Christmas Blues Notes Vol. 1 “Hurray for Christmas” exclaims Bessie Smith on her classic “At The Christmas Ball”, which lays claim to being the first recorded Christmas blues song cut way back in 1925. Little did Bessie know that a tradition was born and through the years there have been hundreds of blues Christmas songs recorded by both well-established artists and a host of up-and-coming hopefuls. Record companies were quick to see the possibilities, often advertising these boldly in the trade papers of the day. The familiar blues themes of loneliness and hard times are always more acute during the holidays. Christmas themes are usually split between the “I want my baby for Christmas” variety and the “Its Christmas and I don‟t have a lousy dime” lament. Surprisingly there‟s a relative scarcity of gospel Christmas songs although there were plenty of Christmas sermons in the early years when recorded sermons were in vogue. In addition there‟s a rich vein of New Year‟s songs usually revolving around the hope that upcoming year will be better than the last. In this collection we collect a wide range of Christmas blues and gospel numbers spanning from the 1920‟s through the 1950‟s, many of which have not been anthologized before. So sit back, poor yourself a stiff one and listen to these lonesome pleas. Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon was a flamboyant singer of risqué material, recording artist, comedian and a female impersonator to boot. An unlikely figure it would seem to cut such a joyous gospel number as “Christ Was Born On Christmas Morn.” Jaxon was a born showman and delivers a rousing performance, one of five numbers he cut with the exuberant Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers. Band members are unknown outside of cornetist Ernest (Punch) Miller who delivers a memorable solo. Jaxon certainly would have appreciated Titus Turner‟s “Christmas Morning”, cut nearly a quarter century down the line, with it‟s suitably soaring and over-the-top vocal performance. Turner would have to wait until 1959 for his first hit with "The Return of Stag-O-Lee" (an answer song to the Lloyd Price‟ "Stagger Lee") but is probably best known for composing classics like “Leave My Kitten Alone," "Sticks and Stones” and “All Around the World", the latter a major hit for Little Willie John and later covered by Little Milton as "Grits Ain't Groceries.” “Oh man don‟t you know what today is?/Today is the 40 th of November, Jack, the 40th” which I guess is close enough to Christmas for inclusion here. The Cats & The Fiddle were one of dozens of black groups who emerged in the wake of the Mills Brothers popularity in the 1930‟s. If anything The Cats were ahead of their time and would probably have fared better in the 50s, when popular demand for vocal group harmony broke through racial divides. In the 40‟s they had to deal with critics like this Billboard reviewer who described the Cats' latest effort as: “...noisy and meaningless vocal jam stuff that lacks imagination and everything else to make it appeal to anyone but those whose passion for swing is such that they feel as long as it's hot it's good.” It was obvious the squares just didn‟t get it. Why else would they be listed in distributors‟ catalogs of the era under the heading of “Hill-Billy Music”!? “Well you know Christmas is coming/I don‟t have a lousy dime” exhorts Ralph Willis on the opening line of “Christmas Blues” which wastes no time getting to the crux of the matter. This is a typically rhythmic piece for Willis with strong washboard playing from Pete Sanders. W illis originally hailed from Alabama before moving to North Carolina where he came under the sway of Blind Boy Fuller and his circle. He settled in New York in the late 30s and started recording in 1944. Willis would record steadily through 1953, producing sides for labels such as Regis, Savoy, Signature, 20th Century, Abbey, Jubilee, Prestige, Par and King. Willie Blackwell‟s “Junior's a Jap Girl's Christmas for His Santa Claus”, recorded by Alan Lomax in Arkansas in 1942, is certainly the oddest and most disturbing Christmas songs ever committed to record. A look at a few relevant verses makes the cryptic title chillingly clear: “Goodbye I got to leave you, I got to fight for America, you and my boy/Goodbye babe, I hate to leave you, I got to fight for