It's entirely possible that when I first listened to Irma Thomas belt out her rendition of "O Holy Night" in 1990, it was also the first time I’d ever heard the Christmas classic. At our house when I was growing up, it was all about dreidels and a menorah, and while there was no escaping Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and Gene Autry's "Rudolf, the Red Nosed Reindeer" on the radio, I was hardly a devotée of yuletide music.
That changed, though, when I married a gentile and began to celebrate Christmas with my wife’s family. I liked everything about the way they observed the holiday except for the very traditional music. In search of a merrier (and more secular) Christmas, I started in 1984 to curate a seasonal soundtrack, Xmas Jollies, for my friends and family, and I've done it every year since. My wife contends that I've long since become obsessed with the subject. I prefer to think that I'm merely devoted to the very best of it.
In 1986, Warren "Bubby" Valentino released a compilation of tunes by various artists entitled A Creole Christmas. There was a lot to enjoy, including tracks by Allen Toussaint, Aaron Neville and Luther Kent. But the best was Thomas' take on "O Holy Night."
Of course, I'd been a fan of this force of nature known as the "Soul Queen of New Orleans" since the mid-60s, when the Rolling Stones' cover of "Time Is On My Side" pointed me in the direction of the woman who recorded the original version. Over time I came to love such other Thomas gems as "I Done Got Over It," "It's Raining," "Ruler of My Heart" (later remade by Otis Redding as "Pain In My Heart"), "Wish Someone Would Care," and many others. Bottom line—this singer has always been every inch as potent as such contemporaries as Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Mavis Staples and Etta James, even if her singles never cracked the pop charts as often as many of us thought she deserved.
Indeed, Thomas' version of "O Holy Night" is a marvel from beginning to end.
Recorded by a vast roster of artists in a wide variety of styles over the last hundred years, "O Holy Night" has a deeply operatic melody and structure. It starts in a conversational range, but then builds to a towering, geniuses-only high note at the climax. Thomas makes it all sound like a walk in the park. Singing soulfully but very quietly at first, her rich contralto builds in perfect sync with the stately tempo. As she amps up, she is buttressed by a large and fervent gospel choir and backed instrumentally by an acoustic piano and Hammond B3 organ. When the star finally nails that high note at the end of the song—punching home the holy in "holy night"—it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
Maybe at least part of the secret of Thomas’ success with "O Holy Night" is that she was tackling a song that is every inch as substantial as the artist herself. Consider its provenance. In 1843, a parish priest in Roquemaure, France, asked a local poet named Placide Cappeau to write some verse celebrating the renovation of the house organ at the town's Catholic church. Cappeau complied with a piece entitled "Minuit, Chetriens."
Not long afterwards, Cappeau reached out to Adolphe Adam, a seasoned composer of operas, to set the words to music. Now entitled "Cantique de Noel," this new version made its debut at the Roquemaure church on Christmas Eve 1847 and quickly became a pillar of Catholic Christmas services throughout the country.
A few years later, though, when church leaders learned that Cappeau was a social radical and Adam was a Jew, they denounced "O Holy Night" as an unholy mess and tried to ban it. Unfortunately for them, the genie was already out of the bottle. In 1855, John Sullivan Dwight, a universalist minister based in Boston, translated the words into English. Like his French compatriots, Dwight was a troublemaker. Specifically, he was an abolitionist, a stance spelled out unmistakably in the English version's third verse, which includes the following lines:
Truly he taught us to love one another
His law is love and his gospel is peace,
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
This version, embraced with particular passion during the Civil War (at least in the North), took off in the English-speaking world. A generation later, on Christmas Eve 1906, the inventor Reginald Fessenden is said to have read the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke into a microphone, then picked up his violin and played "O Holy Night." This comprised the entirety of the very first radio broadcast, making "O Holy Night" the first song to be broadcast over the radio.
"O Holy Night" was recorded by Enrique Caruso in 1916 (as "Minuits, Chretiens") and by Lauren Daigle in 2016. It is one of the most popular Christmas carols in history. The secondhandsongs.com website lists more than 1,130 recorded versions of it in English and another 550 in French.
I can't claim to have listened to them all, of course, but of the dozens and dozens I've dived into over the last 30 years, Thomas’ version remains my favorite by far. Naturally, I was delighted to be able to interview her recently.
As soon as we were on the phone together, I mentioned how much l, my wife, and my kids love her performance. "Well," Thomas replied tartly, "I don't like that version and I'm surprised that people do. But everybody to his own taste."
Duly flabbergasted, I asked the artist what she saw as the problem.
"When we got to the studio, the young man who was playing the B3, he'd evidently never been in a Baptist church before in his life, and he wants to jazz up a Christmas song, and I was very reluctant. I said, 'No, I don't jazz up my Christmas material. But if you insist, let's go for it.' And that's how that song wound up being sung that way."
