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These days, rhythm & blues crooner Brook Benton (read more) is considered a virtual one-hit wonder - remembered only for his monumental 1971 hit, "Rainy Night In Georgia." In fact, Benton is one of the most prolific hitmakers in history. Brook's numerous pop and R&B hits for Mercury from 1958 to 1964 (including "It's Just A Matter Of Time" and "The Boll Weevil Song") showcased his deep, honeyed voice. But, the hits dwindled considerably thereafter, and "Rainy Night In Georgia" actually capped a sadly brief comeback on Cotillion Records.
Over the years, however, Benton waxed several excellent Christmas sides. The first one, a lovely ballad called "This Time Of Year," charted #66 Pop in 1959 (and then #12 R&B when reissued in 1960), and it found Benton sounding more than a little like Nat King Cole. His next single, "You're All I Want For Christmas" (1963), reached #3 on the Christmas charts by mining a completely different vein - the "Latin soul" rhythms of the Drifter's "Save The Last Dance For Me."
Though popular in their day, neither of these songs is widely known. But, they're easy to find on compact disc - particularly on chintzy, budget-oriented packages. To the contrary, I recommend Collectable Records' Ultimate Christmas Album series, Volume One ("This Time Of Year,") and Volume Four ("You're All I Want For Christmas") - poorly packaged, but generously programmed. Bear in mind, also, that Benton's "You're All I Want For Christmas" is not the same song recorded by Frankie Laine (#11, 1948) and many other singers.
On his third Christmas single, "Our First Christmas Together" (recorded in 1966 during his brief tenure at RCA), Brook Benton is in typically fine voice, but the song is mere grist for the show business mill - mawkishly sentimental, musically spineless. Not surprisingly, it sank without a trace, and today it is rarely collected on Christmas albums; look for it on Benton's The Essential Vik and RCA Victor Recordings or Time-Life's Rock 'N' Roll Era: Rockin' Holidays.
But then, in the wake of "Rainy Night In Georgia," Brook Benton recorded one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated rhythm & blues Christmas songs ever: "Soul Santa" (Cotillion, 1971). Written by Gerald Deas and Kenneth Graham, the song posits what the world might be like if Saint Nick were black. "Wouldn't it be so revealing," Benton purrs over a sinuous groove, "if Santa had kinky hair?" His cheeks wouldn't be rosy, Benton admits, but more than physical differences, "Soul Santa" argues that a black Kringle might be a better man. Trading on a heightened African-American sense of community, Brooks asserts that a 'soul Santa' would "do anything for you, or at least he'll do what he can." In the interest of racial harmony, the song ultimately concedes, "No matter what he looks like... Santa's got soul."
Despite it's quiet brilliance, "Soul Santa" failed to make much of a dent. The single didn't register on any Billboard chart, and the song languished in total obscurity for two decades until Atlantic picked it up for Soul Christmas (1991), an expanded version of Atco Records' classic 1968 LP (read more). To date, it has been compiled only once more - on Slow Jams Christmas, Vol. 2 (1997), part of a large Capitol/Right Stuff series compiling R&B ballads.
Like rocker Bobby Helms, Benton never recorded a proper Christmas album during his heyday - odd, given that doing so was de rigueur for entertainers back then. Again like Helms, when Benton finally got around to recording a full-length holiday record, it went largely unnoticed and was subsequently subjected to ignoble, ad nauseam reissue by bottom-feeding budget labels. But, that's where the comparison ends, because Helms recorded one of the single most popular Christmas songs in history, "Jingle Bell Rock" (1957), whereas Benton's early Christmas sides - excellent though they were - were modest hits at best.
The album in question - Benton's, that is - is Beautiful Memories of Christmas, recorded in 1983 for a small, North Carolina-based label called HMC, and probably the last album Brook recorded before his death in 1988. I'd give the album a C-minus (at best), as it mostly gurgles along in the "slow jam" mode that was standard issue for mature R&B singers during the 80's. Brook sounds great, though, and he gets extra credit for choosing entirely new or little known songs. Only two of them are remotely popular - "When A Child Is Born," which Johnny Mathis took it to #1 in England in 1976, and a new version of Benton's own "This Time Of Year." And, in the rare moments when Benton turns up the heat - such as the swinging "Merry Christmas All" - Beautiful Memories of Christmas really sparkles.
A couple of those "slow jams" warrant mention, as well. One of them, "Decorate The Night" sets a new standard for lubricious yuletide seduction, hauling out every Christmas cliché in the book in support of making sweet, sweet love. Even better is "Blue Decorations," its cheerful, almost perky rhythms belying it's doleful message. Like so many singers before him, Benton is all alone on Christmas, pining away for his lost love. Those decorations don't look blue, they feel blue. The portrait Brook paints is nearly pathetic: "I've hung you a stocking just in case you're free," he moans, then admits he's going home to "open my presents to me, from me."
As mentioned above, Beautiful Memories of Christmas has been reissued almost to death. I've counted at least a dozen editions, all on labels aimed squarely at the budget market - truck stops, convenience stores, Wal-Marts. I've seen these same 10 tracks released repeatedly as Decorate The Christmas Night, Christmas With Brook Benton, A Gentle Soul Christmas, and more, all with different cover art, most of it tastelessly generic. I own a copy released by Black Label Records in 1992 (pictured right), and it is (I believe) the first CD reissue of the original 1983 LP. While the label claims to have 'digitally mastered' the contents (duh!), the quieter portions are nearly overwhelmed by tape hiss. Even worse, the tracks are completely out-of-order, leaving the listener to guess which is really which. But, that's typical of the budget market.
All in all, Beautiful Memories of Christmas is a minor work by an artist long past his prime, important only to Brook Benton's fans or students of the genre (similar to, say, James Brown's Merry Christmas Album - though not that bad). Still, to treat the album so shabbily is to treat the man disrespectfully, and I find that offensive. On one of these budget-priced travesties, Benton's first name is misspelled 'Brooke' - on the front cover! Someone - maybe Universal Music, who owns Benton's Mercury sessions - should license all his Christmas music for a comprehensive, long-overdue package. Not likely, but as Benton once sang, "Little girls and little boys dream of worlds full of toys this time of year." [top of page]
- Blue Decorations (1983)
- Decorate The Night (1983)
- Merry Christmas All (1983)
- Our First Christmas Together (1966)
- Soul Santa (1971)
- This Time Of The Year (1959)
- You're All I Want For Christmas (1963)
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