Reviewed by Johan Palme on 4th December, 2018
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that the true golden age for Christmas records in the United States was the early 1960s. In terms of sales, in terms of public exposure – and in terms of quality – the genre hit an apex that has not been matched since. And yet, the vast majority of these records were in a very narrow genre band, if not in terms of the musical accompaniment then in terms of what, exactly, a Christmas record should be. They tend to be cross-generational. Inoffensive, at least on the surface, not stirring the pot too much. Reverent. (Or irreverent, but only when it comes to novelty records.) In an era where music was supposedly all-encompassed by raucous youth culture of black origin, Christmas music was anything but.
Imagine, then, quite how alien Huey “Piano” Smith’s Christmas record must have been. This is not a selection of reimagined Tin Pan Alley classics, like Phil Spector’s contemporaneous offering, but full-blown New Orleans R&B, the kind that white kids would happily consider rock’n’roll. Recorded by a rowdy band that’s clearly having an absolute riot, this recording runs amuck through a selection of hilarious and invigorating lead singers and instrumentalists, supposedly including future Dr John Mac Bebennack. It’s poppy, very local, and timeless in a post-boogie woogie, pre-funk way.
And America, emphatically, was not ready. Despite a glowing review in Billboard that suggested “strong sales potential”, the records bombed in the Christmas charts. But even more than that, the record was utterly savaged. This story may be apocryphal, but apparently on one TV show the host thought the record was so offensive that he actually broke it in half and threw it in the bin in a live studio. And yet, just a few years later, Christmas pop was everywhere. Huey “Piano” Smith was a pioneer, and deserved better.