Record Collecting

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 25

Various Artists – Great Songs of Christmas by Great Artists of Our Time (Album Six) [Columbia Special Products CSS 388, 12″ LP, 1966.]

Great Songs of Christmas frontMerry Christmas! And thanks for following along during these 25 Days of Christmas Records. I hope you enjoyed listening and reading as much I enjoyed putting together this very personal exploration of my eclectic Christmas record collection.

It was no easy task coming up with a record to feature for Christmas Day, but it didn’t take much thought to realize that I had to find something of musical significance, something that’s been with us for a long time and will surely be with us for a long time to come. I knew it had to be something that could convey the joy and majesty and spirit of Christmas Day. And it had to be something in my record collection. So I looked to the great classical composers and found a piece from Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps my favorite composer of them all, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

This recording comes from an album I have in my collection that is part of the multi-volume “Great Songs of Christmas” series produced by Columbia Special Products for the Goodyear company. The Firestone company also produced a similar series of Christmas albums during the 60s and 70s. Here’s a brief rundown of how these albums came to be found everywhere: “When Shopping for Tires Meant Buying a Christmas Album.” If you ever go to a garage sale or estate sale that has Christmas records, you’re likely to seen many volumes of these albums sitting there in the stacks.

Great Songs of Christmas backFor the most part, these albums featured recordings by various pop singers of the day along with some popular orchestras. These are by no means definitive recordings of the classical works that might be included on the albums. But I think this recording of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by famed cellist Pablo Casals with chorus and orchestra is quite nice. If you can read the liner notes from the back of the album, it states that the then 89-year old Casals traveled to New York specifically to record this for the album. Casals’ recordings of Bach’s cello suites are legendary. And this is an incredibly beautiful tune. Bach really was a genius.

(Since we’re talking about classical Christmas music here, I’ll include this NPR piece from 2012 as an aside: “Whatever Happened to the Classical Christmas Album?” Thanks to my friend Scott Gregory for sharing this.)

Here is Pablo Casals performing “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” as found on this Great Songs of Christmas album.

And I couldn’t resist including one last song to leave you with as my celebration of Christmas records concludes. I had also wanted to feature a recording of “Joy to the World” from my collection, but they were really all rather lackluster and none of them was satisfactory enough to post here.  So, I fudged a little. Here is a wonderful performance of “Joy to the World” by the Cambridge Singers with the City of London Sinfonia conducted by John Rutter.

Let heaven and nature sing!

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25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 20

Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas [Ace Records ACE LP1027, 12″ LP, 198? Reissue, originally released 1962.]

Huey Piano Smith Christmas frontI have a deep affection for the music and culture of New Orleans. That passion goes back to the early 1980s when I moved to the Monterey Peninsula in California and first heard a lot of New Orleans music being played during various blues, rock and jazz programs on radio station KAZU 90.3 FM. My first post on this blog appeared by design on Mardi Gras Day, 2010. When I came across this album sometime in the late 1980s, I was one happy camper. New Orleans music and Christmas music all in one record – how could it get any better?! ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Huey “Piano” Smith is another one of these albums that’s perfect for setting a rockin’ mood at any Christmas celebration. (This will likely be the last of the more rowdy Christmas records I’ll feature during this project; the winter solstice is fast upon us tomorrow on Day 21 and I’ll focus on the mellower side of things as we lead up to Christmas Day.)

Huey Piano Smith Christmas back

Click on an image to enlarge it.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was first issued by Ace Records in 1962. Somewhat atypical for a Christmas album is that six of the ten tracks on here are originals written by Smith himself. They all feature his trademark rollicking, boogie-woogie piano style with Christmas-themed lyrics. One other track was written by Earl King and only three tracks are traditional Christmas tunes. I like the whole album, but my favorite song on here is probably “Almost Time for Santa” with its really snappy groove. As the cover of my 1980s reissue album states, Dr. John appears on the recording as well, although the original cover did not include this information. At the time the album was made, he had not yet adopted that moniker and would have gone under his real name, Mac Rebennack, but I assume the record company wanted to add his name on there to help push sales of the reissue.

Huey Piano Smith Christmas labelUpon its initial release in 1962, the album received some very negative publicity due to people thinking it was rather sacrilegious. New Orleans music and culture writer Alex Rawls gives more background on this in a story entitled “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith Deemed ‘Naughty’ in 1962,” which was posted at his website, My Spilt Milk, earlier this December. Definitely give that a read. Whether you think it’s naughty or nice, I think there’s no argument that this is one merry Christmas album!

You can listen to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in its entirety on YouTube. Once again, there’s a playlist with the whole album on it, and it appears to have been uploaded by whomever holds the license to these recordings at this time. (As with other playlists like this, be aware that ads may play between tracks; you can usually skip them after a few seconds.)

