New Orleans’ history of Christmas music actually begins fairly recently: For all the great records that came out of this city in the ’50s and ’60s, only a precious few of them were seasonal. Many local legends (Armstrong, Prima, Toussaint) only recorded one-off Christmas tracks, and at least one, Professor Longhair, never waxed any seasonal music at all. That all changed in the CD era, as local songwriters did their best to put some new spice into the Christmas repertoire.
This stab at an ultimate New Orleans holiday playlist list culls many of the greatest in chronological order. Consider this a seasonal addendum to our book, “300 Songs for 300 Years”—which, we hasten to add, makes an excellent Christmas gift.
“What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’?)” (Louis Prima, 1936) A pressing question indeed, and in 1936 Louis Prima was the man to ask it. Having recently left New Orleans to launch his career on the West Coast, by now Prima likely knew plenty about parties that don’t wrap early enough to give the fat man a quiet hour to leave gifts; the band on this record was his original New Orleans Gang. Note that it also asks what Santa will do “when he hears them sing-sing-singing,” a reference to his hit from earlier that year.
“Please Come Home for Christmas” (Charles Brown, 1960) Really, has a better modern Christmas song ever been written? In contrast to the usual reverence and jollity, this soulful Charles Brown tune allows that hearts can often use some healing at this time of year. Brown’s original version was cut at Cosimo Matassa’s studio on Governor Nichols Street in 1960. Johnny Adams did an equally soulful version in 1977—though few people outside of Louisiana ever heard that single, it sounds like someone in the Eagles did, because their hit version a year later used the same arrangement. Aaron Neville’s latter-day version is no slouch either.
“Rock & Roll Santa Claus” (Huey Piano Smith & the Clowns, 1962) To its eternal credit, the Clowns’ 1962 Christmas album was way too wild for a national audience. It sure sounds like spirits were high in the studio, which may be why so many musical giants make appearances. This track features a young but recognizable Mac Rebennack explaining a recent change: “Santa done moved from the North Pole … People down there don’t rock and roll!” Don’t bother wondering why the North Pole is “down there.”
“Zat You, Santa Claus?” (Louis Armstrong, 1963) A contender for the most jovial vocal performance Satchmo ever cut. The song itself isn’t quite classic, but the glee in Armstrong’s voice makes it seem that way—it’s also enormous fun to sing, which explains why it’s gotten so many covers. Interestingly the original 45 gave co-billing to the Commanders, a West Coast big band who joined him for this session. During that very same Christmas season, Armstrong recorded a version of “Hello Dolly!” which would serve him well in the year to come.
“No Room at the Inn” (Mahalia Jackson, 1968) The queen of gospel actually cut this song twice, in two very different arrangements. The first version (1955) is jubilant gospel, but she revisited it for her 1968 Christmas album, released shortly after her tribute album for the Rev. Martin Luther King. In this version it’s slowed down to a funereal pace and her voice is that much more stately and regal; in this context the civil-rights overtones of the lyric are hard to miss.
“Party This Christmas” (Rockin’ Sidney, 1986) This was recorded around the same time as “My Toot Toot,” and has the same strengths: It’s dead simple and relentlessly upbeat, with a tune you can’t get out of your head. He truly was the Ramones of zydeco, aside from the drum machine.
“All I Want for Christmas is You” (Vince Vance & the Valiants, 1989) Though perhaps best remembered for “Bomb Iran,” this local group had a brighter moment with this seasonal nugget, sung by band member Lisa Layne and sounding more like a swamp-pop record from two decades earlier. The only sign of the novelty side was the single’s original cover, which showed Vance in a bouffant wig. Ironically, that’s exactly what made it a hit: A country station in Baltimore spun the record as a joke and wound up loving it; it made the national country charts in six different years (and of course, isn’t to be confused with the Mariah Carey song of the same name).
“The 12 Yats of Christmas” (Benny Grunch & the Bunch, 1990) Parodies of “12 Days” are nearly as eternal as the season itself, and Grunch’s merry crew came up with one of the best—and certainly the most locally-slanted one. Replacing the partridge with “a crawfish they caught in Arabi,” it goes on to poke good-natured fun at a bunch of local habits and accents.
“Santa Baby” (Charmaine Neville, 1990) Not a lot of locals were making Christmas albums in the ’90s, so the best tracks were stashed away on compilation albums—like this one, originally on the Mardi Gras album Christmas in New Orleans. This is of course the old Eartha Kitt hit and Neville has an unheard-of amount of fun with it—playing with the lyrics and the melody and flirting with Santa for all she’s worth. It gives the Kitt original a run for its money and easily beats the Madonna version.
“Oh Holy Night” (Irma Thomas, 1994) It’s a shame that Irma Thomas never made a full Christmas album (not yet anyway), especially when you hear the wonders she works with this traditional carol (on her gospel album, Walk Around Heaven). She takes it slow so she can wrap her voice around every syllable, the way she emphasizes the “Oh night divine” would do Mahalia Jackson proud. And if you didn’t know that the original carol had some rather topical lyrics (“In His name all oppression shall cease”), now you do.
