Just when you thought you couldn't bear to hear another sappy version of "Jingle Bell Rock," along comes a finger-popping package of holiday tunes with a funky doo-wop sensibility to save your soul.
With its street-corner harmonies and stripped-down production, this record sounds like the corner of 47th and Cottage Grove on a winter afternoon.
Henry Farag, who spends most of his time producing the "Let the Good Times Roll" oldies concert series, pulled together a group of artists from Chicago and Gary, Indiana, to wrap the sounds of the 50s around some traditional Christmas songs and a few new ones written for the occasion. The result, a 15-song album called Street Carols, was released last Christmas in Chicago and on the east coast. Though only 15,000 copies were pressed the response was overwhelming, so this year Farag has reissued the record and organized a concert to unite the artists on it for the first time.
"I always wanted to do an album of doo-wop," Farag says. "In July of '91, I decided to do it with just my group, Stormy Weather. Then I thought, the Spaniels are here in Gary, let's have a special guest like they used to do on albums in the 50s. Then I called Jerry Butler and it grew from there."
Local legend Jerry "Ice Man" Butler--Cook County commissioner and the original lead singer for the Impressions--had just been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. "I was in my office when Henry called and said 'We're doing an album of street-corner doo-wop,'" says Butler. "I said OK. Henry said do 'Little Drummer Boy.' I said Lou Rawls did it and nobody can touch it. He said 'White Christmas.' I said Nat Cole's version is the ultimate. So I told him to go write me a song. He came back with 'Little Red Shoes.'"
With accompaniment by Gary native Donald Kinsey of the Kinsey Report on acoustic guitar and Gary's Emerson School of the Visual and Performing Arts providing choral backup, "Little Red Shoes" boasts the biggest production on the album. Butler's stirring rendition may become a standard in its own right.
After that, Farag called on his old friend Marshall Thompson, founder of the Chi-Lites. "We had been trying to put a Christmas song together for years," says Thompson. "We thought a doo-wop album was a unique idea. We finally wrote a song in about a month."
Known for classic 70s hits like "Oh Girl" and "Have You Seen Her," the Chi-Lites re-create that soulful pop sound with "It's the Time." Packed with luscious harmonies, this rhythmic original wipes all traces of recent weak remakes of Chi-Lites songs cleanly out of your mind.
Farag originally planned to showcase only Chicago and Gary talent, but he made one appropriate exception. "We were listening to all the cuts and we thought, who else but Ronnie?" he says. "She's become a sort of Ms. Pop Christmas with the Spector Christmas album."
But Ronnie Spector's performance here, a shaky a cappella version of Frankie Lymon's "Creation of Love," is nothing like the overproduced fluff on Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You. It offers the rare opportunity to hear the legendary quirky voice--the archetypal sound of 60s girl groups--without the cushion of Spector's famous "wall of sound."
Farag wound up collecting additional cuts from the Spaniels ("Peace of Mind"), Diamonds lead singer David Sommerville ("The Last Month of the Year"), and former Chess Records producer Gene "Daddy G" Barge ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"). Most of the tunes are sung a cappella; some have a few "street musicians" thrown in for backup. And even "Jingle Bell Rock" sounds like it's being sung by a bunch of guys standing outside your window.
The Street Carols concert is Saturday, December 19, at the Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, Indiana (734-7266). Tickets are $23 plus handling, and the show starts at 7:30. If you can't make it you can catch the same lineup on a TV special airing at 4 PM on NBC the same day.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.