Do the Santa Claus!

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 16

Spinal Tap – “Christmas with the Devil” [Enigma Records E-1143, 7″ 45 rpm, 1984.]

Spinal Tap cover

Click on an image to enlarge it.

It’s a parody, folks. Let’s make sure that’s clear from the beginning. As I mentioned from the start, this project explores the broad spectrum of Christmas records in my personal collection, from the sublime to the ridiculous and from the sacred to the profane. Well, here’s the profane – in all its revved up and humorous glory.

If you aren’t familiar with this band, you should watch the film This Is Spinal Tap at your earliest convenience. Its send-up of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is hilarious. I hate to spoil all the fun for those who haven’t seen the movie, but I feel a little background is needed here. The film is a mock documentary based upon the fictional English heavy metal rock band called Spinal Tap. The core members of the band are David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) on lead vocals and guitar; Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) on lead guitar and vocal; Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) on bass. It’s a fictional band, but the actors actually play their instruments and they wrote all of the music for the film along with director Rob Reiner. And so the madness begins. Spinal Tap may be the only band I know of that has a fictional discography and a real discography. You see, there are all the fictional albums that they supposedly released within the story of the band as portrayed in the movie, and then there are the real albums that the actors made and released under the name Spinal Tap. Oh boy. Just go with it. (Hey, I just noticed this: at the IMDB listing for the movie, the rating function shows you can give the movie up to 10 out of 11 stars! I like their sense of humor.)

Spinal Tap backThis 7″ single that I have in my collection was released in 1984, the same year the film came out. It was also released as a picture disc with art work similar to that seen on the picture sleeve on my copy of the record. Boy, I’d love to find that picture disc someday! The song itself uses classic heavy metal rock trappings to create a twisted Christmas tune. You can read the close up of lyrics that are found on the back cover. These guys are very clever, they are. I like how they take all this classic Christmas imagery and turn it on its head. They’re really brilliant at what they do. And notice the line about halfway into the lyrics, “There’s someone up the chimney hole and Satin is his name.” I’m guessing the “band” really thinks that’s how Satan is spelled and it’s no typographical error! Just another nice touch of Spinal Tap humor there.

Spinal Tap lyricsFor me, the song reaches its apex of absurdity at around 3-1/2 minutes in. The whole thing is a very stereotypically loud heavy metal rocker, complete with wailing guitar solo and screeching vocals, and right when the song reaches its orgiastic climax of sound, the band suddenly breaks in with this utterly sincere unison Christmas greeting: “This is Spinal Tap, wishing you and yours the most joyous of holiday seasons. God bless us, everyone.” I love it! That’s what makes the song so great for me. It’s actually a well done heavy metal song, but that little touch of holiday kitsch is a great example of the kind of perfectly balanced irony that Spinal Tap is so good at pulling off. They walk that fine line between having us willingly suspend our disbelief, as good fiction does, and having us think it’s just an over the top joke. It’s not easy to do that, and they do it really well.

Take a listen to “Christmas with the Devil”  – you know what to do: turn it up to 11.

P.S. There’s also the B side to the record: “Christmas with the Devil (Scratch Mix”) – the only difference is that the song begins with the sound of a turntable needle scratching the surface of the record, and there’s no holiday greeting. Again, too clever for their own good!

The original 7" single, with the small LP sized spindle hole.

The original 7″ single, with the small LP-sized spindle hole.

P.P.S. While doing some more reading about the song, I found this new jazz version of “Christmas with the Devil” that was released by Spinal Tap’s bass player Derek Smalls/Harry Shearer and Judith Owen, his musician wife, in November 2014. Definitely watch this! If heavy metal isn’t your cup of tea, then maybe this swinging jazz trio rendition will help cleanse your palate. It’s fantastic.

 

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 13

Various Artists – A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector [Rhino Records/Phil Spector International RNLP 70235, 12″ LP, 1987 Reissue. Originally released in 1963.]

Phil Spector front

Around a week ago, I talked a bit about “Sunday morning music.” Well, now it’s time to talk about “Saturday night music,” and that’s a whole different ballgame, folks. Whereas Sunday morning tends to be on the quieter side of the spectrum, Saturday night is for rockin’ and rollin’ and boogie-woogie-in’. You know what I mean. Saturday night is the party night. And the perfect Christmas-time party music can be found on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

(You might as well get started listening to the album now, so you can enjoy it while reading, or hosting a Christmas party. Here’s a nice YouTube playlist featuring the entire album for your listening pleasure. Click on the link and it’ll play the whole thing through, but you may hear an ad during that time.)

