Earlier this week, a radio station in Kansas City caused all kinds of red flags to go up by switching to all Christmas music before it was even Halloween. Now two stations in Chicago have followed suit, and if Sunny 99.1 waits all the way until Thanksgiving to make the switch, it will surprise the hell out of me. One Christmas song no one ever seems to get tired of, though, is Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” which is everything seasonal dreck like “Jingle Bell Rock” is not: classy instead of cloying, subtle instead of saccharine. Written by Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore, it’s been recorded nearly 300 times, by everyone from Christina Aguilera and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to James Brown, B.B. King and Elvis, but Brown’s velvety 1949 version remains the standard.
Brown, a suave, elegant R&B/jazz vocalist, pianist and arranger similar to Nat King Cole, had several hits in the ‘40s and ‘50s, including “Drifting Blues,” “Trouble Blues,” “Get Yourself Another Fool” and another Yuletide classic, “Please Come Home for Christmas.” He never stopped playing and recording, but drifted into obscurity in the ‘60s and ‘70s before, thanks in part to Bonnie Raitt’s patronage, making a comeback in the ’80s with albums like One More for the Road and All My Life. He passed away in 1999, the same year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but this weekend his hometown of Texas City pays tribute with Saturday’s “Day of Remembrance” blues festival in Brown’s honor.
The festival runs 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. in Nessler Park (1800 9th Avenue N), with all the usual accoutrements (food, face-painting, etc.). Musically, Louisiana-born swamp-boogie queen Marcia Ball headlines, plus Houston’s own Texas Johnny Brown and the Quality Blues Band and Ezra Charles & the Works, Austin soul shouter LZ Love and jazz bands from College of the Mainland. Admission and parking are absolutely free. – Chris Gray