Album review

Saucy blues compilation an antidote to saccharine holiday music

 

‘Death Might Be Your Santa Claus.’ Sony Legacy. Various artists.

Ready for the rubber room after hearing Frosty the Snowman or Jingle Bell Rock for the millionth time since Halloween? Sony Legacy just may have the cure for what ails you: Death Might Be Your Santa Claus, a compilation of vintage Christmas blues tunes, spikes the eggnog with delightfully naughty numbers dating back to Prohibition.

Of course, the collection is also peppered with the cheery sentiments of the Rev. J.M. Gates, who remonstrates his Atlanta congregation, “Will the coffin be your Santa Claus?” in one of several fire-breathing sermons. In addition to Gates — fantastic but over-represented with five tracks — the only religious content comes from the Heavenly Gospel Singers’ 1941 proto doo-wop gem When Was Jesus Born?

With songs culled from the vaults of classic blues imprints Columbia, Okeh, Victor, Vocalion and Bluebird, Death Might Be Your Santa Claus was released to independent outlets as a Record Store Day Exclusive on Black Friday. The collection is available on CD and as a limited-edition vinyl LP.

While the LP lacks Ashley Kahn’s fine liner notes, romantics will opt for vinyl. Still, listening to the CD while stuck in holiday traffic elicits a wicked grin that will scare other drivers from your lane.

Tampa Red’s bee-sting slide guitar and nasal vocals will be immediately familiar to blues diehards as he digs in on the forlorn 1934 Christmas and New Year Blues. “Christmas Day is on me, New Year’s will follow soon,” he laments, accompanied solely by Henry “45” Scott on piano. “My Santa has quit me, that’s why you’ll hear me croon.”

Santa was no joke during these bleak times. The jolly old elf represented a glimmer of hope, and understandably, he’s appealed to often. “Santa Claus, Santa Claus, I’m as blue as I can be,” Ozie Ware moans on 1928’s Santa, Bring My Man Back. “Please, sir, find my man, and bring him on back home to me.” Supported by Duke Ellington, Barney Bigard and Sonny Greer, Ware’s wish might’ve found receptive ears in Harlem if not the North Pole. (Same goes for Bessie Smith’s 1925 At the Christmas Ball, with Fletcher Henderson and company’s joyfully boozy backing.)

On his 1938 Santa Claus, an outstanding Bo Carter, as was his wont, uses St. Nick as sexual metaphor: “Baby, please let your Santa Claus come down your chimney to me tonight/’Cause I believe what your Santa Claus brings me will just soothe my old appetite.”

Meanwhile, on the infectious Don’t Think I’m Santa Claus, Atlanta songster Lil McClintock warns his Linda, “’Cause I bring you presents every once in a while, don’t think I’m Santa Claus.” Similarly, comic duo Butterbeans and Susie engage in the eternal battle of the sexes on the racy Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus (Mama Ain’t No Christmas Tree).

Harmon Ray (aka Joe McCoy) aptly opens the collection with his Scrooge-y X-Mas Blues, cutting off Eddie Boyd’s piano mid-stride. “Hold it! Hold it, man. Don’t play me no Jingle Bells,” he says. “The way I feel this Christmas, the only bells I want to have anything to do with are some of them mission bells! Man, play me some blues, long, loud and low-down!”

You may not hear any of these tunes while holiday shopping, but they’re certainly tonic for saccharine Yuletide-music overload.

“Death Might Be Your Santa Claus” is difficult to find locally, but it can be ordered at Uncle Sam’s Music, 1141 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-532-0973. It is, of course, available online.

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