Christmas Cornucopia – Third Day

Onward! Onward our Sleigh proceeds cutting its way through the Christmas snow. Travel with me back in time now to Radio Recorders studios in Hollywood on September 7 1957. A small group of men assemble to cut an album of Christmas songs. From Gadsden Tennessee the modestly brilliant guitarist Scotty Moore, from Memphis Tennessee the ever reliable bass player Bill Black and from Shreveport Louisiana the sprung-floor drummer D J Fontana. Huddled together Gordon Stoker, Neal Matthews, Hoyt Hawkins and Hugh Jarrett – collectively the Jordanaires, a gospel quartet filled with the spirit. Today on piano sits Dudley Brooks.

Tuning up and swapping musicians banter they all look in the direction of a quietly spoken, respectful, hooded eyed, devestatingly handsome 22 year old from Tupelo Mississippi who has in the last few years recorded a series of records that seem to have shifted the axis of the planet. In addition through his live shows and TV appearances he has set an entire generation ablaze to the marked discomfort of, ‘sensible’ folks who can’t bring themselves to approve of the shaky-legged, swivel-hipped singer who bears the ridiculous name of Elvis Aaron Presley.

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As usual the group will warm up by accompanying Elvis as he runs through some of the gospel songs that have surrounded him through his youth and adolescence. If there’s one thing Elvis believes in and knows through his own bodily experience it’s the power of music to raise, thrill and sustain the spirit.

Neither he nor anyone else could have guessed when he started out that he would possess an almost unique capacity to supercharge a song, to sing with such relaxed intensity and charisma that the listener felt lifted up and transported whether the song was secular or sacred. Given a half decent song Elvis always sang his heart out and on many occasions the results were and remain nothing short of miraculous.

Like the Beatles and Bob Dylan the best of Elvis’ records are if anything under rated for all the millions of copies they have sold. I really don’t have a fixed position on many of the great political and cultural issues of our times though I’m happy to debate with anyone. What I am certain of and will jump up on any table anywhere, anytime, to proclaim before any audience is that Elvis was, is, and will always remain the King!

Elvis’ Christmas album was a massive success and continues to sell today. The cut featured above, ‘Santa Claus Is Back In Town’ was written by the whip smart pairing of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who couldn’t have write a lifeless song if they had tried. Here they provide Elvis with an opportunity to demonstrate his charm, his rhythm and blues chops and the sheer swaggering physical presence his vocals could embody. I love the tip of the hat to Elvis’ love of the Cadillac and the erotic promise of the whole song incarnated in the line, ‘Hang up your pretty stockings, turn off the light …. ‘. Christmas brings many forms of celebration not least the chance for lovers to share some quality time together. And, I can think of no one better to serenade such times than Elvis.

We move now from a lover’s serenade to a mother’s lullaby. ‘A la Nanita Nana’ is a traditional song from Mexico sung here with characteristic tenderness and care by Tish Hinojosa. Tish (short for Leticia) grew up, the thirteenth child, in a crowded household in San Antonio, Texas. Through her brothers and sisters and the crowded radio waves she absorbed and was inspired by music from her native Mexican culture and the folk, country and rock ‘n’ roll traditions which suffice the very air of Texas. I recommend her CDs, ‘Culture Swing’ and, ‘Frontejas’ for those of you inclined to further listening.

The historical facts of Jesus’ birth remain shrouded in the mysteries of antiquity. However, I think we can be sure mothers nursing their new born child have always sung songs to soothe the babe just exposed to the blooming buzzing confusion of this world of ours. The first sound we hear as we grow in our mother’s womb is the beating of her heart and hers is the first face we come to recognise in those initial hours and days of life.

Similarly, our first sense of the musicality of language comes from the sound of our mother reassuring us that we are loved and all is well. If we are lucky we will carry this message with us throughout the whole of our lives. I have no doubt that Mary, though she had much to ponder in her heart, will have sung to her precious babe a song that could we but hear it would sound very like, ‘A la Nanita Nana’.

Today’s poem is, ‘Christmas’ by John Betjeman a poet who managed to combine popularity with real poetic achievement.

‘ And is it true? And is it true?
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass Window’s hue,
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a child on earth for me?

… No carolling in the frosty air,
Nor all the steeping-shaking bells
Can with this simple truth compare –
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.’

