If there's one song that personifies Christmas for B.E. Taylor, it's Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)."
"When I hear those strings come in, I'm a little boy in Aliquippa (Pa.) with my mom and dad and grandma in the kitchen and I'm in the room watching a mono record player," Taylor said. "That song is so special to me, tears well up when I hear it. Tears of joy."
What's humbling, he said, is that his own Christmas music has the same effect on people today.
B.E. Taylor performs during his concert at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh. His Capitol Theatre show in Wheeling is Dec. 22.
"There are people who, as little kids, they came to our show. And they say that now, our songs do that for them."
The show is the 17th annual B.E. Taylor Christmas Concert, which will take place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Wheeling. It's the final stop on the Wheeling resident's 15-concert tour throughout the tri-state.
And with a new CD - "B.E. Taylor Christmas 3" - just released, Taylor's Christmas cred is as strong as ever. While there is no "Chestnuts Roasting" on the new album- "That song is sacred to me; I don't know if I could do it justice," he mused - it features a couple of lesser-known carols Cole recorded on the 1963 album "Christmas Song," including "Caroling, Caroling" and "A Cradle in Bethlehem."
The Wheeling resident's third Christmas CD was a long time coming. His first was released in 1994 after receiving positive feedback on three Christmas singles he and friends recorded for a charity Christmas album in Pittsburgh. It contained "the Christmas greatest hits," he said, with a Taylor twist, including "Silent Night," "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Joy to the World." His "Christmas 2" came out in 2000, following the growing success of his live Christmas shows, which have become the highlight of the Christmas season for fans in cities from New Castle to Pittsburgh to Wheeling.
"Christmas 2" not only contained some fan favorites from these sold-out shows - like "Light of the Stable" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" - but also featured two original songs, the upbeat "Feel the Love of Christmas" and the sentimental "I Will Remember," a tribute to Taylor's Christmases past, present and future.
Twelve years later, the long-promised "Christmas 3" has emerged with 10 tracks Taylor said he "really had to dig" for because he had recorded so many of the most popular carols already. In the meantime, in 2010, a CD of the live show, along with a DVD, came out, answering the pleas of many fans who have relocated and can't make it home for the annual show.
Taylor and his band are known for spicing up classic hymns and carols with fresh sounds and rhythms from the Caribbean to Cajun to classical.
"I don't listen to one style of music and I don't create in one style of music," Taylor said, remarking that he cut his teeth on the music of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gay and Aretha Franklin, among others.
Concert-goers may remember being introduced last year to one of the most well-known carol on "Christmas 3": "I Wonder As I Wander." Taylor puts his stamp on this circa-1930s song penned by southern folk artist John Jacob Niles by ramping up the tempo and giving it a Latin flavor, a la Carlos Santana.
Other tracks include "Jesus Is the Reason," a guitar-heavy rock song; "Come to Bethlehem Manger/Amen" with its urban gospel sound; the pop-py "Oh Yeah, It's Christmas" and an ear-pleasing "The Magic of Christmas." In a quirky move, a toy piano is used to pick out the melody of a famous lullaby in "A Cradle in Bethlehem."
And Taylor gives a nod to the Vince Guaraldi Trio with his uncharacteristically true-to-the-original version of "Christmastime Is Here," a languid little ditty best known from the soundtrack of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Pittsburgh's Joe Negri, a world-class jazz guitarist, joins Taylor on the track.
Taylor himself laid down all the harmonies on the album.At first, he just wanted to record the different vocal parts of "Amen," including a baritone line, to get the precise "urban" sound he wanted. When he took it to the studio, they told him they could use it, so he decided to "go for it" on the whole album. The only other backing vocals are provided by his three nieces and Pittsburgh artist Vanessa Campagna.
Mainstay vocalists Jeff Jimerson and Hermie Granati still will sing back-up for him in the concert, however.
Among the other musicians on the CD are Christmas show veterans Rick Witkowski of Weirton on guitar; Jamie Peck of Wheeling - the jack-of-all-instruments; Taylor's son, B.C., and Rick Dickerson on drums; Tom Bellin on bass guitar and the Aliquippa Church in the Round choir. The CD was recorded primarily at studios owned by Witkowski and Peck.
Taylor said 20 years ago if you would have asked him what he'd be doing in 20 years, he never would have answered "performing and recording Christmas music."
"That very first year (of the concert) at Wilson Lodge, they allowed 500 people in and they had to turn away over 100. We were stunned." The following year, they sold out at the Capitol Music Hall. Since then, Taylor and his band have performed their signature songs at venues in New York City, North Carolina, Illinois and all over the tri-state area.
Taylor continues to perform non-Christmas music from his other CDs, including his love songs from "Try Love" and his patriotic numbers on "One Nation Under God."
"But nothing I do for the first 10 months of the year compares with what I do during the Christmas season," he said. "It really works, and we have a blast."
"I feel very fortunate I'm doing what I love to do. I feel very fortunate to have a wonderful wife and two wonderful children," he added. "I feel great. ... I have so much to be thankful for."