december 2012


Christmas In Deepest Blue Hues

By David McGee


Various Artists
Legacy Recordings

Various Artists
Document Records

Various Artists
Document Records

Hold it! Hold it, man! Don’t play me no ‘Jingle Bells’! The way I feel this Christmas, the only kind of bells I want to have anything to do with is some of them mission bells. Man, play me some blues!

This opening diatribe by Harmon Ray (aka Joe McCoy) precedes his low-down holiday blues, “X-mas Blues,” the forlorn vocal-and-piano lament of man spending Christmas without his woman. (The piano on this cut is credited to Eddie Boyd, but the consensus among blues scholars is that the deep blues keyboard work is that of Peetie Wheatstraw; in fact, “X-mas Blues” is included on a 24-track CD packaged with Paul Garon’s biography of Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-in-Law: The Story of Peetie Wheatstraw & His Songs (Charles H. Kerr Pub. Co., June 1, 2003)

Rev. J.M. Gates, ‘Death Might Be Your Santa Claus’

Thus is the tone set for Death Might Be Your Santa Claus, Legacy’s 18-track collection of Christmas tunes and Yuletide sermons that are about as far from being merry and bright as you could imagine. In these numbers, people don’t imbibe Christmas cheer, they drink either to forget or to simply get through the season in one piece (check out Bessie Smith’s lone Yuletide recording, “At the Christmas Ball,” with Fletcher Henderson on piano and Freddie Green delivering a terrific, moaning trumpet solo that mirrors Bessie’s tipsy mood); the great Rev. J.M, Gates rails against materialism and counsels getting right with God lest “The Coffin Be Your Santa Claus”; and for women alone, Christmas morning means getting a letter from a male paramour in stir and in so deep “even a white man can’t get him freed,” as Victoria Spivey wails in “Christmas Morning Blues,” accompanied by Porter Granger on piano and Lonnie Johnson on guitar; a bonus track of the same song features a less tortured reading by Kansas City Kitty but does offer the treat of Georgia Tom Dorsey’s rather hilarious piano support in which he seems to mock the singer’s feelings at times—this was before Tom had his eureka moment and became the father of modern gospel music, Thomas A. Dorsey).

Lil McLintock, ‘Don’t Think I’m Santa Claus’

It’s not only the very thought of Christmas that gets roughed up on these tracks (which are largely from the ‘20s and ‘30s); Santa Claus takes a beating, to the point where it starts to feel like piling on. Lil McClintock, accompanying his vocal on guitar, in an otherwise touching, and poetic, love song, advises his gal “Don’t Think I’m Santa Claus” (“you need not think I’m a human being/it’s nothing but a fraud/’cause I bring you presents once in a while/don’t think I’m Santa Claus…”); the Rev. J.M. Gates, who has already preached on the topic “Will the Coffin Be Your Santa Claus?”, returns with another sermonette, “Death Might Be Your Santa Claus” in which he warns his flock of the dangers posed by giving presents such as guns and playing cards, because, ultimately, “death going to bring you down, and death may be your Santa Claus.” He keeps the theme going in “Hell Will Be Your Santa Claus,” in which he advises adventurous souls to “check up on your soul” lest “hell be your Santa Claus.” (Gates, who dominates this disc with excerpts from of his four sermons, is a monumental figure whose influence extended beyond the pulpit to succeeding generations of blues and jazz musicians who picked up on his rhythms and phrasings and made music—powerful music in some cases—out of them; in contrast to Washington Phillips, a contemporary who also recorded many sermons and was given to vivid imagery and florid language, bordering on hallucinogenic at times, Gates is fierce, direct and guided by scripture as its own witness. It's not a precise analogy, but Phillips points to Sam Cooke and the changes he wrought in gospel music before moving to the pop world, whereas Gates’s muscular, heated rhetoric and throaty exhortations set the stage for similarly styled gospel singers such as Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales and the Rev. James Cleveland.) In “Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus,” the comedy duo of Butterbeans and Susie (Jodie Edwards and Susie Edwards) get into it over Susie’s acquisitive ways (“I do business strictly COD”), which happen to be bankrupting Butterbeans—“Papa ain’t no Santa Claus!” he croons at her, to which she replies with a tart, “And your mama sure ain’t no Christmas tree, no sir!” In what must be one of the earliest recorded double-entendre references to Santa Claus coming down the chimney, the Mississippi Shieks’ Armenter “Bo Carter” Chatmon practically begs for his woman to bestow a certain type of gift on his lustful self in a 1938 recording that had to have made an impact on Clarence Carter before he wrote and recorded his own risqué holiday classic, “Back Door Santa,” thirty years later, in 1968.

The Orioles, ‘O Holy Night’

In its relentless despair, Death Might Be Your Santa Claus is alone among its kind. However, Blues, Blues Christmas, a 2005 release from the invaluable Document Records label, features several of the songs included on this Legacy release but at 52 tracks it tempers its more cynical, suggestive and/or angry missives with traditional, sweeter-natured fare such female impersonator Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon’s “Christ Was Born on Christmas Day”; the jubilant “When Jesus Was Born” by the Selah Jubilee Singers moonlighting as the Sons of Heaven; a rollicking, swinging big band workout by Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson on “Christmas Date Boogie”; Lightnin’ Hopkins’ wonderful rockabilly-influenced “Happy New Year”; and Lonnie Johnson’s “Happy New Year Darling,” a soldier’s song of gratitude for his gal’s sustaining love while he was off serving the country. In addition to a couple of Rev. Gates’ sermons here, this set also includes instructive ones by Rev. A.W. Nix (“How Will You Spend Christmas”) and Rev. Edward Clayborn, who holds forth on the topic “The Wrong Way to Celebrate Christmas." Document also offers a second volume, Blues, Blues Christmas 1926-1958 (released in 2008) of comparatively lighter hearted Christmas fare, from a great lineup of artists--including Fats Waller (“Swingin’ Them Jingle Bells”), Lowell Fulsom (“Good Party Shuffle [Christmas Party Shuffle]”), the Orioles’ beautiful group harmony versions of “O Holy Night” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” ‘Chuck Berry’s classic “Run Rudolph Run,” Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers with the original version of “Merry Christmas Baby,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s rocking “When They Ring the Golden Bell,” Blind Lemon Jefferson’s wrenching “Christmas Eve Blues”—in a progra mixing a few rare items with otheres that have been heavily anthologized through the years.

Victoria Spivey, ‘Christmas Morning Blues,’ with Lonnie Johnson on guitar

If you just want to go in far enough to say you’ve been there, Death Might Be Your Santa Claus is the winning ticket; for a more thorough immersion in seasonal fare that covers the waterfront of holiday “issues,” shall we say, the two Blues, Blues Christmas volumes can’tbe beat. Note: Death Might Be Your Santa Claus, a special Legacy release in honor of Record Store Day, is available exclusively at independent record stores, in both CD and vinyl versions.


Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024