Christmas Cornucopia – Second Day

Our sleigh moves on from yesterday sliding us forward on our Christmas journey. Today we start with a song from an authentic show business legend – Miss Eartha Kitt and her classic, slinkily sensuous 1953 recording, ‘Santa Baby’.

Eartha performs the Springer brothers and Joan Javitt’s song in her trademark knowing style. As the song progresses Eartha makes a series of increasingly outrageous demands on Santa’s generosity. All she wants is a sable, a convertible (light blue), a yacht, the deed to a platinum mine (gold being so common), a duplex, Tiffany jewellery and a ring (64 carat for sure).

Eartha’s vocal here supported by Henri Rene and his orchestra is a study in practiced come hither allure. The cynical lyric is caressed as she reels in our attention. Seeing her perform the song live is to see a siren setting a song ablaze with the flames licking around the mesmerised audience.

Everything Eartha did carried a charge of the exotic – she looked, moved and spoke like no one else building on her black, Cherokee and White heritage and dance training to create a unique image that demanded the audience’s deference and worship.

Orson Welles famously called her the most exciting woman in the world and while others of her era like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor might have taken issue with that claim they too would surely have admired the sheer dramatic daring of Eartha’s regal performance of, ‘Santa Baby’. Come on Santa – hurry down the chimney and don’t forget the sable.

Fr Josef Mohr wrote a poem in 1816 he called, ‘Stille Nacht’. Two years later on Christmas Eve 1818 with a midnight mass in prospect he decided to visit his friend Franz Gruber a choirmaster and organist to see if there was any chance of turning, ‘Stille Nacht’ from a poem into a carol to perform that night. Mohr had to walk several kilometres to se his friend who set to work with such vigour and inspiration that an arrangement for guitar and voice of, ‘Stille Nacht’ was ready as the two set off to Fr Mohr’s church in Oberndorf.

So, in the cold of an Austrian night on Christmas Eve 1818 the carol, ‘Stille Nacht’ or, ‘Silent Night’ as it is known in the English speaking world was sung for the very first time. Neither of the writers or the congregation could possible have known that the heartfelt simplicity of, ‘Silent Night’ contained a spiritual power and attractiveness that would go on to make it perhaps the most loved of all church based Christmas songs. Congregations all over the world this Christmas Eve will echo the words and melody created nearly two hundred years ago and find that it’s magic never fades.

There is no counting the number of versions available of, ‘Silent Night’. The one I have chosen to showcase here is by a gorgeous Cajun version by accordionist Harry Fontenot. I love the rustic simplicity of this version – it seems to me the kind of sound that would not have sounded out of place in a stable with animals and shepherds gathered around to witness an event that was at once entirely commonplace – the birth of a child – and yet all present had the sense that this birth was something very special that would remake the world for all eternity.

‘Silent Night, Holy Night, All is calm, all is bright ……….

The poem providing our extract today is the short but immensely wise, ‘BC : AD’ by the much under rated U A Fanthorpe.

‘… And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect

Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.’

Christmas Song Cornucopia – First Day

Christmas comes but once a year. For some of us the very best of times – a reliable pleasure that grows more intense and treasured as the years go by. Sadly,for some others – the worst of times and an ordeal to be feared as it approaches and then endured until all the tinsel has been packed away for another year.

I am firmly in the Christmas is a glorious celebration camp. I love bright stars in dark December skies with flurries of snow dusting the earth beneath my feet. I love the gathering sense of anticipation as the season advances. I love seeing people smiling to themselves as they go about their routine business now charged with a ‘this is the last time I’ll do this before Christmas’ awareness. I love hunting out our well packed away- some would say well hidden – Christmas decorations and wondering if the expensive new lights from last year will work or should I have bought the sets I saw at such a discount only yesterday.

I love firmly deciding that of course only a real needle shedding tree will do with a wreath for the door and a crib for the hearth as well. I love the excitement of the children’s last week at school – what shall we buy for the teacher and this terms best friend? I love remembering Christmases past: the ones when I was a child oblivious to all the work involved in ensuring everyone and everything was thought about and properly looked after. The ones when I was a carefree and careless student carousing through every day and every night certain of my own immortality and soon to be recognised global significance.

