Christmas in Harlem as seen by Kanye West and Louis Armstrong
It wouldn’t be a Kanye West record without at least a dash of ego, and sure enough, midway through the rapper’s holiday single “Christmas in Harlem,” in which West paints an atmospheric portrait of the holiday season in New York, he confesses, “My only question is, ‘Where my presents?’”
Mostly, however, it’s a charming trip through the hood that’s a bit sweet, a bit sexy and largely soaked in seasonal good spirits.
“Though it's 40 below the wind chill / And we wiping snow up off the windshield / It's still, wonderful night to be alive, baby,” West croons.
Rapper Cyhi the Prince also takes a playful verse as the voice of Santa in Harlem (“Thugs think I’m a blood / Cuz I won’t take this red suit off”), although that portion is missing from the iTunes download. The full version, also featuring Cam’ron, Vado, Jim Jones, Musiq Soulchild, Pusha-T and Big Sean, is available for download at West’s website. There's also an audio-only YouTube posting here.
West calls on Teyana Taylor to sing the chorus: “Christmas in Harlem / Right after autumn falls / Soaking it all in / Then we go hit the mall.”
OK, so Irving Berlin it’s not. But it captures the mood of this time of year in Harlem, where I spent several days visiting friends a couple of years ago, ice skating at an outdoor rink on a frosty afternoon one day, catching the A train to Central Park on New Year’s Day to take a morning stroll as a light snow fell.
That theme also appealed to Louis Armstrong, whose recording of “Christmas Night in Harlem” often surfaces at this time of year, if not as widely as his Yuletide classic “Zat You, Santa Claus?”
“Christmas Night in Harlem” dates to the early '30s, and was a Top 20 hit for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. It was written by composer Raymond Scott and lyricist Mitchell Parish for the Broadway revuew “Blackbirds of 1934,” Parish being the Songwriters Hall of Fame member perhaps best known for his lyrics to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.”
For his recording, Armstrong tweaked a couple of racist lines that were typical of Tin Pan Alley songwriting — lines that were sung by celebrated songwriter-vocalist Johnny Mercer and trombonist Jack Teagarden in Whiteman’s recording. (It also was recorded by Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra and several other big bands in the '30s and '40s.)
Satchmo, however, transformed the original race-specific references (“black and tans” become “people,” while “the old colored neighborhood” becomes “that good old neighborhood”) into the universal language that made him a beloved musical ambassador to the world.
Here’s a link to a YouTube posting of the Armstrong recording (audio only), paired with Dinah Washington’s “Ol’ Santa.” Armstrong’s song starts at the 2:40 mark.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo (left): Kanye West at 2009 Grammy Awards. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times
Photo (right): Louis Armstrong with Johnny Cash in 1970. Credit: Les Leverett / Sony Legacy