Christmas music is a hallowed tradition, especially in a city built on music. And there are plenty of chart-topping yuletide tracks that have emerged from Memphis studios, like Elvis' "Blue Christmas", or the entire album by Booker T. & the MGs, In the Christmas Spirit. Such masterpieces get plenty of airplay, and, in the case of the MGs, tribute concerts recreating the entire album live (thanks to that masterful tribute band, the MDs).
But there are plenty of neglected gems, twinkling like ornaments at the back of the tree. Let's see what surprises we may find behind the tinsel...
And hey! Look who we found hanging out back there — Elvis! "Mother Nature wears a bridal gown," sings the King. Hmm...who's the lucky fella? Sounds like it might be Santa, for this is from Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas. Bassist Norbert Putnam writes evocatively about recording this album in his recent book, Music Lessons, Vol. 1. True, the Bluff City doesn't get snow very often, but a fella can dream, can't he?
And of course, we all know Carla Thomas' brilliant "Gee Whiz, It's Christmas," don't we? Most Memphibians do, and here are some paying tribute to the original in miniature. Yes, it's the Memphis Ukulele Band, bringing a wonderfully earnest version with a well-crafted arrangement. The key line, "Oh by the way, it's snowing," always gets me, as I imagine silent flurries sweeping past the Stax marquee.
Speaking of Stax, there were plenty of holiday tracks cut there. When the late bassist Duck Dunn toured the newly rebuilt Stax building one summer, he remarked how strange and welcome it was to finally have air conditioning in the museum. It's hard to imagine that, through all those years of hits, they were cutting tracks in the Memphis swelter without climate control. Pioneers! It gives one renewed admiration for the MGs. Just imagine them recording their holiday masterpiece there in the summer of 1966.
And while we're visiting Stax (which may have been the most Christmassy label in the city's history), let's tip our hat to this answer song, of sorts. Everyone's dreaming of a White Christmas, yada yada yada. Let's appreciate a Black Christmas too, while we're at it.
Yes, let a thousand alternative Christmasses proliferate! Moon Records was all about "alternative," back in the day. They were the other rockabilly label named after a celestial orb, and the label's queen and CEO was Cordell Jackson. Here's her shout-out to those who celebrate the season with bongos and jazz cigarettes. I'm still waiting for an actual be-bop interpretation of this song.
And, since we know how scary jazz can be for some folks, here's Cordell once again, bringing Christmas rock to the world:
Speaking of alternative, the decades following Moon Records' heyday have been more and more about the growth of once-underground cultures. The beatniks have taken over, and alt-rock is king. Nowadays, we have thousands of slightly tweaked visions of sugar plums. Heck, even I have dabbled in the genre, and both Reigning Sound and Big Ass Truck were early adopters of Christmas motifs. Here's a gem from BAT's own Robby Grant, whose band Vending Machine has a long track record of holiday cheer. On this latest addition to his ever-growing Christmas "album," he recruits several other Grants.
And they're not the only family band this season. Just get a load of this offering from the Burks family, who could go pro at any minute. Note to other Memphis parents: we need to step up our game!
This is just the tip of the Memphis alt-Christmas iceberg, of course. Some years ago, underground champions Makeshift Music released an entire album of holiday music from the city's back alleys and hidden corners. Here's one that conjures the disarming frankness and intimacy of the Magnetic Fields, but with a Bluff City angle. Yes, it's Tommy and Trace Bateman.
And here's another from this intriguing compilation. Time to rock the holidays with the True Sons of Thunder!
And another, because doesn't Christmas make you want to hear some Joy Division or Bauhaus?
It turns out there are plenty of noirish, sci-fi takes on the season, including Robert Traxler's mashup of samples and electronic noise from this year's Memphis Concrète holiday event at the Hi Tone. Keeping that icy holiday sheen going, we peruse Soundcloud, where New Memphis Colorways keeps things human in the face of all the tech that capitalism can muster:
This year, in honor of these yeoman musicians' indefatigable commitment to gigging, even on Christmas Day, here's the latest from the Sheiks' secret holiday studios. It brings to mind the goofy songs/skits the Beatles would visit upon their fans "at the end of every year."
And now I must go finish my holiday shopping: It's time to "wrap up" this blog. Yes, plenty of gems were left out, but I hope this has only marked the beginning of your Christmas journey. Check out the Easter Egg links in the text above for more, and if you really want to get raunchy (I don't, not at this hour), you can groove to Indo G's "Santa's Ho House" from 2002. (Pro tip: the album also features such hits as "Frosty the Blowman" and "All I Want for Christmas is my Charges Dropped"). But how can we quit before hearing one of the greatest, most hypnotic Christmas blues ever cut in the Bluff City? Here's Jessie Mae Hemphill bringing things back home, and back down to earth: