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Merry Christmas Baby (Hollywood)The Christmas music legacy of Hollywood Records is both glorious and shameful, encompassing some of the greatest holiday rhythm & blues ever waxed and some of the shabbiest reissues in the history of record collecting. Their history is a twisted tale, too, but I'll try to keep it short and simple: the recordings of three West Coast rhythm & blues labels ended up under one roof when Swing Time Records bought the masters of Exclusive (1950) and Supreme (1951). Now, Christmas classics by Charles Brown, Lowell Fulson, and others were all owned by Swing Time. When Swing Time folded in late 1954, they sold their masters to Los Angeles imprint Hollywood Records, who subsequently issued Merry Christmas Baby (1956), compiled from their own catalog as well as the rich Swing Time vaults.

Subtitled Intimate Christmas Music For Young Lovers, original vinyl copies of Merry Christmas Baby now sell for hundreds of dollars. The cover art featured an attractive black woman seated at a bar, smoking. Interestingly, the label also issued a version with a painting of the bar - cigarettes intact, but no black woman! Presumably, this version was marketed to the white audience. Hollywood also issued a six-song EP excerpted from the same stellar material, using the generic cover art. Later, probably 1965, they issued yet another version of the LP with a different black woman - still smoking, but standing this time - and it's this version that has been issued on CD.

Hollywood Records, actually, had been purchased in 1953 by country-oriented Starday Records (Cowboy Copas, Red Sovine). Starday had been founded in Beaumont, Texas, and later consolidated with Hollywood in an L.A. office. In 1957, both labels moved to Tennessee, where Hollywood Records was shuttered in 1959. In 1968, Starday purchased Cincinatti-based King Records, adding the rich catalogs of the King, Federal, and DeLuxe labels to their already significant holdings. Beginning in 1971, Starday itself was sold several times, eventually landing in 1975 under the auspices of Nashville-based, budget-oriented Gusto Records. Quickly, Gusto began reissuing dozens of classic LP's using the variety of labels at their disposal - Hollywood, among them.

Merry Christmas Baby (Hollywood)When Merry Christmas Baby was reissued by Gusto in 1978, they stirred material from the King Records archives into Hollywood's already potent stew - most notably two sides from guitarist Freddy King. Simply called Merry Christmas Baby, the front cover of the new LP had evolved to reflect the times, switching from a light skinned, straight-haired Negro beauty of the 1965 edition (pictured right) to a darker, stronger, Afro-American vixen more typical of the disco age (see below). Appearances aside, the music was strictly vintage black pop, none of it dating later than 1961 - and nearly all of it flat-out, drop-dead awesome. Eventually, both versions of Merry Christmas Baby were issued on compact disc, and Gusto (under the Hollywood imprint) also used most (but not all) of the Merry Christmas Baby material to produce a 20-song CD entitled Rhythm And Blues Christmas (1988). The extra tracks included more superb King material (Hank Ballard, Amos Milburn) along with some inexcusable, inappropriate crap.

The good news? Collectively, the Christmas music of Swing Time, Hollywood, and King Records is magnificent - some of the best ever recorded. The bad news? These are some of the most horribly mastered and packaged Christmas CD's ever thrust on an undeserving public. Now, here's the rub. While the music therein is generally sublime, these (and subsequent) releases overlap tremendously. So, you'll have to buy at least two of these monumental travesties to collect all of this vital music - which you will if you're as nutty about this stuff as I am - which you are if you're still reading this far down the page! These are the situations, I suppose, for which the good Lord made the mix tape (or the CD burner, or the iPod, or whatever we invent in the future...).

