Philadelphia Eagles ‘Philly Special Christmas Special’ Powered by South Jersey Artists, Performers


An infusion of South Jersey talent and energy underpins an album that draws from the richness of the local arts and culture scene.

By Matt Skoufalos | December 8, 2023

From left: Jason Kelce, Jordan Mailata, Lane Johnson singing. Credit: 9.14 Pictures.

It started with an offhanded remark in the Philadelphia Eagles locker room.

Center Jason Kelce was joking with tackles Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata that the trio, all of whom can more than carry a tune, should someday record a Christmas album.

Connor Barwin, the team’s Director of Player Development (and former outside linebacker) overheard them.

“I don’t remember what the context was, but when he said it, I said, ‘We should just do it now,’” Barwin said.

“It was the offseason, the middle of the summer, and it seemed like a good idea.”

Barwin, who cofounded the production company Vera Y with Kelce, knows a good idea when he hears one. He was an executive producer on 9.14 Pictures KELCE, which became the most-watched documentary in the history of Amazon Prime this fall.

In the course of filming KELCE, Vera Y also produced A Philly Special Christmas, which was released in 2022, and its sequel, A Philly Special Christmas Special, which just hit streaming services last Friday.

Both albums were recorded in the football offseason, and released to rousing success. A Philly Special Christmas topped the early 2023 Billboard charts for compilation albums, selling more than 75,000 copies, and raising $1.25 million for charities throughout the region.

More than that, the offensive line displayed some vocal chops on the record, setting higher expectations of a sequel. So album producer Charlie Hall began recruiting an all-star roster of Philadelphia musicians.

Names like Patti LaBelle and Amos Lee ring out atop the list, but Hall pulled together a top-notch session band comprising local jazz veterans like drummer Justin Faulkner, bassist Anthony Tidd, pianist Luke Carlos O’Reilly, and saxophonists Nasir Dickerson and Jay Davidson.

Philadelphia bands like the Sun Ra Arkestra, Huffamoose, and mewithoutYou are represented by guitarists DM Hotep, Kevin Hanson, and Brandon Beaver, respectively; Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner’s steel playing can be heard on the cover of Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper.”

The album was recorded at Elm Street Studios in Conshohocken, which is owned by Rob Hyman of The Hooters, whose bandmate Eric Bazilian also features on the album.

“It really is just an absolute murderer’s row of beautiful musicians who play on this record,” Hall said, “and even more remarkable is the generosity of spirit that everyone brought to the table.

Jason Kelce with members of The Silver Ages Robbie Bennett (second from left) and John Howkins (fourth from left). Credit: The Silver Ages.

Choral singing group The Silver Ages forms the connective tissue of both albums.

Founded in 2003 among a loosely federated collection of Philadelphia musicians who were looking to sing choral harmonies for fun, its members hail from a number of the city’s big indie music acts.

Hall, who directs The Silver Ages, plays drums in The War on Drugs.

His War on Drugs bandmate, keyboardist Robbie Bennett, also sings in the group, as does guitarist Frank McElroy of Dr. Dog, and singer-songwriter John Howkins, who performs as Heyward Howkins.

Like the city of Philadelphia itself, both The Silver Ages and the Philly Special Christmas albums have been made richer with an infusion of South Jersey talent: Bennett and McElroy are both Collingswood residents, as is trumpeter Matt Cappy, who helped recruit Patti LaBelle; Howkins hails from Audubon.

“The Jersey contingent of this operation has been an integral part of things,” Hall said. “Matt Cappy arranged and played those beautiful horn parts in “This Christmas,” which elevated Jordan [Mailata’s]  and Ms. LaBelle’s incredible performances. Matt also helped us turn Mariah’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” into something organic and soulful and grand.

“Frank McElroy helped me teach “Auld Lang Syne” to the gang,” he continued. “If you listen to “Dominick The Donkey,” you’ll hear the mad genius that is Robbie Bennett all over the place. It is a broad reach indeed.”

