That’s Christmas to Me

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(Pictured: Pentatonix onstage in 2022.)

(This post contains my personal opinions only and not those of the company I work for. I wouldn’t presume to speak for them, and nobody should ever presume that I do.)

I spent maybe 25 or 30 hours programming Christmas music for my radio station’s 98 Hours show this year, finally finishing it at 12:30 on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Observations follow:

Continue reading “That’s Christmas to Me”

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 24

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(Pictured: Stevie Wonder plays live at Christmas 2013.)

Here’s a Christmas shuffle playlist, probably the only one at this website this year. Enjoy.

“The New Hallelujah”/Ralph Carmichael and Clark Gassman. Carmichael was a musical giant: arranger/conductor on Nat King Cole’s ubiquitous 1962 Christmas album and nine more albums until Nat’s death in 1965, and for other major stars; composer of TV and movie themes; prolific writer of gospel songs. In 1970 he made a Moog synthesizer Christian-music album with fellow composer/arranger/musician Clark Gassman, which contains this version of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” I file it with the Christmas music because a lot of people consider it to be Christmas music, although I associate it more strongly with Easter, for reasons you will read about below.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”/Rick Wakeman. This version is from a 2016 BBC Radio appearance with Wakeman solo at the piano, but I have recommended his glorious Christmas Variations album to you many times before. For 180-proof Christmas atmosphere, you can’t do better.

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”/Crystals. From A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector, which remains essential, although it feels less so to me this year. Maybe I’m getting to where I don’t need to hear the whole thing as an album anymore. It’s happened before.

“Sleigh Ride”/Soulful Strings. I didn’t hear the album The Magic of Christmas in its entirety until sometime in the early 00s, and I was surprised by how much of it I already knew. It was clearly in the air every Christmas before that, on the radio and elsewhere, and I’d picked up most of it by osmosis. If you’re of a certain age, I’m guessing you did too.

“White Snows of Winter”/REO Speedwagon. When REO released Not So Silent Night in 2009, their last studio album to date, I was not impressed. Today it doesn’t bother me as much. Was it necessary? Nah. Am I mad about it? Nah.

“The Twelve Gifts of Christmas”/Allan Sherman. Released as a single in 1963, “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas” does a great job capturing the weird taste of gift-givers, and the polite bewilderment of those who might receive a pair of teakwood shower clogs, or a statue of a lady with a clock where her stomach ought to be. Here’s a live performance from The Jimmy Dean Show at Christmas 1963.

“Ave Maria”/Stevie Wonder. When I was a kid, our church held Easter Sunday services in the junior high auditorium, a magnificent performance space, always an elaborate blowout with a big choir, an organist, pianist, and sometimes several other musicians. It was the only time a Methodist boy was likely to hear “Ave Maria.” For that reason, I associate it with Easter, same as I do “The Hallelujah Chorus.” Many artists have put it on Christmas albums, but the only two I care to hear are Barbra Streisand’s and this one, which is the only one that features the harmonica.

“Holiday”/Taken by Trees. From the Paste magazine 2018 holiday sampler. I have a couple of these indie-rock Christmas compilations in my collection, and they’re wildly erratic. In general, the original songs are fine. But the covers of Christmas classics are too often performed with condescension, as if the bands were saying, “You know we’re too hip for this stuff, right?”

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”/Duke Pearson. The 1960s were the golden age of Christmas music. In such a thirsty marketplace, a record label or an artist could do quite well by indifferently slapping together a few holiday songs, putting a picture of Santa on the cover, and shipping it out. But Merry Ole Soul is not that; I think I’ve said before that it’s one of the few Christmas albums you can put on in July and enjoy even then. I’ve said a lot about Merry Ole Soul, actually. I have been writing these Christmas shuffle pieces since 2007, and I am pretty sure I’ve mentioned it in almost every one of ’em.

“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”/Ray Charles. It’s mildly surprising to me that it took Ray Charles until 1985 to make a full Christmas album. He was at the height of his cultural reach then, no longer a hitmaker but an icon and almost a Jungian archetype, somebody everybody recognizes even if they don’t know the reason why. I find that no individual cut from The Spirit of Christmas sticks in my head after it’s done, but it’s an album I bring out every year, like the other Christmas decorations.

Team Christine

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(Pictured: Christine, 1979.)

Celebrity deaths can inspire a number of different reactions. They range from “hmmm,” to curiosity (morbid or otherwise), to a straight-up punch in the gut.

Christine McVie’s death yesterday was a punch in the gut.

Many, many young men of the 70s and 80s were on Team Stevie, and why wouldn’t you be? Beautiful, mysterious, bewitching, a tempestuous siren, you’d have to be made of stone not to respond to her. But some young men of the 70s and 80s realized right from the jump that they were out of Stevie’s league, even at the long distance of fandom. And if those young men were fans of Fleetwood Mac, they—I—joined Team Christine.

But Christine McVie wasn’t a consolation prize. Nerds like me believed then—and still do—that hanging around with cool people would make us cool by association, and Christine McVie was cool. A cool look, cool instrument (I am a frustrated keyboard player), cool voice, and a laid-back manner that seemed to glide above whatever drama was going on in front of her keyboard rig. We know now, of course, that Christine was as much in the thick of the drama as any other member of Fleetwood Mac, the drugs and drinking, the romantic entanglements, the chaos surrounding the biggest band going at an especially wild time in music history. And when she left in 1998, she was exhausted by it.

I’m going to play a couple of Christine’s songs on my radio show Saturday night. One of them is going to be “Warm Ways,” a track from Fleetwood Mac that is everything great about her, languid and romantic singing, beautiful and ethereal keyboard textures. What the other one is going to be I haven’t decided yet. “Over My Head”? “You Make Loving Fun” (which she wrote during an extramarital affair with the band’s lighting guy, but told John McVie it was about her dog)? Go off the board for “Come a Little Bit Closer”? “I’d Rather Go Blind” from The Legendary Christine Perfect Album? The entire Legendary Christine Perfect Album?

You’ll have to tune in and find out.

This 2017 interview with Christine for Mojo is highly recommended. The interviewer, Andrew Male, is one of my favorite follows on Twitter.

I now find myself short of my usual word count. Instead of simply shutting up, I’m gonna post part of what I originally meant to post today. It’s on the flip.

Continue reading “Team Christine”

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.

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