Here’s something based on a piece I found in my journal, written on some past Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve . . . I think of 1970, and of the unnumbered year in the 60s when we were hit by a blizzard so bad that Grandpa Art and Grandma Vera couldn’t even get back to their house on the other end of the farm, and they had to stay over with us. I think of the year in which we drove several hours home from someplace on Christmas Eve and couldn’t find an open convenience store the whole way. I think of the year we got home from our new office jobs at 3:00 on Christmas Eve, with no radio station to work at or retail store to manage, and we looked at each other not quite knowing what we were supposed to do.
I think of the year when I discovered entirely by accident on the 23rd that I was scheduled to work on the radio from 7 to midnight Christmas Eve—the program director had bothered neither to ask me if I could nor tell me that I was scheduled—in addition to a noon-to-6 on Christmas Day. So Ann went to Monroe without me, and it remains the only Christmas I didn’t spend at least part of with my family. I think of a quick trip to Toronto, in 1991, when my in-laws lived there and Ann’s father sent us plane tickets, a trip I desperately did not want to make and bitched about for days beforehand. We flew home on Christmas Day, and I looked back from the jetway and got what was my last glimpse of Ann’s mother, who died the next spring.
I think of the year we drove all day Christmas Eve to visit Ann’s brother and his family, arriving just in time to sit down to a massive Christmas dinner. I think of going to church and wondering why nobody else seemed to hear how awful the music was, and of a night when our nephews were very young and they devoured their presents with a ravenousness that was almost sexual, mouths open, panting with anticipation, churning through each one without even looking at the tag to see who it was from. But I also think of another year when we gave all of them Packers gear, and how thrilled they were to put it on and pile on our laps for a picture. And I think of my own family in these later years, where the Christmas rule is come when you can and stay as long as you like, because we’ll never run out of desserts.
And now, here we are, on Christmas Eve once again. This day isn’t fired with magic like it used to be, but to a man of my age, practically nothing is. Santa doesn’t need a letter from me; I no longer want or wish for material things. If I can be on the radio on Christmas Eve, as I am this morning, I am grateful for another chance to close the circle and anchor myself in time. I want time to write, because I’m a writer as much as I’m a radio jock. But what I want most of all on this day is quiet. I am not a believer in the reason for the season, but reflection on being part of a family—not just my own family, but the human family—can be an uplifting experience even for a scoffer. One thing at which I do not scoff, however, is the friendship of each of you reading this blog, whether I know you in the real world, or we’ve interacted in some electronic fashion, or you simply visit this place to read whatever I’ve yakked up on a given day. After all these years, I remain grateful for and humbled by your attention and interest.
(Programming note: if you click the link in the first line of this post, you’ll be taken to a 2007 post that contains two re-upped segments of the WLS Holiday Festival of Music, if you’re into that kind of thing. Merry Christmas to all.)
(Pictured: a house alight at Christmas 1972. One year later, things would not be so merry or bright.)
The series Tales of ’73 hasn’t really turned out like I hoped it might, but I want to return to it before 2018 is over. Back in 2013 and 2014, I wrote about Christmas in America at the end of 1973. This next is a reboot of bits from both.
In October 1973, the United States aided Israel in the Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria, and as a result, OPEC countries deployed the oil weapon against us. By the holidays, officials right up to President Nixon were predicting hard times and requiring difficult choices. Lines formed at service stations, and “sorry no gas” signs appeared; eventually, Nixon requested that stations voluntarily close from Saturday night through Monday morning. The Senate came eight votes short of instituting gas rationing; the order had already been given to print the coupon books. Some schools extended Christmas vacation to save energy; in Massachusetts and Connecticut, kids stayed out for all of December and January. Christmas lights became an extravagance many communities and families could not afford.
On Monday, December 24, 1973, all the trouble in the world was on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal, starting with “Persian Gulf Oil Prices Doubled.” OPEC’s Christmas gift to the West was to announce that effective January 1, the new price per barrel would be $11.65, up from the current price of $5.11, which had represented a huge increase when it was announced in October, just after the Yom Kippur War. Related, at the bottom of the page, is the headline “Kissinger to Push Talks,” over a story about the latest Middle East peace efforts. Inside the paper is an article about preparations for the return of daylight time in January as an energy-saving measure.