Bennett, who considers himself to be “a special teams player” on the album, said the recording process was so effective because the athletes and musicians shared a common vision of what they were there to create, and approached it in an egoless fashion.

“Growing up, I was so bad at sports that I felt excluded from the sports world,” Bennett said. “Now I’m screaming at the TV week after week.

“I became an Eagles fan through making two records with these guys, and seeing how generous these guys are, how hard-working,” he said; “guys that seem to have endless confidence, but a lot of humility.

“These guys are incredible people, and inspiring, and they’re also your city,” Bennett said. “It’s fun to be a part of that.”

Jason Kelce and Charlie Hall at the mixing board. Credit: 9.14 Pictures.

‘Sometimes I forget how awesome this area is’

Howkins, a Philadelphia native and lifelong Eagles fan, said his involvement in the project felt “incomprehensible,” not only because he found himself in the room with some of his favorite players and musicians, but because their generosity of spirit shone through the process.

“Seeing the Eagles from a human perspective, I’m really impressed with them as individuals, even more than I would have expected,” he said.

“They want to help their communities, they want to have fun; they like music, they want to make people happy. And now they have the world in the palm of their hand.”

It’s no secret that the worlds of music and sports are heavily populated by figures with towering personalities, not all of them as easy to collaborate with. When he considers the novelty of the Philly Special Christmas project, and what has made it such a success, Howkins believes it’s due in no small part to the neighborhood-level familiarity that defines community in Philadelphia and South Jersey.

“This group of people feels like they’re actual Philadelphians,” he said. “They understand what it means like to be a Philadelphian. Not only are they big-timing the city, they’re immersing themselves in the imagery. Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar makes an appearance [in “Fairytale of New York”]; they talk about the citywide special. It’s a unique chemistry.

“Sometimes I forget how awesome this area is, and take it for granted,” Howkins said. “I think their exuberance for it makes me realize how special it is and makes me appreciate it more.

“This is a unique situation,” he said. “Not every town is like this — these kinds of players, and this unity. Every piece works.”

Even beyond the work of assembling the band and delivering the album, the win-together mentality that defined the production process feels like something that was brought over from the world of team sports to the world of music.

Every performer is credited individually on the liner notes of A Philly Special Christmas Special, and its final track, “Auld Lang Syne,” features Eagles players expressing their gratitude for the important people in their lives, down to the training staff, equipment managers, grounds crews, and cafeteria workers.

“There’s no obligation for them to do these things, but they’re really taking care of everyone,” Howkins said. “I think there’s a real effort to make that acknowledgment and connection to every person that contributed, and I think that’s awesome.

“It’s really special to have my name in liner notes for two beautiful pieces of vinyl,” he said. “I’m still in disbelief.”

Cultural signifiers in ‘A Philly Special Christmas Special’ include members of the team alongside local performers. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

‘Let’s show the football culture and the music culture coming together’

Barwin said that attitude of acknowledgment, generosity, and connection to community has grown at the core of the organization under its current owners.

“There is a real understanding or respect for how important this city, this community, the fanbase, is in the Eagles’ existence,” he said.

“The Eagles understand that they’re part of Philly, and Philly is part of who they are, and that goes down to the players who are here.

“[Head Coach]  Nick  [Sirianni]  always preaches being connected as a team; in general, that connecting carries over the players, and they realize that they want to be connected, not only to their team, but the city and the fans,” Barwin continued.

“All that sort of engagement is not normal in professional sports right now,” Barwin said. “Some of the stuff that me and Kelce have been involved with, it’s not a Philly advertisement at all. We’re just trying to be authentic and real about what happened. Let’s just bring people together and make some music, and show the football culture and the music culture coming together.”

That culture of uplifting the teammate next to you — or the fan on the sideline, or the staffer in the front office — is established from the top of the organization, Barwin said. But he also acknowledges that the camaraderie among Johnson, Kelce, and Mailata is infectious.

