First up ...
I recently received an email from FH Reader Gary Theroux, who just put together an INCREDIBLE Christmas Collection for Guideposts Magazine ... not only does he tell us what's ON this comprehensive compilation (in incredible detail, thanks to Gary's play-by-play reporting) ... but he ALSO tells us how YOU can get a copy for your very own collection.
Read on ...
One of my frustrations as a local, regional and national radio programmer and consultant was that most Christmas compilation albums I had to program from were made up of the same standard songs performed by the wrong artists. In other words, rather than getting the real Yuletide hits -- like Bing Crosby' "White Christmas" or Nat "King" Cole's "Christmas Song" -- you'd get cover versions by people like John Davidson, Eydie Gorme or Sandler & Young. Why hadn't anybody put together a various artists box set featuring the biggest original recordings of these songs -- the ones that actually charted and bring back the most vivid memories?
Within weeks of my 1982 arrival at Reader's Digest as their new Music Editor, I proposed that the company release just such a box set -- which I'd base on the original Christmas hits I had programmed on radio for years. To my surprise, I was told that "nobody buys Christmas music" and that such a concept was a guaranteed failure. To prove her point, my boss at RD agreed to have my concept market-tested along with a bunch of other ideas -- and was stunned when my repertoire outscored all the others. Now forced to release it, she remained unconvinced that my idea would sell -- and therefore undercut the concept by refusing to allow me to license in tracks which required a guarantee of more than 3,000 units sold. That meant that I could get in, say, Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" (which required a 3,000 unit guarantee) but not Bing's "White Christmas" which required a far, far higher minimum guarantee). Although the concept was thus compromised, "Christmas Through the Years" got released anyway and to my boss' astonishment sold over 7,000 copies in less than a week. It ultimately sold over six million copies -- through direct mail alone -- and still ranks as Reader's Digest Music's all-time largest seller.
I wanted to also market the album through television -- but was told that Reader's Digest Music could not do so because -- get this -- they had never done so before. I reminded them that at one time none of them had ever been out of their cribs either, but still, year after year, the RD marketing team rejected my idea. Finally RCA, which had been manufacturing "Christmas Through the Years," as a direct mail only box set for RD, sent a copy over to Time-Life Music -- informing them of both the album's extraordinary sales and the fact that RD would never put the album on television. Time-Life responded by slightly reworking the repertoire, re-titling the concept and putting it on TV.
The result? The aggressively marketed "Time-Life Treasury of Christmas" sold over 11 million sets -- making it the most successful televsion-marketed album in history. (Of note: In order to reduce their licensing costs, over the years Time-Life revised the repertoire of their "Treasury," weakening it more and more each time. Regardless, it still sold -- based on the reputation it earned based on its original track listings.)
Today -- 28 years after the original release of "Christmas Through The Years" -- I have finally been able to put together and release a Yuletide box set which truly fulfills the original CTTY concept. In fact, it's not just what "Christmas Through The Years" was supposed to be, but instead an improved, updated and expanded new version. Instead of 60, this time 75 timeless tracks are included, including a number of rarities and some tracks never before released on CD. There are also several spoken word tracks, including Lorne Greene's moving 1965 recitation of O Henry's "Gift Of The Magi" (at 15 minutes plus) and Lionel Barrymore's immortal 1947 version of "A Christmas Carol" (with full cast; running over 22 minutes). Nearly every original Christmas hit you can think of is included by everyone from Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra. Burl Ives and Glenn Miller to Amy Grant, Clay Aiken, Elton John and John Lennon. And on one track, even I turn up!
As usually happens, there were a few tracks I tried very hard to clear but could not. I couldn't talk Richard Carpenter into letting me have "Merry Christmas Darling" or Silent Night" ... couldn't pry "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" from Bruce Springsteen, etc. But pretty much everything else is there -- the biggest and best-loved hits of Christmas -- the original recordings by the stars who made them famous.
There are, of course, some Yuletide standards that no one has ever cut a definitive hit version of. I had more flexibility with those titles, so I tried to match them with a mix of the kind of stars you would expect along with a few that'll surprise you but you'll love anyway. That's why the repertoire includes tracks by everyone from Jim Croce, Dion, Gary Puckett, Mark Lindsay and Bobby Vinton to Mel Blanc, The New Christy Minstrels, C.W. McCall and even Walter Brennan. The music ranges from moving and majestic to sheer, unadulterated fun ... heartfelt hymns to tunes that will bring a tear to your eye. Although I hate the cold, Christmas has always been my favorite time of year because of the warmth of the music, magic and memories inherent in the best-loved songs of the season.
