Gospel music and Christmas go together like sleigh bells and reindeer. Nearly all popular gospel singers and choirs record a Christmas album, a tradition dating back to 1926 when the Elkins Mixed Quartette released “Silent Night, Holy Night” on Paramount Records, becoming the first African American vocal group to commercially record a Christmas carol. Learn about the legacy these Christmas songs hold today and where you can hear them performed this season in an extended piece delving into the Christmas Classics performed by Chicago's own talent and the country's Gospel great.
Two years after Elkins Mixed Quartet's Christmas release, Chicago planted its flag in the burgeoning Christmas record market when the Lucy Smith Jubilee Singers of All Nations Pentecostal Church recorded “There Was No Room in the Hotel.” The song’s aural depiction of the Holy Family’s futile search for lodging no doubt resonated with blacks who struggled to find accommodations while traveling through Jim Crow America.
Not surprisingly, it was the guitar-toting, genre-bending Sister Rosetta Tharpe—a Chicago resident for a short time—to demonstrate the lucrative sales potential of Christmas records by gospel artists. In 1949, she and her new background vocal group, the Rosettes, recorded “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” for Decca. The two-sider soared to #8 on Billboard’s R&B Hit Singles chart. At a time when blacks were rarely, if ever, seen on TV, the single earned Tharpe and the Rosettes a January 1, 1950, appearance with Perry Como on CBS-TV’s “Supper Club.”
Tharpe’s record caught her gospel contemporaries completely off guard. The following autumn, diskeries flooded the market with Christmas singles by gospel soloists and groups. Chicago’s Mahalia Jackson released her arrangement of “Silent Night,” coupled with the Christmas spiritual, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” on Apollo, and it sold wildly. Philadelphia’s Ward Singers riposted with their own version of “Silent Night,” while the Angelic Gospel Singers hit pay dirt with “Glory, Glory, to the New Born King.” The Christmas gospel recording industry was underway.
But of the thousands of Christmas gospel releases, twelve traditional gospel classics stand out. If you don’t want to seek out the originals on vinyl, they can be heard on various CD reissues and probably on YouTube.
1. “Glory, Glory to the New Born King” - Angelic Gospel Singers (Gotham, 1950)
Philadelphia’s Angelic Gospel Singers hit it big in 1949 with their debut, “Touch Me, Lord Jesus.” Riding high on their newfound national popularity, the ladies waxed the Christmas song “Glory, Glory to the New Born King” for Gotham the following year. Historian Horace Clarence Boyer wrote that the song became as popular in the African American community as “White Christmas” was in the white community. It remained so until Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” (1970) surpassed it.
2. “O Holy Night” - Marion Williams (Savoy, 1959)
Legendary gospel soprano Marion Williams moved the Ward Singers up a little higher before stepping out on her own in 1958. She fashioned the Stars of Faith from fellow members of the Wards aggregation. One year later, Marion and the Stars of Faith waxed a Christmas album for Savoy Records. On the album, Marion performs “O Holy Night” as a solo. While the entire song is a masterpiece, its finest moment comes at the composition’s emotional apex, when Marion launches one of her signature high-whoos, like a sonic rocket, heavenward. The album inspired the musical version of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity.”
3. “Christmas Morn” - Charles Watkins (Savoy, 1951)
Before Charles Watkins became a Bishop in the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, he was one of the smoothest male vocalists to ever grace gospel music. He is best remembered for his 1963 “Heartaches,” while “Christmas Morn” remains an obscure title, although that is unfortunate. The performance is as heartwarming as Nat Cole’s versions of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.” Forget global warming: the polar ice cap began melting when Watkins falsettoed “Merry Christmas to you” in the song’s final bars.
4. “Pretty Little Baby” - James Cleveland and the Cleveland Singers (Savoy, 1968)
This is a Christmas spiritual, sung slowly and with much gravity and passion by Chicago-born Rev. James Cleveland, whose coarse, pious voice always seemed one beat away from a full-out sob. The Cleveland Singers increase and decrease in intensity in all the right places, making this one of Cleveland’s most perfect recordings in his forty-year career.
5. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” – Pilgrim Travelers (Specialty, 1952)
The Pilgrim Travelers were one of the finest a cappella gospel quartets of the Golden Era when they lent their voices to this popular Christmas song, as relevant during the Korean War as it was when Bing Crosby sung it for homesick World War II soldiers and their families. The Travelers’ version, however, emphasizes the difference between the two wars. It is not nearly as optimistic about soldiers returning from Korea as was Crosby’s 1943 classic. Instead, it stoops under the weight and weariness of continued conflict. The Hawaiian guitar flourishes at the end, added presumably to brighten the arrangement, are lost in the fog of loneliness and despair.
