A Christmas Portrait

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(Pictured: Nat King Cole, circa 1963.)

In past years, we have looked into Billboard magazine’s special Christmas charts for several years of the 60s and 70s. Now let’s take a look at the return of those charts in 1983, 1984, and 1985. In each year, charts for singles and albums have 10 places, which is a far cry from the huge charts from the 60s.

Charts for 1983 appear in the December 17 and December 24 issues. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is #1 on the first Billboard Christmas chart since 1973; the next week, however, it’s taken out by Elmo and Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” first heard at Christmas 1979 but getting its first nationwide release in ’83. Although they swap positions around, nine of the top 10 singles, all returning classics, are exactly the same in both weeks; “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale appears on the 17th but is replaced by Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” on the 24th. Same deal on the album chart: nine of the 10 are the same both weeks. Kenny Rogers’ Christmas Album is #1 on both charts. John Denver and the Muppets’ A Christmas Together appears only on the 17th and Chipmunk Christmas only on the 24th. The newest single on either chart is “Christmas in Dixie” by Alabama, released in 1982; the newest charting albums, by Kenny Rogers and Anne Murray, were released in 1981.

Charts for 1984 appear in the issues of December 15 and 22. New-for-1984 Once Upon a Christmas by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton is #1 both weeks; a new release Billboard lists as Christmas Mannheim Steamroller also appears both weeks, as does the new Christmas at Our House by Barbara Mandrell. But as in 1983, the charts are mostly static from week to week. Christmas With Placido by Placido Domingo shows up only on the 15th; it’s replaced by Frank Sinatra’s 1963 Christmas album on the 22nd. An oddity on the singles chart is that “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole appears only on the 15th; so does “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You” by Billy Squier, first released in 1981. They are replaced on the 22nd by “Another Lonely Christmas” by Prince and “Winter Wonderland” by Dolly Parton. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” tops the singles chart both weeks.

Missing from the 1984 Christmas charts is Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” Unlike other Christmas singles, it placed on the Hot 100. It debuted on 12/22/84 at #65, peaked at #13 on 1/19/85, and then spent four weeks on its way off the chart.

In 1985, Billboard publishes just one Christmas chart, in the December 21 issue. It includes two new albums, Alabama Christmas by Alabama, which is #1, and It’s Christmas All Over the World by New Edition. George Winston’s December, first released in 1982, makes its first Christmas chart appearance, and so does a 1983 album by Amy Grant. Two new singles appear in the Christmas Top 10: “Christmas Time” by Bryan Adams and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” by Bruce Springsteen. The rest of the slots on both charts are taken up by returning holiday hits.

I will give you one guess what the #1 Christmas single of 1985 was, and it wasn’t Bruce or Bryan.

There’s a spreadsheet with all of the years, titles, and chart positions here. Only 18 songs take up the 50 spots available on the singles charts, with five appearing on all five charts: “White Christmas,” “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” “Blue Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and “Jingle Bells” by the Singing Dogs appear on four. Twenty-one albums take up the 50 spots. Only two appear on all five charts: A Christmas Album by Barbra Streisand and Christmas Portrait by the Carpenters. Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, and Luciano Pavarotti appear on four.

In the 80s, it took a superstar event to crack the canon: Kenny and Dolly were that in 1984; Bruce Springsteen, and to a lesser extent, Bryan Adams and Alabama, were that in 1985. Although Christmas singles and albums were released and re-released every year, it often took a year or two before they got much sales or airplay traction, but they were likely to be swamped by music recorded a generation or two before. As a result, the charts remained very predictable every year, and their utility to broadcasters and retailers must have shrunk to almost nothing. It’s not surprising that Billboard‘s Christmas charts vanished for good after 1985.

(Note to Patrons: One Day in Your Life is in the midst of a Christmas post-o-rama, now and through Christmas Day, so stop over.)

10 thoughts on “A Christmas Portrait

  1. David

    Interesting. I would have thought that Wham!’s “Last Christmas” would have done better in 1984 and 1985, given that the group was pretty big at the time and the song has grown into a holiday standard (and the single was a huge hit in the UK).

    1. Seems like there was always a lag, though, and I kind of understand why. A new Christmas record crosses a music director’s desk, but he/she may not be inclined to put it on right away unless it’s an obvious hit (Kenny and Dolly, for instance). Better to wait until next year and see if it had any staying power or was just a one-year wonder (New Edition, for instance). Had there been a chart in 1986, I am guessing “Last Christmas” would have made it.

      As of this moment (2:13PM on 12/18) I am still alive in this year’s Whamageddon, by the way.

    2. Yah Shure

      The release histories of “Last Christmas” differ between the U.K. and U.S. The original 1984 U.K. single mix never has been issued in the States. The first American release wasn’t until 1986, when the Pudding Mix appeared on Wham!’s ‘Music From The Edge Of Heaven’ album. That same year, Columbia Records sent a promo-only (“CS7” prefix) short/long single of the Pudding Mix to radio.

      “Last Christmas” didn’t crack the Billboard singles charts because it’s never been issued as a single commercially in the U.S. (which was a requirement for inclusion during the ’80s.)

  2. mikehagerty

    Not to be picky, JB, but that’s “Nat King Cole at the organ”—a Hammond.

    And for those looking for someone to blame for “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”—um, that would be me. I was the Music Director at KOLO in Reno in the late 70s—Elmo and Patsy were a lounge act in Lake Tahoe, they brought the song down on a reel of tape, I added it, the phones were huge, I mentioned it to Gavin and R&R and….thus began about 40 years of annoyance for a large number of people.

      1. mikehagerty

        “…really not very good at this.”

        JB, you should do what I did and swear off self-deprecation. I did it because I’m no good at it.

        Merry Christmas!

      2. Yah Shure

        It’s no use, Mike. I’ve tried countless times to wean him from his self-deprecation habit, but he’s so hopeless that I honestly think he’d give up beer first. I’ve even taken him to task about it in person, which earned the gratitude of Mrs. jb. That was at least a start, since it ruled out Wisconsin as a probable cause. Then again, that face-to-face did occur in Minnesota…

        I think our next course of action is to do a 1976 intervention.

  3. Well, you guys are kind and I appreciate it.

    On the subject of “Last Christmas,” I am trying to remember the first time I heard it. It wasn’t Christmas of ’84. Based on this, my station couldn’t have played it in ’85 either (seems weird that it wouldn’t have been released over here that year, given how Wham! had blown up that year). So maybe ’86, although I know I didn’t see a physical copy of it in a radio station until ’90 or ’91.

  4. porky

    thought I would add this anecdote from the great :”B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and Rebirth of the Great American Song” by Ben Yagoda.

    Johnny Marks (author of “Rudolph….” and other holiday tunes) was featured in People magazine in 1980 and revealed these amazing facts: Gene Autry’s “Rudolph” had sold 12 million and records by some 500 other artists, another 130 million. “The magazine didn’t say how much money Marks had made from the song in total but did report that, at that time of the interview,it was netting him some $600,000 a year. That suggests his total “Rudolph” proceeds, by the time of his death five years later, had probably reached eight figures.”

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