Reviewed by Johan Palme on 27th November, 2016
There are – which I’m sure surprises precisely none of you – a lot of artists past their prime who record Christmas music. Occasionally, an artist at the height of their career might record something. But musical legends who start off recording Christmas music, who then become famous? That’s exceedingly rare.
But then, on Funky Christmas, an obscure compilation by Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion Records, here’s Luther Vandross. He’s still in a short-lived quartet called Luther, his voice is still tentatively wavering, the song structures overextended, and it’s only his second recording session as lead singer. He’s since intentionally blocked every other recording of this time from ever being reissued. And yet his two featured tracks are classics! “May Christmas Bring You Happiness”, especially, is as filled with yearning joy as any Philly soul classic.
There is a special hunger in wavering just below breakthrough. At seeing possibilities ahead, heart in hand. And the majority of the artists here are just like Luther Vandross in that sense. With the exception of a truly risible smooth jazz snoozer by a fading Lou Donaldson, nothing on here feels phoned in. Margie Joseph has two excellent slow-burning Philly love songs. John Edwards, years away from stardom with The Spinners, contributes two complete rebuildings of classics that are more revelation than cringe, produced in a punchy, bluesy southern style by the legendary David Porter, once star producer at Stax. Even the aging gentlemen of The Impressions, Curtis Mayfield long gone and very much at the tail end of their careers, put in largely credible performances.
Soul music, and I say that as a huge fan, has – when it comes to Christmas music – more often than not produced turkeys, and not the kind with the stuffing. Perhaps it takes an unassuming little collection that actually cares to change that.