(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: Sharon Jones in 2015.)
It has been brought to my attention that my recent Christmas shuffle post, which I labeled Volume 18, should have been labeled Volume 17. So I am posting an extra shuffle here, which I am numbering Volume 17, even though it increases the likelihood that we’ll repeat Volume 18 next year, because this is not a very good blog, really.
“Silent Night”/Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. From the 2015 album It’s A Holiday Soul Party, which all good people should own. Listening to it will make you grieve for Miss Jones all over again while making you damn grateful she was here in the first place. (Just-published-today retrospective with photos here.)
“Dear Mr. Claus”/Paul Revere and the Raiders. Fifty years ago this Christmas, smack in the middle of the golden age of Christmas music, the Raiders dropped the album A Christmas Present … and Past (which you can hear in its entirety here). It did not become part of the canon, however, because a lot of influential people hated it, including Columbia Records and prominent DJs; when he first listened to it, legendary radio programmer Bill Drake yanked it from a turntable and threw it against a wall. In 2010, Mark Lindsay told Goldmine, “Most of our singles weren’t political, but the Christmas album totally was. It was a disaster, but it reflected what we were feeling at the time. It was a good time for flower power and protest.”
“Sleigh Ride”/Leroy Anderson. The tale is told that Mel Torme and Robert Wells wrote “The Christmas Song” during a heat wave; Leroy Anderson did the same thing at about the same time. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops released the first recording of “Sleigh Ride” in 1949; Anderson’s came out in 1950. He didn’t intend it as a Christmas song, but it’s become one of the most popular of them all.
“Merry Christmas From a Bar”/Mike Ireland. Ireland was a member of Kansas City country bands the Starkweathers and Holler, if that helps you at all. “Merry Christmas From a Bar” dates back to 1997.
“Greensleeves”/Vince Guaraldi Trio. From the 2006 remastered edition of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which added five tracks to the original release. Two are titled “Greensleeves,” in addition to the version of “What Child Is This” on the original album. By the time I get that far into the remastered CD, I’m feeling the vibe more than I’m hearing the music, so I don’t much mind the repetition.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”/Freedy Johnston. Johnston, who first got noticed in the early 90s with the albums Can You Fly and This Perfect World, divides his time between New York City and Madison, occasionally performing here with the Steely Dan cover band Steely Dane.
“Mary’s Boy Child”/Matt Monro. An Englishman with a beautiful voice whose biggest American hit was “My Kind of Girl” in 1961. He was a bit more successful on the UK chart, scoring with versions of “Softly As I Leave You,” “Yesterday,” and the James Bond theme “From Russia With Love,” among others. He does not seem to have made an entire album of Christmas songs, which is a shame, because “Mary’s Boy Child” is really good. Monro died in 1985 at age 54.
“Twinkle Twinkle Little Me”/Stevie Wonder. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s Christmas album. Like other Motown Christmas originals, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me” is pretty cheesy on the page, but as he frequently does on his Christmas album, Stevie’s performance keeps cheese from smelling like it.
“The Nutcracker Suite”/Wynton Marsalis. Last year, the bootleg site ROIO came up with a Christmas concert performed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Marsalis, for a 1989 TV broadcast. It includes a full performance of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn arrangement of the Tchaikovsky piece, sacred and secular Christmas songs, and Marsalis reading “The Night Before Christmas” to musical accompaniment. It’s pretty great, and you can download the whole thing (or individual tracks) right here.
“The Man With the Bag”/Kay Starr. If I didn’t have the attention span of a goldfish and the work ethic of a hobo, I might undertake some kind of formal history of Christmas pop, covering the 40 years between the end of World War II and the middle of the 1980, when listening audiences started to fragment and it became difficult for new songs to get traction. It would involve figuring out why some recordings endure and some do not, and how it’s hard to tell which ones will be which. “The Man With the Bag” dates back to 1950, and Kay Starr’s recording remains popular today, despite all the fashions that have come and gone from that day to this.
