Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 23

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(Pictured: Fiona Apple, 2005.)

In 2007, I began the tradition of putting my Christmas library on shuffle and writing about whatever pops up. This year, however, I am not listening to as much Christmas music as I have in the past. But I want to keep the tradition going, so here:

“Frosty the Snowman”/Fiona Apple. From a 2003 Sony Music compilation Christmas Calling, which features a number of Sony artists. Along with Apple, the album also includes Fuel, Tenacious D, Keb’ Mo’, Macy Gray, and others. Apple’s version of “Frosty the Snowman” is fine, I guess, although it’s not a song I need to hear all that much.

“Let It Snow”/John Legend. Legend is one of 16 people to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, he’s recorded several Top-10 albums, he’s on The Voice, and he’s married to a supermodel. But apart from the #1 hit “All of Me,” he has but three other Hot 100 hits, one that peaked at #23 and two at #24. “Let It Snow” is the opening track on his 2006 EP Sounds of the Season.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”/Judy Garland. This is the OG, from the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis. Although the movie was set in 1903 and is about a family moving away from their home, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was topical in 1944, after three years of the Second World War: “next year all our troubles will be out of sight,” and “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Singing it in the movie, Judy was acting the part of someone smiling through tears, but considering all we know about her life now, it’s likely she didn’t have to dig very far to access that emotion, even at age 22.

“The Christmas Song”/Bob Dylan
“Kitty Cats Christmas”/Leon Redbone
In 2009 at Pitchfork, Amanda Petrusich called Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart album “insane” and “surreal,” but also “a nice assortment of hymns and popular carols.” All of those things are true, but Leon Redbone got there first in 1989 with Christmas Island. “Kitty Cats Christmas” was added to the album for the 2003 reissue.

“Sleigh Ride”/Los Straitjackets. From a 2015 concert bootleg of a show with Nick Lowe, this is a cover of the Ventures’ version of “Sleigh Ride,” which incorporates the main guitar riff from “Walk Don’t Run.”

“Mr. Grinch”/Mojo Nixon and the Toadliquors. It is the official position of this website that “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” should never be covered by anybody, ever. It is so strongly identified with How the Grinch Stole Christmas—and with one particular scene in the show—that it does not translate outside of the show, no matter how hard an artist might try. Mojo Nixon isn’t trying, though. His album Horny Holidays exists mostly to blow raspberries at Christmas music, although it’s not entirely without its charms. “Mr. Grinch” is not one of them, however. There’s a music video for it, which is even more excruciating than the song alone.

“Mambo Santa Mambo”/Enchanters. The mambo craze of the 1950s produced some terrible records, although “Mambo Santa Mambo,” from 1957, is pretty good. (Also good: “We Want to See Santa Do the Mambo” by Big John Greer, from 1955.) This group of Enchanters was from Detroit and is not the same group of Enchanters fronted by Garnet Mimms, who famously hit with “Cry Baby” in 1963.

“Merry Christmas Baby”/Carole King and Friends. In 2011, King released A Holiday Carole, produced by her daughter, Louise Goffin. In December of that year, she played a show in the UK that was recorded for broadcast on the BBC. It included UK stars Richard Hawley, the Puppini Sisters, and the Mummers, as well as American singer Gregory Porter. “Merry Christmas Baby” was the show closer featuring the entire company. You can get the whole show here, if it’s something you think you need.

“Joy to the World”/Edison Concert Band. From a cylinder recorded in 1906 and released by the Edison National Phonograph Company, from a time when the name “Edison” would have been a mark of quality far more important than the names of individual musicians. I have a few Christmas cylinder recordings in my collection (digitally, not the cylinders themselves), and I always find them quite moving to listen to. That’s because “Joy to the World,” as familiar to us as it was to listeners 115 years ago, represents one of the many threads running through our holiday celebrations that go back not just generations, but decades and now, centuries.

Tale of a Groovy Dude

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(Pictured: Cheech and Chong.)

By 1971, comedy acts had done big business on the record charts for years, but the comics who did the best tended to be your Bill Cosbys and Bob Newharts, the ones whose routines were fit for TV and hotel showrooms. Even George Carlin and Richard Pryor worked clean enough for The Ed Sullivan Show as they were coming up. “Underground” comedians like Lenny Bruce made albums too, but they didn’t become hits the same way Cosby and Newhart albums did. And there was little or no comedy that came directly out of baby boomer culture and experiences. Not until Cheech and Chong came along.

