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Lou RawlsIn terms of pure vocal talent, I've always found Lou Rawls to be the ultimate rhythm & blues singer. Certainly, he lacks the melismatic grace of his friend Sam Cooke, nor does he possess the raw power of Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett, or the stealthy sensuality of Al Green. But, boy, can he sing. With his deep voice, smooth as molasses on a summer day, Lou Rawls can tickle soulful tones out of the most pedestrian song. Given a good one - like "Tobacco Road" (1963), "Love Is A Hurtin' Thing" (1965), or "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" (1976) - Lou lifts his listeners straight to the moon. It comes as no surprise, then, that Rawls' two Christmas albums - Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho! (Capitol, 1967) and Christmas Is The Time (Manhattan, 1993) - are models of consumate craft and impeccable taste.

At the start of his career, Lou Rawls dabbled in blues and jazz - most notably on his collaboration with Les McCann, Stormy Monday (Blue Note, 1962). By 1967, though, Lou was easing his way into the pop mainstream. Thankfully, Rawls and producer David Axelrod chose the material on Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho! wisely, emphasizing modern, secular compositions (like Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby") rather than traditional or sacred warhorses. And, arranger H.B. Barnum kept Lou grounded in brassy rhythm & blues - closer to the Memphis soul of Bobby 'Blue' Bland than the Las Vegas swing of Frank Sinatra.

Lou RawlsWith Rawls' vocals striking just the right balance of swagger and sweetness, Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho! qualifies as a minor Christmas classic - a little too smooth in places, but a classic all the same. Most impressively, Ho! Ho! Ho! includes what I believe is the all-time definitive take on "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," a song first recorded by Judy Garland in 1944 and covered by thousands of singers since. But, Lou gives every track his best effort, so even the warhorses - like "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" - swing like crazy. Another track, "Little Drummer Boy" (a fairly new song at the time), hit #2 on Billboard's Christmas chart when released as a single.

It's worth noting that Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho! also includes several songs written specifically for the project by J.W. Alexander, a former member of the gospel group Pilgrim Travelers and the man who discovered Sam Cooke. In 1951, Rawls had replaced Cooke in another gospel group, the Highway Q.C.s, and Lou later sang with a latter-day version of the Pilgrim Travelers. At any rate, one of Alexander's songs, "Christmas Will Really Be Christmas," is a highlight of the record.

During the two decades following Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho!, Lou Rawls became a show business mainstay. In the 1970's he joined Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's now-legendary Philadelphia International label, selling more records than during any other period of his career. He became the voice of Budweiser beer (in their TV ads), the voice of Garfield the cat (in the cartoons), and the voice of the United Negro College Fund (in a long-running series of "Parade of Stars" telethons).


Lou RawlsSo, by the time Lou Rawls recorded Christmas Is The Time, he was both an elder statesman and a much older man - neither of whom had much to prove, or much reason to go out on a limb. Not surprisingly, then, Christmas Is The Time is a much more conservative effort stocked mainly with predictable holiday standards. Lou's voice is remarkably well-preserved, but too often the arrangements teeter on the precipice of easy listening or, even worse, smooth jazz. Consequently, Christmas Is The Time is a worthwhile purchase mainly for Rawls aficionados and Christmas geeks (c'est moi).

At its best, though, Christmas Is The Time affords Rawls another chance to do what he does best - to sing, swing, or both. Lou actually helped write the title track - the only original song on the album - and it's lovely statement of purpose, helped along by some tasty guitar. A few of the traditional numbers - such as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "The First Noel" - profit from hip arrangements, but even Lou Rawls can't wring soul out of songs like "We Wish You A Merry Christmas."

The modern pieces - like "I'll Be Home For Christmas" - generally fare better. But, Lou had already assayed two of them ("The Christmas Song" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas") on Ho! Ho! Ho! - so they don't count. Throughout the album, Christmas Is The Time is weighed down by synthesizers and some surprisingly anemic background singers, so it's almost a relief when Lou finally closes the album with "Auld Lang Syne" - singing a cappella.

More to my liking is "So They Say It's Christmas," a song written by Brian Setzer for Lou Rawls to sing in the 1996 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Jingle All The Way. The song tells a well-worn tale of seasonal loneliness, but with support from Setzer's big band, Lou puts the song on slow burn, paying tribute to the holiday that makes him miserable. Setzer included his own version on his 2002 album, Boogie Woogie Christmas, but Rawls' original vocal remains available only on the Jingle All The Way soundtrack.

Lou RawlsShortly before his death from cancer, Lou recorded one last holiday record, the jazzy Lou Rawls Christmas (Hylo, 2004), a low-budget affair sold exclusively at Barnes & Noble stores. In fact, the album is nearly superfluous, as all but four of the titles appear on Lou's previous holiday efforts. Moreover, his voice is ragged - though from age or disease, it's hard to say. Even when placed far forward in the mix, Lou struggles to compete with pianist Adam Watkins' stiff and cluttered arrangements. The best moments come when Watkins relaxes, reducing his band to little more than piano and rhythm section. Particularly on the sly and mischievious "Jingle Bells," this technique allows Lou's mellow, natural cool to shine through.

In many ways, Lou Rawls Christmas is superior to Christmas Is The Time, though it pales next to Ho! Ho! Ho! Certainly, it's more fun. After all, Lou Rawls was a man with just months left to live, and he chose to spend some of it recording a Christmas album - you gotta love that. (In 2006, Time-Life reissued Lou Rawls Christmas with a new cover and one bonus track.)

Rawls recorded for several labels during his 50-year career, but most of them - including Capitol and Manhattan - are now owned by the same company, EMI. That makes possible sterling compilations like Anthology (2000), and it also means that a number of packages have been released that cherry-pick from both Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho! and Christmas Is The Time. The first such album, Christmas Will Be Christmas (2001), is smartly chosen but brief - just 12 tracks. More recently, Merry Christmas Baby (2006) upped the ante to 20 tracks, including Ho! Ho! Ho! in its entirety, more than half of Christmas Is The Time, and even a couple from Lou Rawls Christmas. Altogether, Merry Christmas Baby is almost perfect - the obvious choice for all but the most devoted fans.

Consumer Notes. Numerous other Lou Rawls Christmas CD's have been released. Most recycle portions of Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho! - nothing wrong with that - but they are chintzy, budget-oriented rip-offs compared to Merry Christmas Baby. That CD may cost you a few more bucks, but it's a far better value. [top of page]

Albums Albums


  • Christmas Is (1967)
  • Christmas Is The Time (1993)
  • Christmas Will Really Be Christmas (1967)
  • The First Noel (1993)
  • God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (1993)
  • Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (1967)
  • I'll Be Home for Christmas (1993)
  • Jingle Bells (2004)
  • Little Drummer Boy (1967)
  • Merry Christmas Baby (1967)
  • So They Say It's Christmas (with Brian Setzer) (from Jingle All The Way, 1996)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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