DeepSoul, Holiday Edition: The Salsoul Orchestra - "Merry Christmas All"

Celebrate the holiday season with some classic 1970s soul.
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Last week's column featured Skyy, a part of the Salsoul label's roster.  Like many music companies, the dance-oriented label capitalized on the holiday season;  in 1976, Salsoul released Christmas Jollies, a collection of carols and original songs remade in disco fashion.  The album featured the Salsoul Orchestra, the house band for many of the label's hits, along with guest singers.  Yes, the album is a bit dated and at times amusing--"The Little Drummer Boy" never sounded so funky--but there are some buried gems as well.  The original tune "Merry Christmas All," cowritten by Salsoul Orchestra members Andy Kozak and Vince Montana, fits more with the Philly Soul sound rather than straightforward disco, rendering it a timeless "should've been" classic.

First, a little background on the Salsoul Orchestra: comprised of up to 50 members, the band created some of the tightest grooves of the 1970s. Its roots reach back to 1974, when veteran session musician Montana wished to form a studio group that would fuse dance, disco, smooth Philly Soul, and Latin sounds to create unique tracks.  He soon met fellow New Yorkers Joe, Ken, and Stan Cayre, who owned their own Latin music label.  Intrigued by Montana's idea, they backed his plan and encouraged him to recruit local musicians to form this new concept.  After months of recruiting local musicians, Montana led the group in recording three demo tracks.  Impressed, the Cayre brothers formed their new label, Salsoul (combining salsa and soul); the band was renamed the Salsoul Orchestra, and they began recording their own music as well as backing other artists.  They released two moderately successful albums before their third LP, Christmas Jollies.  In addition, the group backed artists such as First Choice and Loleatta Holloway, and Salsoul Orchestra vocalists such as Jocelyn Brown would soon move on to solo careers.  As the disco sound waned, the group eventually disintegrated in the early 1980s.  

In some ways, Christmas Jollies serves as a time capsule, celebrating the predominance of the disco sound. Hearing "Joy to the World" with a funky bass and driving beat certainly contrasts with the original version (listen for similar percussion to another Salsoul Orchestra classic, "Love Break [Ooh I Love It]").  Yet the album remains one of Salsoul's biggest hits; it was re-released in 1977 to strong sales, and was reissued once more in the early 1990s.  While the disco remakes provide entertainment, "Merry Christmas All" represents classic soul, a timeless sound that exudes warmth.  

On "Merry Christmas All," the strings reveal Philly Soul's heavy influence--hardly surprising, since Montana had previously worked with Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes and the Spinners.  Montana plays vibes on the track, adding a jazz flair.  His daughter Denise handles lead vocals, her youthful and jazz-tinged style reflecting the song's jauntiness (she would later embark on a jazz career).  Horns also lend an old-school vibe, sounding somewhat out of place on a predominantly disco-oriented label.  While the lyrics may not be groundbreaking, they capture the general feelings of the season. "'Cause we're all just like children, with our own Christmas tree / Singing yuletide carols, now that's Christmas to me," Denise coos.  She leads the backing vocalists in crooning the line "Happy, jolly, yummy time of the year," slightly imitating 1960s girl groups like the Supremes.  Instead of sending people to the dance floor, "Merry Christmas All" evokes nostalgia: spending time with family, acting like a child, and simply enjoying the festivities.  

Since this is the final DeepSoul column of 2013, I would like to wish "Merry Christmas All" along with the Salsoul Orchestra.  DeepSoul will return in 2014 with more favorites and under-appreciated treasures.  Thank you for reading and your insightful comments; I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and a happy and peaceful 2014!