Christmas With the Algorithm

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(Pictured: Frank, Bing, and Deano, from the 1964 movie Robin and the Seven Hoods.)

On Christmas Eve at my sister-in-law’s house, I fired up Pandora on her smart TV to get some holiday atmosphere. Rather than choosing a designated Christmas channel, I decided to enter the name of a song and see where the algorithm took us.

I started with “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love. The mix was decent, mostly pop hits from the 60s and 70s, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” stuff from A Charlie Brown Christmas, the boozy charm of Dean Martin, that kind of thing. It took practically no time at all for the algorithm to yak up U2’s cover of Darlene, which didn’t surprise me at all. But after an hour or so, it repeated Darlene, and not long after repeated U2, and I decided at that point to try another approach. So I entered “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole. That mix repeated a few of the songs from the Darlene Love mix at first, but eventually began to tap a bottomless well of tracks by Nat, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra, which got kinda dull after a while.

(The Darlene Love mix also knocked me out of Whamageddon.)

(Digression: is there a similar contest with the goal of avoiding Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne”? Because I didn’t hear that goddamn thing at all this year. Or “The Christmas Shoes” either.)

But back to the topic: the Nat mix had a lot more carols than the Darlene Love mix, which was made up predominantly of secular songs, although some of the secular songs overlapped. The Nat mix also included performances by the Robert Shaw Chorale, highly atmospheric on Christmas Eve but also at least 70 years old, and too traditional for the Darlene Love mix. The Darlene Love mix pulled Vince Guaraldi performances not just from the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas, but from the Charlie Brown’s Holiday Hits compilation, thus dropping in some non-holiday clunkers that didn’t belong.

The strangest thing about comparing the two mixes is the Dean Martin factor. You’d assume that he would be placed alongside Sinatra, Crosby, and such—but you would be wrong. The Darlene Love mix contained several Dean Martin tracks, the Nat mix none at all. Do the designers of the algorithm think that Deano, who sounds more blitzed on Christmas songs than he does on his non-Christmas hits, is better suited to a playlist that skews younger, or young-ish? Or is that delivery considered inappropriate for a mix that includes religious songs? I’m not sure what other reasons there might be, but it struck me weird.

Another thing I realized while listening: While Nat and Bing could not only sell a Christmas song but make it their own, Sinatra sings most of his like he’s just putting in the time. He never seems to commit to any of them.

My Christmas Eve adventure with Pandora wasn’t a science experiment. I didn’t sit there with pencil and paper keeping track of songs, however interesting that may have been to do. What you’re reading here was what I noticed amidst conversations with family members and trips out to the porch to grab another beer.

Plausibly Related: Radio stations dump Christmas music entirely at 12:01AM on the 26th, even stations that have been all-Christmas since early November, like they were fleeing an embarrassing one-night stand. (Some drop it sooner, as early as mid-afternoon on the 25th.) But that ignores the way people live. Families frequently celebrate Christmas on the weekend after. A lot of people take time off between Christmas and New Year’s and keep the holiday vibe going for several days. So I don’t see a downside to playing a bit of Christmas music in the days after the 25th. Sirius/XM did it on one of the channels we listened to while driving home on the weekend of the 28th and 29th, and we enjoyed it.

One year, one of my stations mixed in Christmas music through the following weekend and listeners actually called up to thank us. It’s a holiday season, after all.

Merry Christmas Again and Again

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(Pictured: an antique store display featuring the 1947 issue of Bing Crosby’s album Merry Christmas.)

In the summer of 1948, Columbia Records introduced the long-playing record: a disc that rotated at 33-1/3 revolutions per minute and could therefore contain more music than a 45 or a 78. But the summer of ’48 does not mark the birth of the “album.” Those has existed before: bulky sets of 78s with one song per side, heavy, fragile discs made at first of shellac and later of vinyl, packaged in a box or a folio with heavy paper envelopes to hold each disc.