Here's the complete repertoire of THE ALL-TIME GREATEST HITS OF CHRISTMAS, which is only available via direct mail through Guideposts Magazine. As the only key thing lacking in the packaging are any liner notes, I’ve sketched some together and have worked them in below.
-- Gary Theroux
1. Here We Come A-Caroling (1962) The Ray Conniff Singers
Listen carefully to the way the group works its name into the lyrics.
2. Do You Hear What I Hear? (1969) Johnny Mathis
Although introduced by Bing Crosby, the Johnny Mathis version of this song is the most played on radio today.
3. Mary's Boy Child (1956) Harry Belafonte
Long before Harry went off the deep end politically, he hit #12 with this transcendently beautiful track.
4. Joy To The World (1968) The New York Brass and Percussion Ensemble with E. Power Biggs; The Gregg Smith Singers, vocal
This soul-stirring rendition makes you feel like you're in the most spectacular cathedral in the world.
5. O Holy Night (1963) Andy Williams
One of the most moving of Yuletide treasures and Andy really nails it.
6. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (1983) Amy Grant
Amy, of course, is the most successful inspirational recording artist of all time -- and here's one good reason why.
7. The Hallelujah Chorus (1956) The New York Philharmonic Orchestra with the Westminster Chorale; Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Bernstein did a lot more than just make Janis Ian a star (by helping publicize "Society's Child"). He and Arthur Fiedler ranked as perhaps the most popular and famous conductors of classical music of their time. And this version of Handel's "The Hallelujah Chorus" is untoppable.
8. Mary Did You Know (2004) Clay Aiken
While the duo of Kenny Rogers and Wynonna were the first to chart with this song, the Clay Aiken version is a huge fan favorite.
9. O Little Town of Bethlehem (1970) Mark Lindsay
Paul Revere & the Raiders' Christmas album was the only real clinker in their catalogue. Lead singer Mark Lindsay more than made up for that misstep by recording a few Yuletide songs for Columbia's Special Products division, but few people knew about them. I did, which is why this charming track is here. More recently Mark has recorded his own complete solo Christmas album which is available on his website.
10. Christmas Eve In My Home Town (1970) Bobby Vinton
Bobby's version of this song -- which was also recorded by Kate Smith (!) -- really works.
11. We Need A Little Christmas (1963) The New Christy Minstrels
This song, from the Broadway musical "Annie," is often unfairly overlooked as a Yuletide standard. The New Christy Minstrels, though, obviously had a great deal of infectious, zesty fun recording it.
12. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (1979) Willie Nelson
This song was introduced and made famous in the '30s on radio by Eddie Cantor -- who, surprisingly, never commercially recorded it. I wanted to license the 1934 hit version by George Hall & his Orchestra, but SONY couldn't find the master in time for it to be included. This version by Willie Nelson (who wrote Roy Orbison's "Pretty Paper") was a last minute replacement. As he often does, Willie casually strolls his way through the melody.
13. Feliz Navidad (1970) Jose Feliciano
Despite his Grammy win for "Light My Fire," Jose's greatest success came in writing and recording this half-English, half-Spanish seasonal celebration. He's recut this several times, but never as well as he did originally in 1970 (as heard here). Although I've never asked him about this, I've always assumed that the abrupt ending is the way it is simply because they couldn't think of any other way to get out of this song.
14. (There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays (1954) Perry Como
Perry reached the Top 10 with this one in December, 1954.
15. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949) Gene Autry
This record has sold over eight million copies, making it the second largest-selling single of the pre-rock era (topped only by Bing Crosby's White Christmas").
16. Merry Merry Christmas (1989) The New Kids On The Block
The New Kids On The Block scored a hit in 1989 with "This One's For The Children," a Yuletide record which I never felt was particularly good or all that Christmasy (I know, it's just my opinion). Oddly enough, though, their previous hit, "Cover Girl," sported a B side -- "Merry Merry Christmas" -- which I've always felt was a far, far better Yuletide song and performance. I wonder if you agree.
17. It Came Upon A Midnight Clear (1971) Gary Puckett
Gary Puckett was encouraged to abandon the Union Gap in 1970 after six solid hits and go solo -- a move which was clearly ill-advised (as he never reached Billboard's Top 40 again). On his own, among other things, Gary recorded a few solo sides for Columbia's Special Products division -- and this hauntingly beautiful track was one of them.
