James Brown – Funky Christmas (20th Century Masters: The Christmas Collection)

For Kim. You’re my Christmas friend…

James Brown 20th Century Masters Christmas Cover Art

In our excitement to discuss the previously unheard gems on The Complete James Brown Christmas, we neglected to talk about the pure perfection that is James Brown’s Funky Christmas. Turn it loose, ‘cus it’s a mother…

Funky Christmas, later remastered and renamed as 20th Century Masters: The Christmas Collection, is the one that we reach for every December 1 to kick off the Holiday season. If there is a perfect Christmas album, an album so stunning it could almost be listened to year round, this is it. Its James Brown recorded at the peak of his powers between 1966 and 1970 belting out both Christmas classics and funky originals. Fantabulous!

What I always marvel at every year – and surely wifey gets tired of me saying this – is just how amazing it is that JB could make such a stunning Christmas album full of song after song of  pure holiday perfection. These songs aren’t just throw-away novelties to be strewn about like so much discarded wrapping paper. No, these are real songs by real musicians with heart and soul and everything else. JB is just as passionate singing these songs as he is singing “Cold Sweat” or “There Was a Time.”

So, how does James Brown start his holiday season? With “Go Power!” Oh man, that horn line smacks you right in the face with good time Christmas cheer that doesn’t let up until the last note fades away. It’s a classic JB session that includes screams, yelps, and some fantastic JB mutterings about the good old days.  Wifey and I often tell each other we need to find some “go power” just to get through the season…

“Let’s Unite the Whole World at Christmas” finds JB pleading for happy faces and good times over top of some wonderfully emotive music. This small slice of quiet contemplation is the perfect lead-in to the always awesome, always fantastic “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto.” Of all of JB’s Christmas songs, this is probably the one most people have heard, or at least heard of.

The band sets up a very funky beat and JB goes into full-on pleading mode, calling on Santa Claus to make a stop in the ghetto for everyone there. It’s funky and emotional at the same time. Heck even JB gets a little upset when he ad lib proclaims “I never thought I’d realize, I’d be singing this song with water in my eyes…” There’s a reason this song became somewhat of a hit, it’s a JB classic in the truest sense of the word.

“Merry Christmas Baby” finds JB in a very blue mood with some uniquely distinctive vocals and a wonderful late night feel. Methinks he may have hot a hot toddy or two during the recording, as he most definitely sounds “lit up,” although that’s probably more just pure emotion than anything else. Of course, by the time “Let’s Make This Christmas Mean Something This Year” rolls around all bets are off and JB is back into his thing with a fury.

Things start off easy enough, a simple beat, some nice violins and girl group backing vocals. But then something spectacular happens. The very spirit of Christmas, the very spirit of everything that makes this such a magical time, the very soul of everything good, comes pouring out of James Brown in a stunning and emotional display of gut wrenching screams. He continually straddles that fine line between singing and preaching, and along the way he screams his sweet old soul right out of the speakers. It is positively electrifying to hear this much soulful Christmas emotion coming from one man. Of course, it’s James Brown so I would expect no less.

Speaking of soul, “Soulful Christmas,” man, what a killer groove that is! The band lay down a sparkling stop/start riff that will most definitely get your party swelling to epic dancing proportions. Good God indeed!

“The Christmas Song” and “Sweet Little Baby Boy” remind everyone what a wonderfully controlled singer Brown could be when he settled down long enough to sing something slow and sweet. In direct contrast is the hard hitting pure funk of “Christmas is Love” that is guaranteed to set you soul on fire. What more do you expect with bottom rattling bass, chicken scratch guitar, and James Brown saying the word “fantabulous” more than a few times?

“Please Come Home for Christmas” and “Santa Claus is Definitely Here to Stay” are two more tracks that feature nothing but pure emotion set upon simply beautiful musical arrangements. The horn lines in “Santa Claus is Definitely Here to Stay” are especially gorgeous and even on the instrumental version available on The Complete James Brown Christmas, it still manages to move me to tears. Hey, it’s emotional, what can I say!

“Tit For Tat (Ain’t No Taking Back)” provides only slight funk relief before the gut wrenching and emotional devastation that is “Santa Claus, Santa Claus” ravages your very soul. Jeez, this is one of the saddest and most powerful Christmas song I have ever, ever heard. It’s downright heartbreaking and yet so utterly beautiful that whenever it comes on everything in my world stops. Brown calls upon his poor and tumultuous upbringing to deliver some heavy, heavy lines about how hard things are and that without anyone to help him he has to help himself. I hope you can take some time this season and truly listen to this song and contemplate the pure emotion Brown is experiencing. It just might make you a better person.

Whew, after such an emotional toll JB brings everything back with some wintery funk in “Merry Christmas, I Love You” and the bright, bouncy, and almost slinky rhythm of “Signs of Christmas.” One last beautiful ballad is found in “Christmas in Heaven” before the entire album signs off with “Hey America,” a stunning slice of 70s funk  that simply cooks.

So, there it is. James Brown’s 20th Century Masters: The Christmas Collection in all its glory. What a fantabulous way for JB to say he loves us. We certainly love him and everything he’s given us. Thanks, thanks JB, for all the wonderful music. And let’s make our next year be just as good.

You are always definitely here to stay.

Tracklist

  1. Go Power At Christmas Time – 3:11
  2. Let’s Unite The Whole World At Christmas – 2:43
  3. Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto – 3:02
  4. Merry Christmas Baby – 3:55
  5. Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year – 6:30
  6. Soulful Christmas – 3:08
  7. The Christmas Song – 2:43
  8. Sweet Little Baby Boy – 5:16
  9. Christmas Is Love – 6:01
  10. Please Come Home For Christmas – 3:23
  11. Santa Claus Is Definitely Here To Stay – 4:23
  12. Tit For Tat (Ain’t No Taking Back) – 3:05
  13. Santa Claus, Santa Claus – 4:02
  14. Merry Christmas, I Love You – 2:32
  15. Signs Of Christmas – 4:38
  16. Christmas In Heaven – 2:55
  17. Hey America – 3:55

 

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