In 1971, Cheech Marin was 25 and Tommy Chong was 33. That summer, they released a self-titled album of character sketches and parodies full of stoner slang and other references that only counterculture-savvy listeners would get. It took a while for the album to catch on, finally peaking at #28 in the winter of 1972. They were still over a year away from their great commercial breakthrough, the albums Big Bambu and Los Cochinos, and the singles “Basketball Jones” and “Sister Mary Elephant.” But that’s getting ahead of today’s story.

During the sessions for their debut album, Cheech and Chong recorded a six-minute bit called “Santa Claus and His Old Lady,” which didn’t appear on the album. It was released as a single in time for Christmas 1971, but it landed very quietly. It made Billboard‘s Christmas singles chart for the week of December 25, but it doesn’t get a review or any other mention in the magazine during either November or December 1971, and it shows up on only a couple of local radio surveys. KLIV in San Jose Diego charted it on December 15, 1971, alongside other hits of the moment, “American Pie,” “Brand New Key,” and the like. It’s also shown on a 12/27/71 listing from KWFM in Tucson, a progressive rock station—the kind of station far more likely to play such a thing than a station that played “American Pie” and “Brand New Key.” A handful of Top 40 stations would chart it over the next four Christmases.

In “Santa Claus and His Old Lady,” Cheech is trying to write a song about Santa Claus, but Chong confuses Santa with a local musician. So Cheech enlightens him. “Once upon a time, about five years ago, there was this groovy dude, and his name was Santa Claus, you know?” Cheech tells how Santa Claus and his old lady moved up north with a bunch of midgets to eat brownies and drink tea, and to start a business delivering toys to kids around the world. Santa Claus delivers in a sleigh driven by “flying reindeers,” Cheech says, “On Donner, on Blitzen, on Chuy, on Tavo,” landing in “Chicago, L.A., Nueva York, Pacoima, all those places, you know?” Chong believes it all, except for the flying reindeers part—until Cheech explains that what makes them fly is “magic dust.” “Oh, magic dust!” says Chong. But Santa doesn’t do the toy bit anymore, Cheech says. He got strip-searched at the border, and down South, people cut his hair and shaved his beard. “Everywhere he went, he ran into too much recession.” Chong says, “No, you mean he ran into too much repression, man.” “Recession, repression, it’s all the same thing.” The bit ends with Cheech saying Santa has gone underground and appears only in disguise now, ringing a bell next to a kettle downtown. “Hey!” Chong says, “I played with that cat last year!” “Santa Claus is not a musician, man!” “I’m hip, man. That cat didn’t know any tunes!”

Considering how well-remembered it is, it seems likely that the progressive or underground station in your town eventually played “Santa Claus and His Old Lady,” if not in 1971, then certainly in years to come, as Cheech and Chong’s profile grew. I didn’t hear it until I got to college, and one of my older classmates busted it out one December, in 1978 or 1979.

How funny you’ll find “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” to be depends on how funny you find Cheech and Chong in general. For me, the humor is in the wordplay—Chuy, Pacoima, repression—and in the characterizations that would become so familiar over the course of Cheech and Chong’s career. After 50 years, “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” remains a holiday favorite among old stoners, and their hipper descendants.

Christmas Card

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Before beginning today, let me remind you of something I wrote in the very first post on this website 17 years ago: “Some of what we get into will likely be so personal that I’ll be the only one who could conceivably be interested in it.” 

I am, as I have written many times over the years, a Partridge Family fanboy. It’s not that I like the show all that much—The Partridge Family is a bog-standard 70s family sitcom that has worn no better or worse than any other bog-standard 70s family sitcom. But the Partridge Family as a musical act is another matter altogether. Their songs were much, much better than they needed to be to accompany a bog-standard family sitcom: well-crafted pop, played and sung by top session performers, and foregrounding the not-insubstantial talents of Shirley Jones and David Cassidy.

At the end of 1971, the creative people around the Partridge Family could look back on a pretty good year. The show, midway through its second season, was improving in the ratings; it had ended the 1970-71 season in 26th place but would be #16 for the ’71-’72 season. “I Think I Love You” had done three weeks at #1 at the end of 1970; “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted” and “I’ll Meet You Halfway” had made the Top 10; “I Woke Up in Love This Morning” had gone to #13. In addition, three Partridge Family albums made the Top 10. In December, your local Top 40 station was all-Partridge, all the time: a version of the Association’s “Cherish,” billed as a David Cassidy solo record, would spend three weeks at #9 starting on Christmas Day, and “It’s One of Those Nights,” would reach #20 in January 1972.