you, America and my boy/Well well, you can look for a Jap girl's Christmas, oooh lord baby, for Junior's Santa Claus." With the last line: "Well, well, you can look for a Jap's skull Christmas, oooh Lord, baby, for Junior's Santa Claus." (The term "Santa Claus" is often used in blues and gospel to mean the Christmas gift, not Mr. Claus himself) It‟s unknown if Blackwell actually made good on sending his son a skull for Christmas and perhaps it‟s one of those things we don‟t want to know! Not much is known about Blackwell although a last sighting places in him in Memphis in the early 70‟s. Butterbeans & Susie (Joe and Susie Edwards) were considered too raunchy for white audiences but from the 1910‟s until Butter's death in 1967 they were one of the top comedic music acts on the black vaudeville circuit. They recorded extensively for Okeh between 1924-30. Susie played the dominating, no-nonsense wife and Butter was the prototypical "monkey man", who couldn't live up to Sue's expectations in love making or anything else for that matter. “Papa Ain't No Santa Claus (Mama Ain't No Christmas Tree)" ranks as one of their best, filled with sexually suggestive humor, impeccable timing, fine singing plus some strong piano support from Eddie Heywood. “I‟m gonna bring along my hatchet/My beautiful Christmas balls/I‟ll sprinkle my snow up on your tree and hang my mistletoe on your wall.” So sings the obscure Jimmy Butler on his throbbing 1954 R&B platter backed by a booting but unknown band. As if his intentions weren‟t clear enough he leaves no doubt with his final spoken comment: “Now come on girl I wanna trim your tree.” Ok Jimmy, I think we got it! "One night during a performance I was singing Stardust and while I was doing my song, a drunk woman staggered up to the stage and said "Ah, sing it you Gatemouth S.O.B. The drummer fell off his seat, the rest of the band quit playing and the theater went into an uproar. And there I stood in front of a frenzied audience a new personality named "Gatemouth Moore." So began a remarkable career as a blues singer, disc jockey and finally ordained Reverend and gospel singer. More a crooner than a shouter, Gate delivers his simple plea to Mr. Claus: “Don‟t bring me nothing for Christmas/But a brand new Cadillac and a good woman for me.” “I let you eat my turkey on Christmas morn/When I looked around you and my Cadillac was gone” is just one of the indignities suffered by poor Harry Crafton on the mellow ballad, “Bring That Cadillac Back.” Crafton‟s legacy rests on the handful of sessions he cut between 1949 and 1954. Crafton may be a forgotten man but this lovely number cut for Gotham deserves to be remembered. Bertha “Chippie” Hill was an expressive blues singer who cut a number of fine sides between 1925 and 1929. After working steadily in Chicago until 1930 she retired from music to raise her children. She made a successful comeback beginning in 1946 cutting sides for the Circle label and by 1947 was playing various jazz concerts and working the Manhattan nightclubs. “Christmas Man Blues” features some sensitive slide from Tampa Red as Chippie relates her mournful tale of having no one to “trim my Christmas tree.” More to the point: “Santa oh Santa bring me a full grown man/If you ain‟t got a good one do the best you can.” Pianist Cecil Gant jumped into the spotlight in 1944 when he showed up in military uniform at a Los Angeles war bonds rally and preceded to electrify the audience. He was quickly hustled into a makeshift recording studio and cut "I Wonder" b/w “Cecil's Boogie" for the tiny Gilt Edge label and billed as "The G.I. Sing-sation". Using hidden neighborhood pressing plants and black market supplies of shellac, the record eventually topped the R&B charts. “Hello Santa Claus" backed by "It's Christmas Time Again" was issued on Decca in 1951 at the twilight of his career. It‟s a fine world-weary Christmas ballad greatly enhanced by the superb fretwork of Mickey Baker. Gant died less than a year later at the age of 38. Bumble Bee Slim was one of the most popular and prolific artists of the 30‟s, racking up over 170 sides between 1931 and 1937. A solid singer and excellent songwriter, he owed a large part of his success in his ability to emulate the popular Leroy Carr. He was, alas, derivative and as Paul Oliver noted his music seemed merely an “echo” of