Photo by Paul Chelmis

Spirit of the Season

It’s not too often that artists follow up their hyped debut LP with a holiday album. But, Bill Wilson has never really been a regular artist. At the age when most musicians are winding their careers down with short tours or cover albums, Wilson, 76, put out his first project, Stand Up!. Two years later, he’s following it up with Soul of Christmas, to bring some joy to a holiday season that caps off a turbulent year.

“[People] need something to put in some good uplifting spirits,” Wilson said. “If you have nothing else to think about, think about just being able to celebrate, being able to just be here. We lost so many people this year and I’m sure they were probably thinking of Christmas, too, just like we are.”

It would be easy, amid a pandemic that openly discourages gathering with family and friends, to play up the cynicism of an arduous year. But, Wilson’s intent to create something cheerful and brimming with hope is clear throughout Soul of Christmas. This album is in love with happiness, revering the feelings of camaraderie in the holidays. 

After a welcoming speech from Wilson, the LP moves on to a jazzy rendition of a holiday classic “Jingle Bell Rock.” It should go without saying, but Wilson’s still got it. Despite the nimble musicianship competing on the track, his voice is never in danger of fading to the background.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has a new swing, as well. The track is still a slow and sweet number, similar to Frank Sinatra’s famous cover, but Wilson and the band garnish the song’s heights with fiery instrumentation. A saxophone solo in the middle section and Wilson’s vocal riffing are bright spots.

The band produces a honky-tonk and jazz influenced cover of “Winter Wonderland” later on the album. The song’s keyboard solo and vocal accompaniment nods to gospel music throughout the track.

 

“We went over a whole bunch of [songs],” Wilson said about the tracks he decided to cover. “The ones I did, to me, were uplifting, and they were the spiritual ones, but they all had that joy of Christmas. I think the ones we chose were pretty much the ones people most traditionally listen to.”

The band’s versatility is put on display on “Improvisation” and “On Christmas,” which are more like extended jams instead of traditional holiday hits. 

Soul of Christmas follows the loose, improvisational style of Stand Up! In fact, plenty of session musicians returned from the previous album to stack the backing band with some of Charleston’s finest performers. Jonathan Lovett, Jenny Lee Ford, Thomas Kenney, Aisha Kenyetta, Kanika Moore, JT Rollerson, Ross Bogan and others accompany Wilson on Soul of Christmas. Matt Zutell of Coast Records and Brian Compton also returned as producers.

“In their own right, they’re all stars to me,” Wilson said about the band. “It showed on the album — the best of each one of them were coming out. I really got to give them more than a pat on the back. I love them, man.”

But unlike his previous LP, Wilson’s not charting his legendary career in the Charleston music scene as the owner of the New Moulin Rouge club downtown or a member of the Tex Town Display. He’s just playing the music he loves and celebrating his favorite time of year.

Born on Christmas and raised on gospel, the singer has always had religion to guide him. Spirituality is something that he blends into his life, Wilson said. 

Illustrating this part of his life, he brings the album to a close with an airy and passionate cover of “O Holy Night.” The song’s dynamic structure features a quiet piano introduction leading to an explosive crest as Wilson sings about Christ’s birth. This final tune in some ways represents what Wilson hopes listeners take from Soul of Christmas

“I want them to realize that we’re still here, God is still with us and no matter what, there’s going to be a brighter day,” he said.