(Click on an image to enlarge it.)

(Click on an image to enlarge it.)

Originally released in 1963 with the title A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records, the compilation features most of the acts signed to Philles Records, which was run by Phil Spector and his partner Lester Sill – hence the name, “Phil” “Les” Records. I highly recommend you read the liner notes found on the back cover of the album (click on the image to the right.) Spector makes it clear he was intent on making a great pop Christmas record, and while it may have taken almost a decade for it to become so highly regarded, most people agree he succeeded in making one of the great Christmas albums of all time.

One of the unfortunate things that contributed to its initial lackluster sales performance was this: it was released on November 22, 1963 – the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. That’s certainly unlucky timing. But the situation turned around in 1972 when a little label called Apple Records reissued the album (with different artwork) after Spector had worked with John Lennon on his song “Instant Karma,” the Beatles on the Let It Be album and George Harrison on his 3-LP album All Things Must Pass. With a renewed listenership, the album has been a holiday staple ever since. It’s one of those great Christmas albums that I never get tired of hearing. And Spector’s unique production values made it sound like nothing else that had come before it as far as Christmas music is concerned. I mentioned in previous posts how Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” technique was evident in both the Elton John and Bruce Springsteen Christmas songs. Many rock or R&B versions of the classic Christmas tunes found on this album are based on these versions. This album has been hugely influential upon Christmas music in the past several decades, and will surely be influential for decades to come.

Phil Spector Christmas labelMy copy of the album shown here is a 1987 reissue that Rhino put out in conjunction with Phil Spector International. I had known of the album and had heard much of it on the radio, but hadn’t owned a copy myself. Rhino did their usual excellent job in reissuing it with the original artwork. It’s interesting to note that even though this was digitally remastered, they chose to use the original mono mixes for this reissue and not a stereo remix as had been done on the Apple versions. Many purists prefer this.

Also of note is the list of musicians who played on this album. Many of these musicians were part of the famed “Wrecking Crew” group of studio players who appeared, often anonymously, on many of the greatest albums of the 1960s. Among the more familiar names you can see listed on the back cover are Sonny Bono and Tulsa’s own Leon Russell.
Sadly, Phil Spector’s later life has been seemingly filled with turmoil. He’s currently serving his prison sentence for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson. There’s no denying he brought some brilliant music into the world. It’s too bad he seems to have fallen from grace.

Have a rockin’ good Saturday night…

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 12

 Bruce Springsteen – “My Hometown” / “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” [Columbia 38-05728, 7″ single, 45 rpm, 1985.]

Springsteen cover

There really was no method in my madness when I started this “audio Advent calendar” – as one friend has described it – back on December 1. If I had planned ahead better, I would’ve written a few things before that time in order to post them in a more timely manner each day, but that didn’t happen. I’ve been kind of winging it every day, sometimes gathering inspiration from the previous day’s post and other times just choosing what felt right for the moment. Or I just stumbled across something serendipitously, as I did for today’s post.

While looking through my little stack of Christmas 7″ singles yesterday, I picked up the record that has the famous version of  “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” by Bruce Springsteen on it. It has a nice picture sleeve as you can see above. I flipped it over to see what info it had about the recording, and lo and behold, I found this brief note that I had written on the back of it 29 years ago today: “Purchased at Leopold Records (Isla Vista, CA) December 12 1985.” Wow! That brought back some memories. Springsteen back lgI worked at Leopold Records during the one year that I lived in Santa Barbara. (Isla Vista is the little sub-community of Santa Barbara where U.C.S.B. is located; it’s populated mostly by college students.) It was a great little store with a small but knowledgeable and passionate staff. I had worked for the Record Factory regional chain in Monterey, and they had purchased the few, or maybe only two, Leopold stores that existed. The original Leopold’s opened in Berkeley in 1968. The Record Factory chain bought the Leopold stores in the mid 80s but still ran them under the Leopold name. Later in the 80s, one of the West coast’s largest music retailers, Wherehouse Entertainment, gobbled up all the Record Factory stores including Leopold’s. By the mid 90s, the behemoth corporation that Wherehouse had become started having trouble and they shut Leopold’s doors in 1996.

 

Springsteen’s version of this well-known Christmas song was originally recorded live in concert at C.W. Post College in Greenvale, New York on December 12, 1975. (Oh, maybe that’s why I was compelled to make that note: I saw the recording date on there and noticed I was buying it on the same date 10 years later! Serendipity, once again.) It had only been released to rock radio stations for airplay and I looked forward to the chance of catching it every Christmas season. It was released commercially for the first time in 1981, when it was included on the compilation album In Harmony 2 which was aimed at the burgeoning children’s music market. Its existence on there probably went very much unnoticed; I sure didn’t remember that! It finally received a proper coming out party on November 21, 1985, when it was included as the B-Side to “My Hometown,” the record-tying seventh single released from Springsteen’s blockbuster Born in the U.S.A album, which has been certified Platinum 15-times over by the RIAA – that’s 15 million albums sold, in the U.S alone. I remember being quite excited that they were finally putting this great rockin’ Christmas song out there for the public to buy.

