Ramsey Lewis, “Here Comes Santa Claus” (1961): One Track Mind

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Honest but melodic, spiritual and swinging, Ramsey Lewis’ take on a series of traditional holiday tunes could find no more surprising success than this. After all, “Here Comes Santa Claus” was originally a blandly corny hit single for Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy” and baseball club owner who said the idea came to him from a child’s excitement as he rode in Hollywood’s annual Santa Claus Lane Parade in 1947.

Ramsey Lewis, it seems, can make anything listenable, even transcendent.

At first, he plays it straight, though with a heavy blues inflection. It’s like Ol’ Saint Nick stopped by to belt back a few before his annual review of the naughty-or-nice list. Even later, as Lewis indulges in a series of thrilling improvisations, he remains firmly within the holiday spirit — chiming through upper-register flourishes that recall traditional sleigh bells.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Ramsey Lewis explores his lengthy musical relationship with Earth Wind and Fire, an enduring passion for the Fender Rhodes and the crossover success of “The ‘In’ Crowd.”]

“Here Comes Santa Claus,” featuring Eldee Young on bass and Red Holt at the drums, is part of a larger recording which ultimately plums the same soulful, improvisational depths that made hit records in the mid-1960s out of Lewis’ “The In Crowd” and “Hang On.” And with the same listenable joy. The original album, called Sound of Christmas and reissued in 1982, was split between sides featuring just the jazz trio and then the trio with strings (conducted by arranger Riley Hampton). That makes for a very adult recording, with this depth of feeling and musicality that’s rare at all, much less on a Yuletide release.

My only complaint, back in the days of vinyl LPs, was that Ramey Lewis’ Sound was simply too brief at just 29 minutes. That expanded modern-day CD repackaging — not to mention a sequel called More Sounds of Christmas — helps avoid the old egg-nog interruptus.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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