But during a season in which Partridge penetration peaked, America was about to partridge even harder, with the November 1971 release of A Partridge Family Christmas Card.

It will surprise you not one iota that the album is a slab of cheese, albeit one made by artisanal crafters, including drummer Hal Blaine, keyboard player Mike Melvoin, the Ron Hicklin Singers, and producer Wes Farrell. The opening track, “My Christmas Card to You,” is the only original on the album, by principal Partridge songwriter Tony Romeo, an elaborate bid to create a holiday standard that doesn’t really get there. The rest of the album is about what you’d expect: slick Hollywood renditions of Christmas warhorses (all secular—no carols on this record) in the familiar Partridge style, tastefully garlanded with strings and flutes, sometimes crossing the line from sweet to syrupy. Covers of familiar rock songs songs such as “Blue Christmas” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” are fine, although they get swamped by the breathy backing vocals. (Listening to the album for this post, I was maybe four songs in before I found myself wishing they’d send the singers out for a smoke and let Cassidy sing a couple by himself.) Shirley Jones gets a rare solo vocal on “The Christmas Song.” The most interesting creative choice on the record results in the best song: doing “Frosty the Snowman” as a ballad. Two of the songs, “Winter Wonderland” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” were featured in the December 17, 1971, Partridge episode “Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town, Santa,” a fantasy in which the family is transported to the Old West.

Howard Pattow, who played in a Partridge Family tribute band, wrote of A Partridge Family Christmas Card: “It is at once joyous and contrived. Crass yet uplifting. The songs chosen for the album are non-denominational and innocuous. It is as sacred as a Rankin-Bass holiday cartoon.” And like the Rankin-Bass holiday cartoons themselves, it contains bits that are cringeworthy, followed moments later by other bits that are downright lovely.

A Partridge Family Christmas Card spent four weeks at #1 on Billboard‘s Christmas LPs chart in 1971, and it charted again in 1972. It is doubtful that a Top 40 station such as WLS in Chicago would have ignored it, so it was certainly on the air in 1971, and probably at Christmas 1972 also. But I don’t remember it at all. As somebody who had bought Partridge records and watched the show every week, I was quite literally the target audience for A Partridge Family Christmas Card, but I didn’t even know it existed until I saw it in a used bin over a decade later.

Did I buy it that day? Hell and yes.

Note to Patrons: a new Sidepiece, my irregular newsletter containing stuff that doesn’t fit this blog, went out this morning. Check your spam filter. To subscribe and/or see an archive of past editions, click here

And What Have You Done?

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(Pictured: John and Yoko on The Dick Cavett Show, September 1971.)

Today is the official 50th birthday of another one of the holiday season’s most famous warhorses: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

The phrase “war is over if you want it” dates back to 1969, and a billboard campaign John and Yoko ran in 12 cities around the world. On October 28, 1971, Lennon, his band, and producer Phil Spector went to the Record Plant in New York City to record a song incorporating it. The band included guitarists Hugh McCracken, Chris Osborne, Teddy Irwin, Stuart Scharf, and Lennon himself. Jim Keltner played drums and sleigh bells, and Nicky Hopkins played piano and glockenspiel. That weekend, at a second session, Klaus Voorman overdubbed his bass part; at the same session, strings and the voices of the Harlem Community Choir were added.

The official American release date for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” backed by “Listen, the Snow Is Falling,” on green vinyl, was December 1, 1971. However, WMEX in Boston charted it on its survey dated November 18, with a picture of John and Yoko on the survey cover. The caption reads: “Their brand-new Christmas song played on 1510 only days ago already makes ‘MEX top 30.” (On the WMEX chart, the song is listed as “Christmas, and the War Is Over” by the Plastic Ono Band, and it’s shown in its second week on.) The song appears on surveys dated December 1 in Philadelphia and Hartford, and later that week in Seattle, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, so it was clearly on the air, or at least in the pipeline, before December 1. It has 69 listings at ARSA at Christmas 1971, and eventually made the Top 10 in Seattle, Boston, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Youngstown, Ohio. WCFL in Chicago charted it for a single week, WLS not at all. It appeared on Billboard‘s Christmas singles chart for one week in 1971 and three weeks in 1972, and would reappear when Billboard rebooted the chart in the 80s.

“Happy Xmas” was not released in the UK until 1972, owing to a dispute over Yoko’s songwriting credit. It made #4 on Britain’s national charts in that year. If you didn’t buy the single, you had to wait until 1975 for it to appear on an album, the Lennon compilation Shaved Fish, in medley form with “Give Peace a Chance.”