I’ve always really loved this version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” It seems pretty clear to me that Springsteen’s interpretation here was based on the very original Jack Nitzsche arrangement performed by the Crystals on the classic 1963 R&B compilation album A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records, produced by Phil Spector. (Hint, hint…) Many of the versions that have been recorded since that time also seem to be strongly influenced by that arrangement. But you can also clearly hear how Bruce puts his own unique stamp on it in this version as well. I mean, it’s the Boss and the boys in the E Street Band. They blow the song wide open.

Springsteen on turntable

It starts off wonderfully as Springsteen sets up the wintry scene along the New Jersey shore, with jingle bells and bright piano accompanying his spoken intro. And then he banters with the band and the audience, asking if they’ve been good this year; their noncommittal reply seems to leave him a bit worried about the prospects of them getting any Christmas morning bounty. He breaks into the first lines of the song in his unmistakably powerful voice and it doesn’t take long for the band to kick into the high gear they’re so well-known for and they’re off and running with it. It’s just good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a little break near the end of the song where the band quiets down a bit and Clarence Clemons adds his deep-throated “Ho Ho Ho” into the mix a few times. It’s funny to hear how Springsteen chuckles bemusedly at this, sort of revealing how much fun he’s having. It’s a fun song to listen to and it’s one Christmas record that I never tire of hearing.

You can listen to it through this Spotify player here (It’s something new I’m trying. It appears you need a Spotify account, which is free, to listen to it through this player. It will open your Spotify player. If  you get an error message, refresh the web page. If you can, leave a comment below to let me know how it worked for you. Thanks.)

 

If that doesn’t work, here it is on YouTube: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 11

Various Artists – Dr. Demento Presents the Greatest Novelty Records of All Time, Volume VI: Christmas [Rhino Records RNLP 825, 12″ LP, 1985.]

And now for something completely different: the larch. Oh, sorry, I meant to say Christmas novelty songs! (I wonder, did Monty Python ever do any Christmas songs? {insert Google search here} Oh, how could I forget “Christmas In Heaven” from their film The Meaning of Life?! You’ll have to find that yourselves – it’s Not Safe for Work – wink, wink.) But I digress. And I apologize in advance for any tunes discussed herein that worm their way into your brain from whence you can not root them out, but we must at some point cover crazy Christmas tunes.

Dr Demento back med-lg Ah, Dr. Demento. How many of you listened to his Sunday night radio show? I was a fairly loyal listener of the program and tuned into it on his Los Angeles-based home radio station, KMET 94.7 FM. The good Dr. started his show featuring vintage and modern novelty songs in 1970. The Dr. Demento Radio Show became a big hit and then ran in syndication from 1974 until its demise on the airwaves in 2010. But it lives! Dr. Demento still streams his weekly wackiness on the web, where you can listen to it at your will – for a wee fee. I’ll never forget some of the great laughs I had upon hearing such nuggets as Benny Bell’s “Shaving Cream,” any number of Tom Lehrer’s witty tunes, Allan Sherman’s “Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh,” Barnes and Barnes’s “Fish Heads,” Weird Al’s “My Bologna,” Cheech & Chong’s “Earache, My Eye,” or the great Napoleon the XIV’s “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha!” Is it sad that I still find some of those as humorous as I did in my adolescence? Tom Lehrer is timeless, for sure.

Dr Demento Liner Notes hi-lg

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All kidding aside, Dr. Demento (real name Barry Hensen) is almost a real Doctor, of Philosophy, that is. He earned a Master’s degree in Folklore and Ethnomusicology from U.C.L.A., so he is actually very serious about his love of novelty music. He has often written liner notes and articles about novelty and comedy songs, and apparently has a vast personal archive of records. I’d love to be able to browse that collection! He really has been the driving force behind the preservation of a huge, albeit strange, part of musical history that might’ve been lost if not for the likes of him. Read his liner notes on the back cover of his Christmas novelty compilation for some great information about all these songs and artists. I was really happy when Rhino Records released this album in 1985, as the sixth volume in Dr. Demento’s Greatest Novelty Records of All Time series. I probably bought it soon after it was released so I could have all, or at least most, of these wacky tunes that I liked in my collection.

