(Pictured L to R: John Stewart, Nick Reynolds, and Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio. Stewart, who would later become a solo act, replaced Dave Guard in 1961.)
Every year, we are fascinated by the endurance of the Christmas canon. While some new music creeps in around the edges each new season, the most popular music is always stuff that was made 40, 50, 60 years ago, or more.
In 1960, then as now, record labels began preparing for Christmas long before the decorations went up. In October, Capitol Records took out a full-page ad in Billboard plugging new Christmas releases by stars including the Kingston Trio, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and organist Virgil Fox. Retailers could choose a couple of different packages featuring the new releases and popular back-catalog items by the Jackie Gleason Orchestra, Frank Sinatra, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Also new for Christmas 1960 were albums by Andre Kostelanetz and His Orchestra, opera singer Eileen Farrell, and jazz trumpeter Shorty Rogers, whose A Swingin’ Nutcracker used themes from the famous ballet as a starting point for “swinging big-band works.”
At that moment, pop stars didn’t come bigger than the Kingston Trio, so a Christmas album was a natural. As the avatars of the folk-music boom, the group had hit #1 on the Billboard album chart five times and #2 once since late 1958, spending a total of 46 weeks at #1. The Kingston Trio at Large was the #1 album for the entire year of 1959. They would continue to move albums in huge numbers from 1961 through 1963, when seven straight albums releases would make the Top 10. (Their singles chart performance was less impressive, although chances are you know a couple of them. “Tom Dooley” was a #1 hit in 1958; “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was big in 1962.) Their 1960 Christmas album, The Last Month of the Year, went to #11, although it did not become a yearly perennial; 1960 was the only year in which it charted on the Billboard album or Christmas charts.
As for the others, Nat King Cole’s The Magic of Christmas was not an especially big hit in 1960, but when it was reissued in 1963 with Nat’s 1961 version of “The Christmas Song” included, it became one of the great successes in pop-music history. The retitled album The Christmas Song is the largest-selling Christmas album released in the 60s, and it’s moved something like six million copies over the years. Peggy Lee’s Christmas Carousel contains a mix of carols and original songs. The best-known is probably “I Like a Sleighride,” a version of “Jingle Bells” that pulls off a neat trick: despite the presence of a children’s chorus, Peggy still smolders enough to melt snow.
Billboard seems to have got it wrong about Virgil Fox, however. The exhaustive discography at a tribute site devoted to him does not show a Christmas release that year. He had done a couple in the 1950s; two more were released in 1965. But it’s worth taking a few sentences to discuss him, because he was an unlikely star. From 1946 to 1965, Fox was was the organist at the famed Riverside Church in New York City, playing one of the largest church organs in captivity. After retiring from church work, he took a giant organ on tour, playing classical pieces accompanied by light shows; his “Heavy Organ” shows attracted rock music fans. (Bach Live at Fillmore East, recorded on December 1, 1970, was his only album to make Billboard‘s main chart; he also cut live albums at Winterland and Carnegie Hall.) Fox frequently appeared on TV talk and variety shows, and he eventually became a classical-music popularizer on the order of Leonard Bernstein, until his death in 1980.
Postscript: During my early years in radio, stations would dig out a big dusty stack of Christmas albums sometime in November, either for airplay or for background music on commercials, and albums not just by Virgil Fox but other prominent organists would be among them, including Eddie Dunstedter, Richard Keyes Biggs, and E. Power Biggs. This sort of vintage organ music ain’t for everybody. For example, Dunstedter’s 1959 The Bells of Christmas, a pipe organ and chimes record, provides 180-proof holiday atmosphere in small doses but becomes positively funereal at full album length. His 1965 album Christmas Candy puts him behind a smaller organ and in front of a band, and its lounge-music vibe goes down a lot easier.
You’re not hearing these organists on the radio today. But if you come to my house, it’s a different story.