The 12 Best Songs For a St. Louis Christmas

Dec 25, 2014 at 3:00 am
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.