Christmas Portraits

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(Pictured: Karen and Richard Carpenter with a Grammy, circa 1971.)

In 1944, Frank Pooler was a lovelorn teenager in Onalaska, Wisconsin, missing his sweetheart at Christmastime, so he wrote her a song. It didn’t help the romance, although 22 years later, Pooler’s students at Cal State Long Beach (where he directed the university choir) occasionally sang it. Two of his students, Karen and Richard Carpenter, had a band that played parties, and they were looking for new material for their Christmas gigs. Pooler suggested that Richard write new music for his old lyrics, which he did. The revised “Merry Christmas Darling” became part of the band’s regular setlist, sung by Karen.

By 1970, the Carpenters were a national success. “Close to You” had done a month at #1 in the summer of 1970, and the time seemed right for a Carpenters Christmas record. So Richard Carpenter worked up an orchestra arrangement of “Merry Christmas Darling” (which featured an improvised saxophone solo by Bob Messenger, who would play on most of the Carpenters’ hits). It was so different from the version that Pooler knew that when he first heard it on the radio, he didn’t recognize it as his song.

“Merry Christmas Darling” was released on November 20, 1970, and it became an instant hit, going to #1 on Billboard‘s Christmas singles chart. Many stations charted it locally: it went to #1 in Hilo, Hawaii, then in Pittsburgh and Columbus, and was a Top-10 hit in several other cities, at about the same time the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” was in heavy rotations everywhere. It went to #1 on Billboard‘s Christmas singles chart in 1971 and 1973, and also charted in 1972 and 1983. “Merry Christmas Darling” did not appear on an album until 1978, when Karen recut her vocal for A Christmas Portrait. The 1978 version is the one you’re more likely to hear nowadays; a couple of iffy sources say Karen thought she was pitched too low on the 1970 recording. Both versions are pretty great, however, and it’s hard to hear much difference.

Some radio stations playing “Merry Christmas Darling” in December 1970 were on another new Christmas song at the same time. José Feliciano had first come to prominence in the summer of 1968 with an acoustic version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” (which is a completely different take on the original and in some ways superior to it). In October, he sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a World Series game, an introspective acoustic performance that many people considered disrespectful. Some fans at the game booed him, and afterward, there were calls for him to be deported. (Since he’s Puerto Rican, he would have been deported to . . . the United States.) It was the first time most people had heard a personalized rendition of the National Anthem, but it would not be the last. It opened the way for others, from Jimi Hendrix to Marvin Gaye to Roseanne, and many more.

Two years later, Feliciano was working up a Christmas album, and at the suggestion of his producer, he wrote a new song. He worried about measuring up to Irving Berlin and other Christmas-song writers, so he decided to play to his strengths, writing in a Puerto Rican style, using traditional instruments and Spanish lyrics. The finished recording, “Feliz Navidad,” had only about 20 words, but its joyful simplicity caught on fast. It appeared on a handful of radio surveys in 1970 and was #5 at KIMN in Denver. Oddly, “Feliz Navidad” never appeared on Billboard‘s Christmas singles chart in 1970, or in any other year, until it made the adult-contemporary chart during the 1997 Christmas season. (It’s back on the Hot 100 this year, one of many Christmas songs from the distant past that are hits again thanks to easy streaming and downloading.) The Feliz Navidad album made Billboard‘s Christmas album chart once, in 1973.

There is a plausible argument that after a half-century of annual airplay, nobody really needs to hear either “Merry Christmas Darling” or “Feliz Navidad” again. You can’t really fault people whose reaction to either one of them is to dial-punch or skip. But there’s an equally plausible argument that Christmas would not be Christmas without them. Like the other popular songs of the season, they take us to places we remember, places we are eager to visit. They’ve done it before, and they’ll do it again, probably until the end of time.

This year is also the 50th anniversary of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” I won’t be writing about it here, but since somebody already did it better, that’s no great loss. 