On December 1, 1945, Decca released a five-disc album by Bing Crosby called Merry Christmas. It collected ten songs Crosby had recorded in recent years, not all with a Christmas theme; it included a version of “Danny Boy,” the hymn “Faith of Our Fathers,” and a song called “Let’s Start the New Year Right.” It was an expensive set, but it sold in numbers that surprised even Decca—especially considering that another Crosby album, featuring songs from the movie Going My Way, was already in stores and selling well, and that the songs on Merry Christmas had been available as singles for a couple of Christmases already.

In the CD era, music buyers often joked about how many times they’d bought certain albums, in different formats and configurations. Buyers of Merry Christmas could have done the same. In 1947, Decca reissued it as a four-disc, eight-song set, dropping “Danny Boy” and “Let’s Start the New Year Right.” Crosby re-recorded “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” for the 1947 reissue—his 1942 recordings were so popular and so many copies were made that the masters actually wore out. When you hear the songs today, you’re hearing the 1947 recordings. Two years later, Merry Christmas appeared for the first time on a single 10-inch, 33-1/3 RPM disc. In 1950, Decca put out the old eight-song, four-disc box again, only in the form of 45s. In 1952, the four-disc 45 box was replaced by a two-disc set of EPs, each with two songs on a side. Having exhausted the formatic possibilities at that point, Decca left Merry Christmas as it was, but only until 1955. In that year, labels started to discontinue the 10-inch album format, so Merry Christmas got its first issue as a standard 12-inch, 33 1/3 RPM album. It was expanded to 12 tracks with the addition of four songs Bing released on singles in 1950 and 1951, and it became the standard configuration. Merry Christmas was released again in 1963, in rechanneled stereo. The 1986 CD issue was in the original mono and was titled White Christmas. As recently as 2014, the 12-track mono album was issued again, in a limited-edition vinyl remaster with the original title. (The complete release history of the album is even more convoluted, but there’s a fine rundown at Wikipedia, if you care.)

Although there are now several Crosby Christmas albums, some of which mix tracks from the 40s with later songs, some of which include rechanneled stereo tracks alongside mono originals, the 1955 mono Merry Christmas is the one you want. Its three songs with the Andrews Sisters (“Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Mele Kalikimaka”) are playful performances that capture Bing’s public personality. “Christmas in Killarney” was a remarkably popular holiday song for a long time. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” first heard at Christmas 1943, is beautiful in any era, but was especially potent during World War II. (It was actually banned by the BBC, fearing it might harm British morale.) And there’s a perfectly good argument that Crosby’s recordings of “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” are the only Christmas songs you really need.

Every time a popular artist releases a Christmas album, he or she is following in the footsteps of Bing Crosby and Merry Christmas, which was the first. It’s sold something like 15 million copies over the years. Only the 1957 Elvis Presley Christmas album (with 19 million) has outsold it. And if your local megamart still carries a few Christmas CDs or vinyl albums, chances are good that Merry Christmas is one they have in stock.

Note to Patrons: At some point in the next few days, we’re going to go over 1,000,000 hits at this blog since I started counting in 2007, as indicated under “Cume” in the right-hand column. I am under no illusion that this represents anything like a million readers. To you who come here regularly, let me again express my thanks. That people still like to read this stuff—that anybody ever liked to read this stuff—still surprises me a little.

We’re on hiatus now until Friday, December 27. Merry Christmas to all. 

“The Best Song Anyone Had Ever Written”

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(Pictured: Bing Crosby with Irving Berlin and the Andrews Sisters.)

It’s Thursday, December 24, 1942. Christmas Eve radio listeners settle in for the week’s edition of Kraft Music Hall on NBC, starring Bing Crosby. Crosby is at the peak of his fame with two movies packing theaters, Holiday Inn with Fred Astaire and Road to Morocco with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. Tonight, Bing is joined by actors Fay Bainter and Jack Carter, along with his cast of regulars including singer and actress Janet Blair, the Music Maids, the black gospel group the Charioteers, and announcer Ken Carpenter. The show, which will downsize from an hour to a half-hour in the new year, includes four Christmas songs. Bing sings “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” with the Charioteers, as well as “Adeste Fideles,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and “Silent Night.” Crosby first recorded the latter in 1935, and it’s become the record industry’s first annual reissue. In 1941, it moved 300,000 copies. Tonight, he concludes it with impeccable timing, seconds before the NBC chimes signal the end of the show.

