In an earlier post, I mentioned the striking size of Billboard magazine’s “Best Bets for Christmas” charts in the mid 1960s. In 1966, for example, charts range in size from 17 to 28 singles and from 29 to 75 albums. It’s also interesting to note how late in the season the magazine begins publishing them. The first Christmas chart for 1966 didn’t appear until the December 10 issue—although the magazine hit the street well before the issue date in those days, so it’s likely that the December 10 issue was out just after Thanksgiving. Introductory text accompanying the chart seems to confirm this: “While dealers report that it is early for Christmas product, certain LPs and singles seem to be jumping out in front of others. . . . These special charts will run for the next five weeks as a special buying and stocking guide.”
Except they don’t. There are charts for December 10, 17, and 24; the December 31 table of contents points to a chart, but it’s not on the listed page or anywhere else in the issue at Google Books; there’s no mention of a Christmas chart in the January 7, 1967 issue.
The top albums don’t change much from week to week through the 1966 holiday season: Merry Christmas by Andy Williams was #1 on December 10 and 24; The Little Drummer Boy by the Harry Simeone Chorale interrupted its run on the 17th. The Williams album had come out in 1965; Simeone’s landmark recording dated back to 1958, although the album released that year was called Sing We Now of Christmas; the version charting in 1966 was the same one. Also in or close to the top 10 were re-released albums by Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby (both also titled Merry Christmas), Elvis Presley, and Nat King Cole, all of which you can still pick up at your local megamart today.
Several less well-known albums at the top of the Christmas chart were first released in 1966, including Noel by Joan Baez. Unlike her earlier albums, Noel featured classical-styled arrangements, which hardcore folk fans may have disliked. She performs “O Holy Night” in French and “Ave Maria,” normally heard in Latin, in German. On the whole, the album is a fairly somber affair (example: “I Wonder as I Wander”), which helps explain why it never became a true perennial, although it remains in print. So does Navidad Means Christmas by Eydie Gorme with Trio Los Panchos (although it has a different title now). The album is one of four Gorme recorded entirely in Spanish with Trio Los Panchos between 1964 and 1970. Also new for 1966 and charting big (but out of print today): Songs for a Merry Christmas by Wayne Newton.
New for 1966 and worth noting further down the Christmas chart that December: James Brown Sings Christmas Songs, which is not the album with “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”; the magnificent In the Christmas Spirit by Booker T. and the MG’s; Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas by jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, and Winter Wonderland by Cole-style vocalist and organist Earl Grant. Among notable albums returning to the chart in 1966 are the 1965 release Merry Christmas (again with that title!) by the Supremes, and Merry Christmas From Jackie Wilson (1963), on which the soul shouter is tamed by MOR-style arrangements—lovely (as on “O Holy Night”), but not what fans want to hear him sing today. First released in 1965, The Ventures Christmas Album incorporates licks from popular mid-60s hits into familiar Christmas songs. Their version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” will amaze and delight you.
For the most part, however, the big album sellers of Christmas 1966 were not by people making music for young people. The chart is larded with popular orchestras (led by Bert Kaempfert, Henry Mancini, Mantovani, Lawrence Welk, Andre Kostalanetz and others), by choral music (Robert Shaw Chorale, Mormon Tabernacle Choir), and by male vocalists of various stripes (Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, John Gary, the Lettermen, Mario Lanza, Sergio Franchi). The December 1966 singles charts do a little better, and we’ll look at those in a future installment.