Christmas carols may be filled with cheer, but others prefer their holiday songs tinged with some melancholy. For those in the latter camp, the Emotions' 1973 single "What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?" fits the bill perfectly. The Hutchinson sisters' exquisite, heartfelt harmonies, lead singer Sheila's sincere performance, and the stellar songwriting team of Carl Hampton and Homer Banks.
Hailing from Chicago, the Hutchinson sisters--Sheila, Wanda, and Jeanette--got their start in the church. While they had formed a gospel act, the Heavenly Sunbeams, they shifted their focus to secular music by the late 1960s. Signing with the Stax label, they released their first album So I Can Love You in 1969. Produced by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, the album spawned a modest R&B hit with the title track. While they remained on the famed Memphis label until its 1975 demise, the Emotions found greater success after signing with Columbia and working under the tutelage of Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White. Along with EWF collaborator Charles Stepney, White produced what would become the Emotions' signature songs: "Best of My Love" and "Don't Ask My Neighbors," both from their 1977 breakout album Rejoice. Perfectly timed to coincide with the rapidly rising disco movement, "Best of My Love" transformed into a dance staple. Their ranking as rulers of the dance floor was solidified when the Emotions teamed with EWF for the 1979 crossover smash "Boogie Wonderland."
Before their success with White and Stepney, the Emotions recorded the modern Christmas classic "What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?" Co-written by Stax songwriters Hampton and Banks, the song stands as an ode to those who may be spending the holidays alone. The opening, a snippet of a mournful version of "Jingle Blues," strongly hints that this track will not be a joyful celebration of the holidays. Cleverly, jingle bells serve as percussion throughout the song, but the lush strings, horns, and wah-wah pedal-powered guitar firmly place the music in 1970s soul. The songwriters masterfully work in titles and lyrics from famous carols, but turn them inside out to express longing instead of happiness. "'Tis the season to be jolly / But how can I be when I have nobody?" lead vocalist Sheila almost whispers. "A silent night I know it's gonna be / Joy to the world but it's gonna be sad for me."
Sheila's emotional (no pun intended) vocals emphasize the heartbreak of the narrator, lamenting that she cannot participate in typical activities of the season--singing, kissing beneath the mistletoe, and watching children play with their new toys--because she will not be with her significant other. Her sisters underscore her pain by harmonizing on the title phrase; toward the end of the song, they cry out "What do they do, what do they do at Christmas?" a particular highlight of the track. Producer Al Bell never lets the ornate arrangement overpower the sisters' gospel-inflected voices, his light touch allowing the sadness to seep through (and allow listeners to empathize with the narrator's plight).
While they never duplicated their late 1970s hitmaking streak, the Emotions continued recording new music and even collaborated with Snoop Dogg on the 2013 track "Life." In addition, artists ranging from LL Cool J and A Tribe Called Quest to Toni Braxton and Mary J. Blige have sampled their iconic songs. They may be best remembered for their disco hits, but "What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?" also cements their legacy as one of the great female trios of the 1970s.