18. Christmas Auld Lang Syne (1993) Gloria Estefan
Bobby Darin introduced this adaptation of the New Year's standard "Auld Lang Syne" in 1960 and scored a small hit with it. A number of other people have recorded it since, including Gloria Estefan -- who perfectly captured the sentiment Bobby and his co-writer, Frank Military, intended.
19. The Gift of the Magi (1965) Lorne Greene
Aside from scoring a #1 hit with "Ringo," Lorne Greene recorded several albums for RCA during his years as the star of TV's "Bonanza." His 1965 Christmas album included this unbelievably warm and moving recitation, which I have played at Christmas on nearly every radio station I have ever worked for. And the result is the same: the phone lines jammed with people in tears, asking me to play it again. Most radio stations today won't play a track like this -- which clocks in at over 15 minutes -- but should. It's that good. Once you hear this track, you'll never forget it.
1. Here Comes Santa Claus (1947) Gene Autry
While serving as the Grand Marshall of Hollywood's Santa Claus Parade one year, Gene Autry was positioned one float ahead of the final float, which held ol' St. Nick. The cries from the crowd looking beyond Autry's float inspired him to write this song, a million-selling Top 10 hit two years before he recorded "Rudolph."
2. Jingle Bells (1941) Glenn Miller & his Orchestra; Tex Beneke, Ernie Caceres and the Modernaires, vocal
Glenn Miller & his Orchestra not only recorded the biggest swing hit of all time ("In The Mood") but also racked up more than 125 other hits between 1935 and 1948. This record reached #5 over the Christmas season of 1941.
3. All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth) (1948) Spike Jones & his City Slickers; George Rock, vocal)
As a lifelong Spike Jones fan, I couldn't leave out Spike's only #1 record -- one that he cut too late in 1947 for it to score over that Christmas. Thus it topped the charts the following Yuletide season, featuring an inimitable vocal by George Rock, who looked like a big hulking football player but could sing like a vewy widdle kid.
4. Christmas In Killarney (1950) Dennis Day
A fine Irish tenor (“Clancy Lowered The Boom”), Dennis Day also gained fame as a naive, empty-headed comic character on "The Jack Benny Program." This gem was his Yuletide offering in 1950.
5. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1945) Vaughn Monroe
Vaughn Monroe was a singing big band leader who scored 72 hits between 1940 and 1965 ("Riders In The Sky", "Ballerina", "When The Lights Go On Again All Over The World", and, 19 years before Bobby Vinton, "There! I've Said It Again"). Monroe took this tune to #1 over the Yuletide season of 1945. By the way, Vaughn HATED Spike Jones, who used to delight in parodying his distinctive "hollow baritone" singing style.
6. Swingin' Them Jingle Bells (1936) Fats Waller & his Rhythm
I was introduced to the good-time stride piano and infectiously mischievous vocals of Fats Waller in college, where his "The Joint Is Jumpin'" was the bouncy, barrelhouse theme song of a jazz program. I've loved Fats ever since and this was one side of a Yuletide single he released in 1936. (An instrumental version was on the flip.)
7. Christmas Dreaming (A Little Early This Year) (1947) Frank Sinatra
I had to include a Sinatra track in here somewhere and, as his Capitol and Reprise stuff is not available for licensing, that cut it down to his early Columbia material. Frank actually charted with a cover version of "White Christmas," but as Bing's version had to be in this set, I chose "Christmas Dreaming," which reached #26 in 1947 for Frank.
8. It’s Beginning To Look Like Christmas (1952) Perry Como & The Fontane Sisters
The Fontane Sisters were frequent guests on Perry's TV show and scored several hits singing with and without him. This Como / Fontane track, released very late in 1951, reached #19 early the next year.
9. The Christmas Story (1950) Doris Day
This one surprised me. I had never heard it before and assumed it was a narrative about the birth of Jesus. What it is instead is one of Doris' rarest recordings.
10. Caroling Caroling / Happy Holiday (1986) Johnny Mathis
Mathis' warm-hearted Yuletide LPs have been a holiday staple for decades. Nearly 30 years after his dramatic breakthrough with "Wonderful! Wonderful!," Johnny cut this delightful medley.
11. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (1963) Andy Williams
Although never charting on the Hot 100 for Andy, this soaring, effervescent recording has been a holiday staple ever since it was first released on an album in 1963.