The courting Christmases where love bloomed and plans were whispered for the Christmases we would make so magnificent in the years and decades ahead. The just married Christmases freighted with a ‘Are we really in charge now we and can do anything we want?’ thrill. The ‘Now there’s a baby in the house Christmas here really is Christmas’ Christmas and the ones after where we solemnly said, ‘Well, he will expect us to maintain all our family traditions again this year’.

I remember and cherish the Christmas where the star present only arrived late on Christmas Eve packed by demonic elves who ensured only a chainsaw could remove the vacuum packing. This was the star present that came with no assembly instructions apart from a minuscule diagram and a list of 56 parts to be tortured together before dawn broke and we all agreed that Santa Claus had got it exactly right this year too.

I remember the first Christmases after my father and my mother died when their absence was an ache that filled my stomach to bursting point and when I barely spoke their names for fear of breaking down. I remember the Christmas when suddenly I started saying, ‘Mum and Dad would really have loved this’ and realising that I would always share that Christmas and every Christmas with them – for where did I learn to love but from them?

I remember the sound of off key Carollers outside our door somehow making it all the way through, ‘Silent Night’ and the sound of our rehearsed to infinity local church choir hushing the packed congregation with their perfect rendition of the same work and thinking both versions were what we needed to hear at that precise moment. I remember lighting Christmas candles and knowing that my prayer would be answered even if I wouldn’t be able to recognise how or when.

I remember many, many Christmas songs from many different eras in many different styles (as you might expect if you are a regular Jukebox patron) that I resolve each year to start listening to earlier and earlier to get into the Christmas spirit. So, harvesting a selection of personal favourites I propose to share a score or so of these with you over the next fortnight until we all raise our Christmas glasses in celebration of a birth and a beginning that continues to offer a blessed eternal hope for all mankind.

Let’s set this sleigh on its way with a Christmas classic from 1957. Bobby Helms’, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ always raises good cheer every December (come to think of it the same can be said when we listen to it, as we do, in February, May and August). This song summons up the, ‘I like Ike’ Ozzie and Harriet days of the comfortable blue skies 1950s for me like no other Christmas song. I’m surprised Bob Dylan didn’t include it in his tender and wholly successful homage to the era, ‘Christmas In The Heart’.

1956/1957 was Bloomington born Bobby’s golden time. He had a great country and pop hit with, Fräulein’ followed up with another substantial success in, ‘My Special Angel’. But his pop immortality was sealed with the toe tapping, smile inducing, always coming up fresh and welcome 45 issued just days before Christmas in 1957, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’. Written by Joseph Carleton Beale and James Ross Boothe the song has become a much loved and much recorded staple of the Christmas season.

Under the,’A’s’ alone I see it has been covered by everyone from Chet Atkins to Arcade Fire to Alvin And The Chipmunks (which I think we can all agree is quite a stretch!). Yet, no one has come anywhere near matching the easy charm and relaxed swing of the original. I’m already looking forward to hearing it next year!

Next a very different tone from one of the premier singer – songwriters of the modern era, Mary Chapin Carpenter. ‘Come Darkness, Come Light’ is the Christmas meditation of a schooled professional with a sharp eye and a battered heart.

Mary recognises that the spiritual message of Christmas is that a gift has been granted not to the grand and the deserving alone but to the broken and the wounded,the fearful and the doubting (which is most of us) as well. It is those who know the fell dark who turn most gratefully to the light. So whether you come running or walking slow towards the light know that it was made to shine on you and that the darkness no matter how deep can never extinguish this light.

Mary has the confidence and steadiness of soul to let the song speak with minimal accompaniment. This is the title song of her 12 songs of Christmas CD which comes highly recommended along with her entire cannon.

Each post during this season will also include an extract from a favourite seasonal poem. Today it is, ‘December’ by John Clare a poet who was deeply atuned to the turning of the seasons and the rhythms of rural life.

‘… And some, to view the winter weathers,
Climb up the window-seat with glee,
Likening the snow to falling feathers,
In fancy’s infant ecstacy;
Laughing with superstitious love,
O’er visions wild that youth supplies’
Of people pulling geese above,
and keeping Christmas in the skies.’

Betty Wright, Jean Knight, Veda Brown : Sassy Soul Sisters!

