In a land where music and festivity are obsessions, the music for the world’s most revered festivity has the same objectives as elsewhere—reflecting on good times, family and friends, home and one’s beliefs. Of course, even New Orleans Christmas music runs a wild spectrum from classical to zydeco.
In both respects, Creole Christmas, the first major attempt to compile a Christmas collection of different New Orleans styles, succeeds beautifully. The album was put together by locals Warren and Steve Valentino and New Yorker John Wonderling, a record producer and engineer who has compiled some 22 gold records for the likes of Pat Benatar and Bonnie Raitt.
In July, Wonderling was visiting New Orleans for the first time on vacation. “I went out one night and I absolutely fell in love with New Orleans,” says Wonderling. “I was just totally overwhelmed going from one bar to another on Bourbon Street, as dumpy as some places are, walking into a bar and hearing a great R&B or rock band. Walking into another bar I saw 18 black women singing gospel in white robes at a place that had like seven tables. Turn a corner and you could see the little black kids putting taps on their sneakers.
“When we were down, there were torrential rains, like four inches of water in the streets. And I hear this brass band playing. I went outside. There were like four guys in the middle of the street and these two little kids tap dancing, splashing all over the place, trying to make some money on the street from tourists that weren’t there. Instead of just holding their hands out and begging, they’re down there and everybody’s really trying to do what they can. You know, at 6 a.m. there’s somebody playing the guitar by a breakfast joint.
“I mean, music was everywhere. And everybody takes it for granted, but I don’t. Even the bad music is great, because it’s just a feeling the city has.
“I was trying to figure out a way to put it all on one record, which would generally not be accepted—zydeco, jazz and R&B. So I was trying to find a common denominator.”
The common thread came from a promotional album, also titled Creole Christmas, that had been produced in 1986 by Wonderling’s brother-in-law’s brothers, Steve and Warren Valentino. For the production team, it formed the basis for putting across the diversity of New Orleans music to a national audience—prominent local artists doing songs that everyone knows.
In August, Wonderling, together with the Valentinos and arranger Charles Brent, started recording local artists at Ultrasonic and Southlake studios. He used the cream of local musicians, like drummer John Vidacovich, pianist David Torkanowsky, guitarist Steve Hughes and bassist George Porter.
As is often the case for an outside producer coming to New Orleans, Wonderling encountered problems and misunderstandings. It is a credit to him that even with his admitted ignorance of what he was getting into—he didn’t know the difference between Cajun and zydeco and had never even heard Charles Brown’s R&B Christmas standards—that he was able to produce an album that captured both the Christmas spirit and the richness of local music without blatantly commercializing either.
“If someone’s coming from outside, sometimes New Orleans can be its own worst enemy,” says Frankie Ford. “I mean, somebody might have a good idea. When you close your mind to someone on the outside coming in—heck, you can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket. There’s so many of these people sitting around in New Orleans cursing the dark. They won’t get out and make a record and light a candle.”
“We liked it,” says Rosa Hawkins of the Dixie Cups. “I think that if it can get enough airplay that it’ll open up some more doors for all the artists…it isn’t the traditional way that the Christmas carols sound. He’s a very good producer and I hope that we can work with him in the future.”
“I’m very easy to work with,” says Wonderling. “I’m pretty demanding in the studio because I want certain things…the Johnny Adams thing, those two notes at the end that are really high, I worked with him over an hour just on those two notes. Everybody looked at us—‘What are they doing?’ And Johnny was great. Johnny said, ‘Man, I know what you want, I know you want to get it right and I really love that.”’
“John’s a nice dude. He gets the job done,” says Johnny Adams. “Some guys, they go in the studio and they want to tell the man how to run their operation. But if a guy’s payin’ you, you’re supposed to do what he wants. Either that or you can’t make it.”
With the basic tracks cut in New Orleans, John headed back to New York where he added overdubs on them and to four songs he used from the 1986 sessions by Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, Allen Toussaint and Luther Kent as he shopped the album around.
“I’ve been in the music business 25 years,” says Wonderling, “and this is the first time in my life I ever had five offers. The problem was I had five offers for next year…Everybody said I was too late, all the Christmas records should have been in by July. They should start shipping or ordering by August. And here I am still working right into September. And fortunately Epic came through…for less money than I wanted, but at least they were getting it out.
“Now I’m getting Volume Two ready. Suddenly all these people that I was trying to get in the beginning—I wanted the Neville Brothers and the Meters—they were just not quite accessible enough. They either didn’t know who I was, or I didn’t have a record deal and they didn’t want to participate. Suddenly they all called after I finished the record, including Al Hirt, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Radiators, Zachary Richard—these are all people I want for the next one.”
