Album Review: The Alligator Records Christmas Collection

By late 1992, the first vinyl era was drawing to a close. At its peak in 1977-78, vinyl LP sales in the U.S. approached 350 million units per year. With the switchover to compact disc as the format of choice, record production plummeted, taking sales along with it. In 1992, just over two million records were sold. So it was no surprise that Alligator Records followed suit: when the venerable blues label compiled The Alligator Records Christmas Collection, the 14-song album would be released only on CD and cassette. Now in 2023, the catalog release returns for its first-ever vinyl pressing.

The Collection draws from a who’s who of Alligator artists; each delivers a heartfelt holiday tune. Some are original compositions, while others are blues-flavored readings of traditional songs or hymns. Koko Taylor, Kenny Neal, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, William Clarke, Tinsley Ellis, Lonnie Brooks, Little Charlie & the Nightcats, Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown all turn in original numbers.

Taylor’s funky “Merry, Merry Christmas” opens the album in gritty style. Neal’s laid back “Christmas Time in the Country” focuses on his winning harmonica. “I’m Your Santa” is a fun, uptempo number from Lil’ Ed, with lively guitar work throughout. Clarke’s wailing harp is the centerpiece of “Please Let Me Be Your Santa Claus.” Tinsley Ellis’ blues-rock “Santa Claus Wants Some Loving” is a guitar fest.

Lonnie Brooks’ “Christmas on the Bayou” ventures the farthest from blues, but it’s a solid tune. Little Charlie & the Nightcats dig into a retro feel for “Santa Claus.” Saffire emphasize the melancholy side of the holidays on “One Parent Christmas.” Gatemouth injects a bit of jazz styling into the record with his “Christmas.”

Among the traditional selections, Katie Webster’s update of “Deck the Halls” leans into a New Orleans boogie woogie piano vibe. Accompanied only by some sleigh bells, this spare recording is sprightly, and Webster is in fine voice. Her spoken message at the song’s end is good for a chuckle, too. “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” was first cut by Mabel Scott in 1948; Charles Brown’s reading of the classic features a more stripped-down arrangement, but the spirit remains.

Lowell Fulson’s sultry 1950 “Lonesome Christmas” is covered by Son Seals; this version emphasizes Seals’ electric guitar work and vocal. Elvin Bishop’s instrumental take on “The Little Drummer Boy” features some tasty horn charts and a dependably soulful lead guitar break. Charlie Musselwhite closes the set on a solemn note with his take on “Silent Night”; his harmonica playing is accompanied only by Stu Blank’s gospel-infused piano.

The record’s credits – reproduced from the original CD release – note the players, engineers, producers and (sometimes) studios involved in the making of these recordings. What they don’t do is list the recording dates. But it’s reasonable to assume that most if not all of these 14 tunes were recorded especially for the album, with production coordination by Alligator founder Bruce Iglauer and his staff.