Blues: When Santa Claus wants some lovin'
Never mind mistletoe and wine. It's sex and sadness that made the blues singers' seasonal songs so potent
Friday 17 December 2010
Blues singers have been celebrating the festive season since the magisterial Bessie Smith revealed that "everyone must watch their step... everybody full of pep" in "At the Christmas Ball" in 1925.
But it took a performer christened William Bunch, who took the name Peetie Wheatstraw and called himself "The Devil's Son-in-Law" and "The High Sheriff from Hell", to hint that Santa may have ulterior motives.
A prolific recording star in the 1930s – he cut more than 160 songs – he went into the Decca studios in October 1935 and suggested in "Santa Claus Blues" that his woman "didn't hang my stocking on your Christmas tree", and adding with an innuendo laid as thick as Arctic ice that, "If I don't get a present this Christmas, babe, I don't see the reason why."
Three years later, Bo Carter, a guitarist with one of the greatest black string bands of the Thirties, the Mississippi Sheiks, cut "Santa Claus", a seasonal offering in a string of releases with titles such as "Banana in Your Fruit Basket", "Please Warm My Weiner" and "Your Biscuits Are Big Enough for Me" that had put the blue into blues.
"Now I'm gonna use your Santa Claus several different ways," sang Carter as if he was taking the words from an Ann Summers catalogue, "because I believe what Santa Claus gonna bring me will just suit my appetite."
But it was left to Jimmy Butler, an obscure postwar blues singer, to spell it out on his 1954 release "Trim Your Tree". Against a jaunty, sax-led, jump-blues backing, he tells his girl that, "I'll bring along my hatchet/ My beautiful Christmas balls/ I'll sprinkle my snow up on your tree/ And hang my mistletoe on your wall", making his intentions clear at the end of the song with the spoken comment, "Now come on, girl, I wanna trim your tree."
Mind you, it wasn't all Christmas balls and stuffing. Gospel music formed a large part of the African-American cultural scene with recorded sermons – where hellfire words, sometimes spoken, sometimes sung, are backed by a righteous and noisy congregation – selling in their thousands.
The Rev JM Gates, who recorded more than 200 sides between 1926 and 1941, answered the blues pianist Leroy Carr's "Christmas in Jail – Ain't That a Pain" with his own "Did You Spend Christmas Day In Jail?" in 1929. It proved so popular that he followed it a few years later with "Will You Have Your Christmas Dinner in Jail?"
But that was tame compared to how the preacher pitched his feelings at the start of his recording career. "Death Might Be Your Santa Claus", recorded in 1926, has the Reverend in full Elmer Gantry mode as he warns that, "All of you who are decorating your rooms and getting ready for an all-night dance, death may be your Santa Claus. Death is on your track and gonna overtake you after a while. Death may be your Santa Claus."
The blues singer Victoria Spivey (born 1906), who years later would befriend a young Bob Dylan, picked up on the theme in "Christmas Morning Blues", recorded in 1927, where she's backed by the magnificent guitar playing of another blues legend, Lonnie Johnson. "Woke up Christmas morning went out to get the morning mail/ A letter sent from Georgia, the postage mark Atlanta jail/ In a mean old jailhouse 'cause he broke them Georgy laws/ New Year's he won't be out because death will be his Santy Claus."
It's a relief to turn to more pleasant Christmas thoughts of artists such as the blues shouter J B Summers, whose message in "I Want a Present for Christmas", recorded in Philadelphia in 1949, is simple and direct. "Santa Claus, Santa Claus, hear my plea/ Open up your bag and give fine brown baby to me." There was a similar, if slightly more lonesome plea the same year from the pianist Little Willie Littlefield in "Merry Xmas": "I don't want a brand new car or a diamond ring/ All I want for Christmas is my baby back again."
But the poet laureate of sad Christmases was the blues crooner Charles Brown (born 1922), who, with a vocal range and style similar to that of Nat King Cole, flourished in the US blues charts in the Fifties. His moment of yuletide glory came in December 1961, when his mournful but compelling "Please Come Home for Christmas" established itself as a perennial Christmas favourite. "Bells will be ringing this sad sad New Years/ Oh what a Christmas to have the blues/ My baby's gone I have no friends/ To wish me greetings once again." Later versions by The Eagles (1978) and Bon Jovi (1992) both made the US Top 20.
But it was a soul singer from Montgomery, Alabama, who brought us full circle with a Christmas song harking back to the raunchy, prewar seasonal records. Clarence Carter, blind since birth, is best known in the UK for the slightly mawkish "Patches", which hit No 2 in 1970. He cut "Back Door Santa" in 1968 and Run DMC sampled it on "Christmas in Hollis" in 1987, the Black Crowes recorded it in for Christmas 2005.
Against a funky, Muscle Shoals backing rhythm, Clarence tells us: "They call me backdoor Santa/ I make my runs about the break of day/ I make all the little girls happy/ While the boys go out to play." There are also a few adroit "Ho, ho, hos" to remind us that come Christmas time, it's not necessarily the present that counts, but the way it's given.
Many of the records mentioned can be found on the two volumes of 'Blues, Blues Christmas', released by Document
Top 10: Best Christmas blues
John Lee Hooker, Blues for Christmas Find it on: Blue Yule (Rhino)
Lowell Fulson, Lonesome Christmas Find it on: Blues, Blues Christmas Vol 2 1926-1958 (Document)
Chuck Berry, Merry Christmas Baby Find it on: Chuck Berry on the Blues Side (Ace)
Elvis Presley, Merry Christmas Baby Find it on: Elvis Christmas (BMG)
Freddie King, I Hear Jingle Bells Find it on: Freddie King: Taking Care of Business: 1956-1973 (Bear Family)
Big Maybelle, White Christmas Find it on: Blues, Candy & Big Maybelle (Savoy Jazz)
Floyd Dixon, Empty Stocking Blues Find it on: Blues, Blues Christmas Vol 1 1925-1955 (Document)
Lightnin' Hopkins, Merry Christmas Find it on: Blues, Blues Christmas Vol 2 1926-1958 (Document)
BB King Christmas Celebration Find it on: Rhythm & Blues Christmas (Ace)
The Eagles, Please Come Home for Christmas Find it on: The Eagles: The Complete Greatest Hits (Warner)
Taken from 'Merry Christmas, Baby: Holiday Music from Bing to Sting' by Dave Marsh and Steve Propes (published by Little, Brown)
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