The 12 Best Songs For a St. Louis Christmas


Matt Harnish of Bunnygrunt has been a proponent of local Christmas music for more than a decade. - PHOTO BY THEO WELLING
  • Photo by Theo Welling
  • Matt Harnish of Bunnygrunt has been a proponent of local Christmas music for more than a decade.

Christmas is upon us, and that means inoculating yourself against the relentless onslaught of much of the Christmas carol canon. To save your ears -- and to celebrate the seasonal offerings of some local artists -- senior music writers Roy Kasten and Christian Schaeffer have brought together the 12 best locally sourced songs of the season. And these guys know their stuff. After all, they penned The 100 Greatest St. Louis Songs -- a massive list featured in last month's Thanksgiving edition of RFT.

#1: Donny Hathaway, "This Christmas" (1970) By Christian Schaeffer

If Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" wears the crown as the holiday standard most beloved for its message of hope and nostalgia, Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" carries that torch for the soul and R&B community. With the right amount of funk in its step and a generous dusting of seasonal sweetness, the song has been covered countless times but never loses its verve.

Co-written with Nadine McKinnor (with Hathaway taking songwriting credit as "Donny Pitts," his former stage name) and released in 1970, "This Christmas" preceded many of his better-known singles, including his work with Roberta Flack. It's part love song, part celebration of the season, and taken with the arrangement's horn-aided swing, the song speaks to the sense of hope and anticipation that comes with this time of the year.

When we counted down the 100 greatest St. Louis songs a few weeks back, it was a bit of a heartbreak to not include Donny Hathaway on the list. Few soul singers expressed depth of feeling or showed mastery over various genres like Hathaway did in his short lifetime. He was born in Chicago but raised by his maternal grandmother, Martha Pitts, in St. Louis' Carr Square neighborhood. Pitts was a well-known gospel singer, and Hathaway furthered his musical education at Vashon High School and eventually Howard University in Washington D.C. His suicide in 1979 cut short a career that was continuing to bloom.

While Hathaway's star has never really dimmed, the past few year's have brought renewed interest in his work. Rhino Records recently released Never My Love, a four-disc overview, and a 33 ⅓ volume is due on 1972's monumental Live LP. But during the Christmas season, you're pretty much guaranteed to hear this little slice of soul more than a few times.

Notable covers: Diana Ross (1974); Cee-Lo Green (2012)

Further reading: Read Jason Rosenbaum's overview of Hathaway's life and career; get low with Hathaway and Roberta Flack.

#2: The Lucky Old Sons, "Running With Rudolph" (2013) By Roy Kasten

Christmas novelties can be as treacherous as black ice. They're either too slick, too screwed up or simply too stupid to merit more than one pass. "Running with Rudolph," by St. Louis old-school R&B band (dig the fat sax and piano) the Lucky Old Sons, isn't exactly a novelty (the line about pulling a sleigh with a Santa as fat as "Jabba the Hutt" comes close), though it is as fun as a good Christmas lark should be. Plus it pays sly tribute to one of the greatest of all holiday songs, Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph Run," even as the tune has little in common with Berry's reeling post-rockabilly. With echoes of classic jumping R&B holiday recordings by the likes of Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns, and the Johnny Otis Orchestra, the Lucky Old Sons take that wily reindeer by the horns, ride him hard and put him away snow-covered.

Where you'll find it: A Very Lucky Christmas (2013), a strong seventeen-track holiday album that splits satisfying originals and classic covers, including a pitch-perfect (as in wasted) version of Robert Earl Keen Jr.'s dysfunctional "Merry Christmas From the Family."

Best rhymes: "I've been running so hard to bring the presents to you / Won't you give a little credit where some credit is due / I'm the other reindeer you don't know the name of / Pulling that sleigh, running with Rudolph."

Cocktail pairing: Milk and cookies and a classic '50s Bourbon hot toddy, with a big cinnamon swizzle stick.

Read on for more St. Louis songs about Christmas. #3: Cassie Morgan & the Lonely Pine, "Fields of Snow" (2010) By Christian Schaeffer

Cassie Morgan has long favored whispers to screams, so its no surprise that her Christmas offering comes in as soft as new-fallen snow. And its that very same snow that sets the scene for "Fields of Snow," which she and bandmate Beth Bombara recorded for the 2010 iteration of the Bert Dax Christmas compilation. The scene is bucolic and peaceful as Morgan sings of the spruce and fir trees that "light up the Bonnie sky" (that would be her hometown of Bonnie, Illinois). The whistling and toy piano plinks give the song a child-like feel, but the lyrics hint at some romantic rupture that maybe -- just maybe -- the magic of the season can help mend. "Seeing you reminds me of a truth I can't accept / you said all the right things, I pretended to be deaf," Morgan sings. But unlike the similarly pitched Joni Mitchell staple "River," this song seems to have a happy ending with promises of fruitcake and mistletoe.

Playlist Pairings: "Fields of Snow" would fit in right alongside Christmas cuts by John Fahey, Tracey Thorn and Emmylou Harris.

Caroling, Caroling: Morgan borrows a bit of the Christmas carol "O Holy Night" throughout, which helps ground it in the season while lending an air of solemnity to the track.

Music Television: Shot over the holidays back in Bonnie, Morgan's self-made video gives a picturesque view of southern Illinois under fresh snow.

#4: Martha Bass, "Christmas Love" By Roy Kasten

In this late '60s recording, originally for the Checker/Chess label and found on A Christmas Dedication -- one of the most essential of all seasonal collections -- St. Louis native Martha Bass gives everything she has in her gently rasped, mature voice. And what she has, even in two minutes, is enough to fill a hundred holiday seasons.

Bass had been singing for some four decades: in the Pleasant Green Missionary Church, in the National Baptist Convention, with Reverend James Cleveland, the Davis Sisters and, significantly, as the featured soloist for the legendary Clara Ward Singers. Along with being a woman of faith, Bass was a nurse who ministered much of her life to the ill and infirm. "Christmas comes but once a year," she begins, "for those apart it brings them near." It couldn't be a simpler or more familiar start.

This is gospel music at its most essential: just piano, organ, guitar and a rhythm section. No strings, no choirs, no sleigh bells. Bass sounds less like her mentor Willie Mae Ford Smith and so much more like her idol, Mahalia Jackson. She is preaching without preaching, house-wrecking with a contralto warm as candles, closing in on a central truth: Jesus, mangers, miracles, whatever. It all comes down to love.

When to play: At 11:59 p.m. on Christmas Eve, because there'll never be a better (or more concise) midnight mass than this song.

Star of Bethlehem St. Louis: Fontella Bass was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 2000. Her mother, one of the greats of St. Louis music, still has no star on Delmar

Continue for parts 5 and 6. #5: Jeannie Kendall, "Smoky Mountain Christmas" (1977) By Roy Kasten

The Kendalls were one of the most unlikely male-female duos in country music. Hailing from St. Louis, Royce and Jeannie Kendall recorded one of the classic cheating songs in a genre that knows how to cheat: "Heaven's Just a Sin Away." The fact that the two were father and daughter mattered little to country-music fans.

The song shot up to No. 1 on the country charts in 1977 and was quickly followed by more tunes cut from the same negligee: "It Don't Feel Like Sinnin' to Me," "Sweet Desire" and "You'd Make an Angel Want to Cheat." The themes could make Conway Twitty blush, but the music would make you dance, and the duo's harmonies -- with Royce holding down the low end and Jeannie taking the lead with a high, pure tone somewhere between Dolly Parton and Kitty Wells -- always invited listeners to sing along.

"Smoky Mountain Christmas" is a very different kind of sing-along. And while the tune surely alludes to Dolly (if not the forgettable -- assuming you weren't scarred by it -- TV special of the same name), it was written by Andrea Hamlin and Brien Fisher and, as performed by Jeannie Kendall, can be found on the splendid compilation O Christmas Tree!: A Bluegrass Collection for the Holidays. With rippling dobro and wood-chopping mandolin behind her, Kendall evokes a holiday family gathering that seems straight out of Norman Rockwell; with her pealing, lightly-frayed soprano, however, Kendall makes the scene real to even the most city of folk.

Going solo: In 1998, Kendall's father and lifelong singing partner suffered a stroke and died before a show in La Crosse, Wisconsin. It took years for his daughter to return to recording. Her self-titled 2003 album -- featuring help from Alan Jackson, Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs -- is as good as contemporary bluegrass gets.

A Starr is born: As a teenager, Jeannie Kendall got her first break, a chance to sing on Ringo Starr's country outting Beaucoups of Blues. Her harmonies on Chuck Howard's "I Wouldn't Have You Any Other Way" made the cut one of the most memorable on the album.

#6: Bunnygrunt, "Season's Freaklings" (1996) By Christian Schaeffer

When it comes to Christmas music, Matt Harnish may very well be the angel atop the tree of the local indie set. The Bunnygrunt guitarist and singer had, until recently, curated the A Very Bert Dax Christmas compilations, collecting dozens of original, often irreverent tracks of holiday cheer from St. Louis bands. (Pancake Productions' Rob Severson has been uploading these to Bandcamp in 2014, a noble act of stewardship.)

Those annual comps have their roots in the Better Than Fruitcake collection, which was a joint effort of Vintage Vinyl and Operation Food Search. VV employee Harnish curated that collection and included his own band's "Season's Freaklings" -- originally released on seven-inch in 1996 -- alongside offerings by Prune, Larissa Dalle and Bob Reuter's Kamikaze Cowboy. True to form, Bunnygrunt motors through the track with its trademark mix of sweetness and fuzz, and its simple refrain says everything a holiday love song needs to say: "And it wouldn't be Christmas without you / Can't fool me, I know its true."

Billygrunt: The song found new life when it was included in the end credits to the Billy Bob Thornton film Bad Santa in 2003. (Rest in power, Bernie Mac and John Ritter.)

Mustardgrunt: Rob Severson's devotion to the Bunnygrunt oeuvre precedes his curation of the band's tribute album this year; his old band Mustard Fish covered the track in 5/4 time for the fifth iteration of the Bert Dax collection.

You're halfway through! The list continues on page 4. #7: Grace Basement, "A Kiss For All the World" (2012) By Roy Kasten

Sometimes the very best Christmas songs make only passing reference to the season; sometimes they don't mention it all. Nick Lowe's "Freezing" or Jo Stafford's "Winter Weather" deserve to be standards, as does Grace Basement's "A Kiss For All the World."

Though the song features a few choice seasonal images (snow, church bells, a starry night), musically quotes "Adeste Fideles" and echoes the quotidian themes of the Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping" (what's more festive than waiting in a damn checkout line?), songwriter and band leader Kevin Buckley is simply reflecting on the strange state the season often puts us in. Those tangled-up-in-bittersweet-blue feelings have nothing to do with Christmas -- and everything to do with it at the same time.

With a cozy (and bad-sweater-sporting) band behind him -- David Anderson on twelve-string guitar, Kaleb Kirby on snare drum and melodica, Alan Murray on guitar and Ian Walsh on mandolin -- Buckley sounds like he's bursting with romance and doubt. He doesn't feel especially worthy of the season or the love he's somehow stumbled into as a working musician, but there it is anyway: Somebody really loves him, and that's a miracle if ever there was one.

Best non-Christmasy but still somehow fitting line: "Who knows how I got through days without loving you? / Sounds funny but I think about it all of the time."

Alter ego: Along with the indie-folk Grace Basement, Buckley regularly performs traditional Irish music with Ian Walsh at McGurk's Pub in Soulard.

#8: Funky Butt Brass Band, "Crazy Sleigh" (2011) By Christian Schaeffer

One doesn't normally associate Ozzy Osbourne, the self-annointed Prince of Darkness, with the holiday season (though his kindred metalheads Rob Halford and Twisted Sister have recorded holiday albums for some reason). Likewise, heavy metal and New Orleans brass music seem like odd bedfellows, but somehow the Funky Butt Brass Band combined all these divergent threads with "Crazy Sleigh," its seasonal rewrite of Ozzy's deathless "Crazy Train." Coming at the end of 2011's Shiny Christmas Balls EP, Funky Butt's trumpet player and vocalist Adam Hucke channels his inner bad boy as guest guitarist Tony Esterly drops some meedly-mee riffage over the horn players' low end.

Not unlike Spinal Tap's "Christmas with the Devil," FBBB's song takes the holidays someplace sinister as Santa Claus works through his own Festivus-like list of grievances. Mrs. Claus is driving the jolly old elf crazy, Rudolph's honker is red from a nosebleed (perhaps a snoot too much snow for the old boy?) and it looks like everyone can expect a lump of coal this year. At the very least, it's comforting to know that even Santa himself gets overwhelmed by the stress of Christmas.

Cocktail pairing: Skip the egg nog and go straight for the Jack Daniels; maybe call Skeeter and see if he can score an eight-ball.

Loud and Live: You can hear this song and a host of other holiday goodies at Funky Butt's sixth annual Holiday Brasstravaganza shows this weekend, Friday and Saturday nights at Off Broadway. Tickets are $15 in advance, $25 for reserved balcony seating.

Follow through for more songs of St. Louis Christmas. #9: Kamikaze Cowboy, "White Christmas/Silver Bells/White Christmas" (2000) By Roy Kasten

Bob Reuter fucking hated Christmas. I know because he told me so, many times. But as with everything the songwriter, band leader, photographer, writer and DJ said, the statement had more than a few meanings. For Reuter, the happiest time of the year was often a lonely and resentful time. But maybe he despised the season because deep down, like all of us, he wanted to love it -- and then the fucking choirs and the sidewalk Santas and the bullshit -- as only Christmas can do bullshit -- would start up again, like a toxic, sticky, fake snowfall that never ends. Or so it so often seems.

And that's the emotional weather report churned out by Bob Reuter and Kamikaze Cowboy, the band he led through the '90s and the early 2000s. Featuring producer Mike Martin on bass, Mike Enderle on drums and John Horton (of the Bottle Rockets) on guitar, the band rocks all hell's silver bells out of two of the most beloved (and, in certain moods, most detestable) of Yuletide tunes. Punk bands have often screwed with these songs, but no band has ever mashed them up as Kamikaze Cowboy did (Reuter even gives a snarling parody of another sacred pop text: the chanted refrain of Darlene Love's "Christmas Baby, Please Come Home").

Still, the band is clearly having a blast, and expressing some kind of demented affection for these classics, with Horton shredding on guitar, Enderle laying into his kit and everybody going berserk on the sleigh bells. "What do you mean no presents this year?" Reuter says at the end. Probably not, but the greatest gift for Reuter was punk-rock love.

Where you'll find it: Though it's long out of print, the Better Than Fruitcake: Nourishing Holiday Classics by St. Louis' Finest Rockers collection from 2000 laid the groundwork for Matt Harnish's (of Bunnygrunt fame) A Very Bert Dax Christmas annual STL holiday compilations. It deserves a reprint.

The First (Reuter) Noel: As heard and seen in a performance of an early, original tune called "Christmas Song" (recorded for Meadowlands Showcase TV, a late '80s-'90s New Jersey cable program produced by Michael Raso and John Fedele), Bob Reuter sounds like a country-folk crooner looking for a muse. But the lines "There ain't no snow on the ground and my thermostat has been turned down/The Christmas lights are gone and I'll spend Christmas nights alone -- to live" are still somehow classic Reuter.

#10: The Temptations, "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" (1970) By Christian Schaeffer

The beauty of the Motown machine was both its industry and its quality control: Berry Gordy may have leaned on his star players to make Christmas albums, but the songs and production were up to the label's usual high standards. That means that the Motown holiday comps are studded with gems like Stevie Wonder's peace carol "Someday at Christmas," Marvin Gaye's silken "Purple Snowflakes" and the can't-cut-it-with-a-knife funk of the Jackson 5 album.

While nearly every Motown act from the label's golden era cut at least one Christmas single, many of the marquee names released full albums -- in the case of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, two full albums. The Temptations Christmas Card is by no means the best Motown Christmas release nor the pinnacle of the quintet's career, but its soft-focus orchestrations smooth out the band's funkier, rock-influenced direction of the late '60s. Oddly, the standout tracks are of the kiddie-music variety; both "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Little Drummer Boy" show invention and soul in the arrangements and performances.

