Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 22

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Mary J. Blige on stage at Christmas 2013.)

It has been three years since I managed two of these Christmas shuffle features in one holiday season, so pin a rose on me, I guess. This playlist covers better than 60 years and a whole lotta styles.

“Moonlight, Mistletoe, and You”/Keb’ Mo’. This is the title song from Keb’ Mo’s 2019 Christmas album, which is not so much a blues record as it is an affable soul singer providing a pleasant 35 minutes of entertainment. I believe our friend Jeffrey Thames sent it along last year, and I don’t think I ever publicly thanked him, so thank you sir.

“I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas”/Orion Samuelson and the Uff-Da Band. Samuelson, a titan of broadcasting, has been at WGN in Chicago for 60 years and will retire at the end of this year, age 86. I can’t say for sure when his Yogi Yorgesson cover was recorded, but I don’t suppose it matters.

(Digression: there’s an amazing recording from November 22, 1963, in which Samuelson interrupts his noontime farm report to read the bulletin from Dallas. All he’s got is the first brief notice, little more than one line, and you can hear him thinking, “My god, what should I do now?” before deciding to continue with the farm news. But as he reads, it’s clear that he’s looking through the studio window into the newsroom praying that somebody will bring him more information.)

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”/Aimee Mann
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”/Billy Idol
Both of these are on albums released in 2006. Idol’s Happy Holidays is far better than it had to be. On One More Drifter in the Snow, Mann was going for a Charlie Brown Christmas vibe, but it’s mostly just morose. (Whole album here.)

“Christmas In Dixie”/Alabama. “Christmas In Dixie” came out in December 1982, when Alabama was just beginning its incredible run of success. Country stations still play it, although pop stations that might have done so when Alabama was crossing over do not. I like it, mostly for reminding me of Christmases from when I was a little baby DJ nearly 40 years ago.

“White Christmas”/Patti Smith
“White Christmas”/Hadda Brooks
Smith’s one-time run-through of “White Christmas” was released sometime around 1978, billed to “r.e.f.m.”, put out over the years on a couple of different labels, and produced by “the Runt,” Todd Rundgren. Brooks was a ballad and boogie-woogie piano player who first recorded in 1945, and so her “White Christmas,” from 1950, includes a long and lovely piano interlude. It came to me from the always-excellent site Any Major Dude With Half a Heart, where the Dude has reupped his entire collection of Christmas mixes. Stock your collection with 90 years of good stuff here.

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”/Patti Labelle. Since my Christmas library plays mostly on shuffle, certain songs get overlooked, often for years at a time, and so I forget they exist. For example, there’s this complete reinvention of the Andy Williams warhorse from a 2007 album called Miss Patti’s Christmas.

“This Christmas”/Mary J. Blige. A Mary Christmas was released in 2013 and contains this terrific cover of the Donny Hathaway standard, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

“I’ll Be Your Santa Baby”/Rufus Thomas. The stars of Stax recorded a fair bit of Christmas music during the label’s heyday. Some of it which was collected on It’s Christmas Time Again, released in 1982, an album replaced by Christmas In Soulsville, released in 2007. “I’ll Be Your Santa Baby” makes the Hip Christmas List of Sexiest Christmas Records, which is a good horny read. (Hip Christmas is a fabulous site I hadn’t visited in several years until recently. You should go there too and explore its “dysfunctionally vast web archive dedicated to holiday music that rocks, rolls, swings, and twangs.”)

Note to patrons: Here’s our programming rundown for the remainder of 2020: there will be new One Day in Your Life posts here on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day because they’re my favorite thing to write. Next week Monday and Tuesday you’ll read about another American Top 40 year-end countdown show. On New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, there will more new One Day in Your Life posts.

Also: I am not doing a Christmas podcast this year. If you want to listen to last year’s, find it here. (I listened to it again myself. It’s good.)

Also also: I will be on the air during Magic 98‘s annual 98 Hours of Christmas Magic tomorrow and Thursday from 6 til 10AM. I hope you’ll drop in for a while.

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 21

Embed from Getty Images

(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.

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 20

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Darlene Love on stage, 2014.)