Dr Demento Label med-med

I knew I was going to include this album at some point in these 25 Days, and remembering our family Christmas traditions in the Day 10 post yesterday made me think about how much my Dad loved Spike Jones and His City Slickers. They have the lead-off track on the Dr. Demento record, and it’s one that most of us are familiar with, for good or ill: “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” I still think no version beats the looniness of the original. And my Dad would laugh and laugh every time he heard this tune! He loved Spike and the boys. My Dad was normally a pretty buttoned-up kind of guy, but he could loosen up enough to enjoy this kind of stuff. He was always a big fan of the Looney Tunes “Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner” cartoons as well. Maybe it was part of growing up in the Depression and War years that made him really like this crazy music so much; Spike Jones provided a much needed dose of sheer off-the-wall comedy that a lot of people loved. They were really excellent musicians with a gift for the goofy and much of their music was quite complex and sophisticated in a nutty kind of way. It takes a lot of talent to pull off that kind of craziness.

For a little taste of that craziness, here’s an early 1950s television performance of “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” which features the 28 year old trumpeter of the band, George Rock, on the kiddie vocals. And away we go…

I’m sure you can track down most of the other songs on the Dr. Demento collection too, if you care for this sort of thing and dare to seek it out. Most of it is pretty funny, some not so much. I think I’ve heard “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” one-thousand times too many and it’s worn a bit thin for me. I do highly recommend taking a listen to Cheech and Chong’s “Santa Claus and His Old Lady.”  This was released as single in 1971 and features them in their East L.A. hippie heyday and it’s always been one of my favorites. It appeared on LP for the first time on this compilation. But do yourself a favor and do not go looking for “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” by Gayla Peevey. Seriously, don’t do it. No, really, listen to me, I implore you not to. Oh, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. You’re going to have that ear-worm stuck in your head for days now…

“Stay demented!” Those are Dr.’s orders.

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 10

Andy Williams – The Andy Williams Christmas Album [Columbia CS 8887, 12″ LP, 1963.]

The Andy Williams Christmas Album, 1963.

The Andy Williams Christmas Album, 1963.

Christmas-time, for me, has always been a time for family and celebration. I’m one of five siblings, and our Mom and Dad (may they rest in peace…) always did their best to make it a fun time for us, I’m sure on a shoe-string budget some years. And our family has two birthdays to celebrate during this second week of December. My oldest brother, Mike, and my youngest sibling, Brenda, our baby sister, have birthdays two days apart, so I guess I’m feeling a bit nostalgic as I think of them, and our whole family, at this time. My Mom, especially, loved Christmas and did it up in a big way. In the weeks before Christmas Day, she’d bake dozens upon dozens of delicious cookies and fudge that we’d then deliver in tins to all their friends. I looked forward to eating those all year long! I’d circle a hundred different things in the J.C Penney and Sears catalogs, none of which I’d ever get. (If I still had some of the sweaters my Mom liked to get for us, I’d be the hit of many a holiday party.) My parents often hosted a Christmas cocktail party that we’d try to sneak a glimpse of, if we were quiet enough as we peeked in from the hallway. There were the church services with all the extra pomp and circumstance and great carols. I especially loved those times when we attended Midnight Mass; it was different and special and holy. Each Christmas Eve we’d be allowed to open one tiny gift in order to hold us off until Christmas morning. It was impossible to get to sleep. Then it would be Christmas Day! There was the crazy rush of opening presents and trying to get them out of their packages and play with them or put them together. Then we had Christmas dinner and visited our Grandma Elizabeth’s house where we’d meet up with most of our very large clan (my Dad was the oldest of 10 children and we have somewhere around 40 first cousins when it is all said and done. My Mom was an only child.) There were the children’s TV specials that we had to wait for each year in the days before VCRs and DVRs: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Year Without a Santa Claus and, of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas. (What’s your favorite?) If you missed it the one time it aired, you were out of luck until next year. And there were the inevitable Christmas variety shows hosted by celebrities such as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Perry Como and Andy Williams, among others. And that brings us back to the subject at hand: Christmas music – and family.

You see, I still have my parents’ record collection, which includes a handful of Christmas albums. They heavily favored Easy Listening music: their regular collection contains a lot of Mantovani, Andre Kostelanetz, Percy Faith and His Orchestra, the Ray Conniff Singers, the Melachrino Strings, the Norman Luboff Choir and the like. There are a few big band swing records and some basic classical recordings, but for the most part it’s Easy Listening. It never was my cup of tea. So it was natural for them, and for us, to watch these types of singers perform on their annual Christmas specials, replete with celebrity guests and seasonal skits. And it was natural that these were the type of Christmas records they would own. I’m sure many of our parents who were of a certain age had some of these same albums. You can see all the Christmas albums that I still have from my parents’ collection in this gallery below (click on an image to enlarge them all into a slide-show; click the X in the upper left to return.)