“Christmas Bayou” (Beausoleil, 1994) Tucked away on Beausoleil’s Christmas album—which was mostly seasonal standards in French and English—was this nifty Michael Doucet original, which catches the band at its most progressive. Lyrically it deals with a familiar theme—traditions and the need for holding onto them—but musically it’s modern swamp rock, with the accordion doing a rock-keyboard riff.
“I Told Santa Claus” (Fats Domino, 1999) Oddly Fats waited until the late ’90s to record any Christmas music, and the album Christmas is a Special Day is a bit of an oddity, with mostly familiar songs shoehorned into the Fats groove. This original tune is a keeper though, using the holidays as occasion for a marriage proposal. Aside from the synthesizer solo (How often did Fats play one of those?), it sounds like something he could have done decades earlier.
“The 12 Drinks of Christmas” (Frankie Ford, 2001) So you thought “Sea Cruise” was his greatest record? Guess again. On this inebriated classic, Ford imbib ecording attests more than anything else to Ford’s masterful comic timing, which won’t be a surprise to anyone who ever saw him live. It starts out fairly coherent, by the end it’s “Twelve marna-gritas…10 Ramos foozes.…tee dry martoonies…and a tree with a bird in it!”
“The Day it Snows on Christmas” (Allen Toussaint, 2004) The producers of the 2004 collection Christmas Gumbo tailored the songs to an A-list of local legends. Toussaint, of course, gets a song filled with elegance and sly humor, detailing all the unlikely things that would also happen if New Orleans gets a white Christmas (“Tchoupitoulas won’t have one pothole/ And the Saints will go marching to the Super Bowl”). There is of course a bit of sad irony to this one: New Orleans did get some snow around Christmas that year, followed by worse weather conditions some months later (and the Saints went to the Super Bowl). But the good nature of this song endures, as do the potholes on Tchoupitoulas.
“A Saints Christmas” (Kermit Ruffins, 2009) The fact that Christmas falls around football season has fueled many a song—not least this jovial one from Kermit, who reminds us that it was easy to request a Saints victory for Christmas, since he always sees Santa hanging out in the Treme. Suffice it to say that he seems to have caught Santa in a more accommodating mood during 2019.
“Drunk This Christmas” (Paul Sanchez, 2009) One of many highlights on the Threadhead Records Christmas album, this one finds Sanchez at his most lowdown, detailing the after-effects of a Christmas Eve on the tiles, including waking up with company. “Maybe I should kiss her, but would she be ashamed/ If I said merry Christmas, baby what’s your name?”
“The World at Christmas Time” (Susan Cowsill, 2009) From the same album comes the kind of emotive pop song that’s always been Cowsill’s specialty. The lyric is bittersweet and the vocal open-hearted, celebrating the connections that people feel on the holiday: “It’s magic when you smile at me/ You don’t know my name, do you? At Christmas time, the world’s magic too.” Lovely stuff.
“Jingle Bells” (Wynton Marsalis, 2009) The titles of Marsalis’ two Christmas albums tell the story: The first was Crescent City Christmas Card, so the arrangements accordingly land on the sweet side. But the second, Christmas Jazz Jam is exactly that, using the carols as jumping-off point for some swinging improv by a large studio band. The seven-minute “Jingle Bells” is a real roof-raiser, getting the tune out of the way early before Herlin Riley’s drum solo leads into some festive soloing by all involved.
“It’s Christmas” (George Porter Jr., 2010) The bass master’s Christmas EP is a little more sentimental than his usual—it’s dedicated to his mother and includes a straight carol or two—but not on this track. It sounds exactly like vintage Meters, with a churning groove and lyrics that wax both sweet and cranky about family reunions: “The pot’s on the fire, kids running up and down the wall/ Cousins beating on the boxes in the yard, drivin’ me up the wall.”
“There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In” (Debbie Davis, 2015) No slight meant to Stephen Colbert—who introduced this song (with help from Elvis Costello) on his 2008 holiday special—but it’s good to hear it done by someone who can really sing. Performing alone with ukulele, Davis gives it a more bittersweet treatment, offering hope to all the Christmas cynics.
“Don’t Go Santa!” (Al Johnson & Margie Perez, 2015) Slightly bawdy Christmas records are of course a holiday tradition, and we finally get one with this recent duet, with the “Carnival Time” man playing Santa and Perez playing a woman trying to entice him to forget the reindeer and spend the night. Santa winds up having it both ways.
“Rudy the Big Booty Reindeer” (Big Freedia, 2016) The very fact that a record with this title exists is something to celebrate. But behind the bounce groove and the Freedia humor, the message is exactly the same as the original: People (or reindeer) who look different can have something important to contribute. And that’s a good place as any to wind this playlist up.
We’ve added PJ Morton’s 2018 Christmas EP offering, “Christmas with PJ Morton” to the Spotify version of this playlist – ED.