Somehow, Crosby does not perform a song that has topped the American charts for almost two months now, a song from Holiday Inn, a song that he first performed on Kraft Music Hall at Christmastime one year ago: “White Christmas.” 

When Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” for Holiday Inn, he knew, in Crosby biographer Gary Giddens’ words, “he was treading on dangerous ground, removing Christ from Christmas and advancing snow as the essential metaphor in a requiem of longing.” Nevertheless, he believed it was the best song he’d written, and as Giddens characterized his thinking, “possibly the best song anyone had ever written.”

(The producers of Holiday Inn did not share his enthusiasm. They believed a song called “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” would be the biggest hit from the score.)

On May 29, 1942, seven months after Crosby filmed the “White Christmas” scene in Holiday Inn and five months after he debuted it on the radio, he entered a studio in Hollywood to record it. Berlin had opened the song with an introductory verse intended to accompany a scene in which a Holiday Inn character, amid sunshine and palm trees in snow-free Beverly Hills on Christmas Eve, is “longing to be up north.” Berlin wanted Crosby to include the verse, although producer Jack Kapp vetoed the idea. Without the movie scene to set it up, he said, the verse has nothing to do with the rest of the song. In addition, arranger Ted Duncan had already worked up a three-minute orchestration that did not include the verse, and three minutes was all that would fit on one side of a 78. So the verse was abandoned.

Crosby had asked Duncan if it was possible to make the arrangement a little more dramatic than the one in the movie, so he had the Ken Darby Singers perform the second chorus while Bing whistled along. Crosby, John Scott Trotter’s orchestra, and the singers required three or four takes to get it down. (The legend that it was cut in 18 minutes is not true, according to Giddins.) Darby later claimed everyone present knew immediately that they’d recorded a classic, but Decca wasn’t sure. The instant popularity of “White Christmas” was a surprise to them, not so much because it was popular—this was Bing Crosby, after all—but the label figured that if it became a hit, it wouldn’t be until later in the year. Yet radio stations started playing it shortly after the movie came out in August, and it was #1 by the end of October.

After the NBC chimes fade away on Christmas Eve 1942, Crosby, Carpenter, and the Charioteers travel to another studio in Hollywood to appear on a special Christmas edition of Command Performance. Although it’s been on the air since May, Command Performance has never been heard in the United States—it’s broadcast exclusively on Armed Forces Radio and by shortwave to American troops serving overseas. Many of the top stars of the day either have appeared on it, or they will before it ends its run in 1949. The Christmas Eve show is hosted by Bob Hope, and in addition to Crosby features Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Edgar Bergen, and Red Skelton, along with the Kay Kyser Orchestra, Ethel Waters, Dinah Shore, and the Andrews Sisters, among others. It’s broadcast on all the major networks and by many independent stations. 

(Coming Friday: how “White Christmas” sparked the entire Christmas-album genre.)

Have Yourself an Easy-Listening Christmas

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Once again this year, Taylor Swift’s new Christmas song notwithstanding, America’s most popular Christmas music is old stuff. Mariah Carey’s 1994 “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is near the top of the Hot 100 again, and so is Brenda Lee’s 1960 “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” New stars like Pentatonix and Straight No Chaser will take up some playlist spots at radio stations, but it will be with songs that are in some cases generations old.

(Digression: can we for cryin’ out loud stop considering the Pentatonix version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to be a Christmas song?)

America’s obsession with Christmas music we’ve heard before is cause for lamentation every year, although I suspect that the loudest lamentators (is that a word?) are people who listen to Christmas music hardly at all anyway. Nevertheless, they worry about the rut we’re stuck in, how the worst of the holiday perennials reveals the average American as a irredeemable philistine, and so on—even as the average American continues to give not one single damn about their opinions.

