For the last couple of weeks, Joel Whitburn’s Christmas in the Charts 1920-2004 has been atop the stack of reference books teetering precariously on the edge of my desk. It pulls together chart data on holiday singles and albums, and may represent Whitburn’s most impressive research job this side of Pop Memories 1890-1954. Whitburn compiled data not only from Billboard‘s dedicated Christmas charts, but from the Hot 100, as well as sales and airplay charts for other formats. It’s a slimmer volume that I expected it to be—only about 270 pages—but it’s loaded with blogworthy nuggets, and here are five of them.
1. We have written occasionally about the pre-1920 Pioneer Era of Recording, which came to an end when electrical recording technology, with its improved fidelity and easier duplication, replaced the original acoustic methods. According to Whitburn, the first electric recording to become a major hit was “Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)” by the Associated Glee Clubs of America. According to Columbia Records, which released it in 1925, it’s the largest group recording ever made: 4,800 voices.
2. Two versions of the arrant horseshit titled “The Christmas Shoes” are listed in the book, one by Newsong (which did a week atop the adult contemporary chart in 2000) and a country cover by 3 of Hearts, which charted the next year. I mention this only as an excuse to refer to it as “arrant horseshit,” which is actually an insult to horses.
3. The most popular song at Christmas 1973 was not strictly a Christmas song at all. Merle Haggard’s “If We Make it Through December” topped both the Billboard Christmas chart and the regular country chart for four weeks, and made it to #28 on the Hot 100. Often it’s what’s between the lines that counts, and Haggard’s delivery is what makes this song work. He’s saying all the right things—“If we make it through December we’ll be fine”—yet it’s more out of hope than conviction. Maybe he’ll find a job, move someplace better, and get his family back on its feet, and maybe he won’t. (There’s more emotional honesty in the 2:41 it takes this song to play than in all the airings of “The Christmas Shoes” since 2000. I hate that record with the white-hot fire of a thousand suns. So does Patton Oswalt.)
Some all-time Christmas chart leaders are on the flip.
4. Whitburn compiles the top songs of all time by chart, which yields some unexpected results. The top Christmas single based on Billboard‘s Christmas singles chart is “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale. Based solely on Hot 100 performance, it’s “The Chipmunk Song” by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Haggard tops the all-time country chart. On the R&B chart, the top 10 Christmas singles are all from the 1940s and 1950s. The top song is . . . “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby. It was everywhere at Christmas of 1942, even on what Billboard then called the “Harlem Hit Parade,” where it was #1 for three weeks.
4a. Whitburn does not name a #1 Christmas album of all time. Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas has 55 different chart entries (counting various charts and various years), more than any other album; Kenny G’s Miracles: the Holiday Album has the most weeks at #1: 60 on various charts between 1994 and 1998.
5. If an artist is going to have only one song listed in Whitburn’s book, it’s likely to be from the mid 1960s, which was the golden age for pop Christmas music—or Christmas music charts, at least. Billboard began its separate Christmas chart in 1963, and within a few years had expanded it to epic length: “Best Bets for Christmas” in the December 23, 1967, issue lists 34 singles and 108 albums. The #1 single was “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen. (In that year, “Snoopy’s Christmas” became one of the biggest Christmas singles of the pop era. Although it was not ranked on the Hot 100, it rose as high as #7 in Cash Box.)
5a. The #1 album on the December 23, 1967, chart was A Christmas Album by Barbra Streisand, which had been issued the previous year. The album chart is studded with warhorses: Merry Christmas by Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song, Elvis’ Christmas Album, and the Harry Simeone Chorale’s album make up the top 5. Further down, however, is A Christmas Present . . . and Past by Paul Revere and the Raiders, a concept album about the commercialization of Christmas. Nine of the album’s 10 songs are originals, and “Brotherly Love,” which was released as a single, didn’t chart, which helps explain why songs from the album haven’t been anthologized everywhere. Despite its obscurity, however, the album is still in print.
Will there be another post about Billboard‘s Christmas charts of the mid-1960s before the holiday gets here? Could “The Christmas Shoes” suck the chrome off a trailer hitch?