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Christmas Time Again (1982) is the neglected younger sister of the belle
of the ball - Atlantic's Soul Christmas (1968).
There's no arguing with the pure brilliance of the latter album, but Stax's
entry in the soul sweepstakes has much to offer rhythm & blues enthusiasts,
including grittier music and a more worldly view of the holiday season. Stax,
of course, was part of the Atlantic family during the fertile 60's, and some of their
artists (William Bell, Carla Thomas, Booker T. & The MG's) contributed
mightily to Soul Christmas. When the
labels parted acrimoniously in 1968, Atlantic kept Stax's valuable masters
thanks to ill-advised business deals signed by Stax president Jim Stewart. Stax picked
themselves up and continued as best they could, scoring numerous hits with
artists then coming into their own - Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, and the Emotions,
among others. Plus, several established stars remained from the label's heyday
- notably, Albert King and Rufus Thomas. These are the same artists who form
the core of It's
Christmas Time Again.
But despite their initial success, Stax Records eventually ran out of hits
and money and was shuttered in 1976. Their rich catalog (from '68 to '75, at
least) landed at Fantasy Records, with It's
Christmas Time Again emerging a few years later. This frequently brilliant
LP compiled nearly all of the Christmas songs released by the label during
their post-Atlantic phase, and Fantasy added two more tracks when they reissued
the record on CD in 1989.
Like most black pop of the period, the songs on It's
Christmas Time Again struggle with a marked duality. While some songs (Albert
King's "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'" and Rufus Thomas' "I'll
Be Your Santa Baby") set high water marks as horny
Christmas classics, others (the Staples' "Who Took The Merry Out Of
Christmas?" and the Emotions' "Black Christmas") address spiritual
and cultural problems. Isaac Hayes, meanwhile, is (as usual) absorbed with
his own bad self ("The Mistletoe And Me").
But, this era was also the dawn of the "slow jam," and if I have any
substantial criticism of It's
Christmas Time Again, it's that some tracks (mainly holiday standards reinterpreted
as soul ballads, such as the Rance Allen Group's "White Christmas") slow things down too much. Nevertheless, It's
Christmas Time Again is a topnotch album and an interesting postscript to
the fascinating Stax story.
In 2004, Fantasy merged with Concord Records (and later Telarc) to form the Concord Music Group. This led to a wholesale refurbishing of their catalog, producing such gems as Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2007. Later that year, the label issued a rejiggered version of It's
Christmas Time Again as Christmas In Soulsville (initially sold exclusively through Best Buy).
As mentioned above, the Stax masters distributed through Atlantic stayed with Atlantic when the two labels parted ways. However, Stax retained the rights to any unreleased masters, which made releases like Otis Redding's Remember Me (1992) possible, even though all his official records had been released through Atlantic subsidiary Atco. This also made it possible for Christmas In Soulsville to include alternate takes of Otis' "Merry Christmas Baby" and Booker T. & The MG's "Winter Wonderland" - both recorded (but not released) during Stax's Atlantic-distributed heyday.
Even better, the label tacks on Rufus & Carla Thomas' "That Makes Christmas Day," the long-lost, reverent b-side of Rufus' ribald "I'll Be Your Santa Baby." The whole package is crisply remastered and, all together, these upgrades make Christmas In Soulsville a necessary purchase for Stax acolytes - even for those who already own It's
Christmas Time Again.
A Couple Of Notes. Little Johnny Taylor contributes an unexceptional-but-serviceable
cover of Charles Brown's "Please Come Home For Christmas" to It's
Christmas Time Again. It was recorded for Galaxy Records in 1965, and it
appears to have been included simply because Fantasy also owned that catalog.
By the way, Little Johnny Taylor (best known for 1963's "Part Time Love")
is not the same person as Johnnie Taylor, who recorded for Stax for many years
("Who's Makin' Love," "Cheaper To Keep Her"). To my knowledge, Johnnie never recorded a single Christmas song during his long career.
For those keeping score, however, I know of at least one other (post-Atlantic)
Stax Christmas single, a funky ode called "Season's Greetings" recorded
by the long-forgotten Cix Bits in 1973. Sadly, this track is not included on either It's
Christmas Time Again or Christmas In Soulsville, and is only available on the massive boxed set, The
Complete Stax-Volt Singles Vol. 3 (1994). [top of page]
- Black Christmas (Emotions,
Christmas Comes But Once A Year (Albert King, 1974)
I'll Be Your Santa Baby (Rufus Thomas, 1973)
- Merry Christmas Baby (Otis Redding, 1967)
The Mistletoe And Me (Isaac Hayes, 1970)
Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin' (Albert King, 1974)
- That Makes Christmas Day (Rufus & Carla Thomas, 1973)
Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas? (Staple Singers, 1970)
What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas? (Emotions, 1973)
- Winter Wonderland (Booker T. & The MG's, 1966)
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