Reviewed by Zach Mathews on 11th December, 2020
When James Brown opens his A Soulful Christmas album with the phrase “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto”, it might come off as a novelty, as a joke, but he is deadly serious. The album is not simply the commercial money grab that it may appear to be – this album is a plea from a man on his knees.
A Soulful Christmas has all the hallmarks of a James Brown record. It shows off why Brown is an iconic R&B singer, especially when he gives it all away on “Santa Claus, Santa Claus”. And it also shows off that driving James Brown funk – the style where all instruments play percussion – you can hear that clearly on Soulful Christmas. But what really makes this album essential in a Christmas music collection is how it creates a welcome contrast to traditional Christmas music. It is the perfect Christmas party album even if your guests do not recognize how serious the songs really are.
In 1968, James Brown was at the peak of his musical and cultural influence. But it was also the peak of one of the most difficult eras in American history. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated and civil rights protests and counter protests were affecting the entire country. It was a dark time for America. Brown decided to use his cultural influence for good. He focused his political ideas into “Operation Black Pride” and the most obvious part of that plan was the single “Say It Loud – I’m Black, I’m Proud (Pts. 1 & 2)”. That song was as direct a pronouncement of Black pride as you could get. It took guts to do that and Brown did so knowing that it would hurt his career. And then he doubled-down by including the single on this Christmas record – all because he wanted children to hear the song.
The cover photo of A Soulful Christmas is of Brown in a Santa suit out in the community giving away presents and turkeys. He did that every year, right up until the week before he died, providing for thousands of disadvantaged children in the hard parts of New York City or the orphanages of Atlanta. James Brown gave it all away and died on Christmas day.
But Brown’s most important gift might have been “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto”, because that song is for Black children living through a difficult time. And when those children heard him plea, on his knees, they knew that Brown was singing for them proud and clear. Who will sing for them this year?
This is a guest review by Zach Mathews of the Album Epitaph Podcast. Don’t miss his forthcoming episode about Christmas music!