12. Santa Baby (1953) Eartha Kitt
Shortly before she died -- on Christmas Day 2008 -- I saw Eartha perform onstage in Westport, Connecticut and she was still mesmerizing. This, her biggest and most enduring hit, reached #4 in 1953.
13. Pretty Paper (1963) Roy Orbison
Roy was on tour in England when he decided to record this Willie Nelson composition in time for the Yuletide season of 1963. Unable to get back to his label's studio in Nashville, Orbison rounded up the best studio players he could find in the U.K. who could play in the same style. The result reached #15 that December.
14. Blue Christmas (1964) Elvis Presley
While shooting his 1968 comeback TV special, Elvis introduced this as his favorite Christmas song. Undoubtedly he remembered it as a very popular number in 1949-50, when no less than three artists -- bandleaders Russ Morgan and Hugo Winterhalter, along with country giant Ernest Tubb -- all scored pop hits with it.
15. C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S (1949) Eddy Arnold
Eddy -- the biggest country hitmaker of all time -- scored a two-sided Yuletide hit in 1949 with this song and it's flip, "When Santy Comes To Shantytown."
16. An Old Christmas Card (1963) Jim Reeves
Velvet-voiced Jim Reeves never knew just how popular this nostalgic track would become because he died in a plane crash shortly after recording it. The lasting appeal of his voice was so strong that Jim continued to score hits with old album tracks re-released as singles decades after his death.
17. Christmas Is (1966) Percy Faith, his Orchestra and Chorus
As a young man, Percy Faith badly burned his hands trying to snuff out the flaming clothing of his little sister. He was told he'd never be able to make music again, but did anyway -- ultimately becoming one of the largest-selling album artists of all time. He also scored 19 pop hits between 1950 and 1963, among them "Theme from 'A Summer Place'".
18. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (1958) Mitch Miller & The Gang
We just lost Mitch, who died recently at the age of 99. This track is from his million-selling "Christmas Sing Along With Mitch" LP.
19. Christmas As I Knew It (1972) Johnny Cash
Although it sounds like he did, Johnny did not write this tender recollection. His wife, June Carter, did – along with Jan Howard. You'd never guess, though, by Johnny’s heartfelt performance.
1. White Christmas (1942) Bing Crosby
What can one say about the largest-selling holiday hit of all time? I guess you could note that it was #1 in 1942 -- and 1945 and 1947 -- and that it's charted in 17 other years as well.
2. Frosty The Snowman (1950) Jimmy Durante
Many young fans hearing Jimmy narrate the animated "Frosty The Snowman" TV special in 1969 had no idea that he had first recorded the song nineteen years earlier -- for MGM. This track is pure infectious fun -- even more than "Inka Dinka Doo."
3. Sleigh Ride (1950) Leroy Anderson & his Orchestra
Leroy Anderson was a gifted and highly creative composer-arranger, perhaps best known for his 1952 #1 hit "Blue Tango." He was working for Arthur Fiedler & the Boston Pops in 1949 when he came up with a minor hit for them, "Sleigh Ride." The following year, Leroy recorded this definitive, incredibly evocative version with his own orchestra.
4. A Marshmallow World (1951) Bing Crosby
Bing cut a lot of holiday tunes and some of them became hits -- like this light-hearted one, which reached #24 in 1951.
5. 'Twas The Night Before Christmas (1942) Fred Waring & his Pennsylvanians
Fred Waring's combination glee club and dance band became a radio favorite in 1933, a decade after their first hit (1923's "Sleep"). Their remarkably intricate, innovative, imaginative (and million-selling) recording of "Twas The Night Before Christmas" was first issued as a 12" 78 in 1942 because it was too long to fit on a standard 10" disc.
6. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (1944) Judy Garland
Judy sang this wistful, wishful Yuletide standard in her 1944 film "Meet Me in St. Louis" (as she did another of her hits, "The Trolley Song").
7. Step Into Christmas (1973) Elton John
While at the peak of his fame in 1973, Elton John surprised everybody by recording and releasing this one-off Yuletide single. It never reached Billboard's Hot 100, but radio played it anyway – and still does.
