I want to feel good about America. And that can be difficult sometimes. Bombings, cultural hegemony, suffocating commercialism—they can make you lose faith, especially during the holidays. That's when I turn to the stuff we do best: soulful music. Whatever else you want to say about this country, we gave the world swing, blues, and soul, dammit. What better way to find solace than to dig out some of that music—Christmasy, wintery, and otherwise—and feel all the pleasure of that great gift.
A nice place to start is The Ultimate R&B Christmas, Vol. 1, which has some of the all-time best covers of traditional Christmas tunes, like Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song," plus some enduring standards, like Charles Brown's salacious "Merry Christmas, Baby." You've also got Otis belting out "White Christmas," Gladys doing the drummer boy, and Lou Rawls drawling a suitably smarmy "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." OK, so the mid-'80s release of the collection also means the inclusion of the less-than-immortal Freddy "You Are My Lady" Jackson, but that's made up for by the great Donny Hathaway classic "This Christmas" from 1970, with its Motown-at-its-most-extravagant arrangement (horns! strings! tympani!).
Perhaps you'd then like to turn to the sweet trough of childhood nostalgia, and what better place to go than A Charlie Brown Christmas, the endearing early '70s TV soundtrack by pianist Vince Guaraldi and his trio. Guaraldi gets about as much notice from jazz critics as Charlie Brown gets from the little red-haired girl, but we all know that this music is great—full of hope and melancholy and the feeling of winter. There's the classic "Linus and Lucy" theme, with its unique bossa-funk groove, its melody synonymous in your mind with those giant-headed, short-legged Peanuts characters and their Dolly Madison-fueled shuffle. There's also the lovely, tumbling little jazz waltz "Skating," plus some other Christmas songs, all done tenderly with a light sentimental touch.
Or how about getting devotional with the Reverend Al Green? He's got around a dozen gospel records out; one that I like is Glory to His Name, a tight but not overly slick session from the mid-'90s, with tunes such as "How Great Thou Art" and "Rock of Ages" complete with the essential choir backing. Aretha's masterful Amazing Grace disc from 1972, recorded in church with the Southern California Community Choir, makes an inspirational choice. Four minutes and twenty-two seconds of "How I Got Over" will help you rise above anything that's left you lost.
Then there's Ray Charles. His voice and spirit are a succor in themselves, pretty much no matter what he's singing. And his mid-'80s Christmas record, The Spirit of Christmas, while it's got its cheesy moments, has an earnest Americana feeling that'll warm you more than most by-the-numbers Xmas sessions. Dig into his gospel-with-slide-guitar version of "The Little Drummer Boy" or his borderline absurd but winning Memphis funk run on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." But what makes this record an imperative is the bonus track from an out-of-print 1961 duet recording with Betty Carter. "Baby It's Cold Outside" (an old Tin Pan Alley tune) is one of the swingingest, sexiest jazz vocal big band tracks of all time—so slow, so burning, it'll make you reach for the eggnog, and whoever's handing it to you, and say, "You know, the old U.S. of A. ain't so bad. And you're not looking too bad yourself...."
THE ULTIMATE R&B CHRISTMAS, VOL. I is available from Another Record Store (two locations: 9433A Rainier Ave. S., 725-4462 and 4801 Rainier Ave S., 725-7478).
A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS is available from Bud's Jazz Records (102 S. Jackson, 628-0445).
GLORY TO HIS NAME isn't usually in stock but can be ordered from local gospel specialists Joy Unlimited (23rd and Jackson, 860-9442) and Music World (4203B Rainier Ave. S., 725-9394).
AMAZING GRACE can be picked up at Another Record Store.
THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS is available at major record stores.