A lot of people welcome the expansion of the Christmas season to early November. The music and the decorations make them feel good, and I’m willing to accept pretty much whatever you have to do to get through the day in hopes you’ll grant me the same privilege. And I suppose there’s an argument that people are busier now than they used to be, and maybe it takes longer to get all of the seasonal stuff done than it used to. Maybe a seven or eight-week Christmas season is a kindness.

Maybe. But at my house, we do not permit Thanksgiving to be a speed bump on the way to bigger things. We do not bust out the music or the decorations until the day after Thanksgiving at the earliest. (The decorations may stay up until Valentine’s Day, but the point is, we don’t get ’em out early.) Since today’s the day, here’s the first installment of a tradition we started back in 2007.

“Daddy’s Christmas”/Albert Brooks and Little Kristi. “Daddy’s Christmas” is a 1974 single written and produced by Brooks and Harry Shearer featuring a dialogue between a mean-spirited father and his little girl. It’s supposed to be funny, I guess.

“This Christmas”/Diana Ross. In 1993, Motown released Christmas in the City, a compilation with 10 tracks from the label’s 1960s Christmas output and six previously unreleased tracks, including this perfectly fine 1974 version of “This Christmas,” and perhaps of greater interest, both sides of a proposed 1972 Marvin Gaye single that was never released.

“Deck the Halls”/Moog Machine. Fifty years ago, Switched-On Rock by the Moog Machine featured 10 covers of then-recent hits, from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Hey Jude” to “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Christmas Becomes Electric appeared in time for Christmas 1969. Like the rest of the album, “Deck the Halls” was highly futuristic then but sounds fairly primitive and dated now. That is, however, part of its ongoing appeal.

“Please Come Home for Christmas”/Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise. The story goes that a group of Detroit musicians heard Bradley singing through an open window, invited him to record with them, and eventually made the blind street musician the namesake of their group. They made four albums between 1996 and 2009; this was on a Christmas EP in 2001.

“What Christmas Means to Me”/Darlene Love. Forty-four years after A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector, Darlene Love released a full-length Christmas album that avoids carols in favor of songs not often covered: Tom Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again,” the Pretenders’ “2000 Miles,” and “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” among them. Her faithful version of “What Christmas Means to Me” is every bit as good as Stevie Wonder’s original.

“Silent Night”/Starland Vocal Band. In 1980, the Starland Vocal Band reconvened to make a Christmas record. I have not heard the whole thing, but at least one track has a children’s choir on it, which is often a giant blinking red light warning “run away.” Their “Silent Night” is fine, though, with tender vocal harmonizing over acoustic guitars and somebody blowing on a recorder.

“Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”/David Qualey. From the first Windham Hill collection, A Winter’s Solstice, released in 1985. None of its ten songs has the first thing to do with Christmas, but I’m guessing most people who have it store it with the Christmas records, as I do. Qualey is an Oregon-born guitarist who lives in Germany and who recorded his first album in 1975.

“Black Christmas”/The Emotions. In 2007, the reconstituted Stax label released Christmas in Soulsville, featuring holiday songs cut in the 60s and 70s, both famous (Otis Redding’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” Booker T and the MGs doing “Winter Wonderland”) and not, including “Black Christmas.” It was written by Pervis Staples and co-produced by David Porter and disappeared on its release in 1970 (although a version by the Harlem Children’s Chorus has one listing at ARSA). [See comment below.] And holy smokes is it great.

“Stone Soul Christmas”/Binky Griptite. In 2007, the master of ceremonies and guitarist with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings turned the Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” into “Stone Soul Christmas,” ditching the surrey and easing on down.

“Here Comes Santa Claus”/Elvis Presley. That Elvis would release a Christmas album in 1957 was a conclusion as foregone as tomorrow’s sunrise. Its most familiar performances (this one, “Blue Christmas,” and “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”) have been anthologized everywhere. It’s less well-remembered that the album features four gospel songs, including a version of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

We could do this again before Christmas Day, but the season is as short as it can be this year. You’ll have to wait and see.

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 19

Embed from Getty Images

(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.

Continue reading “Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 19”

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 17 (Really)

Embed from Getty Images

(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.

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 18

Embed from Getty Images

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.