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Revisiting “A Jolly Christmas With Frank Sinatra” December 12, 2022

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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Five score and seven years ago today, the greatest pop singer of the 20th Century was born.  Francis Albert Sinatra would go on to have a recording career that would span almost six decades, and cut iconic records from at least five of them (more on that some other time).

Moreover, this anniversary of his birth makes things all the more fitting and proper that we should revisit his unforgettable Christmas album, “A Jolly Christmas with Frank Sinatra”, recorded and released 65 years ago in 1957.

In a previous article, I already made the case why this is one of the three greatest Christmas albums of all time.  Now it is time to go deeper still, and look at two very iconic recordings within this album.  A number of factors can make a record “iconic”.  One very key factor in this case is that Sinatra introduced two new songs that are now part of the great American Christmas Songbook.

The first of which is “Mistletoe and Holly” (track 3 of the album).  Even today, listeners of all ages can instantly recognize this classic recording, what with its distinct intro of the harmonious plucking of the violin strings, paired with mild percussion for a distinctly staccato effect.  But when one pays attention to the lyrics, one can also discern the song’s staying power:  it lists many cherished traditions with which most of us associate Christmastime in America.  “Tasty pheasants” (a fancy variation on the venerable Christmas turkey); Christmas presents; “countrysides covered with snow”; Kris Kringle; Grandma’s pies (speaking to family cooking/baking traditions); over-eating (who has not indulged a bit rich foods over the Holidays?); “[M]erry greeting from relatives you don’t know” (rather self-explanatory); “carols by starlight”; decorating one’s Christmas tree; “folks stealing a kiss or two” (who among us has not heard of spates of marriage proposals around Christmas?).

No doubt that everyone sensed this track would be a hit, which is likely a major factor in its featuring in Sinatra’s famous Christmas special with Bing Crosby that same year.

Meanwhile, “The Christmas Waltz” has its own backstory.  This now-iconic song was written by the dynamic duo of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne in 1954, at Sinatra’s behest.  Nine years earlier (1945), this same duo gave to American culture “Let It Snow! Let It Snow” Let It Snow!”, first recorded by the great Vaughn “Foghorn” Monroe on RCA Victor that same year.  In 1954, Sinatra wanted a new Christmas song to pair on a single with his new version of “White Christmas”.  At first, Cahn balked at the request, but Styne was persuasively emphatic, knowing how dogged Sinatra was in turn.  While the two were working on the song together, inspiration hit them that nobody had written a “Christmas waltz” before.  Stine had a waltz melody he had previously put together, allowing the framework for Cahn to get to work on a fitting set of lyrics to match.  Sinatra would record this first version of “The Christmas Waltz” in August of that year, arranged by the great Nelson Riddle.

For the timeless 1957 album, though, Gordon Jenkins took the reins for both arranging and conducting.  “The Christmas Waltz” (track 5 of the album in question) was modified accordingly, and admittedly for the better.  This 1957 arrangement gives Sinatra more freedom to express his “honesty” in his lyrics, and the recording overall provides the perfect combination of nostalgia, fun, and just a drop of poignance to set everything off immaculately, in the same way that a pinch of salt in baked goods makes them paradoxically sweeter still.  The lyrics themselves are a paean to Christmas nostalgia (they seriously have us as “Frosted window panes…”). As an aside, the music effect of the violins right before Sinatra opens with the first lyrics provide a source of never-ending fascination.  Listen in a certain way, and they violin strings are played in such a way that some of the notes sound as if they were played on a pipe organ instead.  These notes are strengthened further by the ambient undertones of the harp.  Upon further review, how could this album not be considered Jenkins’ magnum opus of arrangement?

They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery.  Thus, the many cover versions of this song speak volumes to its timelessness and popularity.  Over the years, starting with Peggy Lee in 1960, the song has also been covered by notable artists such as Doris Day, Jack Jones (who also covered “Mistletoe and Holly” the same year, 1964), Bing Crosby, Pat Boone, Robert Goulet, The Osmonds, the Carpenters, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Kathie Lee Gifford, Anita O’Day, Margaret Whiting, Rosemary Clooney, Don McLean, Natalie Cole, Helen Reddy, Barry Manilow, Clay Aiken, Kristin Chenoweth, Harry Connick Jr., even John Travolta. But none have come close to Sinatra’s original rendition.

To be sure, and interestingly, Mel Torme’s version from 1992 is unique in that Sammy Cahn wrote a new full set of additional lyrics as a personal gift to the singer.

A few interesting bits of trivia tie both of these great tracks from this legendary album together.  They were both issued as the A and B side of the same 45 RPM single together (Capitol F3900) at the same time that the album itself was released.  Both tracks also feature vocal backing by the Ralph Brewster Singers, who just so happened to include a bass singer by the name of Thurl Ravenscroft.  Nine years later, Ravenscroft would make his own notable contribution to the American Christmas Songbook by singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” for the 1966 MGM animated adaption of Dr. Seuss’ own iconic Christmas curmudgeon.  The reader might also recall him as the voice of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger for more than 50 years, but that is neither here nor there.

All that aside, these two songs, along with others in the album (how can one not love his oh-so catchy version of “Jingle Bells“?) more than merit “go-to” status for a jolly Christmas indeed, from the time of its initial release to 65 years later, or any Christmastime thereafter.

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