Every year since 1984, I've compiled a program of Christmas music to give away to family and friends.
It's a lot of fun and folks seem to appreciate it, but the truth is I make these annual offerings for myself before anyone else. I'm a big fan of just about everything the holiday has to offer, but as a music lover, I feel that the typical seasonal soundtrack usually fails to live up to the glorious occasion. There is, of course, no shortage of Christmas music. Not only does the catalog stretch back to ten minutes or so after the Savior's birth, but a flood of new songs has been hatched each and every year since. Still, not many of these songs ring my bell.
I accept that this negativity says at least as much about me personally as it does about Christmas music generally, but I can't deny my own taste and I try to adhere to a strict code of quality -- the only tracks on my compilations are ones that I love. Given that I prefer not to repeat myself, the annual challenge for me is to find 50-to-55 minutes' worth of Christmas music that I've never programmed before. This is easier said than done and requires me to sift through the proverbial mountain of dross to snatch up just enough of those nuggets of gold. Not that I'm complaining. This quest is pure heaven to a nerd like me.
I was putting together the 1996 edition of my "Xmas Jollies" when a just-released CD entitled "Quad City All-Star Christmas" fell into my hands. This was a various artists compilation featuring a crew of allied acts centered in Jacksonville, Florida. They made upbeat, good-humored, rap-oriented dance music in the style of Luther Campbell and the 2 Live Crew (although, unlike Luke and the gang, the Jacksonville gents steered clear of X-rated lyrics). Their marquee stars were 95 South, who had had a huge hit with "Whoot, There It Is" in 1993, and The 69 Boyz, who did even better with "Tootsee Roll" in '94
When I get down to work, I tend to proceed in a style reminiscent of Robert Caro, the eminent presidential biographer who's won particular esteem for his fiendish research. The key to his method? "Never assume anything. Turn every page." So I dutifully listened in order to every track on the Quad City album. All of them struck me as likable and very much of the moment, but none of them were stand-outs. Then I landed on the 15th of the album's 16 tracks. Entitled "Xmas Blues" and featuring someone who called himself Big Tyme, it sounded nothing like the other tracks. In fact, it sounded very little like any other Christmas song I've heard before or since. Musically, it certainly wasn't Miami Bass, but it wasn't blues either. Rather, it was medium-tempo soul music centered on the iconic Hammond B-3 organ, reminiscent of the churchy Sixties-era work of artists from Jimmy Smith to Booker T. Jones to Procul Harum on "Lighter Shade of Pale." But even if the track didn't qualify as blues music, it was ablaze with blues feeling.
Essentially, "Xmas Blues" is a movie for the ears. It starts with the sound of crickets, which tells us we're outside. Then there's a knock on a door, and a deep-voiced, middle-aged Southern black man, his manner dignified, his diction precise, says, "Hello? I would like to speak to Bonquisha." From the other side of the door, an older woman -- Bonquisha's mother? -- answers with surprise: "Otis?" When it turns out that the petitioner is indeed Otis, Mom says, "She don't wanna talk to you!" But Otis is not to be denied. "Well, tell her she is gonna hear me one way or the other. Either she steps outside or either she's gonna hear me through the door."
And for the next three minutes, it is indeed though the door that Otis makes his pitch to Bonquisha. The thrust of what he has to say is fairly standard Christmas fare -- he and his wife have been feuding and he wants to apologize and patch it all up so that they can spend Christmas together. But it's the way he says it that's unbeatable. Otis is at once humble, earnest, passionate, and completely hilarious. A working man and a family man, he also possesses a poet's eye for the killer detail. He starts by recalling the good times he and his mate shared in their happier days. "Baby, I know that we've had rough times before, but we got through it. Like the time all the power went off in the house and we had to finish cookin' the collard greens on the Happy Heater. But we did it together."
Then he starts to tantalize her. "Anyways, let me tell ya somethin' -- I had you and the kids a present last year but, ya know, my alternator broke on my truck and I need my truck for to go to work. And so I had to take the receipt, take all the presents back, and fix my alternator. But I do got you a present this year. I didn't have time to wrap it up. I got it in some brown Pick'n'Save bags. Also, I got some wine. I got some Cold Duck, baby. You need to open the door -- he quackin'!"
Next, Otis decides to give himself props for promises made/promises kept. "Bonquisha, I know when we got married, I said that when we moved out of your momma's house, we were gonna move into a place double her size. That's why I got two trailers and put 'em together - yes, baby, a double wide!" Suddenly, in a sign that he suspects that all his good works may not be enough to turn the tide, Otis's confidence takes a dip: "All those things I done for you and the kids, but I still have these Christmas blues because I'm spending Christmas without the kids and you. I love you, Bonquisha. I love you."
