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Have Yourself a Cooke-ian Little Christmas

Guest post by Colin Fleming

Is there a greater Christmas gift than art? I don’t think so. For me, Christmas itself is an art in which decency and benevolence are on display in a special wing of life’s museum. The wing is accessible all the year ‘round, but it attracts the most visitors during the season of Yule. There’s a soundtrack that doesn’t feature at the rest of the year—unless you fire up A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector and The Nutcracker in April, as I do—and everything just feels different. Good different.

You can learn to find that feeling in all of the other months, and make Christmas mobile, which suits Christmas just fine. Christmas loves to be stretched and revisited. But the gift of art! That’s the Christmas stuff. We all have memories of gifts we cherished, whether that’s along the lines of the doll that wets itself from Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” or the Red Ryder BB gun—don’t shoot your eye out—of A Christmas Story. But for me, it’s always been art at Christmas. The receiving of art, and the giving of art.

The reason art is so amazing as a Christmas gift is because it never stops being a gift. Eventually the Star Wars figures are resigned to their box, that badass Huffy is replaced with a more adult bike, and it’s the frisson of the initial memory of receiving that remains. The joy that mom and dad—or, let’s be real, Santa—knew what would make our heart flutter, and they delivered. Best Christmas ever.

My mother would always wait for me to say those words to her, and I don’t think I ever let her down. But I meant it. What is the gift that keeps giving? Well, I think it can be a number of things. Decency. Doing the right thing. Being a person who tries to help others. And art. Which is and does all of that. My gifts had a large art component, and the ones I received at sixteen are still the ones I delight in on a daily basis. Or they can be. You get a record, a book, a copy of a film, and it’s always in your life, impacting your life, if it has those capabilities and you’re open to them.

Anytime I finish a making a work of art of my own, that moves me much, which I think can move other people—and I did this when I finished my 33 1/3 Sam Cooke book, after reading over the last page—I listen to the Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain.” The song has the wisest words of any you’ll find, which encapsulate the real—the best—reason why any of us are here:

What do you want me to do/To do for you/To see you through?

That’s pure Christmas. That’s pure art.

You write, or create, to reach people, and to do something for them. To help them through, as best you can. Whether that’s by entertaining them, giving them something to relate to, inspiring them, teaching them, a combo. That’s what all art is about more than anything. I think that’s what Sam Cooke’s art was about, and definitely Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, which I received as a Christmas present when I was a teenager. This would have been in 1991, and I was this music monster, devouring all that I could. Rubber Soul, Exile on Main Street, Blonde on Blonde, London Calling—stack those CD piles high, Santa! My Christmas gift pile was a beautiful rectangle. I pulled the wrapping away, and I saw the pink of that cover and the glow of Cooke himself—some angel perched overhead at a mounting of Handel’s Messiah—and I could have brought the CD to my breast. I think I did.    

You know how there are energy bonds between people?  That is, you meet someone—and this maybe happens one, twice, three times in your life—and right away, you feel that energy bond. You haven’t even done anything with them, gone through anything yet. But you feel this connective energy. That was how I felt when I received that wondrous gift. And obviously it would play a part in my life, as you know, if you read the book—which you should if you haven’t!—in keeping me alive, in teaching me so many things, in becoming a part of the art I made. The fabric of my changing soul.

My book was all about that album, and one gets the nuts and bolts, the factoids, the musical analysis, the cultural analysis, the racial context and continued relevance, but it was also about other things, in ideas and, I hope, truths, that make a book such that it can stand up as its own thing. I think you want to make art about art. I wrote the book in my forties, but it goes back to a Christmas present received when the Gulf War was happening, and I was a high school hockey player in Ridgefield, CT with an insatiable love of music.

Which moves me to a kind of Christmas wish I’ve always had, and will always have. And that’s for a Sam Cooke Christmas album. An outright Christmas album. Because you have to figure he’d be better at one of those than anyone, right?

What is Christmas music? It’s often sacred in nature, but with secular intentions and relevance. And when it’s outright secular music, it feels like sacred music, because it’s commonly in a minor key, but still uplifting. A neat Christmas trick.

