Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Christmas Bonus!

Boy, THERE's a phrase (and experience) I haven't seen or heard in a long, long time!!!

I was talking with FH Reader (and noted music historian) Gary Theroux last week about some of the GREAT Christmas songs that just don't get played anymore at the holidays.

Instead, much like the rest of the year, we seem to be force-fed the same old, same old again and again and again.  (Although I have to admit that, thanks to Michael Buble's Christmas album rising to and then holding the #1 Spot for several weeks on Billboard's Album Chart, we've been handed a VERY heavy dose of Buble Christmas music this year.) He seems to have even eclipsed all the excitement generated by Justin Beiber's holiday release.  In fact, Justin even appeared on Michael Buble's recent Christmas television special!!!

But Gary came up with several more "traditional" suggestions ... more than we could ever feature ... even in another "Twelve Days Of Christmas" chapters!!!
So, we decided to pick a few favorites from the list and share them with you today.  (And yes, since Gary took the time to MAKE the list, I felt it was only right that I checked it twice!!!)

Here goes:

Well, let's see.  How about a mix of actual charted hits and million-sellers plus a few rarities?

Let's start with Harry Belafonte's "Mary's Boy Child," which reached #12 in 1956.  From there we could go to Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd with "Mary Don't You Know," which reached #55 country in 1997.  Then there's former Paul Revere & the Raiders' lead singer Mark Lindsay in 1970 with "O Little Town of Bethlehem."  

Then there's Bobby Vinton in 1970 with "Christmas Eve in My Home Town."   "We Need A Little Christmas" was introduced by "Murder She Wrote" star Angela Lansbury in the Broadway musical "Mame," but for my money the best version is the 1966 folk-flavored rendition by The New Christy Minstrels.  Then, of course, Perry Como hit #8 in 1954 with "Home For The Holidays."

Jose Feliciano wrote and first released "Feliz Navidad" in 1970.  He's cut inferior remakes since for other labels, but it's his RCA recording which outshines them all -- even though it didn't chart in Billboard until 1998!  The New Kids On The Block had a cloying Christmas hit, "This One's For The Children," in 1989, but their real Yuletide gem was the flip side of their previous hit, "Cover Girl."  It was "Merry Merry Christmas," which recycled the title of a Lennon Sisters non hit which is also quite good.  Then there's Gary Puckett's "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear," which somehow got overlooked in 1971. 

You've mentioned being a big Bobby Darin fan, so how about his  "Christmas Auld Lang Syne" from 1960?  Gloria Estefan did a nice remake of that song.  Glenn Miller, who led the most popular big band of all time, reached #5 in 1941 with "Jingle Bells," featuring a vocal by Tex Beneke and Ernie Caceres.  I was lucky enough to interview Tex about his career with Miller and he remembered "Jingle Bells" with it's clinking cocktail glass sound effects very fondly.  Another pre-rock hit maker was the beloved Thomas "Fats" Waller, the jovial "life of the party" singer-songwriter-pianist-bandleader renowned as the master of stride piano, for his witty ad libs and for inspiring the Broadway musical "Ain't Misbehavin'."  Fats gave us "Swingin' Them Jingle Bells" in 1936.

Spike Jones & his City Slickers -- collectively the Weird Al Yankovics of the '40s and '50s -- reached #1 in 1948 with "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," which they had actually recorded the previous year but too close to Christmas to release.  Vocalist George Rock may have sounded like a little bitty kid but was a actually a full grown virtuoso trumpeter who looked like a pro football player.   Dennis Day was a popular Irish singer and naive appearing character comic on "The Jack Benny Program" when he scored with "Christmas In Killarney" in 1950.   And, of course, hollow-voiced Vaughn Monroe hit #1 in 1945 with "Let it Snow!  Let it Snow!  Let it Snow!"  Vaughn, by the way, hated Spike Jones because the City Slickers took special delight in parodying his style and hits (like "Ghost Riders in the Sky").

Perry Como sometimes featured the Fontane Sisters (of "Hearts of Stone," etc. fame) on his TV show and he also cut a few records with them.  One their biggest collaborations -- reaching #19 in 1951 -- was "It's Beginning To Look Like Christmas," which Meridith Wilson wrote while composing his score for "The Music Man."  Velvet-voiced former radio DJ Jim Reeves recorded "An Old Christmas Card" in 1963, only months before his death in a plane crash.  (Reeves, the experienced pilot of his own plane, became disoriented during a night storm and and attempted to climb above it -- not realizing that his craft was, at the time, actually flying upside down.)  There also is the the non-hit spoken word flip side of a 1972 Johnny Cash single called "Christmas As I Knew It".  While it sounds like a self-written, autobiography, it isn't.  It's a true Johnny Cash story, but told in words written by his wife, June Carter Cash. 

