanksgiving, Sirius XM hijacked Soul Town and dropped Holiday Soul on Channel 49. For the first few days, nope, nope, nope, I’d flip one channel up to The Groove for the ’80s and ’90s R&B played there.
Eventually, though, I’d heard enough drum machines, took a deep breath and flipped it back to Holiday Soul. I stayed with it and found it to be a bit like being in the coolest, classiest Black nightclub, the kind that no longer exists.
Sirius XM describes the Holiday Soul channel this way:
“Classic soul and Motown holiday music from the ’60s and ’70s, along with R&B holiday music from the ’80s and early ’90s, including Aretha Franklin, Temptations, James Brown, Lou Rawls, Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, The Jackson 5, The Four Tops, The Supremes, John Legend, Boyz II Men & many more!”
That is true, but there’s more to it. Motown and Stax are the backbone, of course, but the vibe is jazz and gospel. Because the playlist consists of almost entirely Black artists — many of whom were and are steeped in the gospel tradition — the music seems richer than more mainstream Christmas music.
“This Christmas,” the Donny Hathaway single released in 1970, remains THE Black Christmas standard. As I write this a week out from Christmas Eve, covers of it by Gladys Knight and The Pips, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Stephanie Mills, The Whispers, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin and Johnny Mathis have been played 475 times in the past 30 days, along with Hathaway’s original 79 times.
Back at that nightclub, the one that oozes cool, there’s Nancy Wilson singing “That’s What I Want For Christmas.” There’s Lou Rawls singing “Merry Christmas, Baby” and “Winter Wonderland.” There are the Coles, Nat singing “The Christmas Song,” Natalie singing “My Grown-Up Christmas List.” All no longer with us, a time and a sense of elegance lost.
Pleasant surprises include some cuts from “My Gift To You,” the 1988 LP from R&B singer Alexander O’Neal that’s long been one of my favorites and one I’ve long thought to be underrated and/or underappreciated. Also some cuts from “Christmas is 4 Ever,” the 2006 LP from Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins, one as funky and quirky as you’d expect, and another of my favorites.
But if there’s one song that’s been a highlight, it’s this one:
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” Lou Rawls, from “Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho!,” 1967. Complete with swinging and impeccably classy production by David Axelrod.
Outta sight, indeed.