Fifty years ago, on Christmas weekend, American Top 40 aired a countdown of the Top 40 Christmas hits of all time. I wrote about the show several years ago, and some of that post follows, with a couple of added notes and hyperlinks.
It started off reasonably enough, with “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” by Elvis. But the six records that followed Elvis represented as horrid a stretch as any in AT40 history: “Santa Claus Is Watching You” by Ray Stevens, “The Happy Reindeer” by Dancer, Prancer, and Nervous, “Little Altar Boy” by Andy Williams, Dickie Goodman’s “Santa and the Satellite,” “Santo Natale” by David Whitfield, and “Baby’s First Christmas” by Connie Francis. “The Happy Reindeer,” a Chipmunks record in all but name with the same speeded-up voices, created an epic train wreck alongside the Williams record, which runs something like five minutes and seems twice as long. Goodman and Whitfield created precisely the same sort of mess.
After the wretched “Baby’s First Christmas,” the proceedings took a more positive turn with the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick” and Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper,” only to crash to a halt again with Stan Freberg’s “Christmas Dragnet.” … The first hour ended with the Chipmunks version of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” And thus another big problem with the show is revealed: specifically, too many Chipmunks records (three in all, counting “The Happy Reindeer”), and generally, too much novelty crap. It’s like Casey was possessed by the spirit of Dr. Demento.
Casey skipped certain songs that ranked among the Top 40—“Christmas Polka” by Guy Lombardo and the Andrews Sisters, “You’re All I Want for Christmas” by Frankie Laine, and “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen—supposedly because copies fit for air couldn’t be found. The omission of “Snoopy’s Christmas” is weird given that it was the most recent release on the list, and a giant hit besides.
The second hour was a little better, although it’s hard to understand at  years’ distance the attraction of “Christmas in Killarney.” Up at #17, Casey mentioned that several versions of “Nuttin” for Christmas” had been popular in 1955, but he chose to play the ear-bleeding version by Ricky Zahnd instead of the more popular (but equally ear-bleeding) one by Barry Gordon. Also, having to put “Nuttin’ for Christmas” two spots away from the original “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by Jimmy Boyd at #15 is solid evidence that mathematics is no damn good for anybody.
In addition to being heavy on the Chipmunks, the countdown was also loaded with Gene Autry tunes—three in all. No juxtaposition was more telling than the one between Autry’s versions of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Frosty the Snowman” and the Phil Spector-produced versions by Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans and the Ronettes—the contrast between Autry’s rural honk and Spector’s citified “little symphonies for the kids” make clear what rock ‘n’ roll came to destroy, and why.…
In the third hour, listeners were still forced to sit through some dreadful records, including the Four Seasons’ version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” all copies of which should be collected and burned. But it was in this hour that the show finally got to Nat King Cole and the Harry Simeone Chorale and “White Christmas,” all of which were legitimately classic in 1971 and remain so today.
Casey did another Christmas countdown in 1973. Several songs were heard in medley form, a few new ones were added, some were dropped. But the top seven were the same in both years, and Casey ended both shows with an extra: Bing Crosby’s “Silent Night” because, as I wrote in 2016, “a recap of America’s all-time Christmas favorites would have been inconceivable without it.”
Next to the 1976 show with 40 years of #1 hits, the 1971 Christmas countdown is probably among the most sought-after shows among AT40 fans today. But it’s only a curiosity, because so much of the music borders on unlistenable. In 2013, I called the show “an epic disaster, and the worst installment in AT40 history.”
Today, maybe. But surely listeners of 1971 heard it differently.
Note to Patrons: The death of Michael Nesmith over the weekend was a surprise, considering that he played a show with Micky Dolenz in Milwaukee just last month. I can’t add much to the chorus of remembrance about him, except to say that his 1970 hit “Joanne” remains one of the most evocative records from my first season as a young radio listener. Whenever I hear it, I’m there again, even now. That was Nesmith’s gift to me, and I’m grateful for it.