(Above: CBS aired this holiday greeting for several years beginning in 1966. It’s lovely and unexpected and it commanded your attention whenever it came on, which is why some of us remember it so fondly so many years later. Note also that it says “Seasons Greetings,” a locution that offended exactly no one back then.)
The Christmas season has arrived up here, so it’s time to put my Christmas music library on shuffle and see what comes out.
“Silent Night”/Chicago. December bought with it the return of Debris Slide, the blog home of Tom Nawrocki, who’s posting on the 15 semifinalists for this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s not just amusing himself, however—he is an actual Hall of Fame voter, so we’re getting insight into his thought process. His take on Chicago is interesting: whether it’s possible for a band to play its way out of the Hall. “Silent Night” is one of the best tracks from their problematic Christmas collection.
“2000 Miles”/KT Tunstall. This is a song other people like more than I do, but it’s OK once a year.
“Blue Christmas”/Living Strings. Longtime readers of this blog know that I consider the 1963 album The Spirit of Christmas with the Living Strings to be among the greatest of all Christmas albums. In 1970, The Sound of Christmas (which contains this version of “Blue Christmas”) was released under the Living Strings name. I don’t know if it’s the same orchestra that appears on the 1963 disc; over the years, RCA Camden licensed various British orchestras as the Living Strings. The Sound of Christmas has a different feel than the earlier album, with a pronounced bass guitar line on some songs, as well as a vocal chorus, so maybe not.
“Deck Five”/Saturday’s Children. In which a group of Chicago musicians merge “Deck the Halls” and “We Three Kings” in 5/4 time, a la Dave Brubeck.
“Please Come Home for Christmas”/Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise. From a three-track CD single released in 2001.
“When a Child Is Born”/Johnny Mathis. German singer Michael Holm recorded this song in 1974, and it got some airplay in the States that Christmas. (It was a Top 10 hit at the ever-eclectic WYSL in Buffalo.) The Mathis version was #1 in the UK for three weeks at Christmas 1976, although it doesn’t appear to have charted in America. A version credited to Gladys Knight and the Pips and Mathis appears on a single chart at ARSA from Christmas 1980. The Moody Blues also covered it on their album December, which I’m mentioning here again because it’s on my short list of all-time best Christmas albums, and not enough people know how beautiful it is.
“Away in a Manger-Coventry Carol”/Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”/Temptations. In 1992, Motown released a 24-track compilation of Christmas tracks from its biggest stars, but there’s a fairly attractive box set to be compiled containing the complete Christmas albums from Stevie Wonder, the Miracles, the Supremes, the Jackson Five, and the Temptations, along with the scattered Marvin Gaye Christmas tracks. Given the way Motown has plundered and re-plundered its back catalog over the years, that they haven’t done a Christmas box yet is kind of weird.
“Christmas Time”/LaBamba and His Orchestra. On December 23, 1984, Richard “LaBamba” Rosenberg of the Asbury Jukes presented a Christmas show in Red Bank, New Jersey, featuring Steven Van Zandt, Southside Johnny, Darlene Love, Gary U.S. Bonds, Brian Setzer, Paul Shaffer, and Garry Tallent, among others. This is a pretty lugubrious version of the old R&B number recorded at the show and preserved at the indispensable ROIO.
“Silver Bells”/Bebe and Cece Winans. This year marks the 65th anniversary of “Silver Bells,” the birth of which involves two of the biggest stars in the history of showbiz. It was sung by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell in the film The Lemon-Drop Kid, but the first hit recording, at Christmas 1950, was by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards. Written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, it was originally given the unfortunate title “Tinkle Bells,” which seemed fine to the songwriters until Livingston’s wife pointed out the problem.
As required by tradition, I conclude the first installment of this feature every year with the note that we might do it again before Christmas actually comes, or we might not. Life’s a gamble.