Ray Charles was such a celebrity during the last decade or so of his life that sometimes it is forgotten just what a huge influence he exerted upon American music. From his first releases in the early 1950’s until his death in 2004 at the age of 73 he established a catalog of music that has rarely been equaled.
I find it almost amazing that he did not issue a Christmas album until 1985. The Spirit Of Christmas was originally issued on vinyl and has been reissued several times in CD form, but none match the clarity of this 2009 remastered version.
The album was a moderate seller upon its release but received a great deal of attention several years later when one of its tracks became well known as a part of the movie Christmas Vacation. As the Chevy Chase character Clark Griswold watches old movies of family Christmas’ it is “That Spirit Of Christmas” which plays in the background. It is one of the finest Christmas performances you can find as Charles’ subdued and relaxed vocal gets the words and spirit of the song just right. Here you receive the full five minute version.
There are a number of well known secular seasonal songs which receive his unique treatment. “Little Drummer Boy” uses a steel guitar and a horn section to support his bluesy lead vocal. “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” has a swinging jazzy feel which is far from what Gene Autry had in mind. He even manages to make the over recorded “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” not only listenable, but actually very good.
He goes in a different direction with some lesser known songs. “Christmas Time” and “Christmas In My Heart” both return him to his rhythm and blues vocal roots.
There is one bonus track. “Baby Its Cold Outside” is a duet with Betty Carter and was recorded by them in the early sixties. It was a traditional pop song written by Frank Loesser which won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1949. It may not be a reverent Christmas song, but it is a great one. Charles and Carter get the humorous vocal interplay just right and it provides a nice finale to the album.
The Spirit Of Christmas is a fine addition to any Christmas collection and always receives some holiday play in my home.