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Merry Christmas Baby (Gusto)But really - these are shamefully botched compact discs, especially the two Merry Christmas Baby reissues. Most heinously, they are mastered from extremely scratchy LP copies - not from the master tapes that no doubt exist, at least for the mid-50's recordings and later. Adding insult to injury, the cover art is positively mangled, looking as though it were reproduced on a mimeograph machine in dire need of a cleaning. Of course, Gusto provides scant annotation, but what's worse, they stick a big, ugly barcode over what appears to be the original liner notes of both LP's - argh! Rhythm And Blues Christmas, while produced specifically for CD, is only marginally better. Consisting primarily of cuts from the King and Federal vaults (de-emphasizing the Swing Time family of labels), the mastering of Rhythm And Blues Christmas is lackluster, though noticeably improved. That's fine, but a few of these tracks have about as much in common with genuine rhythm & blues as my grandmother. I mean, who the hell are the King Karoleers? The Trailblazers? The Gallation Singers?

All kvetching aside, however, most of the the music featured on Merry Christmas Baby (and its bargain basement offspring) is spectacular. In an era when most Christmas music was family-oriented or religious in nature, Merry Christmas Baby presented a wholly nontraditional holiday, with scant mention of Rudolph, Frosty, Santa Claus, or Jesus Christ. Rather, Christmas was seen as a time for love and sex, loneliness and tears - and for throwing a helluva party. In the swankiest way yet heard, Merry Christmas Baby personalized the Christmas experience for the urban black community, sparking a tsunami of incredible Christmas records that wouldn't subside till the early 1970's.

Rhythm & Blues ChristmasSo let's talk about the music. First and foremost, we've got "Merry Christmas Baby" by Johnny Moore's Three Blazers (Exclusive, 1947) featuring a laconic Charles Brown very early in his career. Brown's 1956 Aladdin Records version of this classic (which he recorded numerous times) is definitive, but the Swing Time rendition is thoroughly charming and sexy - in a word, essential. On the uptempo tip, Mabel Scott's "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" (Exclusive, 1948) sets a milestone. Ms. Scott (briefly married to Brown) paints St. Nick in thoroughly adult terms, igniting a trend which completely redefined the Jolly Old Elf. On later records from the same peroid, Santa would be-bop, mambo, rock & roll, and do the twist. Other songs, like Lowell Fulson's "Lonesome Christmas" (Swing Time, 1951), Jimmy Witherspoon's "How I Hate To See Christmas Come Around" (Supreme, 1947), or Freddie King's "Christmas Tears" (Federal, 1961) were nothing less than consummate blues records - they just happened to be about the holiday season.

Many of the Hollywood masters, however, were happier, nominally conventional affairs. The Jackson Trio's "Love For Christmas" (Hollywood, 1955), Johnny Moore's "Christmas Dreams" (Hollywood, 1956), and Lloyd Glenn's "Sleigh Ride" (Swing Time, 1951 - not the famous Leroy Anderson composition, by the way) all couched Christmas in sweeter terms but were exceedingly soulful, nonetheless. One such song, "Christmas In Heaven" by Billy Ward & The Dominoes (King, 1953) features a novice Jackie Wilson on vocals and is prototypical of the sort of over-the-top melodrama Wilson would later hone to a sheen at Brunswick Records. Meanwhile, the later King-Federal cuts (such as those exclusive to Rhythm And Blues Christmas) introduce elements of rock 'n' roll to the proceedings. Hank Ballard & The Midnighters (most famous for their bawdy "Work With Me Annie") rock the house with "Santa Claus Is Coming" (King, 1963) where as Amos Milburn - sounding like a leaner Fats Domino - adopts a comfortable gallop on "Christmas (Comes But Once A Year)" (King, 1960).