For years, I included “Happy Xmas” in the mythology of my first radio Christmas in 1970, impossible though it was. It may have been part of the WLS Holiday Festival of Music in 1971, although it’s more likely that I began hearing it regularly starting in 1972. It eventually became one of the holiday’s treasures, Lennon’s voice ringing out like a Christmas bell signaling the season. In 1980, Lennon was murdered at Christmastime, and it was strange to hear “Happy Xmas” that year. It didn’t make me sad; it made me angry, and it was several years before I could enjoy it again.

Any song that gets 50 years of radio play is going to alienate some listeners. As I have written several times about several Christmas songs, there’s a plausible argument that nobody really needs to hear “Happy Xmas” again.

Except we do. Especially now.

Continue reading “And What Have You Done?”

December 24, 1970: Awe and Wonder

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(Pictured L to R: Janee Michelle, Venetta Rogers, Erin Murphy, David Lawrence, and Elizabeth Montgomery in “Sisters at Heart,” the episode of Bewitched airing on December 24, 1970.)

December 24, 1970, is a Thursday. It is Christmas Eve. Newspapers are crowded with ads from merchants extending holiday greetings, although a few retailers advertise last-minute gift ideas or reduced-price Christmas decorations, and some restaurants plug their holiday hours. The National Christmas Tree Growers Association estimates that 50,000 retailers across the country will sell about 45 million trees this year, grossing about $200 million, comparable to 1969 figures.

The U.S. Central Command announced today that 23 Americans died in Vietnam during the week of December 12-18, the lowest weekly total since October 1965. American and South Vietnamese troops suspend offensive operations for 24 hours beginning at 5AM Eastern time this morning, which is 6PM Saigon time. The Viet Cong have already announced a 72-hour cease-fire, which was to begin at noon yesterday. American bombers will continue to hit targets in Cambodia and Laos, where the cease-fire orders do not apply. The Nixon Administration’s 1971 budget proposal, to be sent to Congress next month, will include $1.3 billion to facilitate an all-volunteer army by 1973. Money will be spent on enlistment bonuses and higher pay for those who agree to serve in combat infantry, artillery, and armored units. Up to $20 million will be spent on “prime TV and radio time” for recruiting commercials rather than relying on free public-service announcements. Elsewhere, the new budget will not include any new federal spending on health care, but a Nixon advisor says the administration wants to make medical care available to all Americans, reform the health-care delivery system, and concentrate on prevention of both disease and accidents.

No games are scheduled in the NBA or ABA tonight. The Milwaukee Bucks have the NBA’s best record at the holiday break, 26-and-6. The Utah Stars, Virginia Squires, and Kentucky Colonels are the ABA’s best teams, each with 23 wins. The National Hockey League is also quiet tonight. The National Football League playoffs will begin on Saturday.

Laura Nyro plays a Christmas Eve show at the Fillmore East in New York City with Jackson Browne opening. (The two have begun a brief romance.) On TV tonight, CBS presents Family Affair, a Christmas edition of The Jim Nabors Show, and the 1962 theatrical movie The Password Is Courage. NBC presents Christmas episodes of The Flip Wilson Show and The Dean Martin Show along with Ironside and Nancy, a sitcom about the daughter of the President of the United States, who marries a small-town Iowa veterinarian. ABC airs Matt Lincoln (with Vince Edwards, former Ben Casey star, playing a hip young psychiatrist at work in an urban neighborhood), Bewitched, Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and The Immortal. Some local stations pre-empt network programming to air their own Christmas Eve choices. After the late local news, many stations broadcast Christmas Eve church services, holiday concerts, and/or Christmas movies.

A young farm family in southern Wisconsin, with kids aged 10, 8, and 4, does not watch TV on this night. The milking is done early. They have supper and attend Christmas Eve services, then return home to open presents. Later, they will begin waiting for Santa to come.

At WLS in Chicago, “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison holds at #1 again this week. “Knock Three Times” by Dawn is up to #2, and “One Less Bell to Answer” by the Supremes Fifth Dimension is at #3. “Stoned Love” by the Supremes (#4) and “No Matter What” by Badfinger (#6) make strong moves within the Top 10. New entries in the Top 10 are “Black Magic Woman” by Santana (#7) and “Domino” by Van Morrison (#9). The biggest movers on the survey are “Lonely Days” by the Bee Gees, up 12 spots to #16, and “River Deep, Mountain High” by the Supremes and the Four Tops, up 8 spots to #17. At 3:00 this afternoon, WLS suspends its regular programming, and for the next 24 hours airs a special called the Holiday Festival of Music.

