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of the many reasons I love rock 'n' roll Christmas music is
how unintentionally hilarious it can be. Now, I love James
Brown (read more), and I mean
no disrespect to the Godfather - for he was no less brilliant
during December than during the other eleven months of
the year. But, his Funky
Christmas (1995) is an occasional side-splitter. In the name
of peace, harmony, and relevance, Mr. Brown bends over
backwards musically and lyrically, twisting his songs
and logic till they resemble a funky pretzel. Pleading "Santa Claus,
don't make me suffer so," Brown
admonishes Kris Kringle to go "straight to the ghetto."
Then, he inserts "Hava Nagila" into the middle of
a frenzied funk jam. He calls for "Go Power At Christmas
Time." He tells the hippies ("white, black,
blue or green") to put away their peace signs and
"fight together." He pushes his latest movie.
He pushes his latest single. He shouts out to Hank Ballard.
True, these hard-working shennanigans
can be downright amusing, but they are also immensely touching - such is
the nature of
James Brown. For all his contortions, James Brown succeeded in making Christmas "mean
something this year," and that was an significant accomplishment during
the turbulent sixties. In one of Brown's best songs, "Let's Unite The Whole World
At Christmas" (1966), he makes such a passionate plea for such a hopeless case
that - if even for the duration of the brief song - the most hardened cynic
would be moved. Such is the power of soul.
course, being the hardest working man in show business, James Brown also jams
like a mutha. We came to expect that of him during his momentous decade of funk.
is a Funky
Christmas - the funkiest ever recorded - and James tackles the holiday season
with the same ferocity he brought to "Sex Machine" and "Please
Please Please." Songs like "Hey America" and "Tit For Tat" can
stand toe-to-toe with almost anything in the Famous Flames catalog.
And that's just the original material: James Brown rarely interpreted traditional
material without injecting his own unique, unconventional personality deep into
the song. On a pair of Charles Brown covers,
Mr. Dynamite shows respect for his former King records label-mate. But then,
he wails "The
Christmas Song," as if someone were roasting his chestnuts on an
All this funky festivity is culled from numerous Christmas platters that Brown
waxed for King over a relatively short period of time (1966-1970). These
include three LP's - James
Brown & His
Famous Flames Sing Christmas Songs (1966), Soulful
Christmas (1968), Hey
America It's Christmas (1970) - as well as
the 1969 single "It's Christmas Time." Sadly, none of the albums have
ever been reissued on CD verbatim - and they really should be. More on that later....
after we toss out a few extraneous tracks, Polygram's Funky
Christmas - similar to Rhino's Santa's
Got A Brand New Bag (1988, now deleted) - compiles roughly two-thirds of this
material onto one CD. Funky
Christmas provides a lingering glance at an often-overlooked facet of the national
treasure known as James Brown - and that makes it an essential part of any record
collection, Christmas or otherwise.
In an utterly predictable move, Polygram's parent company Universal deleted Funky
Christmas in 2003 in favor of the nearly identical Best
Of James Brown: The Christmas Collection - part of their seemingly endless "20th
Century Masters" series. A decade later they issued Icon: Christmas, part of another interminable series. Certainly, that's typical behavior for a corporate behemoth like Universal.
Inbetween, however, came The Complete James Brown Christmas (2010), compiled by Universal's generally laudable Hip-O division. The two-CD set culled every single holiday track the Godfather ever waxed for King Records - albums, singles, b-sides, whatever. It is, in a word, perfection. Though perhaps a bit too much for casual fans, The Complete James Brown Christmas is a prayer answered for James Brown or Christmas music fanatics. For fans of both, well, we might need a moment in private....
Long after his 60's heyday, James Brown released another holiday record, The
Merry Christmas Album (1999), on a small
regional label. In the intervening forty years, Brown had (to put it mildly)
revered as the father of funk and progenitor of rap, his record sales had fallen
a shadow of their former glory. More infamously, Brown struggled with sex, drugs,
violence, and lawlessness - the very things he had long preached against from
his funky pulpit.
he's a fighter so, not surprisingly, Merry
Christmas gets an "A" for effort. James cowrote all ten songs, and
he clearly put his full heart into his performance. But, the entire album - drums
included - sounds as if it was recorded on (cheap) synthesizers, and even Brown's
(noticeably older and weaker) voice is often buried in reverb and other effects.
The production resembles poorly-executed, out-of-date "new jack swing," and
the songs, though well-intentioned, can't hold a candle to the socially-concious
soul epics on Funky
These days, though, what does? And that's the saddest part - that this proud,
embattled man is clearly past his prime. Compared to, say, Fats Domino's Christmas
Gumbo, James Brown's Merry
Christmas Album is a near-masterpiece. On its own merits, however, it's merely
an ill-advised attempt to revisit a glorious Christmas past - a legacy that should
have remained unsullied by such mediocrity. (Merry
Christmas has been reissued several times, including editions titled Funked
Up Christmas, The Christmas Album, and It's A Funky Christmas.) [top of page]
Is Love (1970)
- Go Power At Christmas
Hey America (It's Christmas Time) (1970)
Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year (1966)
Let's Unite The Whole World At Christmas (1968)
Merry Christmas I Love You (1966)
Santa Claus Go Straight The Ghetto (1968)
Santa Claus Is Definitely Here To Stay (1970)
Santa Claus Santa Claus (1968)
Soulful Christmas (1968)
Tit For Tat (Ain't No Taking Back) (1968)
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