Few holiday staples are as nauseating as the overexposed Christmas song. That 47 millionth broadcast of “Silver Bells” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” reliably instills the sort of fearsome agony that directly created the myth of an increased Yuletide suicide rate — it’s that excruciating. Thanks to the hepwise cats at New York’s Contrast Records, the hyper-fabulous, eight-disc Cool Blue Christmas reissue series comes rattling down the stovepipe with 221 tracks of mind-bendingly marvelous blues, jazz, hillbilly and R&B holiday-themed rarities. Boasting a refreshingly high incidence of never-before-available-on-CD numbers that stretch from 1924 to 1963, it’s a kaleidoscopic safari through a funky wonderland of Xmas merrymaking.
The two-disc Christmas in Jail (Ain’t That a Pain) is nothing short of flabbergasting, with a trove of low-down prewar Delta to swing prizes including Elzadie Robinson’s hypnotic “Santa Claus Crave,” Leroy Carr’s mournful title track and plenty of hot, hopped-up kickers like Jack Teagarden & Johnny Mercer’s “Christ Night in Harlem” and Lionel Hampton’s “Gin for Christmas.” It also offers cautionary gospel (“The Wrong Way to Celebrate Xmas”) and such suggestive teasers as Victoria Spivey’s “I Ain’t Gonna Let You See My Santa Claus” and Roosevelt Sykes’ “Let Me Hang Your Stockings in My Christmas Tree,” not mention classic performances from Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly and Fats Waller.
Running chronologically through a romping five-album collection of hot roasted postwar R&B thrillers courtesy of the forward-reaching likes of Amos Milburn, Johnny Otis, the Ravens, Orioles, Julia Lee and Floyd Dixon, Cool Blue Christmas really delivers. These discs are peppered with straight-ahead, soul-stirring gospel quartets and superlative, more trad bluesmen Sonny Boy Williamson and, credited as per the original label misnomer, ‘Lightening Hopkins.’ Every cut is redolent with the supercharged postwar momentum that catapulted Atomic Age black music into its highest flowering, ranging from familiar but critically important numbers like Charles Brown’s epochal “Merry Christmas Baby” (which introduced the singer-pianist as a leading light, became a much-covered standard and established his sophisticated, deeply influential brand of West Coast "cocktail blues" as a new, modern genre) to Mabel Scott’s ebullient, brassy “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.”
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Rocketing through the 1950s with electrifying stuff from Chuck Berry, Freddy King, Huey Smith & the Clowns and several well-chilled nuggets of bop-wise, proto-rap from the great Babs Gonzalez — a master of the laconic offbeat hipster recitation — each album manages a distinct palette of steadily progressive sonic flavors.
The early-’60s soul era section is especially delightful, with powerhouse turns by Carla Thomas, The Shirelles, a young Patti LaBelle, Ronettes and fantastic contributions from Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and the Staple Singers, plus lesser known but majestic sides by Johnny Flamingo (dig his “Drive Slow” — a don’t-get-behind-the-wheel-drunk classic), Poppa Hop, The Jaynells and The Uniques.
The remaining two stand-alone sets, We Free Kings and Santa Claus Is From the South, are equally exceptional. Covering 1947 to 1963, the former collects 19 superlative jazz performances by everyone from Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis to Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, the Roland Kirk Quartet, Chet Baker and Bill Evans. The latter is a 29-track roundup from the same period of hillbilly maestros Bob Wills, Faron Young, Bill Monroe, Hank Snow, George Jones and Kitty Wells, along with novelty freakouts from Homer & Jethro and Alonzo & Oscar and the obscure but equally satisfying likes of Terry Fell, Hylo Brown and Billy Briggs. Each encompasses a host of genres — the country menu of bluegrass, Western swing, honky-tonk and the evolutionary jazz roster, swinging straight ahead, hard bop, modern, free jazz, a meticulously compiled and sequenced collection of individual programs that qualify all of the Cool Blue Christmas releases as a new standard in the oft-depressing Christmas compilation canon.
The sole quibble with Cool Blue Christmas is its complete and frustrating lack of accompanying annotation — clearly, such worthy subjects come with a fascinating provenance, each of which cries out for further illumination. But, screw it, no one is going to be reading microscopic font liner notes at your Christmas party anyway, right?