Carr‟s “fatalism.” “Christmas And No Santa Claus” is one of two seasonal numbers cut at the same session, the other being the wishful “Santa Claus Bring Me A New Woman.” Like Chippie Hill and Bumble Slim before him, the obscure and silky smooth Felix Gross simply wants his baby‟s “Love For Christmas.” What does she get in return? “You can have your turkey and your dressing/Sweet cakes and apple pie/Blue Champagne and Rock & Rye/Everything that money can buy.” If that‟s not enough: “You can have your furs and your diamonds/Your silver and your gold/Great big candles for your tree and a fine boat to row.” Sounds like a pretty sweet deal! Lonnie Johnson summed up his music to Valerie Wilmer this way: “My blues is built on human beings on land, see how they live, see their heartaches and the shifts they go through with love affairs and things like that— that's what I write about and that's the way I make my living. ...My style ...comes from my soul within. The heart-aches and the things that have happened to me in my life—that's what makes a good blues singer.” To say nothing of his remarkable guitar style in who‟s single-string style lie the basic precedents of such jazz greats as Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, while being a prime influence on bluesman as diverse as Robert Johnson, Tampa Red and B.B. King. More than twenty years into his career Lonnie is in prime form on “Happy New Year, Darling”, a poetic wartime themed gem that contains all the ingredients that made Lonnie so popular and influential. Speaking of popular and influential, it‟s hard to beat Tampa Red who may well have been the most influential bottleneck guitarist of his era. He wasn‟t billed as the “Guitar Wizard” for nothing and his deft, ringing slide work exerted a huge influence on many post-World War II blues stars. As Big Bill Broonzy succinctly stated about Tampa‟s imitators: “Nobody in the world can do that because there is only one Tampa Red and when he‟s dead, that‟s all, brother.” “Christmas and New Year's Blues“ is a perfect example of Tampa‟s fluid bottleneck style and warm vocals. Pianist Amos Milburn was a prime link in the development of rock & roll and cut a swath of romping boogie numbers as well as smooth ballads through the mid-40‟s and 50‟s. 1949 was a big year for Amos who landed seven records on the charts including “Let's Make Christmas Merry, Baby” which slid in at number three in November. Amos croons in his best Charles Brown manner, tinkling the ivories seductively on this holiday classic. Kansas City singer/pianist Julia Lee scored a string of bawdy hits for Capitol in the 40‟s singing, as she once said, “songs my mother taught me not to sing." “Christmas Blues” finds the Kansas City crooner in a deep funk at the prospects of spending the holiday without her man and even resorts to flirting with ole‟ Santa himself. It‟s only fitting that that the greatest woman blues singer of them all would initiate the Christmas blues tradition with the good time blues of “At the Christmas Ball.” Bessie and the gang deliver a rare upbeat holiday number as they toast Christmas with plenty of glad tidings: “Christmas comes but once a year, and to me it brings good cheer/And to everyone who likes wine and beer/Happy New Year is after that, happy I'll be, that is a fact/That is why I like to hear /Folks that say that Christmas is here.” Rev. A.W. Nix was one of the great singing preachers whose fiery, earthshaking sermons are enough to send any sinner running for salvation. Nix made his mark with his first coupling, the incredibly intense "Black Diamond Express to Hell Pts. I & II” in 1927. He recorded prolifically for Vocalion through 1931, railing against sinners in dozens of sermons with a special affinity for the holidays as evidenced in recordings like “Death Might Be Your Christmas Gift”, “That Little Thing May Kill You Yet (Christmas Sermon)” and our selection, “How Will You Spend Christmas?” Recorded in the heart of the depression it‟s not surprising that Nix takes a rather materialistic view of Christmas with so many out of work and hungry. Whether intentional or not, Nix offers up some acute social commentary: “Times ain‟t these days what they used to be/There was a time when everybody had plenty work and some money/At Christmas time you could spend your Christmas just like it was nobody‟s