I have a theory about why we keep going back to the well with these old songs. It’s one of the topics of my latest podcast episode, “Have Yourself an Easy-Listening Christmas.” You’ll also hear what some easy-listening fans might have considered “weird long-hair music,” and you can win absolutely nothing by guessing the title of a holiday song. You can hear the episode right here.

In addition to Soundcloud, my podcast is also available at Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayTuneIn and Stitcher. Please enjoy it wherever you find it.

The Impatient Hot-Tub Guy and Other Advertising Adventures

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The preacher’s nightmare is when you feel called by God on Saturday afternoon to throw out the Sunday sermon you worked on all week and preach on something else. The podcaster’s nightmare is when you spend several hours over a period of weeks working up an episode, only to decide 24 hours before it’s supposed to air that it sucks. So there’s no Christmas podcast here today, as I had planned. In its place, here’s a rebooted post that originally ran this week in 2006. I am not sure how much of this stuff is true anymore, but it used to be. 

All across the country, radio stations will launch a promotion in the next day or two (if they haven’t done so already) that many of them will call “The 12 Days of Christmas.” The details will differ but generally, this major holiday promotion has two goals in mind: A) capturing as many holiday advertising dollars as possible and B) plying the listeners with swag. Of course, the definition of “swag” is up for grabs. The best holiday prizes my radio stations ever gave away were Christmas trees decorated with dollar bills, $50 to a tree. The worst were probably certificates for free tanning. If there’s a worse prize to have to give away than free tanning certificates, I’m not sure what it is. I’d rather give away cigarettes. At one station, the prizes an advertiser provided to us were things they couldn’t sell—one I remember is an electric hot-dog bun warmer.

Back in the day, the holiday season brought out a particular sort of advertiser: the kind that hasn’t been on since last Christmas, and that won’t be on again until next Christmas, or until their going-out-of-business sale. A subset of this group consists of clients for whom the amount of aggravation they intend to put you through is inversely proportional to the amount of money they intend to spend. Clients who advertise regularly and spend a fair amount of money tend to know how advertising works, and they often trust the station to get things right. People who think they’re livin’ large by spending $100, however, will pester you until it’s like being pecked to death by a duck. Plan on at least two spec scripts and two revisions before they’ll sign on the dotted line. And then, when you finally get them to approve the ad, that’s when the fun is sometimes just beginning.

I once developed a spot for a hot-tub dealer who had been the subject of a long and difficult seduction by one of our sales reps. We put in hours of work, doing several revisions, including the time we burned down the whole damn thing and started over, but we got the buy, five ads a day for five days starting Monday—not a big buy, but a start. On Monday afternoon, the studio intercom blinked. It was the receptionist, who said, “Andrew [the sales rep] is out of the building. Can you talk to the hot-tub guy? He needs to talk to somebody right now.”

It seems the guy wanted to cancel his advertising. “It’s not working,” he told me. “Nobody’s come into the store who says they’ve heard it.”

It had been on twice.

I gently explained the concept of frequency, and I promised that I’d have Andrew call him just as soon as he got back, because Andrew got paid for that sort of advertiser triage, and I didn’t.

Toward the end of the holiday season, small-town stations start selling holiday greetings. Stations put together inexpensive packages in which advertisers can thank their many friends and customers for their patronage during the past year, and say that they look forward to serving them in the new year. There are a limited number of ways to say this, and the most commonly used version is the one in the preceding sentence. Sponsor greetings are the tanning certificates of advertising—good enough when they’re all you’ve got.

All that said, however, there were scattered moments during the holiday season when it would all seem worthwhile. You’d be on the air, and you’d play a spot on which you’d done good work and for which the client had paid a bundle, then you’d start up a really good Christmas tune and do a nice little talkover, hitting the post perfectly, then look out the window to see snowflakes dusting the station parking lot. And you’d think, “Damn, I love my job.” Tanning-certificate giveaways and all.

