Stax and Atlantic, as opposed to James Brown / King, have always left their social commentary implicit in the artists’ delivery rather than specifically stated in the lyric, and this is consequently reflected in their pair of Christmas albums. The first, featuring Otis Redding’s monumental version of “White Christmas” (which really has to be heard to be believed), is an excellent album on all counts. Along with Redding are a number of Stax-Atlantic performers, such as Joe Tex, Carla Thomas, King Curtis, William Bell, and Clarence Carter, each delivering his or her own highly individual and emotional interpretation of a well-known classic or finely-constructed original. Perhaps Carter sums the album up best with his “Back Door Santa,” a hard wailer that is seasonal only in its title. His recent hit of “Patches” only suggests the vocal power with which he delivers this tune, and in terms of sheer put-it-over style, is amply matched by Joe Tex (“I’ll Make Everyday Christmas For My Woman”) and Solomon Burke’s “Presents For Christmas.”
Redding, however, is the true star of the album. With Booker T. and the MG’s sitting forcefully behind him, he realizes potentials in “White Christmas” that Irving Berlin could have only hinted at in his original lyrics. It is one of his finest performances, a stark reminder of the heights this greatest of soul singers could attain, and listening to it can only serve to make you feel his loss even more. He was, simply, one of the greatest, and this album contains just one more testimonial to that all-encompassing fact.
Released two years ago, Soul Christmas has yet to receive any acknowledgments of its existence, and we can only hope that Atlantic takes out the masters from its dusty vaults and lets us have a chance to hear them again.
For their own part, the MG’s Christmas album is also quite good. In one sense, this record seems to prophesy their recent tendency to play roller-rink music, yet perhaps because the songs themselves lend well to such a style, the group is able to retain much of the dynamics and musicianship that made Stax (and the MG’s) synonymous with the finest in soul music during the middle years of the Sixties. Beginning with “Jingle Bells” and ending with a down-home version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” Steve, Duck, Booker and Al sound as if all the royalties from their combined hits have made Christmas a merry time indeed in Memphis.