When it comes to Christmas tunes, I avoid the pop that gets overplayed on the radio each year and lean toward the classic jazz, R&B, and funk realms that have a little more heart, soul, and sincerity.
This time last year, I was on the way to a gig with my musical colleague Doug Walters (a City Paper contributor) listening to a collection of old James Brown's holiday recordings titled James Brown's Funky Christmas. I remember digging those odd tunes — especially the more dynamic and dramatic moments where Brown cuts loose.
It might be strange to pair Brown with Christmas, but the holiday is actually a related anniversary as well. After a bout with pneumonia, Brown's heart gave out on Christmas morning in 2006. He was 73.
Last week, I dug up James Brown's Funky Christmas and checked back with Doug about the collection. He also remembered it as a unique and moving holiday album. "The whole album is a stone cold trip with James funking down on Christmas," he told me. "Jive, greasy, loose, and raw. It sounds like he's making it up on the spot, throwing out random Christmas-isms, with many of them not making any sense at all."
With plenty of syrupy strings and brass matched against Brown's slightly restrained delivery, "The Christmas Song" leans into crooner territory. Things get funkier when Brown reminisces about groovy dance crazes on the elegantly swingin' "Go Power at Christmas Time."
On some of the slower, waltzy tunes, like the bell-riddled "Let's Unite the Whole World at Christmas" and the sleepy "Merry Christmas Baby," the complex arrangements never quite allow for any loose get-down moments. Brown's soulful singing on some of the songs with biblical themes — like the meandering "Sweet Little Baby Boy" and the gospel-esque "Christmas in Heaven" — seem a little forced and flat.
Some songs really jump. The crisp syncopation and jazzy horn work on "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" creates an effective groove over which JB can do his thing, and it's not just shoutin' and gruntin'. The tricky rhythms, trebly guitar chords, trumpet accents, and Brown's hollers and "Look'a here!" exclamations on "Soulful Christmas," "Christmas is Love," and "Tit for Tat (Ain't No Taking Back)" resemble his most fiery hits.
The big standout is "Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year," a slow-burning ballad powered by bold, Supremes-like backing vocals in each chorus. Most of it is driven by Brown's nostalgic storytelling.
One verse of spoken-word goes, "Christmas has got to be the kind of a Christmas that we remember a long time ago ... you'd wanna know what you're gonna have the next day. You couldn't wait until Christmas morning to jump up. But that's the morning you wouldn't go to your table ... you go straight to your little sack hanging on the mantle over the fireplace." Brown creates a serene, joy-filled scene that probably never happened in his own rough childhood. Brown grew up poor with a dysfunctional family situation that didn't offer much love or joy at Christmas or otherwise.
It's the track Doug likes the best, too. "You know his Christmases were absolutely brutal," he says. "To hear him sing and rap about fond memories of Christmas past with mom and dad is kind of gut-wrenching. Even though you're smiling, digging on all of his soulful yuletide get-down, if you stop and really think about it, almost makes you wanna cry."