(Pictured: Nat King Cole with his daughter Natalie, circa 1956.)
I have something like 1200 cuts in my Christmas library. I was organizing it for the season the other day, and I compiled this list of the most frequently appearing songs.
5. “Jingle Bells” (24 versions). I am guessing that “Jingle Bells” is the first Christmas song most children learn. It’s so simple and so familiar that you can’t really do it straight anymore, although many, many artists do, as pointless as it is. The most interesting versions are by jazz players, who can improvise around the chords and the melody, and my library has a couple of good ones, by Duke Pearson and Jimmy McGriff. The king of them all, however, is the one by Booker T. and the MGs, on which the master organist makes a tiny change that produces a monster groove. You’ll know what I mean when you hear it.
4. “Winter Wonderland” (26 versions). This is not a song I have much use for, and as I look over the list of versions in my library, very few of them stand out. Booker T.’s does, because that whole album (In the Christmas Spirit, from 1966) is killer. Aretha Franklin’s version gets a lot of airplay every year, and while her voice is unmistakable, her performance dates back to 1964 and her ill-fated Columbia days, when the label was trying to turn her into an orchestra-fronting chanteuse. She sings like she’s trying to hold herself back.
2. (tie) “Silent Night” (42 versions). If “Jingle Bells” is the first Christmas song most children learn, there was a time when “Silent Night” was probably second. Unlike other popular Christmas songs, which can often benefit from being changed up, “Silent Night” is at its best when it’s done more-or-less straight, and any given performance stands or falls based on the artist’s personality. Tom Waits uses it to frame “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis,” and it’s neither ironic nor a leg-pull. Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 performance on “Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night” is heavenly, if you can keep your attention from focusing on the newscast. Earl Grant’s version, on which he hums along while playing organ and/or piano, provides instant 180-proof holiday atmosphere. (I have sung the praises of Grant’s 1965 Winter Wonderland album in the past, and as the years go by, it rises in my estimation to where it’s now pretty much essential.)
2. (tie) “The Christmas Song” (42 versions). Few holiday songs are recorded in the shadow of a single definitive recording. But me no buts about “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”; Gene Autry’s original record is terrible and all the rest of them are better. All versions of “The Christmas Song,” on the other hand, have to live up to the one by Nat King Cole. He first cut it in 1946 and then again in 1961; the latter version is the one most often heard every year, and it’s beyond essential. In my library, sax man King Curtis does the song as a bedroom ballad, and Al Jarreau’s vibe is extremely cool. While those versions are fine, Nat still owns. I would be tempted to call his version of “The Christmas Song” the single most indispensable Christmas recording of all time, were it not for a particular version of …
1. “White Christmas” (44 versions). Bing Crosby’s monumental hit first appeared in 1942, but it charted in one place or another for most of the next 40-some Christmases. I have played it on A/C radio, Top 40 radio, country radio, and even album-rock radio. It transcends the boundaries of style and format like nothing else, except maybe Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song.” First runner-up is Darlene Love’s version from A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector, which includes the infrequently heard opening verse (“The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway / There’s never been such a day in old L.A.”) before it gets to rockin’.
These five Christmas chestnuts represent something like 14 percent of my Christmas library. I’m going to hear them a lot over the next few weeks. And so are you.