I don’t have strong memories of any one album they played in particular, but I chose to highlight The Andy Williams Christmas Album because I think it best typifies my parents’ musical tastes and Christmas memories for me. It’s really a pretty good album, especially compared to some of the other Christmas records they had. Trumpeter Al Hirt’s The Sound of Christmas starts off with an incredibly bombastic take on “Jingle Bells” and doesn’t let up until a little medley ends the side seven tracks later. Side Two consists of a much more palatable group of medleys featuring classic carols. It’s perhaps the most schizophrenic Christmas album I’ve ever heard. My sister Brenda fondly remembers the Jim Nabors’ Christmas Album that’s in the collection and his very swinging version of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” It’s pretty groovy. And there’s the all-encompassing Reader’s Digest 6-LP set – An Old-Fashioned Christmas – which includes 69 tracks covering all styles of Christmas music from classical to country, with plenty of kitsch. The one anomaly in their collection is The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. It appears to have been purchased later on (it’s a 1980 reissue with a Licorice Pizza sticker on it – a record store chain in southern California where I grew up. Best record store name ever! The LP cost a whole $3.99.) I think they may have bought this to appease us young folk who wanted some rock ‘n’ roll Christmas music to listen to. Anyway, it’s a nice album, but the Brian Wilson-penned “Little Saint Nick” is by far the best thing on there and has remained perennially popular. It’s the perfect mix of southern California cool and Christmas cheer.

The Andy Williams Christmas Album keeps it simple. I remember my Mom liking his voice a lot. What’s not to like? He has a nice crooner’s voice with a lot of swing in it. I’ve always liked Williams better than most of the other singers of that type from the 60s and 70s. Side one features a nice mix of Christmas pop songs, including a song written specifically for the album, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which has now become a seasonal staple and one of the top selling Christmas songs of all time. Side two changes the pace and quiets things down a bit with nice arrangements of classic carols and spirituals along with the more modern choice of “The Little Drummer Boy.” It nicely mixes the celebratory aspects of the Christmas season with the religious aspects; it’s all that my parents really loved in Christmas music.

And when I think of playing records at our house, it makes me remember the wonderful old console stereo that our family had. It was so great! I have fond memories of pulling out records and playing them, laying on the floor of our living room reading the liner notes and listening to album after album. I wish I still had that stereo, but they seemed to have off-loaded it at some point when we moved to the Monterey Peninsula. I believe it was a Magnavox or Motorola model. It was one of those big, heavy, beautiful solid wood cabinets with speakers built in at either end and a sliding door in the middle hiding a shelf where you could store records. There was also a sliding door on the top that opened up to the turntable and radio that was inside. I’m glad I was able to find a couple of photos of it, along with a sampling of vintage Christmas scenes at the McGilvray house. (Click on an image to enlarge them all into a slide-show; click the X in the upper left to return.)

So let’s hear some music. Here’s one for Mom and Dad. Andy Williams singing on his Christmas special in 1963; they might’ve watched it when it aired.

And next we have the cool surf pop of the Beach Boys from a live performance on the Shindig! TV show. This one’s for you, Mike!

And finally, Jim Nabors swinging a spiritual with his booming baritone like you’ve never heard before. Hope you enjoy this once again, Brenda!

Here’s to you and yours this Christmas season…cheers!

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 9

Gene Autry – “Here Comes Santa Claus” / “An Old-Fashioned Tree” [Columbia Records 20377, Shellac 10″ 78 rpm, 1947.]

Gene Autry Side 1

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Everyone knows this one, don’t they? Written in 1947 by Gene Autry – the Singing Cowboy – and Oakley Haldeman, a composer who worked in Autry’s music publishing office, “Here Comes Santa Claus” was an immediate hit, making it into the top 5 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and into the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 not long after it was released. It’s been popular ever since, with both kids and grown-ups. The song has been covered a zillion times, with notable versions recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Elvis Presley on his first Christmas album and Alvin and the Chipmunks, among a throng of others.

The history of the song is told nicely in an excerpt from Holly George-Warren’s official biography of the Singing Cowboy, which I found at the Gene Autry website:

“Another Autry recording marked a turning point for the singer in 1947. That summer Art Satherly had suggested Gene record a new Christmas song he had discovered, “An Old-Fashioned Tree.” For its flipside, Gene remembered a song idea he’d gotten while participating in the annual Hollywood “Santa Claus Lane” parade the previous November. Astride Champion Jr., ahead of St. Nick on his sleigh, he’d heard a child on the sidewalk shout, “Here comes Santa Claus!” Satherly took Gene’s idea to Oakley Haldeman, the composer who operated Gene’s music publishing division, and he came up with the melody.

