by Richard G. Carter
“I’ve searched and I’ve searched, but I couldn’t find, no way on earth to gain peace of mind…” The Orioles, “Crying in the Chapel” (Jubilee Records-1953)
This time of year, holiday-oriented original Black rhythm and blues from the golden era (1953-63) is well-represented. And since many vintage performers cut their musical teeth singing in church, some of the most memorable songs invoked a spiritual flavor.
The Black R&B vocal group best known for its holiday sound was the iconic Orioles, whose emotional “Crying in the Chapel” made them a household name. This trend-setting aggregation also worked high-harmony magic to perfection on standards such as “Oh, Holy Night,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s” and “In the Mission of St. Augustine.”
Led by the incomparable Sonny Til, the Orioles were among the first early R&B group to appear in major venues such as the New York Paramount Theater and on TV with stars like Perry Como and Nat King Cole. These gigs afforded them the opportunity to use a lighter touch as well as croon holiday-style tunes such as “Chapel in the Moonlight” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.”
But there’s little doubt that the greatest of all original Black R&B winter holiday songs is the original Drifters’ upbeat “White Christmas.” Featuring an unforgettable bass lead by Bill Pinkney, it’s one of many hits by the original Drifters led by the legendary Clyde McPhatter. This record — and that group — was one of a kind.
In December 1954 when the record was released, I can attest to the absolute sensation it created in Milwaukee’s Black community. In addition to Pinkney’s boom-boom bass and McPhatter’s soaring top tenor refrain, the tune concluded with an awesome display of tight harmony in a lyrical bridge to “Jingle Bells. To wit:
“May your days, may your days, may your days be merry and bri-i-i-ight, and may all your Christmases be whi-i-i-ite. Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…”
While some cynics said this “White Christmas” would cause its writer, Irving Berlin, to turn over in his grave, the Drifters’ doo-wop treatment of the all-time holiday anthem gets heavy play year-after-year. And it sounds as good as ever today.
Perhaps this is because the original Drifters — who gave us the likes of “Honey Love,” “What’cha Gonna Do,” “Money Honey,” “Adorable” and “Ruby Baby” — helped mold R&B into a viable, marketable commodity. Yet, despite many personnel changes over the years, with David Baughn, Johnny Moore, Rudy Lewis and Ben E. King taking turns singing lead, this sensational outfit kept making great records.
One more thing about the Drifters’ bouncy, foot-tapping “White Christmas.” Like the Spaniels’ upbeat 1958 version of “Stormy Weather,” the ‘50s Drifters demonstrated the versatility of golden era R&B performers who breathed new life into old standards.
Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels — of “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight” fame — also hit big with 1956’s spiritual-like “You Gave Me Peace of Mind.” After mounting a comeback, they made “Santa’s Lullaby” in 1968 — one of the finest of the holiday genre.
In the latter, Pookie’s smooth-as-silk lead and precise phrasing painted a perfect aura of Christmas Eve in yet another of the 200 songs he wrote. His inspiration was an asthmatic daughter who eagerly awaited the arrival of Santa Claus.
Billy Ward and the Dominoes — featuring McPhatter, Bill Brown and later Jackie Wilson — were best known for “Sixty-Minute Man,” “Deep Purple” and “Stardust.” In 1952, they had a holiday hit on “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.” Other Yuletide tunes include Jerry Butler (sans the Impressions) on “Little Red Shoes”; “Ronnie Spector (sans the Ronnettes) on “Creation of Love,” and “It’s the Time” by the Chi-Lites
The nonpareil Moonglows gave us a Christmasy recording of “Starlite” (1955), in a prime example of their fabulous “blow harmony.” Indeed, these vocalizers — Harvey Fuqua, Billy Johnson, Pete Graves and Prentiss Barnes, with the great Bobby Lester on lead — were phenomenal, their likes almost certainly never to be heard again.
Whether or not you believe in Santa Claus, it’s nice to know that the creativity of original Black R&B — the real thing — lent itself to something more meaningful than “Jingle Bell Rock” or Elvis Presley’s dreadful, off-key “Blue Christmas” in 1964. Ugh!
No recounting of holiday music by vintage Black artists would be complete without a bouquet to Cole’s version of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” in 1946, with the King Cole Trio. It became an instant classic with his solo 1960 rendition. To wit: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”
Although a far cry from R&B, this one is as good as it gets. Even better. My favorite by a white artist is Frank Sinatra’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — heard in the shattering firing squad scene in 1963’s “The Victors.” And, of course, there’s Bing Crosby’s smooth “White Christmas” (1942) — one of the top selling records of all-time.
Finally, Christmas carols and novelties. The latter include “I Saw Mommie Kissing Santa Claus,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Don’t Be Late” by Alvin and the Chipmunks.
But for vintage rhythm and blues purists like myself, there is nothing like original Black R&B at Christmas time — and all year long. Happy holidays, ya’ll.
Richard G. Carter is a freelance columnist
November 23, 2015 //
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