Cooke, as the book discusses, was the master of both sacred and secular forms. He did what he did with the Soul Stirrers, culminating in that fantastic gig at the Shrine Auditorium in LA in 1955, and on the other side of the spectrum—but also, paradoxically, the same side in a way—we have the gig in Miami in January 1963.

Cooke was King Wenceslas, only sounding off from Florida. In the Christmas carol, Wenceslas and his page were out in the elements trying to help someone, and the latter is struggling to keep going. Wenceslas tells the page to step where he has stepped in the snow, in his warming footprints. Is this not Cooke at the Harlem Square Club in the last winter of his life?

Sire, the night is dark now

And the wind blows stronger.

Fails my heart, I know not how,

I can go no longer.

Mark my footsteps good, my page,

Tread thou in them boldly.

Thou shalt find the winter’s rage,

Freeze thy blood less coldly.

In his master’s steps he trod,

Where the snow lay dinted.

Heat was in the very sod,

Which the saint had printed.

Sam Cooke, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963

I am not suggesting that Sam Cooke was a saint. But that is Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, right there.

A lot of Christmas records are primarily seasonal records and they don’t aim for more. They add ambiance and tunes to the drive to the mall, the holiday cocktail party. They’re not meant to be masterpieces. Ella Fitzgerald could make a Christmas masterpiece, though that isn’t really what we get with Kenny Burrell. It’s the difference between a Hallmark movie and A Christmas Carol. They’re both part of your holiday season, but this is this and that is that. And we know it.

Cooke would have made a doozy of a Christmas album. Imagine his voice clearing the Christmas blues out of every last part of you with a rendition of “Come All Ye Faithful” or “Silent Night”? Man, I’m salivating thinking about that here at six in the morning on this early December day as I write. Consider the Night Beat album. He could have done Christmas numbers in that style and produced an all-timer of a holiday album. I can almost hear it in my head right now. No—I can hear it. Bloody marvelous.

So this is a Christmas wish I’ve always had, which will never be granted, but then again, I think it was back when I received Live at the Harlem Square Club, and in how I hear the LP. It’s a form of Christmas music to me. Remember that big party at Fezziwig’s in A Christmas Carol? That’s Harlem Square Club, but the Cooke document has bigger stakes. Maybe. I don’t know. Because Scrooge later realizes that Fezziwig was a human for other humans. He was there—and this was what his party was about, though not overtly—to help people get through. To see them through. That’s Harlem Square Club. On the micro and macro levels, as they say.

In the book, I write about how I would walk in the pre-dawn all over Boston, during a hard time in my life, listening to that album. One time a couple years ago I was moving through Brookline, and it must have been trash day, because there were bags of refuse and recycling out everywhere. It’s impossible for me when I see a stack of books on a curb not to stop and look at what books they might be. There was this stack, and at the base of it was this little toy figure of Hermey the Elf from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I thought, “you cannot go out with the trash, sir.”

I was listening to Sam—Cooke, not Sam Snowman—and I bent down, picked up Hermey, stuck him in the pouch of my sweatshirt, and continued on with my walk, which culminated in us running a few thousand stairs together, because I had nowhere to put him, and you don’t want to leave Hermey lying about to be abducted by some stranger, do you?

I have this shoe rack outside the door of my hovel of an apartment, and so it came to pass that Hermey took up residence there and became Hallway Hermey. I keep the books that I’m reading at the moment on my rack where HH lives, and I’ll put my most recent book on the top. I don’t know why. So that the people of the building might buy it? Or so that they won’t think I’m this weird dude who bangs at a keyboard all day for no reason? And because in greeting it—you can’t help but greet a book you walk past when it’s staring up at you like that—I keep myself focused on the next book. Putting another one in the place of this one. Which has already happened, because I have a new book out about the 1951 version of Scrooge, which is I’d say the movie version of a 33 1/3 book. But it doesn’t really go away. The journey is just starting. The journey to readers, to people who might connect with it. The journey in the world. The journey in time. And, ideally, the journey out of time. The timeless journey of art.

You now how people like to be all sardonic and say, “Always be closing!” Eh. I’m not a snark guy, and that’s what people call snark—that attitude. To me, the real aim, the real directive, is “Always be starting.” And a work of art is always starting, no matter how much you’ve experienced it before. I’d say the same thing for Christmas. Again: “What do you want me to do/To do for you/To see you through?” It never goes away. If we understand those words, and the ideas the contain.  

