Sure—Otis may have sang the stuffing out of it—but there's a solid case to be made for the OG's of this soulful Christmas classic. Then there's Chuck, Ray, Etta, and the 50 some odd (officially recorded) covers released over the years you gotta savor. Let's start with a quick peek behind the curtain at the origin of our favorite festive tune. Then we'll break out the nog and revel in a rundown of its most righteous renditions. (Spoiler alert—Cee Lo and Rod Stewart—your version didn't make our list.)
This Christmas standard was first officially attributed to Lou Baxter. Johnny Moore, who also received credit, recorded it back in 1947 with his Three Blazers. But it was the impeccable Charles Brown tickling those famed ivories and singing lead that made it a hit. As Mr. Brown tells it, their label Exclusive Records desperately wanted a holiday smash to contend with Bing Crosby's "White Christmas"—and longtime songwriter Lou Baxter desperately needed money to have surgery for throat cancer. He called up Charles and asked him to do one of his songs so he could get a $500 advance from the label. Charles dug through Lou's satchel of songs, but was less than blown away. He eventually saw something in a piece called "Merry Christmas Blues"...Mr. Brown takes it from there:
"I said this would be a good idea, but it wasn't like what he had written. I wrote the title 'Merry Christmas Baby', and I wrote the words, how I was going to sing it, and I mapped it out, played the piano, and I presented it to Johnny Moore. We didn't know it was going to be a great big hit, but I thought it was unique."
And that was that. The song was credited to Moore and Baxter, whom Exclusive never paid their copyrights before closing up shop soon after. When Hollywood Records took over rights to the song, they promised the artists would get paid, but it never happened. Eventually Charles Brown got his own name added to the official credit, and the song made it to no. 3 on Billboard's R&B Juke Box chart, but nobody made much off of its success back then. Artists have historically had trouble getting their fair shake of the profits, but for R&B artists in the 1940s, this struggle was truly something else.
While the suits did their swindling, the raw sultry power of this now iconic holiday hit couldn't be contained. It spread across the charts, in and out of studios, and deep into the hearts of fans—forever guaranteed to make an appearance on any Christmas record or compilation worth a damn. Here are a few of our favs, over the decades, for your listening pleasure:
Charles Brown, Johnny Moore, Three Blazers
First you've gotta get your baseline with the original recording from 1947.
Chuck gets bluesie
Next came Mr. Berry with his raw take in 1958...get it Chuck.
Booker T. & the MGs don't play...even at Christmas
Who needs words when you've got Booker T.? (Not us.) These guys brought it with their 1966 cover.
Otis, of course
Otis gave it a more lively, up beat vibe in 1967 (which we all know, love, and sing in our souls each and every Nov.-Dec.).
The one and only, Mr. Ray Charles
Mmmmm. 1979. Nuff said.
Bruce does...Bruce...On Conan
The E Street crew first covered it for 1987's A Very Special Christmas benefit record, but we loved watching them get pretty damn funky in this 2002 late night performance.
Bonnie & Mr. Brown bringin' it back
From their 1992 appearance on the Tonight Show. Smooth—like hot-buttered rum smooth.
Etta brings it
Ms. Etta James got on board in 1998, and went big (obviously), as only Etta could do.
BB also brings it
Well we really wanted to give you a live performance of BB, but the only one we could get our hands on featured one Christina Aguilera, and was a little more Genie in a Bottle than we were ready to promote... So instead, here's the one version we could find without a soul-sucking ad. Enjoy!
Lastly... Pepe—the King Prawn
I mean yes, he's a crustacean, but his rendition brings the Creole funk as only a Spanish born, fiery sea Muppet can.
*You'll notice Elvis wasn't on our list. Well neither was Hanson, soooo...next year.