Christmas Portraits

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(Pictured: Karen and Richard Carpenter with a Grammy, circa 1971.)

In 1944, Frank Pooler was a lovelorn teenager in Onalaska, Wisconsin, missing his sweetheart at Christmastime, so he wrote her a song. It didn’t help the romance, although 22 years later, Pooler’s students at Cal State Long Beach (where he directed the university choir) occasionally sang it. Two of his students, Karen and Richard Carpenter, had a band that played parties, and they were looking for new material for their Christmas gigs. Pooler suggested that Richard write new music for his old lyrics, which he did. The revised “Merry Christmas Darling” became part of the band’s regular setlist, sung by Karen.

By 1970, the Carpenters were a national success. “Close to You” had done a month at #1 in the summer of 1970, and the time seemed right for a Carpenters Christmas record. So Richard Carpenter worked up an orchestra arrangement of “Merry Christmas Darling” (which featured an improvised saxophone solo by Bob Messenger, who would play on most of the Carpenters’ hits). It was so different from the version that Pooler knew that when he first heard it on the radio, he didn’t recognize it as his song.

“Merry Christmas Darling” was released on November 20, 1970, and it became an instant hit, going to #1 on Billboard‘s Christmas singles chart. Many stations charted it locally: it went to #1 in Hilo, Hawaii, then in Pittsburgh and Columbus, and was a Top-10 hit in several other cities, at about the same time the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” was in heavy rotations everywhere. It went to #1 on Billboard‘s Christmas singles chart in 1971 and 1973, and also charted in 1972 and 1983. “Merry Christmas Darling” did not appear on an album until 1978, when Karen recut her vocal for A Christmas Portrait. The 1978 version is the one you’re more likely to hear nowadays; a couple of iffy sources say Karen thought she was pitched too low on the 1970 recording. Both versions are pretty great, however, and it’s hard to hear much difference.

Some radio stations playing “Merry Christmas Darling” in December 1970 were on another new Christmas song at the same time. José Feliciano had first come to prominence in the summer of 1968 with an acoustic version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” (which is a completely different take on the original and in some ways superior to it). In October, he sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a World Series game, an introspective acoustic performance that many people considered disrespectful. Some fans at the game booed him, and afterward, there were calls for him to be deported. (Since he’s Puerto Rican, he would have been deported to . . . the United States.) It was the first time most people had heard a personalized rendition of the National Anthem, but it would not be the last. It opened the way for others, from Jimi Hendrix to Marvin Gaye to Roseanne, and many more.

Two years later, Feliciano was working up a Christmas album, and at the suggestion of his producer, he wrote a new song. He worried about measuring up to Irving Berlin and other Christmas-song writers, so he decided to play to his strengths, writing in a Puerto Rican style, using traditional instruments and Spanish lyrics. The finished recording, “Feliz Navidad,” had only about 20 words, but its joyful simplicity caught on fast. It appeared on a handful of radio surveys in 1970 and was #5 at KIMN in Denver. Oddly, “Feliz Navidad” never appeared on Billboard‘s Christmas singles chart in 1970, or in any other year, until it made the adult-contemporary chart during the 1997 Christmas season. (It’s back on the Hot 100 this year, one of many Christmas songs from the distant past that are hits again thanks to easy streaming and downloading.) The Feliz Navidad album made Billboard‘s Christmas album chart once, in 1973.

There is a plausible argument that after a half-century of annual airplay, nobody really needs to hear either “Merry Christmas Darling” or “Feliz Navidad” again. You can’t really fault people whose reaction to either one of them is to dial-punch or skip. But there’s an equally plausible argument that Christmas would not be Christmas without them. Like the other popular songs of the season, they take us to places we remember, places we are eager to visit. They’ve done it before, and they’ll do it again, probably until the end of time.

This year is also the 50th anniversary of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” I won’t be writing about it here, but since somebody already did it better, that’s no great loss. 

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 21

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(Pictured: I was going to post a pic of Emmylou Harris alone, but when you can post three queens all at once, you do it. This is from the 2019 Musicares gala.)

I never get through my entire laptop Christmas library every year. In fact, some of the stuff on it hasn’t been favored by the gods of shuffle in a long time. To assemble this playlist, I loaded up everything that hasn’t been on since 2015 or earlier.

“Child of Winter (Christmas Song)”/Beach Boys. The band released the hit compilation Endless Summer in June 1974, so the marketplace would have been primed for something new that Christmas. But they dropped “Child of Winter” on December 23, 1974, which made sure practically nobody heard it. And by Christmas of 1975, it was forgotten.

“The Little Drummer Boy”/Harry Simeone Chorale. I have said many times over the years that the Chorale’s 1958 recording is the only version of “The Little Drummer Boy” you need. A ghostly mixed chorus carries the melody over a bed of manly rum-pa-pum-pums, and you can get lost in the sound of it. Every other vocal version foregrounds the verse and you have to actually listen to the words, which dilutes the charm of it pretty fast.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem”/Emmylou Harris. From Light of the Stable, released in 1979, an album I remember playing on the radio as a little baby DJ. Like the rest of the album, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is gorgeous, and Emmylou sings a verse you don’t frequently hear.