"Here Comes Santa Claus!" music notes

Gene Autry Side 2Johnny Bond recorded a demo version of the song at his home studio, where Art, cocktail in hand, stood next to the mic (as he usually did during recordings). The tingling of ice cubes was captured on the recording, inspiring the use of jingle bells on the August 28 Columbia session. After initial sales of two million following its December release, “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” became a perennial top-ten hit every Yuletide season for years to come. More important, it opened up a whole new market for Gene – holiday discs aimed at children. Easter and Thanksgiving recordings would follow, as would one of the biggest-selling Christmas discs of all time.”

There you have it folks, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

Although born in Texas, Autry spent a good part of his youth in Oklahoma. By the late 1920s, he was appearing regularly on Tulsa’s KVOO radio station (the “Voice Of Oklahoma”) where he was known as “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy.” KVOO would also become famous for being the radio home of Bob Will and His Texas Playboys starting in the mid-1930s.

Autry became one of the biggest stars of his day. He had a hugely successful career that covered all aspects of the entertainment industry including radio, recordings, movies, television and live performances. He was also an incredibly savvy businessman. He was well known as the long-time owner of the California Angels Major League Baseball team, one of my hometown baseball teams, from their inception in 1961 until his death in 1998.

Gene Autry on platter

This is another estate sale purchase that I came across several years ago. Compared to many of the 78s that I have, this one is in good condition; it’s not nearly as scratched as some. It appears to have been well cared for since it was first purchased by someone back in 1947!

There’s an interesting side note about the catalog number of this record, at least interesting to a record collector like me. This copy has the Columbia number 20377 on it, but I found a listing for another 10″ 78 rpm Columbia recording of these same two songs from the same year, but with the number 37942 on it. I was a little baffled by this and thought that one of the entries must be incorrect at the Discogs website where I was looking up information. After searching for more details about the Columbia Records catalog numbers, I learned that they sometimes used separate numbers for records that were marketed directly for a particular market. This record came in two versions upon its initial release in 1947: one version had a number that was in the series which was marketed along with Columbia’s regular popular music recordings, and the other version had a different number that was used in the series marketed to Country & Western audiences. Huh. You learn something new every day.

And here’s a nice treat: a YouTube user with a large 78 record collection has uploaded a video which shows the actual record playing. Take a listen to “Here Comes Santa Claus” at 78 revolutions per minute…

Here’s the flip side also: “An Old-Fashioned Tree”

Happy trails to you.

Oh, wait…that’s a different singing cowboy!

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 8

Elton John – “Step Into Christmas” / “Ho, Ho, Ho, (Who’d Be A Turkey At Christmas?)” [MCA Records MCA-65018, 7″ 45 rpm, 1973.]

Elton John Christmas 45 Side A

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Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas” is fairly well known, but I hadn’t heard the B-side of this single – “Ho Ho Ho (Who’d Be a Turkey at Christmas?)” – until I played it for the first time recently. I like it a lot more than “Step Into Christmas,” maybe because that song has become too familiar. The title hints at what’s to come. It’s a really raucous song, and it’s funny, to boot. As you can see on the record sleeve, I paid a whole .25 cents for this at the San Francisco-based store Rasputin Music sometime when I lived in northern California back in the late 80s to early 90s. I most likely bought it at either their Berkeley location on Telegraph Avenue or the shop on Haight Street right in San Francisco. That’s a pretty great score for two bits! I’m glad to see that Rasputin is still around.

Elton John Christmas 45 Side BBoth songs on this single were written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. According to the Wikipedia article and other sources I’ve read, they were recorded and released as a 7″ single in November, 1973. A promotional video was made for “Step Into Christmas,” which you can watch below. It has that classic Elton John sound to it. They recorded the song with a big, reverberating sonic presence, intentionally mimicking the “wall of sound” technique that Phil Spector used in his famous recordings of the 60s. On the other hand, the flip side – “Ho Ho Ho (Who’d Be a Turkey at Christmas?)” – has a much more informal, rollicking, party atmosphere to it. You hear a lot of other voices and strange noises bubbling up throughout the song and it has a rousing group chorus which includes the wonderful lyrics:

“And I keep hearing ho ho ho, guess who’s here?
Your fat and jolly friend draws near.
Ho ho ho, surprise, surprise!
The bearded weirdy’s just arrived.”

I love it! It’s a really fun, irreverent tune that captures the joyous, celebratory aspect of the season well. What else would you expect from the guy who owns so many fancy glasses and feather boas?! Sir Elton and Bernie certainly know how to make some great pop-rock songs. (You can read the full lyrics here: “Ho, Ho, Ho, (Who’d Be A Turkey At Christmas?)” at Eltonography.)


