Rock artists rarely record Christmas music anymore. But in the '50s and '60s, rock's secular and resolutely rhythmic styles were frequently applied to the more sacrosanct body of Christmas music. True, rock has rarely left a night silent, but in singing about it (even at the risk of fortuitous stylistic friction) rock musicians have for the most part tried to avoid sacrilege.
The interaction was good for both sides; the rock artist gained some of the biggest hits of Western civilization (and what melodies), and Christmas came down to earth and started shaking a little. Sure, some tinsel fell, a few bulbs cracked, and Santa's motives may have turned suspect. In truth, though, rock has brought Christmas not only some unique, even bizarre, moments, but also some sincere and beautiful ones.
Christmas came to rock in the same way that rock itself evolved - out of rhythm and blues. Last year's "Rhythm And Blues Christmas" (UA-LA654-R) is a wonderful collection of some of the greatest R&B Christmas hits. The classics here are Charles Brown's unforgettable blues, "Merry Christmas Baby," and the Drifters' inventive arrangement of "White Christmas." True, Amos Milburn's scotch-soaked "Let's Make Christmas Merry Baby" adds a lecherous note to Santa's gift-giving: "I'm going to slide down your chimney. Fill your stockings up." It's also true that the blues here are melancholy, warm and sentimental, erotic, playful and intense; but in the final effect, Christmas is not secularized so much as humanized.
The two biggest R&B music companies of the '60s, Atlantic and Motown, both produced Christmas collections featuring their top artists. The superior collection is "Soul Christmas" (Atco SD-32-289), featuring Otis Redding, Clarence Carter, King Curtis, Booker T. and the MG's and others. It's not that Atlantic's funkier, down-home style works better with Christmas than Motown's slick, uptown soul. It's just that the two songs each by Otis Redding (including "White Christmas") and King Curtis are unbeatable. "Christmas Gift Wrap" (Motown MS725) is elevated by the three Temptations' numbers. If rock has reduced a few Yuletide classics to parody, then the Temptations' "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" turns a novelty into a stunning, soulful lament.
Motown has produced more Christmas albums than any rock label, and the best of these is Smoky Robinson and the Miracles' "The Season For Miracles" (Tamla TS-307). Robinson's voice is like a piece of ribbon candy, his silky-smooth falsetto colorfully wrapped around the Miracles' beautiful choral singing. The musical arrangements are inventive, with a strong jazz and gospel feel. But Smoky's low-keyed, almost erotic singing is what creates the feelings of intimacy, of childlike wonder, that make this album a wonderful evocation of the Christmas spirit.
The best rock Christmas album is "Elvis' Christmas Album" (Camden CAL-2428). The King meets his material halfway - rendering songs like "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Oh Little Town of Bethelem" with respect and soleminity, while swaggering and bopping through others. In "Santa Claus Is Back in Town", Elvis shouts the difference between Ole Saint Nick and Santa as a hip hillbilly - "Got no sleigh or reindeer/No sack on my back/You're going to see me coming in a big black Cadillac." "Blue Christmas" is an inspired piece of vocal tastelessness, while "Here Comes Santa Claus" receives what was left of Elvis' rockabiliy timing. A later album, "Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas" (RCA ANLI-1936), presents more formal and melodramatic renditions of a set of Christmas classics. Only "Merry Christmas Baby" where Elvis tries with passion, to outstrip the melancholy of Charles Brown's original, transcends the operatic stigma of much of Elvis' '60s singing.
Only "Phil Spector's Christmas Album" (WB SP-9103). rereleased last year, gives the first Elvis album any competition. From Spector, Christmas songs received the same monumental production, the same transformation into lavish pop operas, as the material he got from the Brill Building writers. If Spector's "wall of sound" approach threatened the integrity of these Christmas songs, the threat was dissipated by some of the Ronnettes', Crystals, and Darlene Love's most passionate and sincere singing. Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and the Crystals' "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" are as fine as any of the hits from the Philles lable.