For me, the Christmas holiday season always brings up different rock ‘n’ roll sounds in my mind — from pop to country, heavy metal to jazz. It’s been this way since I was a kid. I remember when gems like John Lennon’s waltzy “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” José Feliciano’s melodic and strummy “Feliz Navidad,” and the King’s hubba-hubba “Blue Christmas” (complete with creepy background singers) were always on a radio or turntable nearby. Things haven’t changed much since then.
Oldies like Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” folk singer Burl Ives’ “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” and Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” remain well-established standards. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” — sung by the late, low-toned vocalist Thurl Ravenscroft (also known as the voice of Tony the Tiger) — from Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas is also a longtime favorite of mine. I never cringe hearing that elaborately orchestrated winner.
The piano-driven “Linus & Lucy” by the cool, jazzy Vince Guaraldi Trio practically defined the holiday vibe for me, too — not only as an aural reminder of the best Peanuts special, but as a funky groove in the back of my mind during various family gatherings and road trips.
While “Linus & Lucy” had a touch of soul and coolness, most Muzak-styled holiday music — from those old church choir-styled Ray Conniff records to the polished and polite hits by the likes of Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, and Julie Andrews — seemed devoid of any raw emotion at all.
This year, determined to step away from the familiar old standards and radio schlock, I sought a few deeper cuts and obscurities on the funkier side of the spectrum. I haven’t spun “Christmas with the Devil” by Spinal Tap yet this month. I’ve even avoided the usual hip holiday rockstuff of The Kinks, Billy Squire, David Bowie, George Thorogood, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Brian Setzer, Bruce Springsteen — and most recently, Sting, Neil Diamond, and Bob Dylan. Instead, I turned to the instrumental grooves of Booker T. and the MG’s. Organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson provided the grooves I was eager to embrace.
Most soul, rock, and R&B fans know Booker T. & the MG’s for their 1962 hit “Green Onions.” They were the house band at the Stax Records label in Memphis for years, providing backing tracks for the likes of Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, and Albert King. In 1966, the band recorded a souled-up collection of totally reworked holiday classics and released them under the title In the Christmas Spirit. The funky instrumentals included a crisp, lounge-groove styling of “Winter Wonderland,” which starts out slow and sassy (it take a few measures for the familiar melody to kick in) and gradually gathers steam through the chorus. Jackson whacks his toms and snare with precision throughout. Who needs lyrics and singing with fun soul music like this?
The music department’s entire Soul & Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas song list:
1. “Winter Wonderland” by Booker T. & The MG’s
2. “Merry Christmas Baby” by Otis Redding
3. “Christmas Everyday” by Smokey Robinson
4. “Here Comes Santa Claus” by the Ramsey Lewis Trio
5. “That Spirit Of Christmas” by Ray Charles
6. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” by Ella Fitzgerald
7. “Someday At Christmas” by Stevie Wonder
8. “The Christmas Song” by James Brown
9. “Run Rudolph Run” by Chuck Berry
10. “Give Love On Christmas Day” by The Jackson 5