Real Gone Music is ensuring that it’s going to be a merry Christmas, indeed, with a number of holiday-themed releases that practically beg to be enjoyed alongside a glass of egg nog and a warm fireplace.
Bobby Darin’s The 25th Day of December, the late singer’s only holiday LP, arrived on the Atco label in 1960. However, the album wasn’t the work of Bobby Darin, the splish-splashin’ rock-and-roller, or Bobby Darin, the finger-snapping, tuxedoed crooner. It’s not even the work of Bob Darin, the folk troubadour. Instead, it displays another side of the versatile Darin: a reverent, spiritual artist determined to avoid the traditional trappings and Tin Pan Alley Christmas songs that would likely have dominated his contemporaries’ holiday records in 1960.
On Real Gone’s first-ever CD release of the original stereo album mix, The 25th Day of December still retains the power to surprise and enthrall. It came in a busy year for the singer in which every project seemed different than the one that preceded it – an original studio album, a live set at the Copa, a duet project with Johnny Mercer (the latter recorded in 1960 and released the following year). Darin turned to Bobby Scott, who had accompanied him in live performances and in the studio, to craft the album’s arrangements and lead the choir dubbed The Bobby Scott Chorale. Though the album emphasized the sacred over the secular – there’s no “Silver Bells” or “Sleigh Ride” here – Scott and Darin clearly desired to take listeners not just to a staid, solemn congregation, but to a foot-stompin’, soul-savin’ revival.
Darin seemingly reached to the depths of his soul for the up-tempo gospel of “Child of God,” “Baby Born Today” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” growling and wailing his call-and-response vocals with Scott’s choir. “Poor Little Jesus” is as deeply bluesy as “Jehovah Hallelujah” is utterly rousing. The straightforward hymn “Holy Holy Holy” shows off Scott’s choral arrangements for male and female voices, and “Ave Maria” (the Bach-Gounod setting, not the Schubert) features some of Darin’s most sensitive, impassioned and subtle singing. It’s a far cry from the brash upstart persona Darin cultivated with songs like “Mack the Knife.” So is the stately take on “Silent Night.” Darin even sang in Latin on the album’s de facto finale, “Dona Nobis Pacem.” (A brief a cappella “Amen” follows the track.)
After the jump: more on Bobby Darin, plus a look at Funky Christmas!
Real Gone’s reissue adds new liner notes from James Ritz. In addition, the label has expanded the original LP with one bonus track, the mono single of “Christmas Auld Lang Syne” with new lyrics by Frank Military and Manny Kurtz. When Darin starts to sing of mistletoe and tinsel glow, it’s both refreshing and disconcerting following the frequently-solemn album. The 25th Day of December remains a moving and singular creation by one of popular music’s most enduring vocalists, and one of the most unusual Christmas albums to be recorded by a mainstream superstar. As such, it’s worth a spin this Christmas season.
On the other end of the spectrum, Real Gone has brought the 1976 various-artists compilation Funky Christmas to CD for the first time. This 12-song collection was designed to showcase the new R&B roster of Atlantic Records’ Cotillion imprint in an exciting way, and all six artists featured (with two songs apiece) had issued their first albums for the label earlier in the year. Lou Donaldson and Willis Jackson delivered the instrumental goods, while Margie Joseph and John Edwards covered the solo vocal bases, and The Impressions and Luther represented Cotillion’s vocal groups.
Motown vet Paul Riser arranged the curtain-raiser on Funky Christmas, Luther’s “May Christmas Bring You Happiness,” a catchy, Philly-style R&B track sung with grace and passion by its composer, the group’s frontman and namesake Luther Vandross. To a bouncy, light-disco rhythm, Luther’s toast is a warm and welcome one. Luther’s second track on Funky Christmas, “At Christmas Time,” is a slow-burning, lush ballad with Vandross’ velvety pipes at their finest. As Luther’s recordings have long been kept under lock and key, the inclusion of these tracks here is a particularly welcome treat. The Impressions were starting anew at Atlantic, recovering from the losses over time of Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield and Leroy Hutson. On Funky Christmas, Sam Gooden and Fred Cash were joined by Ralph Johnson and Reggie Torian for a nicely-grooving take on “Silent Night” and a disco-fied “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”
John Edwards, just a year away from signing with The Spinners to replace Philippe Wynne, serves up southern soul dishes of perennials “The Christmas Song” and “White Christmas,” produced by David Porter of Sam and Dave. Edwards’ sensual vocals complement the smokin’ brass and churchy organ on the former, and the smooth soul man cuts even looser on the latter. Like John Edwards, Margie Joseph had Philly soul ties, just missing the R&B Top 10 with a duet version of “What’s Come Over Me” with that city’s lush vocal group Blue Magic (“Sideshow”). Joseph, recipient of a series of reissues from Real Gone predecessor Collectors’ Choice Music, appears on two tracks produced by another bona fide soul legend, none other than Lamont Dozier. The sweetly upbeat, simple “Christmas Gift” (“If you ever need a lift, think of my Christmas gift! If you feel like you’re falling from a cliff/Hold onto my Christmas gift!”) boasts Joseph’s buoyant vocals, and she’s soft and silky – but still sassy – on “Feeling Like Christmas.”
Four instrumental tracks rounded out the LP. Willis Jackson’s tenor saxophone slinks and slides through “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and a disco “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson doesn’t bring much funk to “Jingle Bells” but is more at home on the smoky Frank Loesser standard “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.” Gene Sculatti provides excellent new liner notes, and as with The 25th Day of December, sound quality shouldn’t disappoint despite the lack of a credited remastering engineer. Make no mistake, Funky Christmas is a grab-bag, but it’s a delectable one that might brighten up the rotation should you need to bring a little R&B to your next holiday party.
You can order The 25th Day of December and Funky Christmas by clicking on the album covers, above!
Coming (real) soon: reviews of Real Gone’s Christmas releases from Andy Williams, Patti Page, and The New Christy Minstrels!