Soulful takes on Christmas standards and original songs add another dimension to the holidays. The second annual Deep Soul: Holiday Edition will spotlight some wonderful treasures that perfectly accompany any family gathering, and celebrate all the elements of the season: childlike wonder, spirituality, and the warmth that comes from gatherings with friends and family. I'll kick off this series by examining a track from 1992: "Soul Holidays" by the While their recordings often incorporate hip hop beats, the Sounds of Blackness actually dates back to 1969. Formed at St. Paul, Minnesota's Macalester College, they hired director Gary Hines in 1971 to sharpen their sound. Over several years they gained fame in Minneapolis, releasing independent-label albums and opening for acts such as the Jackson 5.
Their big break came in 1989, when producers and ex-Time members Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis brought protege Janet Jackson to one of their shows. Jackson expressed enthusiasm for Sounds of Blackness, which prompted the team to sign Sounds of Blackness to the Perspective/A&M label. Using the same magic touch they used on Jackson's work, the duo added modern R&B sensibilities to the group's brand of gospel. Their A&M debut, 1991's , brought spiritual music back to the charts and introduced a modern classic, Two other singles, "The Pressure Pt. 1" and "Testify," propelled the album to number four on the R&B charts and number 12 on the Billboard Gospel charts.
Capitalizing on their success, the Sounds of Blackness followed up with a quickly recorded Christmas album, The Night Before Christmas: A Musical Fantasy, in 1992. While not widely considered a holiday staple, it does contain a pleasant mix of traditional and original carols infused with the choir's multicultural style. One of the best, "Soul Holidays," serves as a warm celebration of family togetherness. Using a similar beat as "Optimistic," "Soul Holidays" showcases the groups soaring harmonies as well as a duet between featured vocalists Ann Nesby and "Big Jim" Wright.
Jam and Lewis' lyrics are direct but effective: "It's time to celebrate/ Let's all come together/ To share our hearts of love/That we feel for one another," Wright begins. Interestingly they work in references to Thanksgiving and New Year's as well as Christmas, and while the song is clearly spiritual, the words allow for a variety of beliefs: "Let's not forget why we're here/ There is a reason for every season/ We give our thanks to who we believe in," Wright and Nesby chime in. In any case, "we're talking about soul holidays," the Sounds of Blackness sing.
Just a couple years later, Nesby would leave the group to embark on a solo career. Yet the Sounds of Blackness continues to record, their last eponymous album released in 2011. Twenty years later, "Soul Holidays" may not be played on all-Christmas stations. However, the Sounds of Blackness made a wonderful contribution to the holiday canon; they demonstrate the universal power of family, and inject a multicultural aspect all too rare in contemporary Christmas music.