Have yourself a modern soul Christmas

I was ready to conclude that today’s R&B singers eschew holiday hits, content to let old-school Stevie Wonder, Charles Brown and Jackson 5 songs hold the mantle on V103 and 106.3 Not quite.

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New artists who are making Christmas soul music don’t get promotion like established artists such as Alicia Keys, Natalie Moore writes.

New artists who are making Christmas soul music don’t get promotion like established artists such as Alicia Keys, Natalie Moore writes.

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Last Christmas, I received a record player as a gift, which is now a fun — and costly — new hobby. My parents live by Beverly Records, where my first purchase was a Christmas album by The Temptations. I told myself not to play it until this holiday season. 

I excitedly placed the needle on the record to hear my favorite “Silent Night” rendition recently. But I didn’t hear Dennis Edwards belt out the remixed lyrics “in my mind.” I looked at the green album cover and realized this was a 1970 Temptations album and I wanted the 1980 version. 

Still, I listened to the record, and I started thinking about Motown, soul and R&B classic Christmas albums. When we were children, Nat “King” Cole’s “The Christmas Song” comprised our main holiday soundtrack on an actual, old-school turntable. The eponymous carol immediately takes me back to tree trimming with garlands and school-made ornaments. 

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Several other classics fill me up like a cup of eggnog, from Luther Vandross’ “Every Year, Every Christmas” to “Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas” by the O’Jays to the festive favorite “This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway. The most updated songs on my playlist are from the 1993 “Christmas Interpretations” album by Boyz II Men.

Where are the modern soul Christmas songs? Of course there’s plenty of pop music to keep 93.9 Lite FM going all year round if it made its holiday format permanent. I was ready to conclude that today’s R&B singers eschew holiday hits, content to let old-school Stevie Wonder, Charles Brown and Jackson 5 songs hold the mantle on V103 and 106.3

Not quite.

Before I made any declarations, I asked my friend and colleague Ayana Contreras about the current state of soul holiday music. Contreras is content director for Vocalo, the urban alternative radio station, and host of the all-vinyl show “Reclaimed Soul.”

She said there are new songs but promotion is lacking — unless it’s Alicia Keys or John Legend. 

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“In general, I think about how a lot of radio specifically is very behind the times in adding new artists until they hit notoriety,” Contreras said. Alex Isley, daughter of Ernie Isley, is an example with her song “Peppermint Tea.”

“It’s cute as a button,” Contreras said. I agree, and it’s on Vocalo’s 2022 holiday playlist on Spotify. Check it out. I am now loving songs I hadn’t been exposed to before, such as “Peppermint Tea.” Chance the Rapper has two songs, one with fellow Chicagoan Jeremih, “I’m Your Santa.” DRAM in “Litmas” sings “When your tree gets lit up, I get happy,” and it’s a bop. 

“Might As Well Have Coal” by Baby Tate and Love Renaissance (LVRN) aches like The Emotions’ 1977 “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?” Faith Evans is one of my favorite singers, but I didn’t know she had a 2017 Christmas album.

Contreras reminded me that our faves today weren’t yesterday’s faves. While “This Christmas” is an original composition that has evolved into a standard with remakes, it wasn’t an instant classic when released.

“It was 1970, and [it was] not popular when it came out. Atlantic pushed that song every year. I would argue it didn’t get popular until around his [Hathaway’s] death. He died in 1979 and the song became popular in the 1980s and 1990s,” Contreras said. 

Chicagoan Nadine McKinnor wrote the lyrics to “This Christmas” and it is a Chicago song through and through. Contreras said she once interviewed someone who worked on the session and said the song aimed to capture the energy of walking down 63rd Street in the late 1960s. 

Now I’ll still be spinning the soul Christmas classics, but I’m glad to know the tradition is still going with artists, newer and established. In another 10 years, I suspect the groovy “I’m Your Santa” will rank as a standard, brought to the canon by Chicago once again.

Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ. She writes a monthly column for the Sun-Times.

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