Turning on a dime, a now optimistic Otis proceeds to address the prospect of Christmas dinner: "Last year, when you served up all the turkey and you served up all of the trimmings and everything? When the cranberry dressing got 'round to me, there was none left. So please, could you...uh, well, I hope you have two cans of cranberry dressing in there because I love that cranberry sauce. Please. Thank you "
Our Romeo's address to his Juliet now complete, there is none of that "parting is such sweet sorrow" jazz. Instead, Otis cuts straight to the chase. "Please open the door, baby." he says. "It's cold." And we're done. We hear not a word from Bonquisha in reply, although this listener always ends up hoping that Otis's impassioned soliloquy will be enough, at the least, to start a conversation.
Van Bryant and Rico Spencer. Photo credit: Van Bryant
For the last 24 years I've been content to cherish "Xmas Blues" strictly on its own merits, reveling anew at its charms every December. Recently, though, I decided it might be fun to do a little digging. M'sieu Big Tyme seemed to have virtually no track record, before or since. Who is he? Likewise, how did the producer -- he calls himself Thrill Da Playa -- manage to coax this unicorn of a recording into existence?
It turns out that Big Tyme, the voice of Otis, is known legally as Ricardo Spencer. Born in Jacksonville in 1969, Rico is the younger brother of Carlos "Daddy Black" Spencer and Michael Phillips, a/k/a Mike Mike, a/k/a Rottweiler, both members of 95 South. His first professional billing was as "Rico, the Bodyguard," because that's the job he started performing for his brothers and their friends on the road, when the 16-year-old stood 5'11' and weighed in at about 320 pounds. At the time, showbiz was strictly a weekend occupation for the young man. During the school year he was a star nose guard for Jacksonville's Englewood High School Rams. (In 2013, the Florida Times-Union named Rico --Class of '87 -- and just three others as the school's top players during the previous 30 years.)
But whenever he was backstage or off the field, Rico also happened to be funny as hell. His specialty was mimicking the unique manner of speech of a man known as Chank, an older gent in the community who happened to be Jay-Ski McGowan's stepfather. (Jay-Ski was a founding member of the Quad City DJ's...and one of Rico's cousins.). Chank was a character, and Rico remembers him fondly. "Chank was a big dude, like me," he says. "He was funny. He would always look at me and act like he was gettin' ready to hit me, but don't hit me. He made me feel cool, so he was always cool with me."
On the record, Rico doesn't perform as Chank. Instead he assumes the identity of a wino named Otis. "I always had a picture in my mind of an old black guy in a Santa Claus suit with a bottle of wine hangin' out of his pocket, walkin' down the street on Christmas -- and for some reason I always constitute winos with the name Otis," says Rico. For "Bonquisha," we have one of Rico's ex-girlfriends to thank. "Bonquisha is a ghetto queen," says Rico. "If a girl comes over to visit and she's got Cheeto dust all over her freshly-painted fingernails, it's because she was eatin' Cheetos while driving. She ain't necessarily bad but, you know, she's ghetto. My girl would say, 'She actin' like Bonquisha.'"
So it was really very little stretch at all for Van "Thrill Da Playa" Bryant to recruit Rico to perform a track as Otis on the Christmas album he'd been producing. Like Rico, Van grew up in Jacksonville. As a kid, he dreamt of being a pro wrestler or football player when he grew up...until he won a talent show in the 5th grade with his performance of the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." A year later he started learning how to play the xylophone. (It was "the only instrument left at the school," he says. "Even the woodblocks were taken.") In high school Van put aside music while he devoted himself to football. After high school, he enlisted in the army, then returned to Jacksonville, enrolled at Florida Community College, and started working at Big Al's Records and Tapes, the largest independent record retailer in the city, which happened to be run by Big Al Smith, his godfather.
It was at Big Al's that Van began to learn about the music business, forging relationships with touring professionals both national (like Heavy D & the Boyz and Mary J. Blige) and local. His first credits were for writing (and rapping on) C.C. Lemonheads's "Take It Off" in '93 and for 95 South's Quad City Knock album later that same year. The success of "Take It Off" led directly to the formation of the 69 Boyz. And all the while, Van and Rico the Bodyguard were becoming fast friends. "When the rest of the crew was just sitting' around, it was always me and Rico at the house, playing Sega Genesis and stuff."