If all that wasn’t bad enough, it happened while Nixon was beleaguered by Watergate—the fabled Saturday Night Massacre happened in October while the Middle East was at war, and while a full-blown Constitutional crisis was averted at that moment, impeachment resolutions were introduced in Congress, and nobody could be sure what twists were ahead.
By year’s end, some commentators felt a sense of looming disaster—that something earth-shatteringly terrible was about to engulf the country. Nobody could predict what it would be, although in retrospect, what it was seems obvious—not some grand conflagration, but a transformation nonetheless: the end of America as we’d known it since the winning of World War II. Soon we would live in a different country.
It occurs to me now that the greatest gift my parents gave us for Christmas in 1973 was to protect us from even noticing the possibility of disaster. As best I can recollect, the energy crisis did not have a grave effect on us. If we put up fewer Christmas lights that year, I don’t recall it. I don’t remember us having trouble getting gasoline, either, or the gas shortage affecting our travel requirements much. Dad kept tanks of regular and diesel on the farm for his tractors, his truck, and the family car; the only concession he made to the energy crisis was to put locks on the tanks after we heard that people were stealing gas from farmers at night.
The worst I had to endure in that year was being 13 years old, and all the complications that being 13 will cause in anybody.
There is less ominous news inside the paper on 12/24/73, the kind of thing that would have interested me more than the front page. A winter storm is moving through the central part of the country, and what the weather service calls a “travelers’ advisory” has been posted for southern Wisconsin, with a threat of freezing rain and snow. One article is headlined “Big Foot Might Exist.” The Skylab astronauts are spending Christmas in orbit. Pairings are set for the NFC and AFC Championship games on December 30th after Minnesota, Dallas, Oakland, and Miami won playoff games over the pre-Christmas weekend.
Also in the paper is an Associated Press story headlined, “This Year’s Christmas Is Only Outwardly Dim,” which quotes a couple of religious leaders on the crisis facing America. “We seem to be surrounded by a creeping ugliness in our affairs,” says one. “The hard truth is that a sense of desolation has come upon many.” But as religious leaders do, they remain optimistic: “The hope and eternal promise of Christmas are ours today as in all the years past. The fulfilling of them is up to ourselves.”
As it was, and ever shall be.
(Pictured: John and Yoko’s War Is Over campaign began with billboards at Christmas of 1969. It would be followed two years later by a song you may have heard.)
In 2007, I started putting my Christmas library on shuffle and writing about whatever comes out. It’s a tradition I have tried to maintain ever since, and we’re gonna come in right under the wire with this year’s lone installment. This one has a twist: I have about 70 cuts in my library that show as “never played.” That’s not accurate—sometimes Media Jukebox simply loses play information—but by shuffling up that list, I can plausibly say I’m writing about and listening to stuff that is relatively new to this feature.
“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” (acoustic guitar demo)/John Lennon. There are several bootleg versions of “Happy Xmas.” This one, from The Alternate Shaved Fish, makes brand-new a song you’ve heard a million times. (Get the whole Alternate Shaved Fish from ROIO, my favorite bootleg site, here.)
“Love for Christmas”/The Gems. Fabulous girl-group R&B recorded for Chess in 1964 and featuring Minnie Riperton. Funky16Corners has the story and the download here.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You”/Carla Thomas. Not the Mariah Carey perennial, but a melancholy broken-heart ballad from 1966.
“Silver Bells”/Supremes. This has been a radio staple since 1965, a year in which Motown acts first started recording Christmas music. The best compilation of that stuff is still A Motown Christmas from 1973. Another set came out in 2008 that looks to have been more extensive, but it seems to be out of print.
“Christmas in Vidor”/Rodney Crowell. I received two 2018 Christmas releases thanks to Jeffrey Thames at KPFT in Houston: Love the Holidays by the Old 97s and Christmas Everywhere by Rodney Crowell. I did not like the Old 97s album, which is performed with a tongue-in-cheek attitude that slops over into contempt for its audience. Crowell’s album is vastly better. He treats the season with humor too, but isn’t snide about it. “Christmas in Vidor” is not a happy day, but it makes for the best song on the album.
“The Little Drummer Boy”/Moonlion. A disco version, which made #95 on the Hot 100 for the week of December 27, 1975.
