Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Merry Christmas, Baby" / Charles Brown & Bonnie Raitt

I'm all juiced for Christmas songs. I love it all, carols and schmaltzy Tin Pan Alley standards and endless rounds of The Nutcracker, the whole shebang. 'Tis the season to hear Elvis croon "Blue Christmas," Dion rock around the Christmas tree, and Nat King Cole yearn for chestnuts roasting on an open fire. It's worth wading through all the sticky-sweet "Silent Nights" and "White Christmases" to find gems like Johnny Mathis's "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and -- yes, I'll confess -- James Taylor's ultra-sappy "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." I even get a thrill from hearing Dean Martin slosh his merry way through "Baby It's Cold Outside," or -- a true test of the Christmas spirit -- the infamous duet of Bing Crosby and David Bowie on "The Little Drummer Boy." Bring it on.

Of course, a little rock 'n' roll sass can do wonders for even the silliest holiday standards. My three favorite Christmas albums of all time have to be the Phil Spector Christmas album (long live the Ronettes' "Frosty the Snowman" and Darlene Love's "Marshmallow World"!), a seriously rockin' compilation of vintage R&R called Hot Rod Holiday, and Christmas With the Beach Boys (dig that magic moment when "Little Saint Nick" almost morphs into "Run Run Rudolph"!). Granted, a lot of dreck has been served up over the years as well. Apparently you couldn't be signed to the Motown label without turning out at least one LP of holiday cheese, and over the years every Nashville star had to ladle out a serving of Christmas treacle at some point. Don't even mention that Bob Dylan Christmas album to me, either. But what really leaves me cold are those self-righteous Very Special Christmas all-star charity things. Do we really need to hear Madonna sing "Santa Baby" or Sting twiddle his lute on "I Saw Three Ships"? Okay, I take it back about Sting; that boy does English folk like nobody's business. But all those Bon Jovi and Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow over-achieving renditions of the same old carols and standards -- let's kick it up to eleven! -- are just too tedious.

Here's the exception, though. The old R&B standard "Merry Christmas, Baby" (not the same song as the Beach Boy's "Merry Christmas Baby") is performed on the second Very Special Christmas album by singer/pianist Charles Brown, the same guy who did the original back in 1947 with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers (Johnny Moore wrote the song with Lou Baxter). A top ten hit in 1947, this song has been covered by everybody from Chuck Berry and B. B. King to Hanson and Bruce Springsteen (also on one of these Very Special Christmas discs). But the song really belongs to Charles Brown, and it's a joy to hear him update his recording. He's paired up with Bonnie Raitt, who spearheaded a revival of his career in the late 1980s; they recorded this track in 1992, a few years before his death in 1999. I'm betting this wouldn't have qualified for this all-star project without Bonnie's presence, but she brings enough blues cred with her that nobody dared mess with the old-school groove of this track.

Like a lot of modern Christmas songs, this one hasn't got a thing to do with Jesus; even Santa only makes a brief off-screen appearance. Mostly it's a love song, a contented jazzy stroll by a man who wakes up Christmas morning happy with his baby. (Translation: He got some holiday nookie.) It's so laidback, I don't even feel my usual impatience with the long solos in the instrumental break -- it's Christmas morning, we've got the day off, who's rushing anywhere? Bonnie and Charles turn it into a duet, which works great -- I love the bit where he sings, "I would love to kiss you baby" and she replies, invitingly, "Well, I'm standing right here underneath the mistletoe."

Christmas trappings? Who needs 'em? All this couple has is "good music on my radio" and each other. Yeah, there are presents there, but they're almost irrelevant; they're simply proof of affection. It almost doesn't matter what's inside the tinsel and paper. There's no decorations, no big fancy dinner, no floods of friends and relatives to raise the stress levels. It's just the two of them, and it's bliss.

In the last verse, he lazily sings, "I haven’t had a drink this mornin’ baby / But I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree." I love that image. So here's my Christmas wish for all of you -- whatever it takes, may you be lit up like a Christmas tree on Friday. Joy to the world indeed.

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