6a. “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” – Wings over Jordan Choir (RCA Victor, 1948) &
6b. “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” – Rev. Cleophus Robinson (Peacock, 1967)
6a. Men and women of all races and creeds who grew up in the 1940s recall fondly the CBS Wings over Jordan radio program, where they heard some of the most moving spiritual singing on the planet. Who better, then, to render Robert MacGimsey’s neo-spiritual than Wings over Jordan? The Cleveland-based chorus sings the composition like a teary lullaby, with lovingly hushed harmonies.
6b. Rev. Cleophus Robinson’s take on the composition two decades later, however, eschews the supplicant quietude and aims straight for the theme’s parallel to the plight of African Americans in the 1960s. Robinson’s gravitas on the line, “The world treat you mean, Lord/Treat me that way, too,” is almost guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of your neck.
7. “Jesus Christ, the Baby” – Six Trumpets feat. Maggie Ingram (Nashboro, 1961)
This Christmas gospel favorite introduced the sweet, girl-group soprano of Maggie Ingram. The Six Trumpets male quartet supporting Ingram chant “baby” (as in Jesus) in the background, though it sounds for all the world as if they are chanting “Maggie.” Ingram went on to form a successful family group called the Ingramettes, but she never again replicated the charmingly graceful performance of her debut.
8. “Follow the Star” – Edwin Hawkins, feat. Richard Smallwood (Birthright, 1985)
Richard Smallwood wrote “Follow the Star” and accompanied the Hawkins Family on their performance of it for their 1985 Christmas album. “Follow the Star” features a chorus of beautiful, tight harmonies, crisp and invigorating as a starry winter night. A master of the expansive, emotional finish, Smallwood wrote a real heart-wrenching coda for “Follow the Star.” It alone will elicits sighs of wonder and soul satisfaction..
9. "When Was Jesus Born" - Patterson Singers (United Artists, 1968)
Brooklyn's effervescent Patterson Singers were no strangers to Christmas songs, having performed a few in 1963 for a Christmas album produced by Chicago's Vee Jay Records. For "When Was Jesus Born," however, they are in concert in Frankfort, West Germany, shouting this timeless spiritual at an elite runner's pace. The Pattersons' rhythmic stutter during the litany of months at the composition's center drives the audience into a frenzy.
10. "White Christmas" - Vocalaires of Newport News, VA (Pinewood, early 1970s)The Vocalaires male quartet, like the Ravens and Drifters before them, turned Irving Berlin's zillion seller into a rousing, fun doo-wop. While the Ravens' and Drifters' recordings remained fairly faithful to the original, the Vocalaires sing the lyrics to a standard 50s doo-wop song structure, resplendent with playful booming bass lines and high harmonies.
11. “Joy to the World” – Stars of Black Nativity (Vee Jay, 1962)
Alex Bradford and the Bradford Singers, Marion Williams and the Stars of Faith, and Princess Stewart served as the original cast for Langston Hughes’ captivating interpretation of the Nativity. Like the Christmas Star, “Black Nativity” was witnessed the world over. “Joy to the World” was performed for the stage production and original soundtrack by Professor Bradford and his Singers. It was a stroke of genius: the group’s over-the-top effervescence was perfect for this musical explosion of exaltation.
12. “Silent Night” – Mahalia Jackson (Apollo, 1950)
Franz Gruber and Josef Mohr wrote this Christmas chestnut in 1818, but when Mahalia Jackson wrapped her gospel tonsils around it 132 years later, you’d swear the two Austrians wrote the song expressly for her. Millions have sung this carol in just about every known language, but few with the straightforward, heartwarming religious intensity of ‘Halie.
The Christmas carol catalogue has long since been reworked to fit within the currently-popular contemporary and Praise & Worship styles of gospel music. Nevertheless, one can hear Christmas carols and sacred songs of the holidays sung with traditional fervor at several Chicago churches. Here is a list of some upcoming Christmas programs:
Don't Miss These Holiday Concerts
Apostolic Church of God (12/8) A concert of Christmas music will accompany the regular 9:10 and 11:40 a.m. services on Sunday, December 8. 773-667-1500 (6320 South Dorchester Avenue)
The Moody Church (12/15): Its annual Christmas Festival of sacred classics and holiday favorites will take place in its Sanctuary on Sunday, December 15, at 6:00 p.m. 312-327-8600 (1635 North LaSalle Street)
Cosmopolitan Community Church (12/22): Gregory Gay, music minster, reports that the church’s traditional Candle Lighting Service will occur Sunday, December 22, and include a performance of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” 773-536-3610 (5249 South Wabash Avenue)
First Church of Deliverance (12/22): The church’s annual pre-Christmas service is planned for Sunday, December 22. 77-373-7700 (4315 South Wabash Avenue)