It’s that time of year again. When every pop star on the planet releases a Christmas Album. Artists from Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys, from Weezer to Snoop Dog, have all recorded Christmas albums. Some, like those from Nat King Cole and Mariah Carey, become perennial best sellers.
But my favorite Christmas album is hard to find on the streaming services. The CD’s out of print. Used copies will cost you $70 on Amazon. My number one Christmas album is The Spirit of Christmas by Ray Charles.
Recorded in the mid 1980s, when much of his recorded output was less than inspired, it’s one of the few Christmas albums I can listen to anytime, a veritable encyclopedia of Ray Charles’ musical expressions and history all rolled into one.
Swinging big band arrangements mix with What’d I Say electric piano fills, tempo changes and beboppin’ instrumental breaks (Freddie Hubbard plays trumpet on a couple of tunes). The Raelettes backing vocals are there, but so is Nashville-styled schmaltz in the string and chorus arrangements. There’s even a synthesizer solo on one track.
And of course there’s Ray’s incredible singing, never dull, never over-the-top, supporting the original melodies while adding soulful twists and syncopations.
The tempo changes of What Child is This, the walking bass on Santa Claus is Coming to Town and the dueling sax and trumpet solos on All I Want for Christmas are highlights for me, but everything here has an expressive musicality. Baby, It’s Cold Outside (with Betty Carter) avoids the usual winky sleaze. Even a deadbeat tune like The Little Drummer Boy gets turned into something special with bluesy electric piano, pedal steel guitar, and nifty brass arrangements leading the way. You’ll never hear those ba rum pa pum pums the same after you hear Ray sing them.
Christmas don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. And Ray Charles swings it like nobody else.
P.S. After some mucking about, I was finally able to find a version of the album on Spotify.
I’m officially a morning person now. I get up at 5:00 am. I start writing at 6:00. I finish around 10:00 am (most days).
I don’t read the news before I start work. I don’t watch TV. No Facebook or social media. I rarely check email. I get a cup of coffee and sit on the balcony of our condominium, overlooking the street and the park across the way. My wife joins me most days. Sometimes we talk. Many days we don’t. We watch and listen, waiting for our morning friends to make their appearance.
A red-haired man, dressed in black, zips down the street on his rollerblades, free from the hazards of daytime traffic.
A Marine, dressed in camouflage uniform, takes his two German shepherds out for a walk.
A Lyft, purple light glowing from behind the car’s front windshield, pulls up to the light. It’s not the same car everyday, but there’s always a first Lyft going somewhere. Perhaps to pick up the same person.
A beefy fellow rumbles down the highway on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. We always know when he’s coming. The roar starts a quarter-mile away.
A bird chirrups at the same time every morning, but it only calls once, a set of slow, staccato tweets followed by a faster, rhythmic glissando. A morning announcement. The new day is here.
Sometimes a full moon sits on the horizon. With each passing day it moves higher. After five days, it’s gone from view, glowing somewhere behind us.
A stink greets me one day when I open the door. At first I assume a skunk had been hit by a car, but the smell soon drifts away and I realize this clever fellow has survived another day in the urban jungle. We’ll sniff his aroma again, but I doubt we’ll ever see the animal attached to it.
One morning an older model Ford Bronco tears through the intersection like in a movie chase, bouncing off a dip in the road, sending sparks from the undercarriage and launching into the air. The Bronco continues down the street at breakneck speed, turning onto a side street and vanishing into the night. We wait for whoever might be chasing him. No one appears.
Time passes. We drink our coffee. We sit a while longer. Then it’s time go in.
What’s a blog without an occasional recipe? Herewith, kind of in time for the holidays, is my recipe for Cranberry Grumble. What’s a Grumble you may ask? Basically it’s a biscuit-topping over cooked fruit, similar to a cobbler, but more of a breakfast than a dessert.
Why is it called a Grumble? Well, I improvised the first time I made it. I doubted my choices. I muttered a lot under my breath. I called it a Crumble. My wife misheard me. She laughed. And the Grumble was born.
Heat oven to 350 degrees
8 – 9 inch casserole/cobbler dish
12 oz bag fresh cranberries
1 ½ – 2 cups sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
½ cup plus 2 Tablespoons water
2 cups All-Purpose Flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup Crisco
3 tablespoons brown sugar
½ cup rolled oats
⅔ cup milk
- Heat cranberries, ½ cup water in pot on high heat. Bring to low heat once the water starts boiling.
- Stir in sugar
- Cook until most of the cranberries have popped and mixture has a soupy jammy texture.
- Optional – for a thicker filling, mix cornstarch and remaining water together. Turn heat up to medium and stir into mixture until it boils and starts to thicken.Cut heat. Pour cranberry mixture into casserole dish and let cool
- Combine flour, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Cut in Crisco shortening until flour is crumbly and Crisco is fully incorporated (no big lumps)
- Mix in rolled oats and brown sugar.
- Add milk and mix until it forms a soft dough
- Turn dough onto lightly floured surface. Knead into smooth ball.
- Roll dough into circle approximately ¾ inch thick. Thickness is optional depending on your tastes, but circle should be at least 9 inches in diameter to fit your casserole dish.
- Cut dough into checkerboard pieces, approximately 2 inches square
- Arrange cut dough on top of cranberry mixture so pieces just touch (You may end up with more dough than you need. Save it and bake biscuits of of the rest).
- Place in 350 degree oven. Cook until cranberry mixture is bubbling and biscuit topping has turned light brown (20 – 30 minutes).
- Remove from oven and cool. I like to make mine at night and leave out for the next morning’s breakfast. Keep in the refrigerator if there’s any left after the first round.
I haven’t posted anything the last month or so. My wife and I decided to go on a road trip and get out of town. It was our 35th anniversary, after all. We visited some of our favorite places in Colorado, Arizona and Utah. I thought I’d share a few photos. Now back to writing the next book.
I’m always checking out and reading articles related to crime and/or music, anything that might serve as inspiration material for my books. Here are some of my favorite finds from this month.
- America’s Most Flamboyant Private Eye – Rolly Waters is pretty cool, but he’s got nothing on this Texas private eye with hooks for hands. I’m not making this up.
- Poisoning Daddy – Texas again. Star student poisons her dad. What really grabbed me on this one was the effect reading Shakespeare can have on a person.
- How to Hide from a Drone – Good for writers to know in case their protagonist/villain needs to escape. Probably useful for us regular folks as well. You never know.
- Beautiful Libraries – None of us get to travel much these days. I enjoyed this little tour of some of the world’s most beautiful libraries.