Swing Time ChristmasAll of which argues that somebody - Rhino, Hip-O, Shout! Factory, Collector's Choice, whoever - should reissue this historic music with the love and respect it warrants. New York independent label Night Train took a step in the right direction with their Swing Time Christmas (1995), which captures a heapin' helpin' of Christmas tracks recorded for Swing Time and various affiliated labels. In addition to several mentioned above, Swing Time Christmas compiles exceedingly rare tracks from the likes of Big Joe Turner ("Christmas Date Blues," 1948), and Dexter Gordon ("Jingle Jangle," 1952), and Lowell Fulson ("Christmas Party Shuffle," 1952). Most delightfully, however, we are treated to Jesse Thomas' original version of "Christmas Celebration" (which B.B. King rode to great acclaim for Kent Records in 1962) and a bizarre track by Cecil Gant (who also recorded as Gunter Lee Carr). In "Hello Santa Claus," Gant makes explicit the divinity of Saint Nicholas, promising "God will bring Santa Claus to you." Wow!

On the downside, Swing Time Christmas largely cleans up the same crappy masters as used on Merry Christmas Baby, and it (logically) ignores the Hollywood and King-affiliated material recorded after Swing Time ceased to exist. And, Night Train is a very small, poorly-distributed label, so Swing Time Christmas may be tough to find. Keep looking, though - it's worth it!

24 Greatest R&B Christmas HitsIt's also worth mentioning that Capricorn Records, a label that rode the Southern rock train to glory in the early 1970's (most famously with the Allman Brothers), put out The Swing Time Records Story (a two-disc boxed set) in 1993. In the liner notes, the producers observe that "some of Swing Time's biggest hits were Christmas singles," and they promise a blues and R&B Christmas collection in the near future. Sadly, Capricorn's fortunes waned, and it never happened.

Postscript. Astute observers may note that funk potentate James Brown recorded for King Records for many years, and yet his copious Christmas music for the label is not included on any of the records discussed here. Apparently, Starday Records - who purchased King in the late 60's - sold Brown's King masters to Polygram in the early 70's before Starday itself was sold to Gusto a few years later. Thankfully, the Godfather's yule glory is preserved on albums like Polygram's Funky Christmas (1995).

Finally, in 2007 Gusto hauled out the old masters once again for 24 Greatest R&B Christmas Hits, issued first as compact disc and later as an MP3 download. Gusto had been fairly active leading up to that album, issuing quite a few download-only albums through online outlets. Some of them, like the Billy Ward reissues (see iTunes) , are quite good. Sadly, while it includes a few tracks heretofore unavailable on CD, 24 Greatest R&B Christmas Hits is mastered from the same old scratchy vinyl, this time with a layer of reverb slathered on top. Idiots! [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Boogie Woogie Santa Claus (Mabel Scott, 1948)
  • Christmas Blues (Gatemouth Moore, 1946)
  • Christmas Celebration (Jesse Thomas, 1951)
  • Christmas (Comes But Once A Year) (Amos Milburn, 1960)
  • Christmas Date Blues (Big Joe Turner, 1948)
  • Christmas Dreams (Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, 1956)
  • Christmas In Heaven (Billy Ward & The Dominoes featuring Jackie Wilson, 1953)
  • Christmas Letter (Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, 1956)
  • Christmas Tears (Freddy King, 1961)
  • Christmas Time For Everyone But Me (Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, 1963)
  • Christmas With No One To Love (Charles Brown, 1961)
  • Hello Santa Claus (Cecil Gant, 1950)
  • How I Hate To See Christmas Come Around (Jimmy Witherspoon, 1947)
  • I Hear Jingle Bells (Freddy King, 1961)
  • I'll Be Home For Christmas (Bull Moose Jackson, 1951)
  • It's Christmas Time Once Again (Cecil Gant, 1950)
  • Jingle Bell Hop (Jackson Trio, 1955)
  • Jingle Jangle Jump (Dexter Gordon, 1952)
  • Lonesome Christmas (Lowell Fulson, 1951)
  • Love For Christmas (Jackson Trio with the Ebonaires, 1955)
  • Merry Christmas Baby (Johnny Moore's Three Blazers featuring Charles Brown, 1947)
  • Santa Claus Is Coming (Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, 1963)
  • Sleigh Ride (Lloyd Glenn, 1951)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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