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Best Christmas Records of the Swing Era December 17, 2020

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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“Jingle Bells” by Benny Goodman (1935)

Hands-down the best version of “Jingle Bells” ever.  Okay, so this version lacks lyrics.  Fine.  Since when does “best” mean “perfect”?  Benny Goodman and his band cut this track on July 1, 1935, in the same incredible session in which they also recorded “King Porter Stomp” (the tune that launched the Swing Era), “Sometimes I’m Happy”, and “Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”.  Interestingly, while these last three songs are all Fletcher Henderson arrangements, “Jingle Bells” was arranged by Spud Murphy.  This track shows that ol’ Spud, too, was quite adept arranging, for it’s fit to be the perfect killer-diller for an opening or closing number on a live [Christmastime] gig.  Yes, also like the other three tracks, this record, too, includes a memorable Bunny Berigan trumpet solo.  Berigan was clearly at the top of his game at this time, and produces a solo that sounds eternally youthful, complete with his key-changing modus operandi that he occasionally allowed to surface. 

Not to be ignored are some classic Gene Krupa staccato drum punctuations at just the right time, and Art Rollini’s tenor sax solo is a fine, nay integral contribution as well.

Granted, this song is not always given to such an upbeat swinging tempo, but BG demonstrates, it works incredibly well, and provides further proof that Bunny Berigan was the G.O.A.T. of jazz trumpeters, and that Goodman was the King of Swing.

Interesting Fact:  RCA Victor paired this track as the flip side to Dorsey’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (Victor 25145B and 25145A, respectively).

“Santa Claus Came In The Spring” by Benny Goodman (1935)

Goodman and his band cut this record on Sept. 27, 1935 in Hollywood, during the last few days of their historic engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles.  Their original one-month engagement almost doubled in light of their sudden and smashing success.  And to think that all it took was the playing of “King Porter Stomp”!

Unlike BG’s version “Jingle Bells” from earlier the same year, this record has lyrics, with vocals provided by Joe Harris.  One appealing feature of many for this record is that the lyrics were written by none other than Johnny Mercer.

Moderately uptempo, Gene Krupa’s classic staccato/syncopated drum beats are there for all to hear and enjoy.  His liberal use of cymbals during Bunny Berigan’s muted trumpet solo (Berigan’s last recording with the band before leaving it) is an awesome touch, too.

This sublime, semi-obscure Christmas record is a sheer delight, and it highlights Goodman’s versatility as the King of Swing.

“Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” by Tommy Dorsey (1935)

Recorded on September 26, 1935, when this ever-popular song was only a year old on paper.  It is also hands-down the best version of this song.  Don’t believe me?  Give it a listen.  Dorsey’s band was always highly versatile, and this record in particular demonstrates how adept they were on the hard-swinging end of the spectrum.  No “Sentimental” ballads here, no sir.  Featuring the vocal talents of both Cliff Weston and Edythe Wright, they take turns in covering all the verses, even the prelude to the main verse that we all know and love.  Great solos from all the sections abound.  Even Dorsey’s rhythm guitarist has his own solo, which was a rarity for the time (though not unheard of).  No matter how much you love this song before hearing this version, you’ll love it all the more after hearing this one.

“White Christmas” by Bing Crosby (1942)

All versions of this beloved Christmas song began with this one.  Bing first sang it in the wonderful 1942 film “Holiday Inn”, featuring songs written by Irving Berlin, who wrote it in the context of WWII and American servicemen longing for home as they were sent abroad to combat existential evils of the day. 

No matter how many talented artists have offered their own “take” on the classic, none have topped Bing Crosby’s rendition(s) of it.  Indeed, there are two versions, with the 1947 re-make the [ironically] more famous of the two.  But make no mistake about it, the original 1942 version – a studio recording version cut in tandem with the film, as was customary of the era – is the stronger version, if not by much.

Combined, both versions amount to the greatest selling record of all time, topping Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and any other multi-platinum recording artist.  According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the two combined records have sold an estimated 50 Million copies.  How very appropriate for someone who created the template for the legendary recording soloist and who exuded class (and subtle humor) in the process.