“It’s been really fun to witness the magic of all of this,” Barwin said. “I think all of the musicians, so insanely talented; [for them] to be willing to lean in on this has been awesome to witness. And these guys, best in the world on a football field, have also leaned into this.

“You’ve seen both backgrounds and personalities complement each other in the studio,” he said. “Everybody is so appreciative of everybody else, and we all try to honor everybody’s roles, and know that none of this would have happened otherwise.”

Hall’s been thinking on the kismet of the project as well, trying to understand why the cultural makeup of the local music and sports scenes seemed to dovetail for this project. Like Barwin, he credits an institutional culture that believes in players, performers, and artists as people first.

Jason Kelce recording the New Heights Podcast. Credit: Amazon Studios.

“It’s not an accident that the Eagles are the best team in football and also the most compelling from a humanity standpoint,” Hall said.

“It comes from the top: from ownership to management, to player development, to coaching, to leadership in the locker room and on the field.

“This is true for any organization, whether it’s a team, a company, a rock band, a school, a neighborhood organization, anything,” he said.

“So from [Eagles owner]  Jeffrey  [Lurie]  to [GM]  Howie  [Roseman]  to Nick [Sirianni]  to Connor to Jason to Lane to Jordan, and on and on, it’s all about respect and trust and instilling values, and being aware that the world is bigger than us, and being tuned into how we support one another.

“It’s cool that these guys are showing their teammates that having passions off the field and trying new things can inform your experience on the field,” Hall said. “I do like to think that this could only happen in Philly. I think Philly is a really special place, and there’s a lot going on right now with the younger generation of musicians who are creating exciting and cool music that is almost beyond classification.

“To have been able to bring together a multi-generational and completely boundless, genre-wise, group of musicians together with this very remarkable gang has led to something even greater than the sum of its parts,” he said.

Peter Heacock and Marie Hart created the Philly Special Christmas Special animated short. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

‘We’re all Eagles fans in Philadelphia’

The local color present on the album is also embodied in the video accompanying its release, a handmade short that fuses aesthetic elements from Rankin/Bass holiday TV specials, Peanuts, and The Muppet Show.

It represents months of work by Haddonfield native Peter Heacock and his wife, Marie Hart, who produce stop-motion animation under the brand unPOP.

They’d made a few videos for the Eagles previously, so when Barwin was looking for a local animation house to partner with, unPOP was his first call.

“They wanted to use all Philly artists, all Philly people in it,” Heacock said, “and they really did open up a lane for us to fill, which is really awesome.”

“Philly is the smallest town,” Hart added.

The initial call came in for unPOP to produce a music video for one of the songs on the album, but the project quickly exploded into a tale about Jason Kelce staging a Christmas recital around a montage of moments from the record.

Hart and Heacock built 20 different puppets with interchangeable mouths, hands, and facial features, designed costumes and miniature sets for them to interact with, and shot the entire production in their Mt. Airy home.

They worked down to the wire for its Thanksgiving debut, polishing a final cameo insert as late as Wednesday morning. Within two weeks, the movie has cleared 500,000 views on YouTube.

After sinking half their calendar year into making the short, Heacock and Hart aren’t quite allowing themselves to think about what’s next. But they’ll never forget the time that three-fifths of the Eagles starting offensive line recorded voiceovers in their living room.

Peter Heacock in his basement with production elements from the Philly Special Christmas Special short. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

“We run a small company and we’ve had a lot of magical experiences in this living room,” Heacock said.

“When people hit their lines, there was cheering.”

Hart remembers moments like Lane Johnson arriving early and going for a walk in the Wissahickon; or the sight of 366-pound Jordan Mailata squeezing himself down their cellar stairs to visit the production shop.

“There’s this thing in Philadelphia where I think we’re all Eagles fans because people are really from Philadelphia,” she said.

“Even if you don’t watch sports, that’s your team. It’s a cultural phenomenon. You feel like they’re in your household.”

And in her case, they actually were.

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