business/You could pray and sing and get mighty happy/But how can a man pray and sing and get happy when he is broke and hungry?” “Hold it, hold it man/Don‟t play me no jingle bells the way I feel this Christmas/Only kind of bells I want to have anything to do with is some of them mission bells/Man, play me the blues long, loud and lowdown” announces Harman Ray. And you thought you had the holiday blues! Ray sounds uncannily like his idol, the popular Peetie Wheatstraw. He even recording as “Peetie Wheatstraw‟s Buddy” and Herman „Peetie Wheatstraw‟ Ray. The two often worked together around St. Louis and when Peetie first encountered him said, “Man, you sing just like me,” Ray replied, “Man, you sing just like me.” One of the great post-war singers, Jimmy Witherspoon was equally at home singing blues or jazz, comfortably working alongside Jay McShann, Ben Webster, Groove Holmes, T-Bone Walker and even Eric Burden. Draw the shades and pour yourself a drink as Jimmy delivers his downbeat “Christmas Blues.” Originally cut for Supreme in 1947 as “How I Hate to See Xmas Come Around” and issued in 1951 on Swingtime as the generic “Christmas Blues” in 1951. If you looked up “blues shouter” in the dictionary there you would find a picture of the smiling Big Joe Turner who sang the blues while tending bar (without a microphone) in Kansas City gin joints in the 30‟s before launching a recording career that effortlessly spanned boogie-woogie, jump blues and rock & roll. Before Elvis, before Bill Haley, Joe was singing rock & roll in everything but name: “I made all those things before Haley and the others, but suddenly all the cats started jumping up, and I guess I kinda got knocked down in the traffic." A prime example is “Christmas Date Boogie”, a joyous romp that finds Joe aided by a swinging band and the rollicking piano of long time partner Pete Johnson. Frankie “Sugar Chile” Robinson was piano pounding child prodigy who‟s career took off like a rocket when discovered at age five in 1945, but flamed out quickly before grinding to a halt in the early 50‟s. He played the Whitehouse for Harry Truman, guested with Lionel Hampton's Orchestra, appeared in film all before signing with Capitol in 1949 where he took his first two releases to the top of the Billboard R&B charts. “Christmas Boogie b/w Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” was his first European release and sold well enough to spark a European tour in 1951. The bouncy “Christmas Boogie” is an irresistible stomper filled with, what can only be described as, youthful enthusiasm. Leadbelly led a tough, violent life in his early years spending time on a chain gang and later serving a stint for assault to murder and murder. Not exactly a man you would expect to be singing children‟s songs yet he seemed to have a pied piper appeal among children. He recorded many children‟s songs such as “Skip to My Lou”, “Blue Tail Fly”, “Sally Walker” in addition to several Christmas songs. „The Christmas Song” was also recorded by Leadbelly as “Rooster Crows At Midnight (Christmas Day)” and “On a Christmas Day.” Leadbelly learned a great deal from Blind Lemon Jefferson as did Lightnin‟ Hopkins. Hopkins recalled: "When I was just a little boy I went to hanging around Buffalo, Texas. Blind Lemon he'd come and I'd just get alongside and start playing.” As Jefferson was a star on the pre-war Texas blues scene, Hopkins too was a genuine star of the post-war era who became one the most prolific recording artists of all time. Lightnin‟ could seemingly pluck songs out of the air, writing about every topic under the sun. He recorded several seasonal numbers including the bouncy “Happy New Year”, the flip of “Merry Christmas”, featuring one of his patented infectious boogies. Practically nothing is known about Rev. Edward Clayborn who was one of those scarily intense, guitar-wielding evangelists who sang on the street corners, undoubtedly scaring the hell out of unsuspecting pedestrians. If you were roaming the streets, watch out: “While the church is praying on Christmas Day other people are roaming the streets and drinking their soul away.” He cut over two dozen numbers for Vocalion between 1926 and 1929, scoring a major hit in 1926 with "Your Enemies Cannot Harm You (But Watch Your Close Friends)."
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