“I think New Orleans should be a musical capital. I don’t know why it hasn’t been done yet. I’d like to do this, instead of what Connick and Wynton Marsalis have done—just done their stuff and left. I’d like to really concentrate on New Orleans, there’s a lot of talent down there. And I think it should be like Nashville is, a nice little town built strictly on music.”
“The business community by and large needs to pay attention to music as a business as opposed to taking it for granted and thinking that it’s just a bunch of drunken musicians and stoned out people.”
But even negatives like the lack of a strong music industry and misunderstandings with musicians haven’t dampened Wonderling’s enthusiasm. He says, “I’m seriously considering moving down there.”
White Christmas (Allen Toussaint):
Toussaint rocks up the standard the way boogie woogie pianist Albert Ammons (and Fats Domino) did “Swanee River.” This is immediately a vast improvement from the original Creole Christmas, as it removes the plastic-sounding drum machine that marred the original.
Please Come Home for Christmas (Johnny Adams):
Unlike Johnny’s straightforward reading of this Charles Brown plum on his Christmas album, here he gives a powerful R&B attack, ending with a piercing cry guaranteed to curl your stockings and trim your tree. “Whatever song you do that’s previously recorded by another artist, you gotta do it equal or better,” says Johnny, “—at least set his mind to wondering, “’Wow! I wonder why I didn’t do it like that!’”
Jingle Bell Rock (Frankie Ford):
Frankie and Dixie Cups are celebrating the holidays with two Christmas albums this yule—Frankie does “White Christmas” and the Dixies do “Rudolph” on Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas, which is available in fine TV commercials everywhere. He does a solid rendition of this “rocker,” which Wonderling says “makes everybody smile.”
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (Pete Fountain):
Pete’s licorice stick becomes a candy cane. The sweetness boils over into a wonderful Christmas second-line stomp, pumped by the drumming. Pete will be seen doing this on The Tonight Show the first week of December.
O Holy Night (Irma Thomas):
This is an alternate take from the original Creole Christmas LP. Irma’s voice and the drums are brought forward with considerably more presence in this tour-de-force—amazingly, the only example of Irma recording “gospel” music—backed by Doris Lee and the Heralds of Christ.
Jingle Bells (Rockin’ Dopsie):
“I wanted to do something silly and uptempo,” comments Wonderling. “So we arrived at ‘Jingle Bells’…everybody’s out of tune, it’s funny stuff. It’s another thing like Frankie that makes you smile. I mean, you’re really groovin’ on Luther Kent and then all of a sudden—bang! here’s this thing with washboards and accordions.”
Merry Christmas Baby (Dr. John):
Mac delivers his blackest and bluest (and sexiest) vocals in many a Christmas, backed by his own piano and organ and drummer Fred Staehle, guitarist Hugh McCrackin, and bassist Wilbur Baskin. They roast the Charles Brown chestnut with a fiery blues arrangement and even a Muddy Waters-style break. “We got together at Sigma Town Studios in New York three days before the album was supposed to be in to Epic,” notes Wonderling. Mac recorded as early as 1959 with Brown, who recorded what he himself considers the definitive version of the song in New Orleans in 1956.
Let It Snow (The Dixie Cups):
A delightful bit of snowy fluff from a place where snow is as common as upstanding politicians. “The only Christmas record I ever really listened to was the Phil Spector record,” says Wonderling. “I wanted something a little bit lighter—more toward what the Spector situation was…I did a pretty good arrangement underneath the track and Mark Rivera, who is Billy Joel’s sax player, is doing lead on that.”
The Christmas Song (Aaron Neville):
This track was used on a promotional Neville Brothers CD last year. Here, Wonderling brings Aaron’s voice up front and eliminated the floating flutes and flowery piano playing, perhaps figuring that Aaron’s voice is so sweet that any additional confection takes away.
It Came Upon A Midnight Clear (Luther Kent):
“Luther Kent I think is in California,” says Wonderling. “He just cut an album with Mike Post. I think he is an amazing singer. First time I heard his voice I thought it was a typical black voice. I was shocked to find out he was white…He wails”
Go Tell It On the Mountain (Zion Harmonizers):
This 50+-year-old gospel quartet provided a major highlight for Wonderling. “They were wonderful. They came in there and they all held hands and prayed, ‘Please, lord. Bless this recording John is about to make’…They invited me to their church. We got along so well, in fact, I even sang with them because I was coming up with different parts they wouldn’t ordinarily do…They were so psyched about what they did that they all started applauding at the end of it. I left it on there.”