8. I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus (1956) Brenda Lee
Although Brenda Lee didn't become a star until she recorded "Sweet Nothin's" in 1959, she had been actively recording (without success) for years. In fact, Brenda was only eleven years old when she recorded this then-ignored gem for Decca. Two years later Brenda cut "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" and it, too, initially bombed. It wasn't until after "Little Miss Dynamite" had proven herself as a hit maker that radio programmers began to give her early tracks a second listen. Brenda's 1958 take on "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" finally scored in 1960 and is today a Yuletide staple. Listen, though, to how masterfully she handled "I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus" two years earlier! What were you doing when you were 11?
9. Mele Kalikimaka (1950) The Andrews Sisters with Bing Crosby
Jimmy Buffett cut a great version of this Hawaiian Christmas song for MCA, but I couldn't clear it. Instead, here's the equally good original recording by the most popular pre-rock girl group of them all, The Andrews Sisters, with the ever-present Bing Crosby.
10. Jingle Bell Rock (1957) Bobby Helms
I met Booby Helms in Nashville near the end of his career. He was trying to promote a single he'd cut on a tiny independent label by passing out miniature bottles of whiskey. As I don't drink, I still have that sealed bottle. Bobby's big year was 1957, when "Fraulein, "My Special Angel" and "Jingle Bell Rock" were all huge hits for him.
11. The Little Drummer Boy (1958) The Harry Simeone Chorale
Harry Simeone was an arranger-conductor-pianist with a long, successful track record at CBS, NBC and several Hollywood film studios. In 1958, he took a new song written by a friend, Harry Onorarti, and arranged it, changing its title from "Carol of the Drum" to "The Little Drummer Boy" (and thus claiming co-writing credit). Harry's recording of the ancient-sounding tune, which he made with a freshly assembled group of studio singers, reached #13 in 1958 and then charted high again every year after that through 1962.
12. (Have A) Holly Jolly Christmas (1964) Burl Ives
Burl Ives capitalized on his experiences as a singing hobo to become CBS Radio's "Wayfaring Stranger" in 1944. His folk-singing fame led to acclaim as a comic and dramatic actor, as well as a pop hit-maker ("A Little Bitty Tear"). "Holly Jolly Christmas" came from the 1964 animated TV special "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" (which Burl narrated) and had been written by "Rudolph"'s composer, Johnny Marks.
13. Silver Bells (1953) Bing Crosby & Carole Richards
Although it was Bob Hope who introduced "Silver Bells" in his film, "The Lemon Drop Kid" (with Marilyn Maxwell), it was Bob's comedy partner, Bing Crosby, who scored the hit (in a duet with Carole Richards). Richards was a singer-actress heard more on movie soundtracks than seen onscreen, although she did turn up now and then (in one episode of "I Love Lucy" for example).
14. Run Rudolph Run (1958) Chuck Berry
Both sides of Chuck's 1958 Yuletide single charted. The other side was "Merry Christmas Baby."
15. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree (1960) Brenda Lee
See "I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus" above.
16. I’ll Be Home For Christmas (1943) Bing Crosby
Among the darkest days of World War II were those surrounding Christmas, 1943. Countless couples were separated by thousands of miles with no guarantee of seeing their home, their hearths or their loved ones ever again. Into that gloom came Crosby's promise that he'd "be home for Christmas" -- if only in his dreams. Just imagine how this recording -- my all-time favorite Christmas hit -- must have felt to homesick GIs all over the world 67 years ago.
17. Sing "Silent Night" (1976) C.W. McCall
You'd never expect the guy who made us smile with "Convoy" and "'Round the World With The Rubber Duck" to offer up a tender, heartfelt spoken word Yuletide treasure, but he did -- buried on an otherwise non-Christmas album in 1976.
18 Silent Night (1960) Connie Francis
I had really wanted The Carpenters version of this Yuletide standard, but Richard refused to license it out to anyone. In order to follow through with the theme of the previous track -- in which C.W. was recalling his mother's performance of "Silent Night" -- I looked for a female version of this 19th century carol and was impressed by this one by Connie Francis, which she had recorded for an album in 1960.
19. A Christmas Carol (1947) Lionel Barrymore and Cast
Lionel Barrymore starred in the radio version of Dickens' immortal story for years before MGM announced plans to make “A Christmas Carol” into a movie. Barrymore was cast as Scrooge, of course, and would have been excellent except that he never got to make the film. Shortly before production was to begin, Lionel was seriously injured and wound up spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair (which is why he's in one as Mr. Potter in "It's A Wonderful Life"). Since Lionel couldn't walk, the movie role went to someone else -- but Barrymore continued to play Scrooge on radio for years. In 1947, his radio adaptation was recorded for release as one of the first albums (a bunch of 78s in a binder) ever released by the newly formed MGM label. To create this continuous performance, we had to carefully edit together the six 78 RPM single sides it took to capture the entire work. We discovered that the master of the first of those six sides was quite damaged and a real challenge to clean up. That's why there's a tiny bit of surface noise present during part of the first three minutes of this historic track.
1. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) (1946) Nat "King" Cole
As a way of cooling off on a particularly hot day in Southern California, Mel Torme took a poem a friend had written and set it to music. The result, once sent to Nat "King" Cole, was this 1946 million-selling holiday classic which is now in the NARAS (Grammy) Hall of Fame.
2. Little Saint Nick (1963) The Beach Boys
There are two versions of this Beach Boys favorite. The stereo one on their Christmas album doesn't really sound quite right and there is a reason for that. The album master is missing the sleigh bells and glockenspiel track which made the mono single version so completely magical. This is that single mix.
3. Away In A Manger (1981) Anne Murray
Following her first American hit, "Snowbird," in 1970, Anne Murray became a major pop and country star primarily due to her tender treatment of slow-moving ballads. She told me once how she wished she'd been given more up-tempo material to record (like "What About Me"), but Capitol didn't want her to blow a proven formula. It was hard picking out just one Anne Murray Christmas track, as they are all so good, but this one seems to get the most airplay.
4. What Child Is This? (1966) The Lettermen
The Lettermen's 1966 Christmas album is breathtaking in itself and in previous collections I have spotlit tracks from it like "O Holy Night." This time I've pulled "What Child Is This," a tune also known as "Greensleeves" -- which in itself is famed as the oldest known English musical composition.
5. All I Want For Christmas (Is You) (1993) Vince Vance & the Valiants; Lisa Layne, vocal
Vince Vance & the Valiants initially gained fame in 1980 with their "Barbara Ann" parody entitled "Bomb Iran." Best known as a comical, highly theatrical goodtime live band, in 1993 Vince helped write "All I Want For Christmas (Is You)," the perfectly straight pop / country love cry of a lonely lady at Yuletide. Although never released on a major label, this track has become the most requested Christmas song at country radio stations for years now. Find out why.
6. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (1993) Dion
Unable to clear Darlene Love's Philles version of this song (or anything else off Phil Spector's Christmas album), I hunted around to see who else recorded it and was surprised to come across this terrific version by none other than The Wanderer himself, Dion. 35 years after "I Wonder Why," Mr. DiMucci remained and still is a powerhouse performer.
7. It Doesn't Have To Be That Way (1973) Jim Croce
Jim Croce died in a plane crash in 1973, the same year my longtime college girlfriend and I broke up. As a great fan of Jim's, I was well aware of the song of the flip side of his third hit, "One Less Set of Footsteps." "It Doesn't Have To Be That Way" was on my mind that Christmas as I programmed it not only as Croce's only Yuletide recording but as a message to that now-lost lady in my life. I've played it on radio ever since, as have a lot of other DJs who know what a broken but hopeful heart at Christmas can feel like.
8. The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late) (1958) The Chipmunks
After his great success with one sped-up version of his voice in "Witch Doctor," David Seville wondered how he could capitalize on that effect a second time. He wrote a melody called "In A Little Village Park," but it didn't seem to go anywhere until he hit upon the idea of mixing in three sped-up versions of his voice to one recorded at normal speed. But what were those little voices? Mice? Elves? Butterflies? How about mischievous chipmunks? After naming them after three of his friends at Liberty Records, Seville rewrote "In A Little Village Park" into "The Chipmunk Song" and hoped it might sell a few copies at Christmas 1959. Did it ever -- going gold, winning multiple Grammys and sparking the most successful novelty concept in recording history -- one that's long outlived David himself (Ross Bagdasarian, a/k/a David Seville, died in 1972).
9. Deck The Halls (1964) Jo Stafford
Once a member of Tommy Dorsey's Pied Pipers, warm-hearted Jo Stafford began a solo career in 1944 which included some 94 hits through 1959 ("You Belong To Me," "Serenade Of The Bells," etc.). She even cut a bunch of tracks for Reader's Digest in 1969-70 which were just a pitch-perfect and flawless as she'd been 30 years earlier at the dawn of her career. As she's my second favorite female singer of all time (after Karen Carpenter), I had to squeeze Jo into this set somehow and learned that her 1964 version of "Deck the Halls" had been a DJ favorite.