Betty Wright ; Clean Up Woman

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Veda Brown : Short Stopping

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Jean Knight : Mr Big Stuff

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Four in the morning.

The last train is long gone and the night bus isn’t going your way.

The streets glisten with the remains of last nights rain and a sheen of the incoming dawn’s dew.

There’s a cold moon lighting up a cold clear sky. It’s going to be a long walk home.

But you don’t care!

However hard the pavement beneath your feet it might as well be a deep pile carpet. Because you have been dancing for hours and hours in the club to the sounds of Memphis, Detroit, Philadelphia and Miami.

You are floating, floating – almost flying home.

As you pace out the miles you relive the sounds of the records that held you enthralled; that lifted your heart and spirits so that a dark dank tubercular winter evening in England became a glimpse of Eden.

Listening, as loud as you dare, to those records later you can almost recapture that feeling.

But, for the full effect you need to dance and dance and dance until you are lost in the music, lost to yourself and lost to all the workaday world and it’s shabby cares.

Buried in your pocket there’s a girl’s name and number on a sodden scrap of paper with the ink fading to indecipherability.

But, you have always been good with names and numbers : when you want to remember, you remember.

The Marvellettes, ‘Beechwood 4-5789′, Toots And The Maytals, ’54-56 Was My Number’, The Wicked Mr Wilson Pickett, ’99 And A Half Won’t Do’.

Victoria, that’s it – 0198 978 9999 – you’ll call her tomorrow.

Mr Pickett was right.

A Ninety-Nine and a half life won’t do.

And, when you’re listening to and dancing to those great soul records which glow with passion your life dial hits the 100! So you keep returning to experience an intensity of feeling nothing else you have yet known can provide.

Somehow these songwriters, singers, musicians and arrangers have found a way to gloriously dramatise the dreams and stumbling realities of romantic lives in a way that’s completely convincing and captivating.

You will carry these songs of your youth in your heart through all the joys and sorrows of your adult life. Simply recalling them in your memory will warm the chilliest situation.

Three songs from those long ago nights sung by young women with thrilling verve, panache and a sassy,’Don’t mess with me Brother’ attitude never seem far from the forefront of your mind.

First up, from 1971, a million seller from a seventeen year old veteran of the music business, Betty Wright, laying down with a preachers passion some seriously good advice to her sisters on how to manage their love lives. Never make it easy for the, ‘Clean Up Woman’!

Betty had been singing on record since she was a toddler and clocking up countless performing hours with her family gospel group, ‘The Echoes of Joy’ in Miami.

So, when she came to Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke’s tasty song while still a teenager she was able to lean into the lyric and drive the song along with a knowing poise that seems astonishing in one so young.

The interlocking groove provided by the bubbling bass, the sometimes stabbing and sometimes liquid rippling guitar played by the brilliant Willie Hale (otherwise known as Little Beaver) and the humidifying horns creates an addictive soundscape that cries out for immediate repetition.

I love the way the sashaying tempo carries you along while Betty addresses her audience with relaxed rhythmic authority.

Don’t put your man on the shelf! Take care or that tough old Clean Up Woman really will clean up.

So, if you want to hold on to the love you’ve got take a tip girls (and boys!) you better get hip to the Clean Up Woman!

Some names just don’t cut it in the entertainment world – I think we can all agree that for a debonair movie icon the name Cary Grant was perfect for the hallowed above the title spot on the film posters. Archibald Leach, his original monicker, would never have suited his screen image.

Similarly, Mildred Pulliam doesn’t trip off the tongue promising excitement and allure.

So the next record on deck, ‘Short Stopping’ was issued in 1973, courtesy of a brainstorming session at Stax Records, by the artist who would forever after be known as Veda Brown.


Veda, originally from Missouri, grew up singing gospel at her father’s church.

Arriving at Stax she had made demos of two songs, (‘If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right’ and, I’ll Be Your Shelter (In Time Of Storm) that would go on to be huge successes for Luther Ingram before she hit paydirt with her third Stax single written by Bobby Manuel (who also engineered and played guitar) and Bettye Crutcher..

Short Stopping opens with a ‘listen to this’ right now blast from the horns before the rhythm section and the insistent guitar make sure we all get on our good foot for some serious dance floor action.