Few kids watching the 1969 animated TV special "Frosty The Snowman" realized that the guy narrating it, legendary singer-comedian Jimmy Durante, had helped introduce the song by recording it 19 years earlier.  (I have yet to learn the name of the child vocalist with Jimmy on this record.)  While Mozart composed a piece named "Sleigh Ride," of equal renown is another tune of the same title written during a heat wave in 1946.  The composer -- the incredibly creative Leroy Anderson, who was then working as an arranger with The Boston Pops Orchestra.  The Pops had a hit with Leroy's "Sleigh Ride" in 1949, but I really prefer the version Leroy cut with his own orchestra the following year.  Also here: Bing Crosby's original 1951 hit version of the seasonal gem "A Marshmallow World."

Fred Waring began as a big band leader in the 1920s but slowly drifted into masterminding his own chorale -- which he dubbed The Pensylvanians.  In 1942, they sold a million copies of one of the longest hits on record to that date: an incredibly inventive six and half minute version of "Twas the Night Before Christmas."  Nobody had ever tried anything this ambitious on record before -- but it worked -- even though the performance had to be split over two 78 RPM record sides,  See if you figure out the midway point where those two sides were edited together here.  And just for fun, how about Brenda Lee's second record, "I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus," from 1956.  It wasn't a hit, but should have been.  Listen how masterfully Brenda handles this tune -- at the age of 12!  (Two years later she'd record "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree.")  

Judy Garland introduced "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" in the 1944 film "Meet Me In St. Louis" as a way for her character to cheer up her sister -- played by Margaret O'Brien.   Judy's style was in direct contrast to that of Lisa Layne, who recorded "All I Want For Christmas Is You" with Vince Vance & the Valiants in 1988.  Vince's band was a novelty act which chose to play it straight on this aching, longing classic which became one of the most played Yuletide gems on country radio for more than a decade -- without ever crossing over to pop (which is inexplicable).  Yes, it bears the same title as a Mariah Carey song, but so does a Foghat track which is also very good.   Also worth mentioning:  Dion DiMucci's first-rate 1993 version of a song Darlene Love introduced 30 years ealier on the Phil Spector Christmas album: "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." 

"It Doesn't Have To Be That Way" was originally the non-hit flip side of Jim Croce's 1973 hit "One Less Set Of Footsteps."  After his death in a plane crash later that year, "It Doesn't Have To Be That Way" was re-released as an A side (with "Roller Derby Queen" as it's B side) and finally became a hit in it's own right.  Mel Blanc, of course, provided the voices of nearly every Warner Brothers cartoon character and still had time to freelance for other studios and as a radio and TV actor (look on YouTube for his classic "Si" routine with Jack Benny.)  Mel also cut a lot of singles for Capitol, some of which became hits (like "I Taut I Taw A Puddy Tat" in 1951) and some that didn't (even though they were first-rate demented discs in their own right).  One of his non-hit gems was 1958's "The Hat I Got For Christmas Is Too Beeg."  

And, to wrap up this 10-part Christmas cavalcade, here's a track I recorded myself (as both the narrator and newspaper editor) in 2010 for the Guideposts' CD box set "The All-Time Greatest Hits of Christmas."  I had first recorded this several years earlier for the Reader's Digest box set "Home For The Holidays," but on that recording Virginia's voice was supplied by a full grown woman (Andrea Paslick).  The 2010 version features, as Virginia, a real eight year old girl, Julia Meyers.
Gary Theroux
Some great overlooked gems here, for sure!!!
As an extra Christmas Bonus Treat, we'll be featuring MORE great neglected Christmas tunes with Two-Fers all week long in our "Today's Forgotten Hit" feature ... so check back often.
(We're also winding down this year's edition of The Twelve Days Of Christmas just in time for the holiday ... and we've still got a couple more GREAT new releases to share with you ... so don't touch that dial!!!)  kk

We're featuring Harry Belafonte's "Mary's Boy Child" (a #12 Pop Best Seller in 1956) along with Bobby Darin's "Christmas Auld Lang Syne" (#50 Pop, 1960) in our "Today's Forgotten Hit" special Christmas Two-Fer segment today.  (Just scroll over to the right and you'll find these in the upper right hand corner!)

