Unraveling A Christmas Music Mystery

Robert Slifkin at Artforum:

A FEW YEARS AGO, while flipping through the new arrivals crate at Nice Price Records in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I was visiting family over the holidays, I became transfixed by what I heard playing on the store’s stereo system. It was immediately recognizable as Christmas music: A jubilant, resonant male baritone implored the listener to “let me hang my mistletoe over your head / and let me love you.” But the voice, landing somewhere between the velvet burliness of Teddy Pendergrass and the genteel phrasing of Lou Rawls, like the lustrous production and extravagant, modern R&B arrangement, which included female backup singers who swooned along to the singer’s seductive caroling, seemed unlocatable. Likewise, the song, a lurching minor-key slow jam in 3/4 time, had a weird melancholia at odds with the enforced buoyancy of the holiday season even as it summoned a long tradition of holiday music, such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Blue Christmas,” that expresses how cheery expectations at year’s end can often yield an aching emptiness. Amid these mixed messages and sundry stylistic signals, it was hard to tell if the song was festive burlesque or heartfelt holiday paean. I was intrigued, to say the least.

I asked the person behind the counter what I was hearing and they pulled out a vinyl copy of Merry Christmas to You from Joseph. The cover art, featuring an apparently Photoshopped portrait of a Black man wearing a Santa outfit and a pair of headphones, didn’t clarify things.

more here.