The Christmas shuffle feature started at this blog 10 years ago, so I feel a certain responsibility to keep it going. When I shuffled up my Christmas library recently, here’s what I heard:
“The Little Drummer Boy”/.38 Special. I have mentioned the band’s unlikely 2001 album A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night in past editions of this feature. It’s a terrible title and has a terrible cover, but the music inside is far better than it has any right or reason to be.
“Frosty the Snowman”/America. In 2002, America released Holiday Harmony, produced by Andrew Gold, and boy is it not good.
“On This Christmas Day”/Moody Blues. If forced to pick the prettiest album in my collection, both Christmas and not (with all of the associations “pretty” conjures up, good and bad), the Moodys’ December might be it. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you dig the band to begin with, your appreciation of good old-fashioned major-chord pop craftsmanship, and your level of tolerance for unrelenting warmth and sentimentality.
“Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy”/Soulful Strings. In 1966, Chess Records hired jazz arranger Richard Evans to create albums by the Soulful Strings, a studio group that eventually made a half-dozen albums and included such noted Chicago players as Phil Upchurch, Charles Stepney (a producer on notable works by Rotary Connection and later, Earth Wind and Fire), and Donny Hathaway. Their Christmas album is definitely worth seeking out.
“Merry Christmas From the Family”/Robert Earl Keen. This hilarious tale of a Texas family Christmas is a hell of a lot more truthful about the way people really live than the ones in which we roast chestnuts or ride in a one-horse open sleigh.
“Ave Maria”/Stevie Wonder. “Ave Maria” and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus are often lumped in with the Christmas records, but I don’t think they belong. In my experience, the Hallelujah Chorus is so closely associated with Easter that it simply feels wrong at Christmastime; “Ave Maria” was not within the religious experience of a Methodist boy such as I. This “Ave Maria” is really good, though. Stevie sings in Latin behind a non-Motown-style backing track, but also takes a reverent and lovely solo on harmonica. (Stevie’s album Someday at Christmas, re-released under other names over the years, is 50 years old in 2017.)
“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”/Partridge Family. We’re still feeling the loss of David Cassidy around here, so this is well placed. At the end of 1971, a year in which they had dominated the record charts (and pop culture itself), the Partridge Family dropped a Christmas album. The cheese factor on A Partridge Family Christmas Card is extremely high—this version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” includes a whistling interlude—but it’s made with the same Hollywood craftsmanship we have praised repeatedly at this blog over the years. And on the subject of people we miss …
“Christmas All Over Again”/Tom Petty. This song is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2017, having first appeared on A Very Special Christmas 2 in 1992. According to the liner notes for Petty’s box set Playback, he wanted to replicate the Phil Spector Wall of Sound, so “Christmas All Over Again” features 18 musicians bashing away live in the studio, including two drummers, two bass players, and four acoustic guitars. Petty said, “It was a lot of fun, but when I finished with it, it was pretty much a mess. I called Jeff Lynne and he came and helped me redo the lead vocal and tidy it up just a little bit.”
“Gee Whiz It’s Christmas”/Beginning of the End. This is the song Carla Thomas did in 1963 (a takeoff on her own “Gee Whiz”), recorded by the Bahamian band known for the 1971 hit “Funky Nassau.” As best I can reconstruct the history, “Gee Whiz It’s Christmas” was the A-side of a 1970 single released only in the Bahamas. It was released again as the original B-side of the “Funky Nassau” single, although it doesn’t seem to have appeared on American singles, which contained “Funky Nassau Part 1” backed with “Funky Nassau Part 2.”
“Happy Holidays”/Ohio Players. This was released over both sides of a 1975 single and didn’t reappear in the CD era until 2000. It doesn’t need to run 8:22, having exhausted its main idea in the first couple of minutes, but once a year it’s OK.
“Once a year it’s OK.” Not a bad tagline for this blog, actually.
(Pictured: ABBA on The Midnight Special, 1976.)
The other night, the gods of shuffle cranked out the following songs for me, all in a row:
“Rose of Cimarron”/Poco. The title track from the band’s 1976 album, beautifully sung by Paul Cotton and Timothy B. Schmit. I don’t especially care for the slow instrumental outro, but the five minutes before we get to that are something to have on hand when the space aliens arrive and ask why they shouldn’t vaporize the lot of us.