10. Christmas Together (1962) Walter Brennan
Multiple Oscar winner Walter Brennan surprised everybody in 1962 when he scored a Top 5 pop hit, "Old Rivers," at the age of 68. Liberty Records immediately sent him back into the studio to cut more recitations, including a complete Christmas album. After reading the fan reviews of that LP on amazon.com, I ordered a copy and immediately understood why so many people had cherished theirs since childhood. This is one of the tracks from that LP.
11. Angels We Have Heard On High (1967) Ella Fitzgerald
If you're going to span 75 years of pop, rock, country, folk, jazz and swing greats, you can't leave out the most honored jazz singer of all time -- so I didn't. Here's a track off Ella Fitzgerald's 1967 Christmas LP.
12. Happy Christmas (1971) John Lennon
I tried to clear both this and Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime," but was only able to get this Lennon single. And that was just as well, because, to be perfectly honest, "Wonderful Christmastime" is not exactly first-rate McCartney -- and Paul would be the first to tell you so. I was glad, though, that Yoko was willing to allow this track to be included in this set. And, as it has a wartime theme, I thought it made the perfect set-up for ...
13. Snoopy's Christmas (1967) The Royal Guardsmen
Ah yes, everybody's favorite beagle -- still fighting World War I. Believe it or not, Florida's Royal Guardsmen are still together today, still performing "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron," "Return of the Red Baron," "Snoopy for President" and this song in live concert. And although "Snoopy's Christmas" never charted on Billboard’s Hot 100, countless radio stations continue to play it more than 40 years after they stopped playing everything else the band recorded! Listen at the opening for a few bars of "O Tannebaum," a German song which dates back to the 1500s ("tannebaum" is German for "Christmas tree").
14. The First Noel (1990) Suzy Bogguss
Suzy Bogguss and I attended the same college, Illinois State University, although at different times. She's carved out a very impressive roster of country hits over the years and in 1990 perfectly performed this Yuletide standard, which dates back to sixteenth century England.
15. We Wish You A Merry Christmas (1960) The Kingston Trio
The Kingston Trio recorded their sole Christmas album for Capitol at the peak of their fame in 1960 -- and, as they often did, filled it not with familiar standards but rather little known numbers they'd unearthed in their endless search for folk material not beaten to death by other performers. The Christmas songs they chose, however, remain pretty obscure -- except for this one: a sixteenth century carol from the west coast of England.
16. I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas (1949) Yogi Yorgesson
Yogi Yogesson was the pseudo-Swedish incarnation of dialect comedian Harry Stewart, who also recorded as Harry Kari, Claude Hopper and other a host of other offbeat characters. As Yogi, Harry sold a million copies of his two-sided hit "Yingle Bells" and "I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas" in 1949. Seven years later he was killed in a California car crash.
17. The Hat I Got For Christmas Is Too Beeg (1957) Mel Blanc
Mel, of course, is best known as the voice of virtually every Warner Brothers cartoon character during their golden era of animated shorts. He made money doing that, of course, but not really all that much. Blanc’s real financial success came as a Los Angeles real estate investor. Mel cut a lot of comedy singles over the years, often accompanied by Billy May's band (when they weren't backing Frank Sinatra). Three of the most insane became hits between 1948 and 1951 ("Woody Woodpecker," "I Taut I Taw A Puddy Tat" and "Toot Toot Tootsie"). Collectors crave Mel Blanc singles, from "K-K-K-Katy" to "The Hat I Got For Christmas Is Too Beeg" -- yet amazingly Capitol has never gathered the best of them into a reissue CD.
18. Winter Wonderland (1947) Johnny Mercer & the Pied Pipers
Singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer was not only one of the founders of Capitol Records but among its biggest early stars ("Candy," "Personality," "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" all hit #1 in 1945-6). "Winter Wonderland," a song from Broadway's "Zeigfeld Follies of 1935," was released at the tail end of 1946 and peaked at #4 the following January. The Pied Pipers, which originally included Jo Stafford, were regulars on Johnny's radio show and hitmakers in their own right ("Dream," "The Trolley Song" and, a decade before Connie Francis, "My Happiness").
19. Adeste Fidelis (O Come All Ye Faithful) (1960) Nat "King" Cole
Nat "King" Cole's 1960 Christmas album is one of the largest-selling Yuletide LPs ever released – and his version of this beloved 18th century English hymn is one of the reasons why.
