That Time When Alexander O’Neal Came Down the Chimney with a BUMP and…
My Gift To You – Alexander O’Neal (Tabu – 1988)
by A. Scott Galloway (Special to RFFocus )
In 1988 when Alexander O’Neal’s Christmas album My Gift To You arrived floating in Kahlua-spiked cocoa and caramel drizzled marshmallows, `twas a heartfelt surprise that soul fans deeply appreciated – the right album at the right time. There hadn’t been much fresh baked holiday music for soul fans in the `80s. Folks had become cozily accustomed to their Charles Brown, James Brown, Motown, Ramsey, Mahalia, Eartha, B.B. King, Albert King and Whispers chestnuts. Sure was nice to have somethin’ pipin’ hot and buttery to bump as they trimmed their trees, sent ovens into overdrive, shopped `round town…and thanked The Lord.
My Gift To You was a godsend, covering everything Christmas Believers could ask for: first and foremost, Jesus Christ, followed by year-end family reunions, the egg nog of human kindness, candlelit cuddlin’, funky good times, “and Ol’ Saint Nickolas, too.” Musically, not only were there four familiar staples but five stellar new songs – FIVE – signed, sealed, delivered from Flyte Tyme Productions – the spankin’ new Minneapolis-based Winter Wonderland Workshop of Messieurs James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis, among the most respected and versatile songwriting and production duos in all the Soul-Pop land. They insured that The Funk was seriously slammin’ and that The Tidings of Great Joy contained a wintery surround sound vibration that bundled you up in a toasty blanket of love.
My Gift To You was offered up to thankful fans after Alex’s sophomore album, Hearsay, had been out for a year and sold millions. In a mellow mood, Alex went into Minneapolis’ MPR Studio with engineer Steve Hodge to record a faithful rendition of jazz man Mel Torme’s classic “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)” with his own special brand of hauntingly echoed background ad libs. It turned out so well that Alex pitched Tabu Records Founder and President Mr. Clarence Avant on the idea of custom-crafting an entire Christmas album. Avant was skeptical but warmed at the thought that the world could surely use a fresh new holiday album from a soulful point of view.
Hodge produced two more Christmas classic remakes on Alex: “This Christmas” (from the pens of the late, masterful Donny Hathaway and a woman he met only because she came to clean the drapes in his office one day, Ms. Nadine McKinnor) and a brassy, swing out arrangement of “Winter Wonderland” worthy of Sammy Davis Jr. (or Tom Jones) – bringin’ the Cool to the Yule with the snappy refrain, “you got me walkin’” and full orchestra arranged and conducted by Lee Blaske.
Jam & Lewis supervised Denzil Foster & Thomas McElroy (creators of En Vogue) producing a funky flip on “The Little Drummer Boy.” Foster & McElroy returned on Alex’s All True Man to produce the standout “Midnight Run.”
Then Jam & Lewis came down the chimney with two “coolly” coordinated bounds (likely choreographed by “Jerome”) and a bushel of timeless aural booty.
“My Gift to You is a concept album,” Alex has explained, “with messages for those that wish to hear them. So many people get caught up in all the receiving and giving until they forget what Christmas is really all about – the birth of Christ. There are a lot of happy people at Christmas but also a lot of sad ones. We hoped this album would bring a little light to everybody’s lives.”