“Merry Christmas Baby”/Melissa Etheridge. From her 2008 album A New Thought for Christmas, Melissa goes for gritty where other people who cover the same song go for smooth, and it works.
“Winter Wonderland”/Neil Diamond. From a December 1984 show in which Diamond also tackled “Adeste Fideles,” his own “You Make It Feel Like Christmas,” and 25 years of hits. Get the boot from ROIO here.
“Soul Christmas”/Count Sidney and His Dukes. Hell yeah man, this is the good stuff, released in 1967. As Rockin’ Sidney, Sidney Simien hit in the middle of the 80s with the indelible “My Toot Toot.” Don’t Google that one unless you want it in your head for the rest of the day.
“Run Run Rudolph”/Creedence Clearwater Revisited. This sounds a little bit limp to me—no John Fogerty, no bueno—but it’s harmless. It appeared on Hope for the Holidays, a 2009 benefit album made for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, an all-over-the-road collection featuring everybody from Mike Love to Hoyt Axton to Weezer.
OK, so that’s all of that. On the flip, read a few words about one of the most successful radio people I know.
(Pictured: Nat King Cole, circa 1963.)
In past years, we have looked into Billboard magazine’s special Christmas charts for several years of the 60s and 70s. Now let’s take a look at the return of those charts in 1983, 1984, and 1985. In each year, charts for singles and albums have 10 places, which is a far cry from the huge charts from the 60s.
Charts for 1983 appear in the December 17 and December 24 issues. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is #1 on the first Billboard Christmas chart since 1973; the next week, however, it’s taken out by Elmo and Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” first heard at Christmas 1979 but getting its first nationwide release in ’83. Although they swap positions around, nine of the top 10 singles, all returning classics, are exactly the same in both weeks; “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale appears on the 17th but is replaced by Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” on the 24th. Same deal on the album chart: nine of the 10 are the same both weeks. Kenny Rogers’ Christmas Album is #1 on both charts. John Denver and the Muppets’ A Christmas Together appears only on the 17th and Chipmunk Christmas only on the 24th. The newest single on either chart is “Christmas in Dixie” by Alabama, released in 1982; the newest charting albums, by Kenny Rogers and Anne Murray, were released in 1981.
Charts for 1984 appear in the issues of December 15 and 22. New-for-1984 Once Upon a Christmas by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton is #1 both weeks; a new release Billboard lists as Christmas Mannheim Steamroller also appears both weeks, as does the new Christmas at Our House by Barbara Mandrell. But as in 1983, the charts are mostly static from week to week. Christmas With Placido by Placido Domingo shows up only on the 15th; it’s replaced by Frank Sinatra’s 1963 Christmas album on the 22nd. An oddity on the singles chart is that “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole appears only on the 15th; so does “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You” by Billy Squier, first released in 1981. They are replaced on the 22nd by “Another Lonely Christmas” by Prince and “Winter Wonderland” by Dolly Parton. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” tops the singles chart both weeks.
Missing from the 1984 Christmas charts is Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” Unlike other Christmas singles, it placed on the Hot 100. It debuted on 12/22/84 at #65, peaked at #13 on 1/19/85, and then spent four weeks on its way off the chart.
In 1985, Billboard publishes just one Christmas chart, in the December 21 issue. It includes two new albums, Alabama Christmas by Alabama, which is #1, and It’s Christmas All Over the World by New Edition. George Winston’s December, first released in 1982, makes its first Christmas chart appearance, and so does a 1983 album by Amy Grant. Two new singles appear in the Christmas Top 10: “Christmas Time” by Bryan Adams and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” by Bruce Springsteen. The rest of the slots on both charts are taken up by returning holiday hits.
I will give you one guess what the #1 Christmas single of 1985 was, and it wasn’t Bruce or Bryan.
There’s a spreadsheet with all of the years, titles, and chart positions here. Only 18 songs take up the 50 spots available on the singles charts, with five appearing on all five charts: “White Christmas,” “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” “Blue Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and “Jingle Bells” by the Singing Dogs appear on four. Twenty-one albums take up the 50 spots. Only two appear on all five charts: A Christmas Album by Barbra Streisand and Christmas Portrait by the Carpenters. Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, and Luciano Pavarotti appear on four.