“My Favorite Things”/Supremes. This year’s annoying millennial Internet Christmas trope, which I have seen several times already, is “why is ‘My Favorite Things’ a Christmas song?” I refer you (and them) to this 2017 piece from Billboard, which traces it to a 1964 Jack Jones album. His producer didn’t think it was Christmassy either, until a song plugger said, “Just put some sleigh bells on it.”

“The Christmas Song”/John Edwards. Edwards was recently mentioned at this site in a discussion of porn mogul Michael Thevis and the record labels he used to launder money. This draggy 1976 version of the Nat King Cole classic runs five minutes and seems longer.

“Christmas Song”/Phoebe Bridgers. This is a different song from the one Edwards is singing, and I don’t care much for the watery, distorted production on it, or the unresolved chord it ends on. (Those sorts of tricks are done everywhere now, in pop, country, indie, and elsewhere, and I’m old, so it’s clearly a Me Problem.) Despite that, Bridgers sings a devastating lyric beautifully: “The sadness comes crashing like a brick through the window / And it’s Christmas so no one can fix it.”

“We Wish You a Merry Christmas”/Kim Weston. Just as Bridgers’ “Christmas Song” is not Nat’s, Weston’s “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is not the round many of us learned to sing in grade school. Weston, one of Motown’s early stars, recorded it in 1962, which you could probably guess from the sound of it.

“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”/Roomful of Blues. The 1997 album Roomful of Christmas is never one I consciously put on and listen to in its entirety, but every time a track comes up on shuffle I think, “Damn, this stuff is really good.”

“Yingle Bells”/Yogi Yorgesson. Ol’ Yogi, the alter ego of parodist Harry Stewart, is mentioned at this website most Christmases, I think. Dad was a fan, and I have inherited the singles he bought in the early 1950s. “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas” is most famous, but this was the flip side.

“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”/Sarah McLachlan. Certain songs probably shouldn’t be covered because the originals are so compelling and unique, so that’s one reason to dislike this. It also has a children’s chorus on it, which is another. But you know what? I’ll allow it, mostly because the video (linked above) is a lovely thing, inspiring the sort of warm feelings and good cheer we all hope to feel at Christmastime, and because McLachlan sings the song beautifully.

The Christmas Shuffle series began at this website in 2007, and in each of the last several years, I have managed to do it only once. Will there be a second shuffle before the big day arrives? It’s always a mystery.

The Last Month of the Year

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(Pictured L to R: John Stewart, Nick Reynolds, and Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio. Stewart, who would later become a solo act, replaced Dave Guard in 1961.)

Every year, we are fascinated by the endurance of the Christmas canon. While some new music creeps in around the edges each new season, the most popular music is always stuff that was made 40, 50, 60 years ago, or more.

In 1960, then as now, record labels began preparing for Christmas long before the decorations went up. In October, Capitol Records took out a full-page ad in Billboard plugging new Christmas releases by stars including the Kingston Trio, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and organist Virgil Fox. Retailers could choose a couple of different packages featuring the new releases and popular back-catalog items by the Jackie Gleason Orchestra, Frank Sinatra, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Also new for Christmas 1960 were albums by Andre Kostelanetz and His Orchestra, opera singer Eileen Farrell, and jazz trumpeter Shorty Rogers, whose A Swingin’ Nutcracker used themes from the famous ballet as a starting point for “swinging big-band works.”

At that moment, pop stars didn’t come bigger than the Kingston Trio, so a Christmas album was a natural. As the avatars of the folk-music boom, the group had hit #1 on the Billboard album chart five times and #2 once since late 1958, spending a total of 46 weeks at #1. The Kingston Trio at Large was the #1 album for the entire year of 1959. They would continue to move albums in huge numbers from 1961 through 1963, when seven straight albums releases would make the Top 10. (Their singles chart performance was less impressive, although chances are you know a couple of them. “Tom Dooley” was a #1 hit in 1958; “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was big in 1962.) Their 1960 Christmas album, The Last Month of the Year, went to #11, although it did not become a yearly perennial; 1960 was the only year in which it charted on the Billboard album or Christmas charts.

As for the others, Nat King Cole’s The Magic of Christmas was not an especially big hit in 1960, but when it was reissued in 1963 with Nat’s 1961 version of “The Christmas Song” included, it became one of the great successes in pop-music history. The retitled album The Christmas Song is the largest-selling Christmas album released in the 60s, and it’s moved something like six million copies over the years. Peggy Lee’s Christmas Carousel contains a mix of carols and original songs. The best-known is probably “I Like a Sleighride,” a version of “Jingle Bells” that pulls off a neat trick: despite the presence of a children’s chorus, Peggy still smolders enough to melt snow.

