The temperature has plunged below 82. You’ve switched from cold brew to hot coffee and you’re thinking about putting on a sweater. Lights twinkle from the palm trees along the boulevards… the Kings are battling the Ducks out on the Staples Center ice… it’s holiday time once again in the Southland!
We’re all tired of hearing those same old holiday chestnuts. It’s time to get this Christmas dance party started. So head on over to the winter wonderland of Freegal, the library’s streaming music partner, and crank up our party playlist of super Xmas grooves. The power of Santa compels you!
We kick it off with 12-year-old Augie Rios, who shakes up the shindig on the 1958 Spanglish novelty “(Mamacita) Dónde Está Santa Claus?” In the world of kid holiday tunes, this one stomps “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” like a grape. A pre-PC relic perhaps, but a beloved favorite in Latino households popular enough to be covered by Charo, Los Lobos, El Vez, and the Kumbia Kingz, and even referenced by Cheech & Chong on “Santa Claus and His Old Lady”. Sing it Augie!
In 1992, TLC took the holiday standard “Sleigh Ride” all the way to New Jack City. In fact, they pretty much rewrote it into a whole new song, chanting their own hook over a chugging Organized Noize beat. It does with Leroy Anderson’s chirpy 1948 jingle what the MC5 does with an old Chuck Berry riff: supercharges into a monster dancefloor-filling funkathon. I’m a sucker for any song where you can hear the band horsing around in the studio, as they do here, cutting loose with all kinds of jokes, raps, and goofiness. And be sure to watch the video, wherein T-Boz, Lefteye, and Chilli rock around the Christmas tree in baggy overalls rebuffing scrubs, helping the needy, and getting the dance party started.
Underappreciated singer-songwriter Margo Guryan wrote the powerhouse melody “I Don’t Intend To Spend Christmas Without You” for Claudine Longet in 1967, flying high on a Brian Wilson kick. Freegal does not have Claudine’s version, but they do have a fine facsimile by Tomorrow’s World that successfully captures all that multi-tracked ‘60s awesomeness. This little-known 45 is a holiday party DJ’s ace in the hole, with its breathless vocals tripping like snowflakes over a sturdy frug, building to a truly angelic chorus.
The late great Sharon Jones goes for the gelt on her 2015 album with the Dap-Kings, It’s a Holiday Soul Party, and brings home the definitive Hanukkah funk jam. “8 Days of Hanukkah” is a reverent slice of Southern soul, with warmly nostalgic lyrics contributed by both Jewish and non-Jewish members of the Dap-Kings. “One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight,” she counts off, with a snappy drum hit for each, “days of Hanukkah, every one of them filled with love...” Sharon Jones was a singer who worked as a prison guard for many years, finally stepping into the spotlight for Daptone Records in her 40s where she ably upheld the dynamic tradition of James Brown and Tina Turner’s onstage frenzy and became a star in her own right. She left the world a better place in many ways, not least with a holiday soul album that’s destined to become a classic.
Puerto Rican singer and acoustic guitar wiz José Feliciano came up in the Greenwich Village folk scene and impressed everyone from Jimi Hendrix to the Doors’ Robbie Krieger with his fire on the strings. He unexpectedly found fame in 1970 with his original composition “Feliz Navidad”, which blends Latin and rock styles into an ebullient anthem. It’s rare that a holiday tune not from the golden age of Irving Berlin can be sung by just about everyone in the world, but this is that song. Hard not to love it!
Darlene Love was Phil Spector’s secret weapon, singing uncredited lead and backup on some of his biggest hits for other groups. One of her few songs from that time under her own name was “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, the barn-burning climax of the great A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. After taking a break to raise a family, she returned to singing and recording in recent decades. Here she unleashes her tremendous pipes on a cover of Billy Squier’s “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You”, which I would consider an unfairly maligned 80s Xmas gem in a class with Wham’s “Last Christmas” and Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” (change my mind). Squier was better known for sample-friendly hard rock crunch but channeled his inner Spector on this message of holiday goodwill, which Darlene vocally uplifts to the soul-rock pantheon.
In addition to Mae West’s boozy proto-rap “Put the Loot in the Boot Santa” from her unhinged 1966 album Wild Christmas, we have several deep cuts from Profile’s 1987 compilation of hard Christmas beats and rhymes, Christmas Rap. Amazing cover art too, with the Adidas on the front and a gift-wrapped rapper on the back. It’s best known for Run-DMC’s unstoppable “Christmas in Hollis”, but here we have the lesser-known but equally great “Chillin’ with Santa”, with British rapper Derek B spitting Christmas cheer over tough 808s, and the monumental “Let the Jingle Bells Rock” with female funkstress Sweet Tee schooling furiously over a thunderous scratch beat. What you didn’t know Christmas went hip-hop?
Bebop poet Babs Gonzales was born Lee Brown in 1919 but changed his name to confuse bigots. He had a truly amazing career and became a cult figure in the jazz world, recording with the likes of Sonny Rollins as Three Bips and a Bop, running a Harlem nightclub called Babs’ Insane Asylum (and unsuccessfully attempting to open a version of it in Paris called Le Maison du Idiots) and writing two memoirs, I Paid My Dues and Moving on Down de Line, recently excerpted in The Cool School: Writing from America’s Hip Underground. His 1955 “The Be-Bop Santa Claus” is a hilariously hip retelling of Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” over Teddy Brannon’s burbling Hammond organ. “I'm the Be-Bop Santa from the cool North Pole, and I've been down since the days of old… So cast thy peepers into my righteous bag and see, what insane object I shall lay on thee… Here's a record by Diz, cut when he was two, a real boss arrangement of 'Ool-Ya-Koo'... For Moms, a mink outfit; Chanel No.5. And for you, little kiddies, my new book on jive..."
And that’s just a few of the goodies in store. As Babs says—have a crazy cool Christmas, but don’t get knocked out!