On Christmas Day, 2006–ten years ago this month–funk and R&B legend James Brown passed away at the age of 73. That’s one of the reasons why I always seem to associate the Godfather of Soul with the festive winter holiday, but it’s far from the only one. Even before his death, Brown was one of my main go-tos for nontraditional Christmas music: a genre that, as you’ve probably gathered, is a perennial guilty pleasure of mine.
Indeed, “nontraditional Christmas music” is a genre Brown played no small role in defining, in terms of both quantity and quality. There aren’t many artists–certainly no artists of Brown’s caliber–who have recorded as many albums of holiday music as he did; four in his lifetime, three of which came during the period that also represented his commercial and artistic peak. And those first three albums basically laid the blueprint for festive R&B music to this day: expanding the repertoire beyond the usual crop of traditional and Tin Pan Alley standards, and bringing a sense of social consciousness to a genre that tends to be dismissed as banal, disposable consumerism. Without James Brown, everything from Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” to Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis” would be a lot harder to imagine–and, while that may not be quite as important a contribution to popular music history as the entire genre of funk, their absence would still constitute a major loss.
So this holiday season, let’s celebrate the Hardest-Working Man in Christmas Music: an artist whose other accomplishments are so monumental that even his considerable additions to the Christmas canon tend to be overlooked. Not everything on the playlist below is amazing–the only area James Brown ever surpassed himself in innovation was in inconsistency–but all of it will at least put a smile on your face. And I think Brother James would agree, that’s what the holidays are all about.
Brown’s first holiday album was James Brown Sings Christmas Songs (a.k.a. James Brown and His Famous Flames Sing Christmas Songs), released in November of 1966: a transitional period, coming after his epoch-shifting 1965 singles “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good),” but before he ditched the Famous Flames and launched headlong into the nascent genre of funk. It should probably come as no surprise that Christmas Songs tends toward the more conservative side of that transition; it’s basically James Brown as crooner, complete with a heavy dose of syrupy strings on tracks like the sentimental opener, “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year.”
But even James Brown as crooner is a hell of a lot more soulful than Perry Como or Andy Williams, and he puts his powerhouse pipes to good use on the gorgeous Southern soul ballad “Sweet Little Baby Boy” (about the baby Jesus, naturally). Oddly enough, Christmas Songs includes not one, but two versions of the Bob Wells/Mel Tormé standard “The Christmas Song”: Brown sings “Version 1” straight and sweet, but turns “Version 2” into a gritty soul shouter (you can probably guess which of the two is my favorite). And if his cover of “Please Come Home for Christmas” by Charles Brown (no relation) isn’t the best version ever, it must at least be in the top five. There’s even a little proto-funk in the proverbial stocking, with “Signs of Christmas” shifting the beat to the one and giving the band a chance to shine.
By the release of his second holiday album, 1968’s A Soulful Christmas, Brown had fully embraced the funk: believe it or not, it was here that the mighty “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” made its debut on LP. Obviously, none of the actual Christmas songs on the album were as funky or as politically important as “Say It Loud”; but opening track “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” was of no small significance, ushering in a new subgenre of holiday music with a pronounced race and class consciousness, fully attuned to the contemporary Black Power movement. And Soulful Christmas’ title track is funky enough to give at least some of Brown’s non-festive music a run for its money, right down to the trademark screams and callouts to saxophonist Maceo Parker.
For fans of Brother James’ first yuletide offering, there’s also “Santa Claus, Santa Claus”: a string-laden blues that would have fit perfectly on Christmas Songs–though, with their pointed references to welfare, the lyrics share a sense of social responsibility with the aforementioned “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” Similarly, “Let’s Unite the Whole World at Christmas” echoes the previous album’s “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year” in both title and arrangement, but with an emphasis on communal peace and understanding rather than Brown’s personal success and happiness. Then there are the instrumentals: my favorite of which, “Believers Shall Enjoy (Non Believers Shall Suffer),” pairs its weirdly forbidding, fire-and-brimstone title with a cheery vibraphone solo that quotes liberally from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Hey America, Brown’s third Christmas album from 1970, is less gung-ho in its holiday spirit: while the sleeve for Soulful Christmas had dressed the singer as Soul Santa Number One, the only outward clues to this album’s seasonal contents are the word “CHRISTMAS” and a few ornaments randomly included in the vaguely psychedelic cover collage. But the eschewing of traditional Christmas pageantry feels appropriate to the album’s more militant vibe: on the title track, Brown is deliberately inclusive, proposing that we “start another year together” and even singing a scrap of “Hava Nagila” over the fadeout. Musically, it’s Brown’s funkiest festive album yet, with the bracing “Go Power at Christmas” and “Christmas is Love” serving as particular showcases for his legendary backing band the J.B.’s: Bobby Byrd, Bootsy and Catfish Collins, Clyde Stubblefield, John “Jabo” Starks, Clayton “Chicken” Gunnells, Darryl “Hasaan” Jamison, Robert McCollough, and Johnny Griggs.
This being a James Brown album, of course, there are also some genuinely bonkers moments to enjoy. “I’m Your Christmas Friend, Don’t Be Hungry” lives up to its goofy title with rambling verses that can’t seem to decide if they’re about dancing, the Nativity, or world hunger. In general, though, Hey America is an unconventional holiday record with its heart and soul in the right place. At times it’s even genuinely moving: especially “Santa Claus is Definitely Here to Stay,” with its soaring horn arrangement and glass-half-full instructions to “grab one hand on the wheel and the other around your kids / And go on and laugh yourself to death.” As we approach a Christmas in 2016 that’s at least as bleak as the one Brown was singing about in 1970, those sentiments feel more relevant now than ever.
The trio of Christmas albums James Brown released between 1966 and 1970 are essential for any fans of R&B and soul music who celebrate the holidays; but his belated follow-up, originally released in November 1999 under the title The Merry Christmas Album (and reissued numerous times with slight variations on the title and cover art) is decidedly not. The whole project smacks of a low-budget bargain-bin affair, from the crudely-Photoshopped cover art to the arrangements that seem to have been composed and performed entirely on co-producer Derrick Monk’s Casio. There’s certainly some camp value in hearing an aged, craggy-voiced Brown plead with his listeners not to forget their parents on the maudlin “Mom & Dad”; but is “camp value” really the way we want to remember one of the most significant figures in 20th century popular music?
Instead, let’s forget The Merry Christmas Album ever existed and wrap things up with another selection from Hey America: the warm, sentimental “Merry Christmas My Baby and a Very, Very Happy New Year.” It’s soulful, big-hearted, a little saucy, and bursting with holiday cheer; everything that was great about the 1970 album and its two older siblings. Again, it’s justifiable that Christmas music isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of James Brown. But when the songs are this good, I for one wouldn’t mind if it was.