 

Happy_Xmas_(War_is_Over)Setting such jolliness aside for a moment,  I do need to mention John Lennon today – this being the anniversary of his murder 34 years ago: December 8, 1980. Being a huge fan of the Beatles (like many, if not most, of you reading this) his sudden death and the awful circumstances surrounding it were a real shock to me and many of my friends. I can remember hearing the news on the car radio when I was riding back from a high school soccer match stuffed in the back compartment (it wasn’t really a seat) of a friend’s VW Karmann Ghia. I couldn’t believe it at first, but then as we kept hearing more details, it hit us hard. The news stunned us into silence. If you want to revisit the events of that sad day, I found this long piece written by journalist Pete Hamill for New York magazine in its December 20, 1980 issue: “The Death and Life of John Lennon”

I wish I had a copy of Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” on vinyl, but I don’t. This was originally released only as a single in 1971 and later on included on the album Shaved Fish, a compilation of Lennon’s solo work. Backing vocals for the chorus were sung by the Harlem Community Choir as noted on the cover of the 45. It’s a Christmas song that makes you think.

You can take a listen to it here:

Take care of each other…

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 7

Windham Hill Artists – A Winter’s Solstice II [Windham Hill Records WH-1077, 12″ LP, 1988.]

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I’ve always liked the notion of “Sunday morning music.” You know, something you can play on a Sunday morning that’s on the quieter side – contemplative, mellow, meditative. For many of us, Sundays may be one of the only times we consciously slow down, relax, take it easy – or at least try to. On those Sunday mornings when it’s possible, I like to put on this kind of music to help me ease into the day. (And it really can be experienced any morning of the week; it just seems especially conducive to Sunday mornings.) During the Christmas season, there are a handful of albums I turn to for this kind of vibe.

I had actually planned on talking about A Winter’s Solstice, the Windham Hill seasonal compilation released in 1985; it was the first of eight albums in the Winter’s Solstice series that Windham Hill Records produced over a 15 year span. I could’ve sworn I had a copy of this on vinyl, but I can’t find it anywhere. It may have been something that was damaged at some point or maybe lost in one of the many moves my collection has made during the past 29 years since I remember buying the album. I do have this second album in the series, A Winter’s Solstice II, which is excellent in its own right, but the first one has always been my favorite.

Winter's Solstice II backI’ve been fan of Windham Hill Records since the early 1980s. Most people probably think of them as a New Age record label, but they’ve always been much more than that, and especially during their first 10 years. Folk music mixed with high art is the best way I can think of to describe it. The albums they put out in the early years were primarily recordings with acoustic instruments, very often performed by solo artists, or maybe some duos and trios with a few full bands and some carefully selected electronic sounds mixed in. The artistry on these albums is exceptional. Some of the early recordings by label founder Will Ackerman, Alex DeGrassi, the inimitable Michael Hedges, Ira Stein & Russel Walder, David Qualey, Darol Anger & Barbara Higbie and Mark Isham among others, are still some of my favorite instrumental albums. George Winston, despite all the flak he might take because he became so ubiquitously popular, made some really wonderful albums. December, his Christmas themed album of piano solos, is still a beautiful listen and is another one of my favorite Christmas-time “Sunday morning music” albums.

Windham Hill always produced extremely high quality recordings, paying meticulous attention to the sound they wanted to capture in the studio. Hearing their albums is a real treat for the listener. When I started my first record store job around 1984, at the Record Factory on Lighthouse Avenue in Monterey, California, compact discs were still brand new and we only had a few dozen titles in stock on CD. Probably half of those were Windham Hill recordings because they were early adopters of the format, their recordings were so good and their higher price could be paid by the audiophiles who made up most of the label’s audience at that time.

By the time A Winter’s Solstice appeared in 1985, I was still in the early days of my Christmas music collecting, but throughout the 80s I would add more and more titles, especially since I worked in record stores and hosted radio shows on public radio stations for most of that time. A Winter’s Solstice II has much of the same quietly joyful and contemplative qualities that the first album has. These are both really lovely albums to listen to if you want to tap into the more meditative and even spiritual aspects of the Christmas season. The album is excellent all the way through, but this is one of my favorites from it: “This Rush of Wings” by Metamora, a trio comprised of Malcolm Dalglish on hammer dulcimer, Grey Larsen on flute and Pete Sutherland on guitar.

And because I had to share something from the first album, for which I have a deep fondness, here’s “Engravings II” by the duo of Ira Stein & Russel Walder, on piano and oboe respectively.

Peace…