The Godfather of Soul had a thing for Father Christmas. James Brown recorded dozens of holiday tunes during his wildly prolific career, including three albums’ worth of Christmas songs, almost all originals, between the years 1966 and 1970.
Perhaps best known is his song ‘Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto,’ a groovy classic that implores St. Nick to take care of the poorest children. Brown, who had a famously impoverished upbringing, surely got much of his Yuletide spirit from the memory of his own childhood Christmases.
Listen to James Brown’s ‘Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto’ Video
Though Brown was a churchgoing man, his Christmas was much more about the fat man in the red suit than the baby born in the manger. Brown, who loved to give away hundred-dollar bills and turkeys at Thanksgiving, clearly saw some of Santa in himself. “Ain’t no use in saying you don’t love all your brats,” he croons sweetly, presumably to the mother of his children, on ‘Santa Claus Is Definitely Here to Stay.’ When that song was mastered for the album ‘Hey America,’ the original vocals from the single version were accidentally erased, and Brown had to hurry into a Georgia studio to rerecord them.
The title track to the album was a Christmas song (‘Hey America, It’s Christmas’) that addressed Brown’s growing social and political engagement at the time. Much more urgent-sounding than the typical holiday chestnut, Brown called out the futility of all those peace signs he was seeing at the height of the Vietnam War. In the same song, he also managed to quote from ‘Hava Nagila’ and ‘Volare.’
‘Hey America,’ along with Soul Brother Number One’s earlier seasonal albums, ‘James Brown Sings Christmas Songs’ and ‘A Soulful Christmas,’ are now collected on a two-CD set called ‘The Complete James Brown Christmas,’ released in October as part of Hip-O’s ongoing JB reissue project. Like so much of Brown’s material, first takes were the norm. As bandleader Pee Wee Ellis told Brown archivist Alan Leeds about ‘Christmas Songs,’ “Me, Nat (Jones) and Hank Ballard sat in King studios and wrote that album in what seemed like no time at all. James was impressed. So was I.”
‘The Complete James Brown Christmas’ isn’t precisely complete – it doesn’t account for ‘The Merry Christmas Album,’ released in 1999. But that album, recorded with electronic drums and featuring such dubious candidates for the Yuletide songbook as ‘Clean for Christmas’ and ‘Funky Christmas Millennium,’ doesn’t exactly do justice to the great soul man’s discography. Better to stick with funky compilation highlights such as ‘Soulful Christmas’ (“Good God!”) and ‘Christmas Is Love’ (“Fantabulous!”).
After more than 50 years as a performing dynamo, Brown went to see his dentist one day in late 2006. The dentist advised his patient, who seemed weak and disoriented, that he should forget the dental work and check himself into a hospital. Two days later, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business was dead of congestive heart failure.
It was, of course, Christmas Day.