“Prisoner of Your Love”/Player. In January 1978, Player’s “Baby Come Back” hit #1 and became one of the founding documents of yacht rock. That summer, “This Time I’m in It for Love,” which is even more yacht-rockier than “Baby Come Back,” hit #10. In the fall of 1978, “Prisoner of Your Love” was their third single, making #27. It’s far different from the other two, with an instrumental hook for the ages, and is best heard in its full-length album version, which has more of what you came in the door for.
“Taurus”/Dennis Coffey. I can’t say it better than I did a couple of years ago: “Coffey rocks like crazy on “Taurus,” as if he were trying to hold off the Great Mellowing of the 70s all by himself. Dude is on fire.”
“Sleeping With the Television On”/Billy Joel. This is the great lost Billy Joel single, and I am now in my 38th year—since the release of Glass Houses in 1980—of trying to turn it into a hit. My quest was vindicated in 2015 when Vulture ranked 121 Billy Joel songs from worst to first and placed it at #4.
“Cherry Hill Park”/Billy Joe Royal. “In the daytime Mary Hill was a teaser / But come the nighttime she was such a pleaser.” It’s left to the imagination why all the boys got eager eyes watching her on the merry-go-round, or precisely why she was such a thrill after dark. “Cherry Hill Park” proves once again that the best storytelling is as much about what you leave out as what you put in.
“Bang-a-Boomerang”/ABBA. Atlantic, ABBA’s North American label, released Greatest Hits in September 1976, at a time when ABBA had scored only four hits on the American chart: “Waterloo,” “S.O.S.,” “I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do,” and “Mamma Mia.” Their then-current single, “Fernando” also appeared on the album, but the rest of it—nine other songs—were mostly unknown over here. One of them, “Bang-a-Boomerang,” has a rather convoluted history. In 1974. Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson had given it to another act on their record label, who recorded it in Swedish and saw it become a modest hit in Sweden. In 1975, ABBA cut their own version in English with the same backing track their labelmates had used. It was released a single in France with “S.O.S.” on the B-side and was not an especially big hit there or anywhere else, but it ended up on the Greatest Hits album just the same.
Several of the nine songs that were new to American listeners in 1976 are pretty damn good: “Dance (While the Music Still Goes On),” “Ring Ring,” and “Another Town, Another Train” among them. But “Bang-a-Boomerang” is the best of them, and not just that: it’s the perfect ABBA record. “Dancing Queen” usually gets that title, and deservedly so. While “Bang-a-Boomerang” wasn’t the hit “Dancing Queen” was, it contains everything that’s great about ABBA in three minutes just as “Dancing Queen” does. And while “Dancing Queen” is one of the most joyful records ever made, “Bang-a-Boomerang” might be even more so. Listen to the bridge and the final reprise starting at about the 2:25 mark in the video with “And if you’re warm and tender / I kiss you return to sender / Please surrender” and tell me that moment is not every bit as spectacular as the last “you can dance / you can jam” in “Dancing Queen.”
(Pictured: a family Christmas, circa 1970. I’m not sure, but I think my family had the same edition of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas that Father is reading aloud.)
When I have my laptop library on shuffle, which is nearly all of the time, songs do not play purely at random. I rearrange the list to avoid going from (for example) “Okie From Muskogee” to “Satin Doll” to “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.” Something similar is true of this Christmas shuffle: my music player served up a list of songs, and I chose the ones to write about.
‘Tis Yuletide/Roscoe Robinson. From one of the excellent Christmas mixes at Any Major Dude With Half a Heart. Robinson was a gospel and soul singer from Arkansas whose lone Hot 100 hit, “That’s Enough,” made #62 in 1966. In the 80s, he sang with the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, despite the handicap of not being blind himself.
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”/Moog Machine. After the synthesizer album Switched-On Bach became a hit in 1968, an executive at Columbia Records commissioned several additional albums of synthesizer music, eventually released under the name of the Moog Machine. Christmas Becomes Electric, released in 1969, sounds both futuristic and primitive at the same time, and is not bad.