In the 80s, it took a superstar event to crack the canon: Kenny and Dolly were that in 1984; Bruce Springsteen, and to a lesser extent, Bryan Adams and Alabama, were that in 1985. Although Christmas singles and albums were released and re-released every year, it often took a year or two before they got much sales or airplay traction, but they were likely to be swamped by music recorded a generation or two before. As a result, the charts remained very predictable every year, and their utility to broadcasters and retailers must have shrunk to almost nothing. It’s not surprising that Billboard‘s Christmas charts vanished for good after 1985.
(Note to Patrons: One Day in Your Life is in the midst of a Christmas post-o-rama, now and through Christmas Day, so stop over.)
Billboard did not publish a Christmas chart in its edition dated December 9, 1972. It did, however, include a feature we have visited before, “What’s Playing,” in which amusement operators list the records they are adding to their jukeboxes, or which are getting big play. From this we can get a modest idea of the demand for particular Christmas hits in that bygone year.
Jukebox operators were well-advised to stock up on Christmas warhorses: at C. S. Pierce Music in Brodhead, Wisconsin, Marie Pierce (someone known to some of my relatives since my mother is from Brodhead) reports big play for Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” and “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms. Betty Schott of Western Automatic Music in Chicago says Brenda Lee and Bobby Helms are doing well on jukeboxes catering to the high-school crowd, as are Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and “Silver Bells” by Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely, first heard at Christmas 1950. In Jefferson City, Missouri, Lloyd Grice of United Distributors reports patrons are playing four versions of “Blue Christmas” on his soul-music jukeboxes, by Elvis, Russ Morgan, Ace Cannon, and Ernest Tubb. He’s also seeing action on “Jingle Bell Rock” and Bing’s “White Christmas,” which has always done big business among soul and R&B audiences. In Madison, Wisconsin, Pat Schwartz of Modern Specialty Company is stocking country jukeboxes with Nat and Bing, but also with Dean Martin’s version of “Blue Christmas,” the Carpenters’ “Merry Christnas Darling,” and the Harry Simeone Chorale’s “The Little Drummer Boy.” Harry and Bing are pulling big coins on jukeboxes serviced by Lloyd Smalley of Chattanooga Coin Machine Company in Chattanooga, Tennessee, along with Elvis doing “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” and “Blue Christmas,” of course. In Fertile, Minnesota, in the northwestern part of the state, Duane Knutson of Automatic Sales Company has stocked his easy-listening jukeboxes with “White Christmas” and Johnny Cash’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” and is looking ahead by getting Guy Lombardo’s “Auld Lang Syne,” too.
A handful of ethnic novelties are turning up on a few Midwestern jukeboxes in December 1972. In Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, Ruth Sawejka of Coin-Operated Amusement Company has purchased “Yo Ho Hilda’s Christmas” by Jimmy Jenson, a Swedish dialect record that nicks the tune from “Up on the House Top.” Jim and Belle Stansfield of Stansfield Novelty Company of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, are adding Jenson’s version of the Yogi Yorgesson hit “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas.” Jenson, known as the Swingin’ Swede, was a popular bandleader and restauranteur in Minnesota from the 1940s into the new millennium. He started doing Swedish dialect records after hearing Yorgesson in the 50s.
The Stansfields in LaCrosse and Robert Hesch of A&H Entertainers in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, are adding another Scandinavian dialect record, “Christmas Goose” by Stan and Doug. Stan Boreson was from Washington state and became a popular kids’ TV host in Seattle. In 1970, he and partner Doug Setterberg released Stan and Doug Yust Go Nuts at Christmas, which featured several versions of Christmas novelties first recorded by Yorgesson; “Christmas Goose,” which revolves around a mild double entendre, is a parody of Anne Murray’s “Snowbird,” and it scores extra points for rhyming “goose” with “obtuse.”
(The popularity of Scandinavian dialect records in the Upper Midwest should not surprise you. Everybody who did them performed in the shadow of Yorgesson, the Elvis of the form. I wrote about him in 2008.)