Veda tells her straying man straight from the shoulder that things can’t go on as they are.

She refuses to turn a demure blind eye to his failings – she won’t put up with his short stopping. She needs and demands to be his sole concern.

Veda’s vocal has a charm and gliding power worthy of the patented Stax steamy and driving musicianship that surrounds her.

Finally, an absolute belter from 1971 from Jean Knight the properly admonitiary, ‘Mr Big Stuff’. Though the record was issues on Stax and has become one of that label’s biggest ever sellers it was not recorded at Stax. Instead, it came to Stax via the Malaco studios in Jackson Mississippi.

It was actually recorded on the same day as another funky floor filler, ‘Groove Me’ by King Floyd. Jean and King Floyd had both travelled in a school bus from New Orleans in search of a hit.

Both records feature superlative arrangements by one of the unsung masters of Soul and Rhythm and Blues Music, Wardell Quezergue.

Wardell, an alumni of the great Dave Bartholomew band, as well as playing the supporting organ parts marshals Jerry Puckett (guitar), Vernie Robbins (Bass), James Stroud (Drums) and Brass Players Hugh Garraway and Perry Lomax to produce a swelling soul tsunami of a record.

Jean Knight imperiously, no doubt with a knowing wink to her girlfriends, puts the so-called Mr Big Stuff firmly in his place (the doghouse!).

Mr Big Stuff features a lovely two bar off beat bass line that grips you from the get go and propels you onwards throughout the song.

It’s easy to hear why this song became such a massive seller and why it is regularly used in adverts and movies. You feel Jean deserved a round of applause and righteous Amens from her colleagues in the studio when she completed her vocal.

Those Amens should be taken up again by us as conspiratorial listeners as she turns the tables on her errant lover.

Jean certainly showed on this record that she had the,’Right Stuff’ that marks out a true artist.

What all these records share is a relaxed drive and rhythmic impetus. The producers and arrangers have had the confidence to let the musicians and singers keep some power in reserve.

As a listener and a dancer you are energised by their tempos – you finish the song elated but not exhausted – ready to dance again.

Betty Wright, Veda Brown and Jean Knight speak out as confident, assertive young women demanding the right to be heard and heeded stating their case with ready wit.

Time to cue them up again!


Betty Wright – Her best single album is, ‘Danger High Voltage’ and there are several fine compilations available. Look out for fine tracks like, ‘Baby Sitter’, ‘Where Is The Love’, ‘Tonight Is The Night’ and especially the wonderful, ‘Shoorah! Shoorah!’ which will have you singing lustily along first time out and smiling crazily as you dance wherever you are. Betty is a show business trouper who has continued to record and perform up to the present day.

Veda Brown – Veda’s essential career highlights are nicely captured on, ‘The Stax Solo Recordings’ on the UK Kent label where she is twinned with the excellent Judy Clay. I would point you in the direction of the tracks, ‘True Love Don’t Grow On Trees’ and, ‘That’s The Way Love Is’.

Jean Knight – Mr Big Stuff was a once in a lifetime record selling over 3 million copies to date and winning Jean a Grammy nomination. Further notable tracks at Stax to look out for are, Carry On’ and, ‘Do Me’. Post Stax highlights include, ‘You Got The Papers (But I Got The Man) and a fine version of, ‘Toot Toot’. Jean is a fine performer who has often triumphed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Little Beaver – A magnificent guitarist with his own subtle style. Everyone should own his signature track, ‘Party Down’ and his series of 70s albums are a compendium of top class musicianly grooves illuminating the blues, soul and funk traditions. They have accompanied me on many long late night drives and made the miles pass easily.

Wardell Quezergue – Was a renaissance man of the recording industry with real talent as a songwriter, musician, band leader, producer and arranger. He worked with virtually all of the major figures in the New Orleans Soul and Rhythm and Blues world. He is associated with stellar hit records such as Robert Parker’s, ‘Barefootin’ and Dorothy Moore’s, ‘Misty Blue’.

As sharp a judge as Motown supremo Berry Gordy recognised his facility and recruited him to work up stage arrangements for Stevie Wonder and other Hitsville stars.

His collaboration with Dr John produces the lovely Grammy winning album, ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’ and he showed his mentoring abilities when promoting the career of Will Porter. Great name, great musician.