But the Temptations' tie to St. Louis comes through Dennis Edwards, a vocalist hired to replace David Ruffin in 1968. The deep grain of his voice, alongside his gospel-tinged inflections, left an indelible mark on the late-'60s hits like "Cloud Nine" (which won the label its first Grammy) and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." Edwards take the lead on "Let it Snow!", luxuriating in the ballad tempo and drawing out each syllable with husky vibrato and plenty of romantic soul.

Liner Notes: Trainspotters have argued over which of the Funk Brothers, Motown's in-house backing band, played on the album, though this site suggests that solid-gold bassist James Jamerson is only present on "Let It Snow," making this cut doubly worthwhile.

Where is He Now?: Edwards still lives in St. Louis and occasionally tours with his own Temptations revue, as this 2011 spot from Fox 2 (KTVI) informs us.

Follow through for the last 2 songs of STL Christmas. #11: Chuck Berry, "Spending Christmas" (1964) By Roy Kasten

As far as the world knows, Chuck Berry has only recorded three Christmas songs: "Run Rudolph Run," "Merry Christmas, Baby" (written by Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore) and "Spending Christmas." There may yet be more in the vaults, but for now these sum up the father of rock & roll's statement on the season.

Dating from a December 15, 1964 session at Chess Studios in Chicago, "Spending Christmas" was never officially released by Chess until the brilliant box set You Never Can Tell: The Complete Chess Recordings 1960-1966, and if you think you've heard all the Chuck you need to hear, you've got another thing or a dozen coming (and then there's this forthcoming beast as well). "Spending Christmas" serves as a glistening reminder of just what a good ballad singer the greatest living rock & roller could be, how much jazz and blues he could summon, and how Nat King Cole really was his idol, as the man claimed.

But "Spending Christmas" is pure Chuck, with all the right accents, with his impeccable phrasing and a fulsome sense of longing for family and home that he felt when he was on the road. Even as he channels the holiday blues of Charles Brown, he distills the loneliness of this season in every guitar line, in every bittersweet syllable.

Who the players are: Chuck Berry is such a grand figure in popular music it's easy to forget the musicians who surrounded him. On "Spending Christmas" he's back by a band he picked up at the Butterscotch Lounge in Gaslight Square in St. Louis: Jules Blattner (guitar), Bill Bixler (bass), Howard Jones (drums) and Brian Hamilton (saxophone).

Where to listen: Anywhere but especially if you're far from home this Christmas.

#12: Rough Shop, "Just Because It Was Christmas" (2009) By Christian Schaeffer

Perhaps you read our feature on Rough Shop a few weeks back, or maybe you've attended the band's annual pageant-like holiday shows, but it's no secret that the quintet takes Christmas music seriously. With this year's Lit Up Like a Christmas Tree, the band has now issued two full-lengths of largely original compositions, most of which come from the brains of co-leaders Andy Ploof and John Wendland.

Ploof takes the lead on what has become Rough Shop's marquee Christmas song, the band's purest distillation of what the season means to its members. Christmas songs written for adults have to tread the terrain between nostalgia and reality -- Santa is a myth, peace on earth is just a crazy dream and the stress of the holidays threatens to overwhelm the whole enterprise. And yet the purity of those beliefs don't totally fade with age; the season still holds sway as it did when we were young.

"Everything that I remember," Ploof sings, "you remember it the same way." It's hard to tell if the protagonist is singing to a romantic partner with whom he has weathered many seasons, or to a sibling who can recall every bauble on the tree and every scratch on the family copy of Nat "King" Cole's The Christmas Song. It doesn't really matter; Christmas brings back these memories in a Proustian flood, and Rough Shop does its best to corral them into song.

Jingle Jangle: Ploof's electric 12-string gives a Byrds-y jangle to the track that's matched by Spencer Marquart's sleigh bells, and somewhere in the distance orchestral chimes rings out like the Bells of of St. Mary's.

Further Listening: "Just Because it was Christmas" is the title track to the band's 2009 holiday collection; 2014's Lit Up Like a Christmas Tree is available in vinyl, compact disc and digital formats. Sample it at Rough Shop's Bandcamp page.

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