(Pictured: a family Christmas, circa 1970. I’m not sure, but I think my family had the same edition of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas that Father is reading aloud.)
When I have my laptop library on shuffle, which is nearly all of the time, songs do not play purely at random. I rearrange the list to avoid going from (for example) “Okie From Muskogee” to “Satin Doll” to “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.” Something similar is true of this Christmas shuffle: my music player served up a list of songs, and I chose the ones to write about.
‘Tis Yuletide/Roscoe Robinson. From one of the excellent Christmas mixes at Any Major Dude With Half a Heart. Robinson was a gospel and soul singer from Arkansas whose lone Hot 100 hit, “That’s Enough,” made #62 in 1966. In the 80s, he sang with the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, despite the handicap of not being blind himself.
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”/Moog Machine. After the synthesizer album Switched-On Bach became a hit in 1968, an executive at Columbia Records commissioned several additional albums of synthesizer music, eventually released under the name of the Moog Machine. Christmas Becomes Electric, released in 1969, sounds both futuristic and primitive at the same time, and is not bad.
“Christmas Without You”/Eric Clapton with John Popper. In December 1998, Clapton appeared on a bill at the White House for a Special Olympics benefit, excerpts from which appeared on a TV special and were released on CD as A Very Special Christmas Live From Washington, DC. “Christmas Without You” is exactly the sort of muscular, straightforward blues you’d expect from Clapton and Popper.
“The Little Drummer Boy”/Chicago. I have tried really hard to like Chicago’s Christmas album over the years, but I just don’t. It sounds like it was recorded by a Chicago tribute band.
“Mary’s Boy Child”/John D. Loudermilk. In 1966, Loudermilk went into the studio with some of Nashville’s top session cats, including Floyd Cramer, Ray Stevens, Charlie McCoy, and Norro Wilson, plus the Jordanaires and the Anita Kerr Singers, and recorded John D. Loudermilk Sings a Bizarre Collection of the World’s Most Unusual Songs, which is not a Christmas album, and is only bizarre and unusual in spots. It includes a version of his “Indian Reservation” and also “Mary’s Boy Child,” made famous by Harry Belafonte in the 50s.
“Riu Chiu”/Monkees. In which Mike, Davy, Micky, and Peter harmonize acappella on a traditional Spanish carol and knock it out of the park.
“Hip Santa”/Jimmy McGriff. From Christmas With McGriff, which was released in 1963 with one of those risque covers that so often were found on instrumental albums during the late 50s and the first half of the 1960s, eye candy for the type of guy who would spend big money on sophisticated hi-fi.
“In the Bleak Midwinter”/Blind Boys of Alabama with Chrissie Hynde. Years ago, I wrote about “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and the darker verses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that didn’t make it into the Christmas carol adapted from his poem. “In the Bleak Midwinter,” from a poem by Christina Rossetti, gets a similar treatment. Her verse about frosty winds moaning gets left in, but other, bleaker ones get left out. (Read the whole poem here.)
“Merry Christmas Baby”/Bruce Springsteen. The version that came up on shuffle is from a 1980 concert bootleg, on which the E Street Band is tight and right and Springsteen himself is in great voice. Call it his version of Otis Redding’s version of a song famously recorded by Elvis and Charles Brown.
“Silent Night”/Earl Grant. Your mileage may vary with Grant’s album Winter Wonderland. Some of the tracks lean heavily on an old-fashioned organ sound that’s miles removed from McGriff or Jimmy Smith. But “Silent Night,” on which Grant hums along with the ancient carol while swinging it on piano and organ, is lovely. Grant’s voice is a dead ringer for Nat King Cole and he sings a couple of times on Winter Wonderland, but it’s mostly an old-fashioned instrumental album, and the kind of thing that sounds better in December than at any other time of the year.