Album Review: Stax Christmas

‘Tis the season – well, almost – for holiday music. While holiday-themed tunes have a comparatively short shelf life, there is indeed something special about them. And that’s even more the case when considering a collection of songs by Stax artists. The Memphis-based label’s legendary roster featured some of the biggest names in soul and r&b, and the idea of bringing them together for a set like Stax Christmas makes all sorts of sense. What’s surprising is that it didn’t happen sooner.

But here we are in 2023. A set of a dozen songs from Stax stars, Stax Christmas is a mixture of traditional tunes and originals written to capitalize on the holiday theme make up this collection.

Something thematically similar was put together in 2007 with the Christmas in Soulsville set, but because the vinyl revival hadn’t yet taken hold, that was a CD-only release. This new set presents the music on good old fashioned vinyl (It’s also available on CD and via major streaming sites, but there’s something special about spinning these tunes on a turntable.)

Otis Redding’s previously unreleased “Merry Christmas Baby” is a solid and soulful cut. While personnel isn’t listed, everything about the recording suggests that the Stax house band and Memphis Horns provided the lean and sympathetic backing for Redding’s vocals. Change the lyrics and remove the (commendably subtle) sleigh bells and you’ve got a year-round Otis tune.

Count o the Staple Singers to serve up a conscious tune. “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas” was originally released as a single in 1972, but it’s nice to have it here as well. Book T & the MG’s’ take on the chestnut “Winter Wonderland” is here in an alternate take; the instrumental was featured on the aforementioned Christmas in Soulsville as well. (If you dig this tune, you simply must track down the non-Stax Christmas in Memphis.)

Another previously unheard recording, Carla Thomas’ reading of “Blue Christmas” slows the tune way down, wringing all of the pathos and heartbreak out of it. A classic arrangement makes it even better. Isaac Hayes released “The Mistletoe and Me” as a single in ‘69. Her he reminds us why he was the king of the romantic slow jam.

Some tasty Hohner Clavinet (and a bit of those sleigh bells) enliven the already plenty funky “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin,” a tune one could easily imagine being part of the Rufus Thomas catalog. But King’s guitar solo puts his indelible stamp on the track.

Speaking of the World’s Oldest Teenager, Rufus chimes in with another ‘70s era single, “I’ll Be Your Santa Baby.” Here it’s deep funk time, with shades of Billy Preston. One of Stax’s lesser-known acts, Cix Bits doubles down on the funky clav with “Season’s Greetings.” Everything about the track is ace, but the kinetic bass line and sharp guitar fills make it extra appealing. Like most of the tracks here, it was released as a single (in this case, from 1973).

The Rance Allen Group take on “White Christmas,” with an arrangement that suggests Isaac Hayes’ involvement (though that’s merely a guess; Stax had plenty of arranging talent at its disposal). The Temprees chime in with another string-laden track, Mel Tormé’s “It’s Christmas Time Again (The Christmas Song)”.

The Emotions’ “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?” was a 1973 Volt single. It’s a sweet and subtle perfomrance with some heartfelt vocals. And Rufus and Carla Thomas wrap up this delightful set with an original, “That Makes Christmas Day.” Like the other tracks on this record, it largely steers clear of cliché (save for the sleigh bells, which are again lightly applied).

Stax mainstay Deanie Parker contributes a brief yet heartfelt liner note for the set. And her instructions to the listener are spot on: “…bless, serve, and enjoy your Stax Christmas. Now, repeat.”