But Gary has mentioned some other GREAT Christmas suggestions ... so let's explore a few of these today, too!

"We Need A Little Christmas" by The New Christy Minstrels ... a GREAT excuse to feature this long-overlooked and forgotten group.  The New Christy Minstrels helped keep the folk movement alive ... and eventually made stars out of artists like Barry McGuire, Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes.  If you're not going to feature classic Top 20 Hits like "Green Green" and "Today", at least feature this holiday classic by these guys!!!

Gary Puckett performed quite a few Christmas songs when we saw him open for Paul Revere and the Raiders last weekend.  (Quite honestly, I think these sounded better than many of his best-known hits!  Puckett has a tendency to over dramatize his performances of these songs ... in fact, Frannie even said he makes Celine Dion look downright passive in comparison!!!  lol)  While he still has an exceptionally strong voice, these are PROVEN, well-loved hits ... and he doesn't need to oversell them to his audience ... we already love them just the way they are!
That being said, he performed with what can best be described as a three-piece jazz combo (and the keyboard player was nothing short of exceptional ... he filled in the background on every song in ways a band TWICE that size typically would do!)  Puckett sounded great (if a bit under-rehearsed) on the half-dozen Christmas tunes that he did ... but his reading of "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" just doesn't grab me.  Instead, we'll jump down a paragraph and feature Fats Waller's rousing version of "Swinging' Them Jingle Bells" (from 1937) instead!  (This isn't one you're going to hear on the radio anytime soon!!!)

And, speaking of "Jingle Bells", one of MY favorite versions is the one recorded by Frank Sinatra.  (I like the whole "Rag Mop" feel of this one ... something about spelling out the lyrics in a song has always appealed to me ... or at least it did up until The Bay City Rollers recorded "Saturday Night"!!!  lol)

Yep, hard to believe, but I like Ol' Blue Eyes' version even better than the popular recording done by The Singing Dogs!!!  (Which I feature anyway for our Yorkie Daughter Cha-Cha!!!)

Since you mentioned the conflict between Vaughn Monroe and Spike Jones and his City Slickers, I figured why not feature BOTH of these artists today!!!

"Sleigh Ride" is one of our favorite Christmas songs, too ... the whole family loves it ... and I don't think I've ever heard a bad version of this tune ... it's just such a happy, upbeat tune.  (But I agree ... the BEST version is still the Leroy Anderson original!)

For rarity's sake, we'll feature "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" by Fred Waring at your suggestion.  And I like the Brenda Lee tune, too ... hard to believe that Little Miss Dynamite was only 12 when she recorded this ... and a mere 14 when she cut her biggest Christmas Hit, "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree"!!!  We need more Brenda Lee on the radio, too ... hits like "Sweet Nothin's" (#3, 1960); "I'm Sorry" (#1, 1960); "Break It To Me Gently" (#4, 1962); "As Usual" (#11, 1964) and "Coming On Strong" (#11, 1966) will all still sound GREAT coming out of your radio ... and get a favorable audience response, too!

It all came down to a coin toss between featuring your suggested Judy Garland track and Dion's version of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home".  (Come on ... will he EVER let that go?!?!?  I doubt it!!!)
Anyway, we've been giving Dion's new album quite a bit of press lately so this one seemed like a good one to feature today.
No contest at all was featuring Vince Valiant's "All I Want For Christmas Is You", a long-time list favorite ... this one could EASILY be the most-requested song on the radio at Christmastime if only more stations would play it.  (Again ... HUGE in Texas ... but barely acknowledged elsewhere.)  They don't come much finer than this one.
And you mentioned Mariah Carey's similarly titled hit (for which we featured the video a few days ago ... and another one of my all-time Christmas favorites) ... but Michael Buble just recorded a slowed-down version of this one that even our daughter ... a HUGE Mariah Carey fan ... has fallen in love with ... so we've got THAT one here today, too!

Although it's been considered a Christmas song for years now, I'm not sure I ever quite made the connection on Jim Croce's "It Doesn't Have To Be That Way" ... but I LOVE the song ... so I'm featuring it anyway.  And Mel Blanc's "The Hat I Got For Christmas Is Too Beeg" is just too much fun to pass up.  And, finally, we can't run a piece of this depth and not feature the author himself ... so here is Gary Theroux's own recording of "Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus".

Thanks, Gary ... for making this a REAL Christmas Bonus we all can enjoy!  (kk)