8 thoughts on “Christmas Portraits

  1. SteveE

    I certainly agree with Mike Hagerty that the 1970 version is just dandy. This is one of my top five favorite Christmas recordings, and I loved it from the moment it was new 50 years ago. As Hagerty no doubt remembers, KHJ in SoCal not only played it, it charted on the Boss 30, peaking at No. 9. I’m aware of only one place where the original can be found on CD, and I have it: A 1990 Carpenters box set called “From the Top.” Richard Carpenter redid his piano tracks on many of the hits on this set, but thankfully, he left the 1970 “Merry Christmas, Darling” unchanged. The easiest way to tell which version you are hearing comes on the last verse when Karen sings “happy new year, too.” In the original, the word “year” is down a tone from the word “new.” In the remake, she sings both words in the same tone.

    1. Yah Shure

      “The Complete Singles” also includes the 1970 version of “Merry Christmas Darling”. The 3-disc set was a 2015 PBS pledge drive premium; hence its steep price even on the used market. But it has all the original single mixes of Carpenters recordings released as US 45s, complete with Richard’s blessing. Fortunately, “Merry Christmas Darling” is rid of the much-loathed Haeco-CSG process utilized on the 1970 promo and commercial 45. (While CSG did help reduce the center channel level boost from stereo recordings aired over mono AM radio, it ended up compromising the sound of the stereo playback on stereo phonographs and FM stereo.)

      The only misfire on this otherwise outstanding collection is “Ticket To Ride.” No tape could be located, so the song was sourced from a copy of the 1969 vinyl single. The vinyl transfer done for this set doesn’t do justice to what a mint copy can sound like in the hands of a vinyl restoration expert.

      Fascinating backstory on the song, jb. Add me to the “I did not know that!” club.

      Original 1970 copies of “Feliz Navidad” are much more likely to turn up as promo 45s. The 1970 orange-label stock 45 is surprisingly scarce, which may explain why the record missed the charts entirely in its first year of release. Who knows why? Was there a strike at RCA’s Indianapolis pressing plant? Or did the label presume the single wouldn’t sell well in the mainstream market, and thus didn’t press many stock copies?

    2. mikehagerty

      I was very happy to have a fresh copy of “Merry Christmas Darling” at KOLO, Reno when the Christmas Portrait album came out. As soon as I heard it while carting it, I heard the re-sign on “new year”, made do with the old 45 one more year and as soon as I could, scurried over the Sierra to Sacramento where, on K Street Mall, the old Tower Records had been converted to an independent store called just “Records”. They dealt in used stuff and I was able to scrounge two lightly-played 45s.

      Two other re-sings where the original was better: Ray Charles’ “Don’t Change On Me” and Frank Sinatra’s “Mack The Knife” (1984 version produced by Quincy Jones).

      I appreciate Richard Carpenter’s perfectionism and I believe in the artist’s vision—but this is a guy who really got it right the first time. The re-mixes are unnecessary.

  2. Wesley

    Merry Christmas, Darling. Feliz Navidad. This Christmas. Forget this year, it’s hard to imagine three holiday tunes created this last decade that will have as much longevity 50 years from now. So sayeth this musical antiquarian.

  3. porky

    In December ’84 some friends and I saw one of our favorite “new wave” bands The dB’s. They encored with “Feliz Navidad” and we were all struck at how cool a song choice it was, fairly obscure and out of left field back then but the song has certainly gotten a much larger profile in the past twenty years or so.

  4. Tim M

    Extra points for knowing Frank Pooler’s role in “Merry Christmas, Darling!”- including the Wisconsin connection! Pooler sent scores of young singers on to professional careers after they’d studied under him at Cal State Long Beach. Five members of the Ray Conniff Singers (including a woman with whom I’m still good friends) were given their shot at an audition on Pooler’s recommendation. For several years in the mid-80’s, Frank’s wife Rhonda Sandberg toured and recorded with Conniff. There’s a huge Carpenters tribute display in the concert hall at CSULB. The woman with whom I’m still friends with toured and recorded with Conniff from 1985 until Ray’s death in 2002.

    She also was one of the soloists at Karen Carpenter’s funeral in 1983. They’d been friends.

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