A list of Philly musical moments and contributions to the spirit and vibes of Holiday cheer.
Chapter and verse, the Philadelphia holiday song, Christmas tiding and Yuletime groove is one worth seeking out. That’s right. Surprisingly, beyond Hall & Oates’ “Jingle Bell Rock,” and the entirety of John Legend’s “A Legendary Christmas”, the winter wonderland that is Philly doesn’t have holiday music chart toppers known to one and all.
So what about a new tradition, the one I start here where Christmas music and Philly music is intertwined.
Duke Pearson’s “Merry Ole Soul”
Before you start griping and reminding me that the pianist and producer was from Atlanta, Georgia, what makes the hard bop jazz acolyte Philly swinging is this Christmas album’s drummer: Mickey Roker. Roker was the very heart of Philadelphia rhythm and he propels Pearson’s holiday jazz music into something pumped up and jiving.
Lou Rawls’ “Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Okay. Rawls Also isn’t from Philly. His most beloved and soulful 70s hits were made, with love, as part of The Sound of Philadelphia, and for that, Rawls is an honorary local. With that, the deep voiced blues singer and his outreach into Christmas songs are funky in a way that is Philly-familiar.
Patti Labelle’s “Wouldn’t It Be Beautiful” and The O’Jays’ “Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas”
Speaking of the Sound of Philadelphia, both of these slow jamming songs were written by Gamble and Huff, the latter during the dynamic duo’s prime time, socially conscious 70s, the former in 1990 for one of Ms. Patti’s lush latter-day affairs. Both turn out to curry favor with love and romance, and both look toward the Christmas time moment when each can be with the one and true that they hold dear.
G. Love’s “Coming Back Home for Christmas” and his 2011 single, “Christmas Blues”
Philly local, loping hip hop harmonicat, guitarist and singer Garrett Dutton just dropped a whole holiday music album dedicated to the season at Thanksgiving, and she’s a beauty of funk and frolic. But, his “Christmas Blues,” single from a decade ago is just a little bit rougher and rawer and realer. Find them both and make a Blue Christmas out of it.
Boyz II Men and Brian McKnight’s “Let It Snow”
Yeah, it’s corny. But it works with all that rich harmony and overwrought emotion. And the video is vintage 90s fabulous.
Jimmy Smith’s “Christmas ’64”
The locally-bred king of dusty, musky organ jazz runs the season of sacred and secular song through the grooviest ever paces. This city is where organ trio jazz and R&B was born, and Smith takes it all the manger and back again.
Musiq Soulchild’s “A Philly Soul Christmas”
One of the most dignified and daring voices in the modern R&B canon takes a snowy, even religious ride through holiday song. Toasty.
Leslie Odom Jr.’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”
Give it up for Germantown’s Freedom Theater grad Odom Jr. for making Christmas music into a third career (he’s got two top selling holiday albums to his name) with this jazzy track a holiday miracle of swooning and crooning.
Alan Mann’s “Christmas on the Block”
I was actually never a fan of the late local’s 12-string strung tale of happening onto a group home for blind people and finding holiday wonder. Too Springsteen-y for my taste. But Mann’s sentiment is clear, the song is catchy, and hey, it’s Christmas. I’ll open my heart.
Schoolly D’s “Happy Birthday, Jesus” and “Christmas Outro”
The West Philly original gangster dropped a few ho ho ho holiday music treats while making his soundtrack for the Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
Frankie Avalon’s “Blue Christmas”
Sure the semi-rockabilly doo wop Elvis version is the one you know and play around the house. But take a listen to South Philly’s Frankie Avalon slow and sober take: it really is bluer. He’ll be in town in January to celebrate Jerry Blavat and Friends at the Kimmel with his old pal, The Geator. Ask Frankie about it.
April Mae and Catfish Dave of the June Bugs’ Winter Solstice Concert
Speaking of rockabilly, Philly’s most soulful new-ish neo-rockabilly ensemble pared down and paired up for a pandemic live music soiree in 2020. Enjoy it still… I know I will.
Anybody at all singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
Penned in 1865 in Trinity Church on Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia is the home of one of the greatest, most beloved and sacred Christmas songs on earth. Take the credit, Philly. And happy holidays.