A Ghost of Christmas Past

I have had the album Merry Soul Christmas by George Conedy in my library since at least 2007. I downloaded it from somewhere, back when vast numbers of pirated albums were available online, back before the feds took down Megaupload. It’s a churchy and swinging album of keyboard quartet jazz arrangements, with enough R&B grease to make it tasty.

And it might also be the single most obscure album I’ve ever come across.

Merry Soul Christmas was released on the Kent label out of Los Angeles. Kent was a subsidiary of Modern Records, the R&B label founded by the Bihari brothers. This Kent singles discography shows releases beginning in 1958. B. B. King was its most prolific artist over the life of the label; in the late 50s and early 60s, it put out singles by Etta James, Jesse Belvin, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy McCracklin, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. In the mid-60s, it released singles by Ike and Tina Turner, Lowell Fulson, and Z. Z. Hill while continuing to put out King releases. It even put out a version of “Merry Christmas Baby” by Charles Brown (versions of which appeared on other labels, too). The last listing on the Kent label is dated 1971.

The only single I can find with George Conedy’s name on it was released on the Kent Gospel label, which mostly distributed recordings made by other, smaller labels. The single is a strange one: it has Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” on one side and Conedy’s “El Niño del Tambor” (“The Little Drummer Boy”) on the other. It’s Kent Gospel 3003; a brief Kent Gospel discography I found shows releases 3002 and 3004, but not 3003. “El Niño del Tambor” is, as best I can tell, the same performance as the track labeled “Drummer Boy” on Merry Soul Christmas, although it’s about 30 seconds longer. (The Holiday/Conedy single is obscure enough to have stumped our man Larry Grogan, and that takes some doing.)

For a long time, I suspected that the 1972 release date most commonly given for Merry Soul Christmas was incorrect. If Kent didn’t release singles after 1971, it seemed unlikely they’d keep putting out albums. But the Kent Gospel discography notes that the label operated between about 1971 and 1973. So I guess it’s halfway plausible that it could have brought out Merry Soul Christmas on Kent at that time. But Merry Soul Christmas is Kent 573, and this incomplete Kent album discography doesn’t show a Kent 573. To complicate dating matters further, it shows Kent 568, a B. B. King album, as being released in 1973. But my skepticism about the date was also based on nothing more than the vibe of the album, which feels a lot like similar recordings from the mid-to-late 60s.

A listing at something called the Hammond Jazz Inventory names the musicians on Merry Soul Christmas. But searching for information on them—bassist Horace Jones, drummer Elliott McKenzie, and guitarist Joe Youngblood—turns up nothing useful. There was a Chicago radio DJ named Joe “Youngblood” Cobb who recorded a bit around 1972, but there’s nothing to connect him directly to Conedy.

Hell, there’s nothing to connect George Conedy to anybody. If he ever recorded anything else, under his own name or as a sideman, there’s no Internet evidence for it. He’s a damn ghost, is what he is.

I am mildly surprised to note that Merry Soul Christmas is available at all the big streaming services. It’s packaged with the 1963 organ-jazz album Christmas With McGriff by Jimmy McGriff, but shown as copyright 2012 by Holiday Classic Records. The Holiday Classic Records page at CD Universe shows several compilations, all listed as “no longer available;” there’s a Facebook page for the label with nothing on it. My suspicion is that the label, while it existed, may have been doing manufacture-on-demand discs at the ragged edge of copyright infringement. There’s a thriving subculture of this kind of thing, especially involving artists or albums likely to appeal to a tiny number of listeners. Copyright holders often decide it would cost more to sue than they’d be likely to win, so they just let ’em be. (I’d expect them to care more about being pirated on the streamers than on a CD a dozen people might buy, but perhaps the money is too small there also.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve never seen a physical copy of Merry Soul Christmas, so maybe it really is a ghost. You can hear it at YouTube or listen to the version that includes the McGriff album on Spotify.