“Christmas Without You”/Eric Clapton with John Popper. In December 1998, Clapton appeared on a bill at the White House for a Special Olympics benefit, excerpts from which appeared on a TV special and were released on CD as A Very Special Christmas Live From Washington, DC. “Christmas Without You” is exactly the sort of muscular, straightforward blues you’d expect from Clapton and Popper.
“The Little Drummer Boy”/Chicago. I have tried really hard to like Chicago’s Christmas album over the years, but I just don’t. It sounds like it was recorded by a Chicago tribute band.
“Mary’s Boy Child”/John D. Loudermilk. In 1966, Loudermilk went into the studio with some of Nashville’s top session cats, including Floyd Cramer, Ray Stevens, Charlie McCoy, and Norro Wilson, plus the Jordanaires and the Anita Kerr Singers, and recorded John D. Loudermilk Sings a Bizarre Collection of the World’s Most Unusual Songs, which is not a Christmas album, and is only bizarre and unusual in spots. It includes a version of his “Indian Reservation” and also “Mary’s Boy Child,” made famous by Harry Belafonte in the 50s.
“Riu Chiu”/Monkees. In which Mike, Davy, Micky, and Peter harmonize acappella on a traditional Spanish carol and knock it out of the park.
“Hip Santa”/Jimmy McGriff. From Christmas With McGriff, which was released in 1963 with one of those risque covers that so often were found on instrumental albums during the late 50s and the first half of the 1960s, eye candy for the type of guy who would spend big money on sophisticated hi-fi.
“In the Bleak Midwinter”/Blind Boys of Alabama with Chrissie Hynde. Years ago, I wrote about “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and the darker verses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that didn’t make it into the Christmas carol adapted from his poem. “In the Bleak Midwinter,” from a poem by Christina Rossetti, gets a similar treatment. Her verse about frosty winds moaning gets left in, but other, bleaker ones get left out. (Read the whole poem here.)
“Merry Christmas Baby”/Bruce Springsteen. The version that came up on shuffle is from a 1980 concert bootleg, on which the E Street Band is tight and right and Springsteen himself is in great voice. Call it his version of Otis Redding’s version of a song famously recorded by Elvis and Charles Brown.
“Silent Night”/Earl Grant. Your mileage may vary with Grant’s album Winter Wonderland. Some of the tracks lean heavily on an old-fashioned organ sound that’s miles removed from McGriff or Jimmy Smith. But “Silent Night,” on which Grant hums along with the ancient carol while swinging it on piano and organ, is lovely. Grant’s voice is a dead ringer for Nat King Cole and he sings a couple of times on Winter Wonderland, but it’s mostly an old-fashioned instrumental album, and the kind of thing that sounds better in December than at any other time of the year.
(Pictured: parody singer Allan Sherman.)
My laptop Christmas library isn’t all that big—about 850 tracks in all, and I never manage to get through all of it in any given year. And that means I periodically forget about some of the oddities therein.
Take, for example, “Mister Russian, Please Don’t Shoot Down Santa’s Sleigh,” credited to Sensational Little Shana Lynette. I got this one a few years ago from the Half Hearted Dude, in a collection of right-wing pop. Although some of the collection has historical and/or curiosity value, most of it is pretty terrible. Listening to those songs is revealing—some are 50 years old, but we hear the some of the same rhetoric from today’s right-wing culture warriors, proving either that some things never go out of style, or more likely that such people never learn anything from history.
I wouldn’t call “Mister Russian, Please Don’t Shoot Down Santa’s Sleigh” good, although the musicians on the backing track swing nicely and clearly have some chops. Almost every citation you can find for it on the web dates it to the 1950s, an era when people worried that Sputnik might lead to the Soviets raining down destruction on the good people of the Western world. But I found pictures of a four-song Christmas EP that includes “Mister Russian,” which Shana Lynette released on the Antique label of Pittsburg, Kansas. (The link where they once appeared is now dead.) The front cover shows her in the sort of western getup a Kansas girl might have worn in 1955, but the back cover of the picture sleeve says “Merry Christmas 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986.” It turns out that the EP was indeed cut in the early 80s, when Shana Lynette was nine. She’s older than that now, still in Kansas, and still singing.
Let’s call that the first track for another random Christmas playlist. Find nine more on the flip.