Christmas music is not the only thing jukebox patrons want in December, of course. And so the operators are stocking big Top 40 hits, or hits-to-be: Marie Pierce reports “I Wanna Be With You” by the Raspberries, “Keeper of the Castle” by the Four Tops, “Been to Canaan” by Carole King, the Partridge Family’s “Looking Through the Eyes of Love,” “Long Dark Road” by the Hollies, and “Sitting” by Cat Stevens. Also on her list: “I Got a Bag of My Own” by James Brown and “Angel” by Rod Stewart. Betty Schott is spanning genres with Bread’s “Sweet Surrender,” “Rock and Roll Soul” by Grand Funk Railroad, “Superfly” by Curtis Mayfield, and Three Dog Night’s “Pieces of April.” Going similarly wide, Helen Franklin of Schaffner Music Company of Alton, Illinois, reports “Ventura Highway” by America, Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes,” and Cher’s version of “Our Day Will Come.”
Operators knew the desires of the audiences in the places where their boxes were located; restauranteurs and bartenders could help them tailor their selections. Programming an analog jukebox was both science and art, but certainly both hit and miss as well.
This blog has long held the opinion that “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” first heard in 1944, is a terrible song, and here’s the receipt from 2012 to prove it. We have officially abominated all versions except for the one by Ray Charles and Betty Carter because it’s Ray Charles, but even that one isn’t good. While we are in favor of sweet winter lovin’ in front of the fireplace, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” comes off as insufferably coy and stupid, and we hated it first for purely aesthetic reasons. Only later did it start coming off as predatory, given the man’s unwillingness to let the woman go home when she says she wants to, and her line, “Say, what’s in this drink?”
Last year at the start of the Christmas season, I e-mailed the program director of my radio station with the suggestion that, in the #MeToo Era, perhaps we should consider dropping the song, although I never followed up to see if he did it. This year, after WDOK in Cleveland got a call complaining about it, they did a listener poll, and based on the result, dropped the song.
This they might have done quietly, but they posted about it on their website early last week. It stayed under the radar until word got out, and over the weekend a good old-fashioned social media shitstorm developed. On one side of said storm are people who are saying basically what I said above: today we believe that when a woman says “no” she means “no,” and the proper response from a man upon hearing “no” is not to slip her a roofie and keep trying to get her shirt off. Further, we should probably move past a time in which that scenario is one of the Christmas decorations. On another side are arguments including “You have to consider the times in which the song was written” and “man up, libtard snowflake.” A detailed defense of the song by comic book artist and writer Howard Chaykin is making the rounds on social media, but it’s an astoundingly weak one, buttressing “you have to consider the times in which the song was written” with the far more specious “Frank Loesser was one of the great songwriting geniuses of the 20th century and those of you criticizing his song are not,” and the incredible nonsequitur “it’s not even a Christmas song.”
Change is hard. We’re wired to dislike it. But it happens as we move through time. During the Pioneer Era of Recording (1880-1920), coon songs were extremely popular. They portrayed black people as cowardly, libidinous, violent, thieving, and stupid, among other stereotypes. (Sample title: “Nigger Love a Watermelon.”) They were frequently performed in dialect by white singers in blackface, to parody the behavior of black people. But the popularity of coon songs began to fade eventually, and today, their content is utterly beyond the boundaries of acceptability. You can still talk that way if you want to, but you shouldn’t expect people to accept it, or to sit idly by while you do it.
There’s a more contemporary example of how time changes boundaries. Dire Straits hit #1 in 1985 with “Money for Nothing,” the full-length version of which contains the following verse:
See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup
Yeah buddy that’s his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he’s a millionaire
For years, few of us thought much about that verse. In 2011, a Canadian group called for a blanket broadcast ban on “Money for Nothing” based on a single listener complaint that it was “propagating hate.” At the time, I was critical of the ban. Four years later, I heard a radio station blank the word “faggot,” and it occurred to me that my opinion had changed. At that time I wrote, “[P]erhaps, just as greater acceptance of African Americans took ‘nigger’ out of polite discourse, ‘faggot’ has become another word that can no longer be casually thrown around, and for similar reasons.”
We are at precisely the same cultural place today with “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” We can no longer casually throw around the idea that it’s cute for a man to break down a woman’s romantic resistance with drink or drugs, or even that he’s merely being charmingly persistent in the face of a turn-down. By dropping the song, WDOK in Cleveland is on the right side of history, and other radio stations should follow their example.
Or they could just drop it because it sucks. That’d be good too.
(Programming note: there’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today. It was an interesting day.)