In '96, Van decided it was time to make a Christmas album featuring contributions from many of the groups with which he was then working. He was inspired by his observation that "the nostalgia for Christmas was fading in the ghetto." His goal? "To revive the enjoyable Christmas experience of my youth for the youth of the day." Accordingly, with the exception of "Xmas Blues," the album's tone is one of pure celebration. "In the urban community, Thanksgiving night and Christmas night are some of the biggest party nights ever because after being cooped up with the family, you just want to go out with your friends and have a good time," Van says.
But once he'd recorded 95% of the album, Van -- who says he produces "in puzzle pieces" -- decided something was missing. "We didn't have anything for the 25-54 demo, something that reminisced about how we grew up at Christmas time with different uncles and other relatives sittin' around talking about things that happen on Christmas." And, he noted, "We didn't have enough comedy." Faced with this unfortunate shortage on previous occasions, Van had produced amusing between-songs skits to make up the difference. Accordingly, "Xmas Blues" was conceived of as a Christmas-themed skit.
As Van tells it, the skit's plot reflected a familiar seasonal dynamic. "In my neighborhood at Christmastime there tended to be a lot of breakups because the guys didn't have enough money to buy their girls gifts -- then they'd try to get back with their girls after Christmas," he says. "That's painful and that's why the track sounds so real."
Rico, for his part, came to the session with three key elements: Chank, "Otis," and the mood he wanted to evoke. This mood was directly inspired by a couple of soul standards from the early Seventies: "I Miss You" by Harold Melvin & The Blues Notes (1972) and "Christmas Ain't Christmas Without the One You Love" by the O'Jays (1973).
Once in the studio, it turned out that the artiste and the producer were a very good match. Van recalls Rico as "just raw talent. It was like putting Herschel Walker on the field without him knowing the playbook -- he's just gonna run over everybody, but there was a method to the madness." As for Rico, he appreciated that "Van was always thinkin' about how to make something great even better."
Independent to the bone, Van had Rico meet him at the studio in his house in Orlando. The facility occupied "the fifth bedroom, the one next to the pool," he recalls. All of the producers for the Quad City family had studios in their homes. It was the most economical way to operate given how much recording they did...and made it that much easier to roll out of bed at 2 or 3 in the morning and go straight to work.
Cutting "Xmas Blues" turned out to be relatively time-consuming. Van remembers taking no more than "45 minutes to an hour" to lock up "Tootsee Roll." "Xmas Blues" ate up more than three hours...and that was just the first session. "We had to improvise and tighten the script as we went along," he says. Two more sessions were required to finish the fine-tuning.
Much as he loved the complete track, Van slotted it towards the very end of the album because -- for all of its humor -- "Xmas Blues" tackles a serious subject and he didn't want it to slow down the party. And sure enough, the release was hailed as "this season's most slamming party album" in a review by Matt Diehl for Entertainment Weekly shortly after its debut in late October of 1996. Three years later, when Van started hosting a syndicated Sunday night radio show on Jacksonville's 102 Jams, he recruited Rico to star in a recurring feature called "The Hood News with Uncle Otis," a gig that lasted into 2001.
But it's "Xmas Blues"'s lengthy afterlife on the World Wide Web that has turned out to be really impressive. The song is posted on the website for MTV/Italy, and its lyrics have been translated into Russian and Hindi. It's also inspired at least three full-length fan videos, which have collectively generated more than half-a-million views. The one from 2010 relies on a photo of an adorably downcast little puppy as a stand-in for Otis. The one from 2013 is animated. And the one from 2018 is live action, with the Atlanta-based comedian Willie Bee playing a lip-synching Otis alongside silent turns by Bonquisha and their children. And speaking of Bonquisha, our heretofore never-seen/never heard heroine earned herself a 2019 entry in Urban Dictionary, which defined her as "a fat black woman who typically lives in Harlem/Detroit, weighs 250+ pounds, wears a wig, and will slap the ever-living shit out of you if you insult anything of hers."
So what, if anything, is next? Van happens to be on the brink of releasing a brand-new album by The 69 Boyz. Entitled The Notorious Bass, it will be the group's first full-length release since 2001. For fans of "Xmas Blues," however, the more pressing question is whether there's a chance in hell that Van and Rico might reunite to make a follow-up. Happily, the pair are indeed in touch again. My personal fantasy is that the new track picks up where the last one left off -- with Bonquisha answering the door to have her say. I'd bet anything that Rico could play her part every bit as well as he plays Otis.
* BANNER PHOTO: Illustration by Justin Bua. Courtesy of Atlantic Records