20. We Three Kings Of Orient Are (1958) Tennessee Ernie Ford
Former radio DJ Tennessee Ernie Ford came to Capitol Records as a deep-voiced country singer with an impish sense of down-home humor and a surprisingly rockin' repertoire (check out 1951's "Shot Gun Boogie"). In 1955 he cut what became the fastest-selling #1 record in history up until that time ("Sixteen Tons"). In later years Ernie became a huge seller of totally straight gospel music and his Christmas LPs were legendary blockbusters. Here's a sample from 1958.
21. Yes, Virginia (There Is A Santa Claus) (2010) Gary Theroux and Julia Myers
I first recorded this recitation in 1990 for a Reader's Digest album entitled "Home for the Holidays." Unable to find a young enough girl to play Virginia in time for the recording session, I used the voice of a grown-up lady instead and the result worked reasonably well. For this collection, though, I decided to re-record the track with an actual kid as Virginia -- and found a young violin student named Julia Myers. Under the direction of my co-writer, Jeremy Goldsmith, we recorded this new version especially for release as the concluding track of THE ALL-TIME GREATEST HITS OF CHRISTMAS. And yes, that's me as both the voice of the narrator and the elderly newspaper editor, Frank Church, as the real Frank Church wasn't available (he died in 1906). The real Virginia, though, lived until 1971.
-- Gary Theroux
This sounds like an EXCELLENT collection, Gary ... and I'm sure readers will want to pick up a copy. They can do so here:
One of the tracks that Gary and I discussed was the Pinkard and Bowden Christmas song I feature every year, "The Christmas Gift", a COMPLETELY out-of-character recording by this country duo who typically did comedy and novelty parodies of other hit country songs. This one COMPLETELY blew me away the first time I heard it ... and I've featured it ever since.
Gary pointed out that his collection includes a couple of other VERY moving spoken word recordings (including those by C.W. McCall and Walter Brennan to name just two) ... but he admits that he, too, is a fan of the Pinkard and Bowden record.
Hi, Kent -
I'm familiar with Pinkard & Bowden, who were kind of a latter day Homer & Jethro without the corn. Not all of Pinkard & Bowden's stuff worked and some of it is unfortunately off-color, but in general I've enjoyed their satiric sense of humor (which I share). The duo released "Christmas Gift" -- which is a true story about the holiday passings of Bowden's grandparents -- in 1985 only as a promotional single mailed to radio stations. It has since received enough airplay for the duo to recently make it available as a CD single. (I do not have a copy of either the vinyl or CD incarnations myself.) In listening to the track -- knowing who put it out -- you keep expecting some sort of comic twist but, of course, there isn't one. It IS moving and memorable, if something of a downer. If I had a copy I'd probably broadcast it but doubt I would have included in THE ALL-TIME GREATEST HITS OF CHRISTMAS. That's because it is so similar in spirit to C.W. McCall's "Sing Silent Night," which I did include and think is a better expression of the same sentiment. "Sing Silent Night" is also a step closer to the heart because it's about C.W.'s mom and immediate family, not his grandparents. Walter Brennan's Christmas album also contains a few downer tracks, which I bypassed in favor of the cozier, more family-friendly "Christmas Together." Liberty did pull a single from Brennan's Christmas LP, but unfortunately picked two of the least effective tracks on the disc to couple for it.
For more on the Pinkard & Bowden CD single, go to:
Thanks, Gary ... we'll feature it here again, too, as it's one of my favorites:
Kicking off our fresh season of brand new Christmas music is none other than Paul Simon! He's just released a song called "Getting Ready For Christmas Day" ... and not only can you hear it here today in Forgotten Hits, but you can ALSO download your OWN copy right from Paul's website:
Click here: Paul Simon
Simon has a brand new album coming out next spring ... be sure to sign up at his website for full details and updates as the release date gets closer.
And, just for fun, one of those GREAT Forgotten Christmas Tracks, recorded back in 1966 with his long-time singing partner Art Garfunkel ... a look back a "Seven O'Clock News / Silent Night" from their "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme" album. (kk)
Something old, something new ... something borrowed and something BLUE ...
How about "Blue Christmas" as done by both Porky Pig and The Partridge Family!!!
Got some new Christmas music to share?
Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org ... STAT!!! ...
And we'll try to feature it in the days to come on the website!