The young man in question was Charlie Brent, a multi-instrumentalist native of New Orleans who was also the song's arranger. I confess I'm not sure what it was about the arrangement that struck Thomas as jazzy. The tempo is slow, the Hammond B3, as the singer noted, is present and accounted for, and the choir, John Lee and the Heralds of Christ, were longtime fixtures of the Black church in New Orleans. I imagined, though, that it must have departed in some ways from what Thomas calls "the standard arrangement" of one of her favorite carols.
"I love the song," she says. "I love it with a passion. I've been singing it since junior high school and there isn't a Christmas that goes by that I don't sing it. If you listen to all the verses, it tells a beautiful story—the story of the coming of Christ. But I don't jazz it up."
In search of an answer to this mystery, I contacted Valentino, the producer of the track. Valentino says that his mission had been to apply that classic New Orleans flavor to a program of Christmas standards. A NOLA native and a Thomas fan going back to when the two of them were still teenagers, Valentino was taken aback to learn the singer wasn't crazy about the recording they'd made together.
"This is news to me," he told me. "It's disappointing that she wouldn't be tremendously proud of what she did that day, even if that's not the version that she had in mind. I think she shines on it."
Valentino remembers that Thomas and the gang rehearsed the song in the studio and cut it in one take. He also recalls that Allen Toussaint, one of Thomas' old friends and collaborators, was in the house. Digging deeper, Valentino says, "I guess Irma's church roots informed her love of that song. It's not a ditty. It's not 'Jingle Bells.' It's a deep, soulful prayer. We tried to respect that in the music."
And, indeed, it might ultimately be that Thomas' faith is the key to her ambivalence about this version of "O Holy Night."
"I take my religious beliefs very seriously," she says. "I get out of church what benefits Irma personally—you can’t buy your way into heaven, you know—so I go there to get my own buckets refilled, my own soul replenished, and that’s what it’s for."
Eventually, Thomas recorded "O Holy Night" a second time, presumably in a way that was closer to her ideals. That version appears on Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul, released in 1993. To my ears, the two versions are very similar. They both feature piano and organ. They proceed at exactly the same tempo and they're almost exactly the same length.
I suppose you can argue that the second version conforms more closely to church norms. By contrast, the version on A Creole Christmas is slightly ragged...which only makes it sound that much more spontaneous and passionate to me. And then there's the reinforcement Thomas receives from John Lee and his crew, who are first heard when the song reaches the chorus, commencing with the stirring admonition to "fall on your knees" and concluding during the recording's final 45 seconds—in the steamy aftermath of that iconic high note —with some feverish call and response.
Still, everyone to his or her own taste, just as Thomas says. What isn't a matter of opinion is the singer's status as an American icon. (Thomas turned 80 this past February and is the subject of not one, but two, new documentary films—Irma: My Life in Music and Irma Thomas: The Soul Queen of New Orleans.) I discussed that subject—and the extent to which Thomas should be accordingly embraced by the Smithsonian—with music expert Nick Spitzer.
Spitzer served as a folklife specialist at the Smithsonian’s then-Office of Folklife Programs, now the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, between 1985 and 1990. In the five years afterwards, he curated the programming for the Institution's annual festival of folk music. He was also the producer of Folk Masters: Great Performances Recorded Live at the Barns of Wolf Trap. These days he doubles as a professor of anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans and the host of National Public Radio's "American Routes."
"Irma Thomas was the greatest female soul singer ever to come out of New Orleans— and she still is," he says. It got him to wondering about her legacy at the Smithsonian. "How do you put one of America's greatest voices into a museum?" His answers? "I would make sure she's at the Folklife Festival every summer and that there's some sonic and visual and written info on her."
Thomas herself thinks that one of her old dresses might do the trick. Specifically, it's a dress she wore as the headliner at a New Year's Eve ball in New Orleans in the Seventies. "It's full-length, beaded and sleeveless," she says. "White with iridescent pearls and sequins."
Naturally enough, Thomas has been thoughtful about her stage gear from the very beginning. "When you go onstage, you're supposed to wear things that people didn't wear in everyday life," she says. It's an aesthetic she describes as "simple, but elegant."
At the start of her career, Thomas sewed her own clothing—a skill she picked up in her junior high school's Home Economics class—because she couldn't afford the dresses being sold in the stores. Indeed, she recalls that the dress she wore on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" in 1964 was one she'd made herself. She says her taste in fashion was influenced by Pearl Bailey, whose singing was equally influential to her. "I liked her ease, the way she was very comfortable onstage," says Thomas. "She wasn't one who put on airs. She was just being herself."
By the time Thomas' New Year's Eve gig was looming, she was able to plunk down two hundred bucks for a dress at Kreeger's, a local department store. "And after a while, I outgrew it," she says with a laugh, "which is why I'm so willing to part with it."
I'm thinking it might be a very good thing for a curator with some juice to ask “the greatest female soul singer ever to come out of New Orleans” if she'd be willing to pull that dress off its hanger and ship it to the Smithsonian. It'd be a Christmas gift to all concerned.