Billboard seems to have got it wrong about Virgil Fox, however. The exhaustive discography at a tribute site devoted to him does not show a Christmas release that year. He had done a couple in the 1950s; two more were released in 1965. But it’s worth taking a few sentences to discuss him, because he was an unlikely star. From 1946 to 1965, Fox was was the organist at the famed Riverside Church in New York City, playing one of the largest church organs in captivity. After retiring from church work, he took a giant organ on tour, playing classical pieces accompanied by light shows; his “Heavy Organ” shows attracted rock music fans. (Bach Live at Fillmore East, recorded on December 1, 1970, was his only album to make Billboard‘s main chart; he also cut live albums at Winterland and Carnegie Hall.) Fox frequently appeared on TV talk and variety shows, and he eventually became a classical-music popularizer on the order of Leonard Bernstein, until his death in 1980.

Postscript: During my early years in radio, stations would dig out a big dusty stack of Christmas albums sometime in November, either for airplay or for background music on commercials, and albums not just by Virgil Fox but other prominent organists would be among them, including Eddie Dunstedter, Richard Keyes Biggs, and E. Power Biggs. This sort of vintage organ music ain’t for everybody. For example, Dunstedter’s 1959 The Bells of Christmas, a pipe organ and chimes record, provides 180-proof holiday atmosphere in small doses but becomes positively funereal at full album length. His 1965 album Christmas Candy puts him behind a smaller organ and in front of a band, and its lounge-music vibe goes down a lot easier.

You’re not hearing these organists on the radio today. But if you come to my house, it’s a different story.

Christmas Revival

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(Pictured: Phoebe Bridgers.)

(Before we begin: I am humbled by the comments I have received both here and on social media regarding my latest podcast episode. I’m glad it struck a chord with so many people.) 

At our house, Thanksgiving is not a mere speed bump on the way to Christmas. We do not bust out the Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving.

Not everyone does this, of course. Radio stations across the country started switching to all-Christmas in early November, and in lots of markets (Madison is one of them), there’s more than one. Stations have found that Christmas music provides a reliable ratings boost, and this year, that boost is liable to be bigger than ever. Remember last spring, when people put their Christmas trees back up, cable channels ran Christmas movies, and a few radio stations played Christmas music for a while? If people were thirsty for holiday diversion in the early days of the pandemic, that thirst is likely to be even greater after a few months of it.

In the runup to Thanksgiving we do, however, keep an eye and ear out for music we might want to listen to once the season arrives. And like almost everybody else, we end up listening mostly to music we have listened to before.

—Earlier this year, Chicago’s Mighty Blue Kings were preparing to start playing live again after several years of hibernation, and then the pandemic intervened. They did, however, remaster and reissue their Christmas album, released in 2000. It’s one of the albums we listen to most often around here every Christmas, and it’s the best thing the band ever did, featuring their fabulous version of the William Bell/Booker T. Jones composition “Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday.”

—The 1963 album A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector has been a part of my holiday music collection practically from the start: it will be 50 years this Christmas since I first heard selections from it on the old WLS Holiday Festival of Music. Legacy Recordings has done new animated videos for a couple of the songs. The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride” is charming, and I’m not gonna lie, it got a little dusty in the office while I watched Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”

—At the end of 1973, a year in which America’s future started to look wobbly and bleak, Merle Haggard recorded a song about hard times called “If We Make It Through December,” which did a month at #1 on the Billboard country chart and crossed over to pop. When Haggard died in 2016, I wrote:

Saturday night is not always a party. Sunday morning does not always bring redemption. We are not destined to win all the time, in love or in anything else. Country music—any form of art, really—is lying to us if it fails to acknowledge all that. In truth, the only thing we know for sure is that we’re gonna have to deal with some shit. Maybe times will get better, and maybe they won’t. Maybe there will be a happy ending, and maybe there won’t.

And now here we are, facing another December not unlike the one in 1973. This time, we are not looking at recession and inflation and energy shortages. This time, every American is being stalked by a potentially deadly disease in a country whose leaders have been mostly unable to rise to the moment. The worst of them are stupidly encouraging behaviors that will cause people to get sick and/or die, or to lose their livelihoods, unnecessarily. Until January 20, our president is a petulant child, enabled by a political party that has stopped believing in democracy. There’s new, more competent leadership on the horizon, and a coronavirus vaccine too, but right now, they’re just promises. Maybe times will get better, and maybe they won’t. Maybe there will be a happy ending, and maybe there won’t.

Not since 1973 has there been a more appropriate time for a revival of “If We Make It Through December.” Singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy just last week, has put her own spin on the song. It’s part of a four-song Christmas EP that also includes her update of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night” with Fiona Apple and Matt Berninger of the National, which was first released last year. You won’t know how much you needed it until you listen to it.

If we make it through December
Got plans to be in a warmer town come summertime . . . .
If we make it through December, we’ll be fine

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.