“Let It Snow!  Let It Snow!  Let It Snow!” by Vaughn Monroe (1945)

There is a general sentiment among many folks that the original is often the best.  While that is not always the case, it nevertheless often is, as Bing Crosby’s aforementioned version of “White Christmas” clearly attests.  So it is the case with Vaughn Monroe’s version, which frankly defines the song itself.  Noted songwriters Jule Steyn (music) and Sammy Cahn (lyrics) collaborated on this piece in Hollywood during a heat wave in 1945 as they envisioned cooler conditions.  Yes, Mel Torme wrote “The Christmas Song” that same year in the same area under similar circumstances, except he thought it up by the side of a swimming pool.

The song itself feels as though it was “built” for the big band treatment, and “Foghorn” Monroe delivers well in that department.  Moreover, his distinctive baritone vocals do the lyrics justice, too.  Just as the Christmas season feels incomplete without giving Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and Bing’s “White Christmas” a few good listens, so too is Christmastime incomplete without hearing Monroe’s “Let It Snow” a few times as well.  He closed out the Swing Era well with this one.

Fun Fact:  Both movies “Die Hard” and sequel “Die Harder” begin closing credits with a later version of Monroe’s “Let It Snow”, a rendition likely recorded in the late 1960s prior to the bandleader’s untimely death in 1971.

“Silent Night” by Bing Crosby (1935)

Many people are familiar with Crosby’s 1947 re-recording.  While this version is all well and poignant, what most people don’t know is that Crosby cut an even stronger, even more poignant version 12 years earlier.  This is arguably the best version of one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time.  Both Bing and the Guardsmen Quartet that accompanies him have you believing the song by its end, even notwithstanding the use of a rarely-utilized alternate third verse.

“What Will Santa Claus Say” by Louis Prima (1936)

This song is vintage Louis Prima in his youthful prime.  It delivers his characteristic exuberance, albeit in a sufficiently refined manner.  The youthful energy is clearly there in any case, and in the process, he has delivered a great, one-of-a-kind, swinging Christmas song for [eight decades and counting of] posterity to enjoy.

Fun fact:  Also in 1936, Prima wrote the legendary swing song “Sing, Sing, Sing”, which Benny Goodman elevated to immortal status the following year.

“Winter Weather” by Benny Goodman (1941)

Make no mistake, this vintage of Goodman is considerably different, for good or ill, from his gutsy, hard-swinging Mid-Thirties vintage years.  Big Band itself evolved to a more polished, less energetic (in most cases) form by this time, and it shows in this record.  Still, it’s a fine track all the same, and Peggy Lee’s and Art London’s vocals are perfect for the piece.

“Happy Holidays” by Bing Crosby (1942)

Another wonderful Irving Berlin song that came out of the sublime film “Holiday Inn” from the same year, this one has also given rise to many cover versions.  Yes, Crosby broke this one as well.

“Jingle Bells” by Glenn Miller (1941) 

To be sure, this rendition is not nearly as strong as Goodman’s from 1935, but Miller had such a mass appeal with his arrangements that this version nevertheless deserves a place in the rankings.  What really makes this version stand out is the alternate lyrics-verse proferred by Ernesto Carceres, a saxophonist in Miller’s band at the time.

“Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” by Larry Clinton (1939) 

Long before The Crystals recorded their version of this song for Phil Spector’s “A Christmas Gift For You” album (1963), and even longer before Harry Connick Jr. recorded his own version of said song (1993), Larry Clinton led the way in offering a version for the Big Band Era.  But he was not the first outright.  Far from it.  The English lyrics to what was originally an instrumental character piece (composed by Leon Jessel in 1897) were written by Ballard MacDonald in 1922.  Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra cut his own (instrumental) version of the song the following year, he being one of three major bands to record it along between 1922 and ’23.  But in the Swing Era, it was Larry Clinton’s rendition that was the period’s representing version of this oddly-placed song in the Christmas music repertoire (perhaps the song’s association with toys and thus gift-giving is what associates it with the holiday season in the mind of the public).

Other Christmas Records by Bing Crosby, 1942-1945:

There is little argument in saying that Bing Crosby’s [singing] voice has become practically synonymous with the Christmas season itself. His aforementioned versions of “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” clearly are a large reason for that, but he recorded a number of other fine, timeless Christmas songs as well during the last few years of the Big Band Era. Those include:

Adeste Fideles (1942)

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (with the Andrews Sisters)

Jingle Bells (1945)

This version, while not a strong and swinging arrangement like that of Benny Goodman’s from 1935, is nevertheless delightful. Indeed, it surpasses Glenn Miller’s rendition in its peppiness, and also contributes well as a piece of the bookend of an era as it came to a close.

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