Music was always prevalent in my home. My mother sang all the time — sometimes singing songs from her Top Ten list — a hodgepodge of gospel, R&B, Motown and tunes from the ’40s and ’50s that I never really liked.
And yes, she could sing, serving as a soloist in one of the choirs at our family’s place of worship, St. Andrews AME in Detroit. But the music which seemed to energize her, and by extension me, my sister and my dad, was Christmas carols.
Back in the day, long before there were things like early holiday shopping deals, Black Friday or Christmas advertisements which bombarded the public as early as late October and Halloween, my mom would begin to dust off the covers of her favorite Christmas albums and begin playing them during the week of Thanksgiving on our trusty record playing situated in the family dining room.
I can still hear the sounds of the scratch and hiss that the needle made as the album rotated on the turntable. In fact, while technology has since provided us with improved methods of ways to listen to music — from eight-tracks and cassettes to CDs, there’s been a recent resurgence of and demand for albums.
I can only imagine the money I could make today on e-Bay if I hadn’t sold my collection of LPs decades ago. Anyway, back to the music! Just like when I was a little boy anxiously waiting for Santa to arrive on December 25th, I still love the sounds of Christmas.
Johnny Mathis was the MAN and we had every Christmas album he ever released. Sometimes, while shopping in a mall or visiting someone’s office, you’d hear, ever so softly, Johnny’s voice serenading you with carols that have become fixtures for the season. Before there was “the voice,” there was Mathis.
And while I didn’t like Barbra Streisand as a child, I have since become a real fan. Prior to my mother’s death, while trying to make her laugh during a moment when she was feeling really badly, I acted out Streisand’s rendition of “Sleigh Ride,” followed by “My Favorite Things.” My good friend, Christopher, captured my antics on his phone. But he’s been warned not to share it.
Then, there was the Jackson 5. Michael and Jermaine took the lead on that album and every song was fantastic. I would bounce and jump and leap and twirl around the house, singing soprano while Mom took the alto line. That was a long time ago — now I’m a bona fide bass.
From “Up on the Housetop” to “Christmas Won’t Be the Same This Year,” to “Give Love on Christmas Day,” the Jackson 5 could do no wrong.
Later, I would add other more contemporary singers to my list. Whitney Houston’s album, “One Wish” remains my ultimate favorite. She was at the top of her game when the recording broke in 2003. Actually, I play it in March, July and September if I need a pick-me-up. And the couple of songs on which Houston was accompanied by her only daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, are heartwarming.
I cannot overlook one of the classiest and most-talented sisters in the business, Fantasia. The last time we spoke, she actually called me to talk about a recent release. But, as I’m known to do, I asked her about her Christmas CD. Her singing, as the choir with whom I sang years ago at Big Bethel AME in Atlanta would say, was so moving that you couldn’t help but “take off your shoe and throw it at her.”
Rounding up my list — Mervyn Warren’s (a founding member of the incomparable a cappella group Take 6) “Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration.” I guess almost everyone’s either heard Handel’s masterful “The Messiah” in its original form. Perhaps you’ve even had the joy and pleasure of attending a church service or concert where you were able to sing along as his masterpiece was performed by orchestra, choir and soloists.
But for Black folk who consider themselves vocalists, there was nothing better than the nuanced, if not spectacular arrangements on what we referred to as the “Soulful Messiah” — a gospel album that featured various artists including Stevie Wonder, Tevin Campbell, Take 6, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Daryl Coley, Tramaine Hawkins and Dianne Reeves, Patti Austin and Howard Hewitt.
I could list more but I hear the music playing. It’s beginning to “sound” a lot like Christmas.