(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.