Perspective From the Present: I first told the story of Christmas Eve 1970 during this website’s very first Christmas season in 2004, and have retold it many times since. I look back on that night with a sense of awe and wonder, the kind a religious person might feel while reading the creation story, because in a very important sense, the person I became, the one I am today, was born that night.

So, from our bedecked halls to yours, as Nat King Cole sang to me 50 years ago on Christmas Eve:

I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to 92
Although it’s been said many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to you

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 22

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(Pictured: Mary J. Blige on stage at Christmas 2013.)

It has been three years since I managed two of these Christmas shuffle features in one holiday season, so pin a rose on me, I guess. This playlist covers better than 60 years and a whole lotta styles.

“Moonlight, Mistletoe, and You”/Keb’ Mo’. This is the title song from Keb’ Mo’s 2019 Christmas album, which is not so much a blues record as it is an affable soul singer providing a pleasant 35 minutes of entertainment. I believe our friend Jeffrey Thames sent it along last year, and I don’t think I ever publicly thanked him, so thank you sir.

“I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas”/Orion Samuelson and the Uff-Da Band. Samuelson, a titan of broadcasting, has been at WGN in Chicago for 60 years and will retire at the end of this year, age 86. I can’t say for sure when his Yogi Yorgesson cover was recorded, but I don’t suppose it matters.

(Digression: there’s an amazing recording from November 22, 1963, in which Samuelson interrupts his noontime farm report to read the bulletin from Dallas. All he’s got is the first brief notice, little more than one line, and you can hear him thinking, “My god, what should I do now?” before deciding to continue with the farm news. But as he reads, it’s clear that he’s looking through the studio window into the newsroom praying that somebody will bring him more information.)

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”/Aimee Mann
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”/Billy Idol
Both of these are on albums released in 2006. Idol’s Happy Holidays is far better than it had to be. On One More Drifter in the Snow, Mann was going for a Charlie Brown Christmas vibe, but it’s mostly just morose. (Whole album here.)

“Christmas In Dixie”/Alabama. “Christmas In Dixie” came out in December 1982, when Alabama was just beginning its incredible run of success. Country stations still play it, although pop stations that might have done so when Alabama was crossing over do not. I like it, mostly for reminding me of Christmases from when I was a little baby DJ nearly 40 years ago.

“White Christmas”/Patti Smith
“White Christmas”/Hadda Brooks
Smith’s one-time run-through of “White Christmas” was released sometime around 1978, billed to “r.e.f.m.”, put out over the years on a couple of different labels, and produced by “the Runt,” Todd Rundgren. Brooks was a ballad and boogie-woogie piano player who first recorded in 1945, and so her “White Christmas,” from 1950, includes a long and lovely piano interlude. It came to me from the always-excellent site Any Major Dude With Half a Heart, where the Dude has reupped his entire collection of Christmas mixes. Stock your collection with 90 years of good stuff here.

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”/Patti Labelle. Since my Christmas library plays mostly on shuffle, certain songs get overlooked, often for years at a time, and so I forget they exist. For example, there’s this complete reinvention of the Andy Williams warhorse from a 2007 album called Miss Patti’s Christmas.

“This Christmas”/Mary J. Blige. A Mary Christmas was released in 2013 and contains this terrific cover of the Donny Hathaway standard, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

“I’ll Be Your Santa Baby”/Rufus Thomas. The stars of Stax recorded a fair bit of Christmas music during the label’s heyday. Some of it which was collected on It’s Christmas Time Again, released in 1982, an album replaced by Christmas In Soulsville, released in 2007. “I’ll Be Your Santa Baby” makes the Hip Christmas List of Sexiest Christmas Records, which is a good horny read. (Hip Christmas is a fabulous site I hadn’t visited in several years until recently. You should go there too and explore its “dysfunctionally vast web archive dedicated to holiday music that rocks, rolls, swings, and twangs.”)

Note to patrons: Here’s our programming rundown for the remainder of 2020: there will be new One Day in Your Life posts here on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day because they’re my favorite thing to write. Next week Monday and Tuesday you’ll read about another American Top 40 year-end countdown show. On New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, there will more new One Day in Your Life posts.

Also: I am not doing a Christmas podcast this year. If you want to listen to last year’s, find it here. (I listened to it again myself. It’s good.)

Also also: I will be on the air during Magic 98‘s annual 98 Hours of Christmas Magic tomorrow and Thursday from 6 til 10AM. I hope you’ll drop in for a while.