How The Philadelphia Eagles And Philly’s Music Scene Joined Forces On A Christmas Album
If there’s one thing you need to know about the city of Philadelphia, it’s that Philly is a small town posing as big city. Within this small town is a community that takes great pride in both its teams and its arts with a fervor that may be hard for outsiders to understand. Tune in to WIP-FM after game day and you’ll hear why football is more than just a game. Change the channel to WXPN and you’ll hear why music in this town is more than a commodity.
Normally, the worlds of sports and music exist on separate planes in contrast and fear of one another. You either dedicate your life to a game, or you find the meaning of life within OK Computer. However, in Philadelphia, these worlds seem to coexist. Only here does it make sense that the offensive linemen from the Philadelphia Eagles can call up members from the War On Drugs, the Hooters, and Dr. Dog to make a Christmas record for charity. That record, A Philly Special Christmas, which will be released Dec. 23, is proof that when worlds collide, special things can happen.
Connor Barwin is currently an executive in the Philadelphia Eagles front office, but not that long ago he was on the field as an outside linebacker in the NFL for 10 seasons, including four with the Eagles. On top of his current work with the Eagles, Barwin also stays heavily involved in the music scene in Philadelphia. His Make The World Better foundation has hosted benefit concerts that have featured Philly favorites like Japanese Breakfast, Hop Along, and Strand Of Oaks as headliners. When we speak in November, he’s already mulling over who he wants to perform at his benefit concert next. “I’m currently loving Alex G’s new record,” Barwin tells me. “Hopefully he could come play our show next year, which would be awesome.”
For now, Alex G will have to wait, because when Barwin and I speak, the only thing on his mind (aside from the Eagles’ impressive 11-1 record so far this season) is the upcoming A Philly Special Christmas, for which he is an executive producer. Even through the phone, the excitement in his voice instantly palpable. “I’ve been uniquely able to see how connected the music and sports scenes are [in Philadelphia],” Barwin says. “Both sides are really fans of each other.” It’s this connection that gave him and former teammate (and current Eagle offensive lineman) Jason Kelce the idea to make a Christmas album to give back to the city of Philadelphia, benefiting the Children’s Crisis Center. After some encouragement from his friend Sean Yeaton, Parquet Courts’ bassist and A Philly Special Christmas’ “spiritual advisor,” Barwin immediately called the one person he knew could bring both worlds together for such a project: Charlie Hall, drummer for the War On Drugs.
“It really happened organically. I just wanted to make sure this was a sincere thing, like they weren’t looking to do this for a goof,” Hall tells me in a separate conversation. “I wanted to make sure this was born out of wanting to make something musical and cool, and not like ‘The Super Bowl Shuffle‘ or anything.” The War On Drugs are no strangers to giving back to the city they call home. Their annual “Drugcember To Remember” shows have raised thousands for The Fund For The School District Of Philadelphia. So, in the summer, Hall got together with Barwin, Kelce, and Eagles offensive linemen Jordan Mailatta and Lane Johnson to talk music over a campfire and some beers. They passed a guitar around, sang and shared some of their favorite Christmas songs, and they left with the agreement that they wanted to make something fun but serious. They wanted this record to be something that everyone involved would be proud of.
Hall then recruited an all-star team of Philly musicians to play on A Philly Special Christmas, enlisting friends and connections from his last two decades living and performing in Philadelphia. The amount of pedigree on this list is staggering. Not only does it feature some of Hall’s comrades in the Drugs, including Eliza Hardy Jones and Robbie Bennett, but it’s also a hit list of some of Philly’s finest, including Zach Miller of Dr. Dog, Brandon Beaver from MeWithoutYou, Randy Huth of Pissed Jeans, Jon Wurster, Lady Alma, Marshall Allen of Sun Ra Arkestra, and Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian of the Hooters. From soul to indie rock to jazz, nearly every corner and crevice of the Philadelphia music scene is represented here. And at the center of it all is Charlie Hall, who produced and played drums on the record. “Charlie’s great talent in this world is connecting people,” says Eliza Hardy Jones, the War On Drugs’ multi-instrumentalist and A Philly Special Christmas vocals guru. “Everybody that we got involved in this represents something special about Philadelphia.”
“To see all these guys come together to do this in and of itself shows how special the community is here,” Hall says. “The genesis of the Drugs in the 2000s was born out of everybody playing in each other bands and propping each other up and creating a scene that was loving and supportive and not competitive and cutthroat.” And while he had never played with the guys from Hooters before, Hall says working with them was like meeting old friends. “Rob’s enthusiasm and playfulness was so inspiring to me. This is a guy who fucking wrote ‘Time After Time,’ so to me, he’s like a god,” Hall laughs. “There was nothing phoned-in at all.”
