(Pictured: Sharon Jones in 2015.)
It has been brought to my attention that my recent Christmas shuffle post, which I labeled Volume 18, should have been labeled Volume 17. So I am posting an extra shuffle here, which I am numbering Volume 17, even though it increases the likelihood that we’ll repeat Volume 18 next year, because this is not a very good blog, really.
“Silent Night”/Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. From the 2015 album It’s A Holiday Soul Party, which all good people should own. Listening to it will make you grieve for Miss Jones all over again while making you damn grateful she was here in the first place. (Just-published-today retrospective with photos here.)
“Dear Mr. Claus”/Paul Revere and the Raiders. Fifty years ago this Christmas, smack in the middle of the golden age of Christmas music, the Raiders dropped the album A Christmas Present … and Past (which you can hear in its entirety here). It did not become part of the canon, however, because a lot of influential people hated it, including Columbia Records and prominent DJs; when he first listened to it, legendary radio programmer Bill Drake yanked it from a turntable and threw it against a wall. In 2010, Mark Lindsay told Goldmine, “Most of our singles weren’t political, but the Christmas album totally was. It was a disaster, but it reflected what we were feeling at the time. It was a good time for flower power and protest.”
“Sleigh Ride”/Leroy Anderson. The tale is told that Mel Torme and Robert Wells wrote “The Christmas Song” during a heat wave; Leroy Anderson did the same thing at about the same time. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops released the first recording of “Sleigh Ride” in 1949; Anderson’s came out in 1950. He didn’t intend it as a Christmas song, but it’s become one of the most popular of them all.
“Merry Christmas From a Bar”/Mike Ireland. Ireland was a member of Kansas City country bands the Starkweathers and Holler, if that helps you at all. “Merry Christmas From a Bar” dates back to 1997.
“Greensleeves”/Vince Guaraldi Trio. From the 2006 remastered edition of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which added five tracks to the original release. Two are titled “Greensleeves,” in addition to the version of “What Child Is This” on the original album. By the time I get that far into the remastered CD, I’m feeling the vibe more than I’m hearing the music, so I don’t much mind the repetition.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”/Freedy Johnston. Johnston, who first got noticed in the early 90s with the albums Can You Fly and This Perfect World, divides his time between New York City and Madison, occasionally performing here with the Steely Dan cover band Steely Dane.
“Mary’s Boy Child”/Matt Monro. An Englishman with a beautiful voice whose biggest American hit was “My Kind of Girl” in 1961. He was a bit more successful on the UK chart, scoring with versions of “Softly As I Leave You,” “Yesterday,” and the James Bond theme “From Russia With Love,” among others. He does not seem to have made an entire album of Christmas songs, which is a shame, because “Mary’s Boy Child” is really good. Monro died in 1985 at age 54.
“Twinkle Twinkle Little Me”/Stevie Wonder. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s Christmas album. Like other Motown Christmas originals, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me” is pretty cheesy on the page, but as he frequently does on his Christmas album, Stevie’s performance keeps cheese from smelling like it.
“The Nutcracker Suite”/Wynton Marsalis. Last year, the bootleg site ROIO came up with a Christmas concert performed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Marsalis, for a 1989 TV broadcast. It includes a full performance of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn arrangement of the Tchaikovsky piece, sacred and secular Christmas songs, and Marsalis reading “The Night Before Christmas” to musical accompaniment. It’s pretty great, and you can download the whole thing (or individual tracks) right here.
“The Man With the Bag”/Kay Starr. If I didn’t have the attention span of a goldfish and the work ethic of a hobo, I might undertake some kind of formal history of Christmas pop, covering the 40 years between the end of World War II and the middle of the 1980, when listening audiences started to fragment and it became difficult for new songs to get traction. It would involve figuring out why some recordings endure and some do not, and how it’s hard to tell which ones will be which. “The Man With the Bag” dates back to 1950, and Kay Starr’s recording remains popular today, despite all the fashions that have come and gone from that day to this.