Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 18

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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.

While the Music Still Goes On

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(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.”

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 16

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(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.

The Russians Are Coming for Christmas

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(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.

Continue reading “The Russians Are Coming for Christmas”

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 15

(Above: CBS aired this holiday greeting for several years beginning in 1966. It’s lovely and unexpected and it commanded your attention whenever it came on, which is why some of us remember it so fondly so many years later. Note also that it says “Seasons Greetings,” a locution that offended exactly no one back then.)

The Christmas season has arrived up here, so it’s time to put my Christmas music library on shuffle and see what comes out.

Continue reading “Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 15”

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 14

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Here’s another random Christmas playlist from my laptop music stash, featuring mostly songs your local all-Christmas radio station hasn’t burned out.

“The Man With All the Toys” and “Child of Winter”/Beach Boys. This year is the 50th anniversary of The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. “The Man With All the Toys” was one of the top holiday singles of 1964, although “Little St. Nick” gets more airplay today, and “Merry Christmas Baby” used to. A decade later, “Child of Winter” came out as a single. Despite having the subtitle “Christmas Song,” its December 23, 1974, release gave it no shot at Christmas airplay.

“Hallelujah It’s Christmas”/.38 Special. The .38 Special Christmas album, released in 2001, has an awful title and an awful cover, but the music inside is better than you’d expect. “Hallelujah It’s Christmas” is yer basic Southern boogie; their version of “O Holy Night” is reverent and lovely.

“Wonderful Christmastime” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae”/Paul McCartney and Wings. First heard 35 years ago this Christmas, “Wonderful Christmastime” gets a great deal of justified hate. Under anyone’s name it would sound phoned-in and flimsy, but what really upsets people is that Paul McCartney’s name is on something so phoned-in and flimsy. (In its defense, however, the synthesizer noise that starts it sure gets your attention on the radio.) The version that came up on my shuffle is from a 1979 Christmas-season show in Glasgow, Scotland, and it sounds like Paul’s already sick of playing it. The B-side of “Wonderful Christmastime,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae” is pretty much what you think it is, played by what sounds like a drunken violinist (but is probably a synthesizer, too).

“This Christmas”/Frank McComb. In 1994 and 1996, the Motown subsidiary MoJazz came out with a pair of Christmas albums featuring nobody you ever heard of, with the possible exception of bass guitarist (and ex-NBA player) Wayman Tisdale. “This Christmas” and the rest of the stuff sounds fine when it pops up on shuffle, but I’m rarely moved to put on a whole album at once.

“I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas”/Yogi Yorgesson. I told the story of Yogi, a Scandinavian character created in the late 40s by a radio comedian named Harry Stewart, several Christmases ago. “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas” was once a holiday staple popular enough to appear on Casey Kasem’s early 70s Christmas countdowns.

“I’ll Be Your Santa Baby”/Rufus Thomas and “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’/Mack Rice. From a Stax compilation called It’s Christmas Time Again, which also features Albert King, the Staple Singers, and Isaac Hayes among others. Several of the tracks are burners, including “I’ll Be Your Santa Baby” and “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’,” in which “putting something out for Santa” had better not refer to milk and cookies.

“Stop Giving Me Crap for Christmas”/Bobby Gaylor. Gaylor is a TV performer and writer. “Stop Giving Me Crap for Christmas” is a decent concept, but as actually carried off, it’s not especially funny.

With the exception of “Wonderful Christmastime” and some of the Beach Boys stuff, you won’t hear any of these songs on Magic 98’s “98 Hours of Christmas Magic,” which started last night and continues through midnight on Christmas night. What you will hear, however, is the best-curated holiday music show since the old WLS Holiday Festival of Music. I’ll be on today and tomorrow from 3 to 7PM (US Central), and on Christmas Eve, my favorite day of the year to be on the air, from 3 until 6. Listen here, or via the TuneIn Radio app.