A Philly Special Christmas was recorded in three different studios across the Philadelphia area during the summer. The musicians laid down most of the backing tracks first, and then it was time for the Kelce, Johnson, and Mailatta to come in and lay down their vocals. While these burly offensive linemen may look like they’re about to release a record via Deathwish, they are the real deal when it comes to music. Johnson and Kelce bond over singing old country songs in the locker room or in the car after games, waiting for traffic in South Philly to subside. Kelce even writes his own music on the side and once covered Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” live on WXPN.
The musical star of the trio, however, is the 6’8″ Australian offensive tackle Jordan Mailatta. Mailatta, who recently performed on FOX’s The Masked Singer, is bound to surprise a lot of listeners because holy shit, this massive dude can really sing! “He’s just unfairly talented at a lot of things,” says Zach Miller, keyboardist for Dr. Dog and one of the featured musicians involved in A Philly Special Christmas. “He would just go around with a guitar and play these beautiful, soulful songs, and then he’d sit at the piano playing this Stevie Wonder stuff, just singing his heart out. He’s a supremely talented guy.” Just listen to his silky falsetto on “White Christmas.” If he wasn’t playing football, he could be out there crooning with the best of them. He sings with such ease and grace for someone whose day job involves pushing equally large people to the ground.
Along with Kelce and Johnson, Mailatta had never been in a real recording studio before, and he says that working on this record with these musicians was a dream come true. “It was surreal,” Mailatta tells me. “I’ve always thought about recording an album because I know how to sing, and sharing this experience with Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson, Connor and Charlie, it was such an awesome experience. Once in a lifetime… well, hopefully not once in a lifetime.”
Recording in a professional setting can be a daunting task, so naturally there were some nerves, even for people who have played in a Super Bowl against Tom Brady (and won). This was where the musicians stepped in and put the players at ease. Eliza Hardy Jones, who the players affectionately called “Coach E,” put the linemen through some drills to warm up their vocal cords and keep them loose, something that the players really appreciated. “Coach E made us feel comfortable, especially Lane and Kelce,” recalls Mailatta. “They were really nervous, and she got them really comfortable, giving them a routine because that usually helps professional athletes. A routine helps us focus more and get rid of the nerves.”
After some warmup exercises and a little bit of whiskey, the players and musicians got along like old friends. “It really was the most joyful recording session you could imagine” Hardy Jones says. “People were just high-fiving and cheering each other on and being so supportive, not just of each other but of the new people they were meeting and the musicians coming in.” Her bandmate Robbie Bennett says he was “bowled over” from working with the players and seeing firsthand how sincere they were throughout the process. “Jason Kelce is well-known as being a major heart-on-his-sleeve personality. At one point, he wanted to talk to me about what Christmas meant to me, just off the cuff in the kitchen, and I don’t think anyone ever tried to do that to me,” recalls Bennett with a laugh. “I would’ve told you before this that music was my happy escape from sports, a world where I didn’t feel like I was included, but those guys made me feel like, you know what, nobody is trying to exclude anyone.”
“Everything was just imbued with fun and love and laughter,” Hall remembers. “And [the athletes] were just game for it. I can’t stress that enough. That was one of the things that just blew me away, about how game they were for anything. One of the many really special things was watching how they encouraged, respected, and loved each other. It was just so much fun.”
There’s a professionalism on here that you might not expect from what at first glance might seem like a novelty album, but Hall says both the athletes and musicians treated the project with a seriousness and respect that it deserved. “That’s why they’re professionals at what they do,” Hall says. “They treated this kind of the same way – wanting to be the best at it that they can be — and they were.” From the Hawaiian and oddly extraterrestrial sounds of “Blue Christmas” to the solemn a cappella choir in “Silent Night” to the joyous Springsteenian closer “Santa Claus is Coming To Town,” the level of detail on A Philly Special Christmas is astounding. “The Super Bowl Shuffle” this is not. There is real chemistry at play here on both sides of the field.
“It says a lot about the power of music as a connective tissue,” Hall says. “Of course, sports do the same thing. There’s something about a team and the bond that you form. They’re all working towards the same objective, and there’s some deep camaraderie that comes from that. The same is true with music. There’s a deep camaraderie that comes from being a part of something that’s bigger than you.”
“Both sides are really fans of each other and it’s great to see them come together and create something really special,” Barwin adds. “It was great to watch everybody work together from what you would think would be totally different worlds, but they actually have a lot more similarities than we all anticipated.”
And that’s what the holidays are all about, right? People coming together in the name of love, joy, and laughter. Against all odds, this odd pairing of football players and accomplished musicians united and created something unique and lasting for their city. Sure, Philadelphia may not be perfect. What city is? Let the city without faults cast the first snowball at Santa Claus. But any community that can put Marshall Allen on the same record as the man who did this is alright in my book. If anything, A Philly Special Christmas is proof that when two very different worlds collide, common ground is bound to be discovered, and that’s a win-win for everybody.
The initial vinyl run of A Philly Special Christmas is sold out, but you can sign up for notifications on new pressings here. The album is out digitally 12/23.