 I used to have this bar I went to alone on Sunday afternoons, because I was lonely. My life right now is a solitary one, and that is hard. I hope in the future it won’t be. But now is now. A lot of solitary Christmases. You know what I did last year on Christmas? I sat here at this desk—with Hallway Hermey outside on his rack, perhaps wondering what the hell I was up to—working on the Sam Cooke book. I didn’t feel alone. Or as alone. I felt like I was going into something and it was going into me. I felt…joined. Connected. But I remember one time I went to that bar after I’d been walking everywhere, listening to Sam Cooke, and I’d seen a bunch of people being rude to each other. Swearing, laying on the horn, tossing out threats, etc. I told the bartender—because we’d talk a bunch—that it got me down. And he said, “What do you expect? You want people to be nice to each other just because it’s Christmas?”

I thought, yeah, I do. Not “just because” it’s Christmas, but surely at Christmas, at least?

I know Cooke would have understood where I was coming from. I had just listened to him, and you can tell. Boy, you can tell. Remember in A Christmas Story when the dad, talking about Santa, says, “He always knows!” You always know with art. With Sam Cooke. With that record that I received as a Christmas present, and which I cherish even more now than that day when, yes, I actually clutched it to my chest.

There’s a super strange episode of the TV program Route 66, which features this incredibly rare footage of the soul singer Little Willie John, who I talk about in my book. You see him in the background, but for only a few seconds, as this nightclub act. He’s not even singing, just banging these claves! I have no earthly idea how this came to be. What the terms were for John’s appearance that is not even really an appearance. Was he at such a fiscal low point that he had to agree to be this glorified extra? No clue.

It’s like this Christmas miracle when you see him, though, a glimpse of Santa, or an elf, because we don’t get to watch footage of Little Willie John anywhere else. I mentioned I have this new book about the 1951 version of Scrooge, and after Alastair Sim—who plays the miser—wakes up on Christmas morning, he does this pre-Perfect Strangers dance of joy, and when he passes in front of his dressing mirror, you can see—if you look really carefully—what appears to be the ghost of Jacob Marley in the reflection. It’s crazy!

Spotting Little Willie John, another soul pioneer, is similar. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. A glimpse of Santa going up the chimney can be even better, perhaps, than a person-to-person sit-down with the big fella.

Sam Cooke, when it comes to Christmas, has one of these up-the-chimney-with-glee moments, but I’ve never known a Sam Cooke fan who was aware of it. We’re talking rare, rare, rare. It’s just a few seconds long, but I’ve probably played those few seconds enough times over and over again such that I’ve ended up listening to them for three hours. It’s one of my favorite spoken word recordings of the Christmas season, and though I say spoken word, it’s as if they’re sung by Cooke, in that way he has of communicating so that he’s talking and singing at once. A staple of the Harlem Square Club album.

Cooke wishes us “holiday fun” as part of a radio advert. Has anyone ever wished you holiday fun? It’s such an idiosyncratic thing to say. It’s so Cooke-ian. Quirky, different, but embraceable. Christmas fun. Christmas rock and soul.

I always liked the idea that maybe I’d do a 33 1/3 book in my journey as a writer, and someone might receive it on Christmas as a present. Nice size for the old stocking hung by the chimney with care. It could be Christmas fun and also a Christmas carol in prose form helping to make that connection that means so much to me. The art of Christmas. Not a December thing. Or not just a December thing.

A Santa thing. A Hallway Hermey thing. A guy-at-his-desk-writing-on-the-holiday-to-connect-with-people thing. A Sam Cooke thing. A Sam Cooke Christmas thing.

In that considerable spirit—a blending of the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future—I wish you something beyond a merry and a happy Christmas. I wish you, dear reader, dear listener, dear music fan, an artful one.

Or, put another way: What can I do for you?

Sam Cooke's Live and the Harlem Square Club, 1963 cover

Colin Fleming writes about music, and has written about soul, jazz, and blues for dozens of venues including The Atlantic,The New YorkerThe GuardianRolling StoneVanity FairThe Washington PostMOJODownBeat, and many others. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition

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