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On finding the best version of “The Christmas Song” December 23, 2016

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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“The Christmas Song”, recorded by Nat King Cole has been a perennial favorite secular Christmas recording by folks both young and old for more than fifty years.  When this aforementioned record’s familiar strains hit the airwaves each holiday season, almost everyone quickly recognizes it.  It’s a “comfort record”, a tune that takes us back to the simpler Christmases of our youth, and the very lyrics encapsulate the warm feelings and the nostalgia that this time of year readily inspires.*

But there is only one problem:  the best-known version is not the best version.  Moreover, most people are not even aware that Cole recorded multiple versions over a span of 15 years.

The most familiar version is the one that Nat King Cole cut in 1961.  Those who are familiar with this legendary artist’s body of work would not be surprised.  Cole’s tenure at Capitol Records lasted over 20 years, from 1943 (the label began the previous year) to his untimely death from lung cancer in 1965.  He was such an integral part of the label’s success that when Capitol moved to its current location near Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles in 1956 – the world’s first circular office tower, interestingly – it became known as “The House that Nat Built.”

Those who are familiar with Cole’s body of work at that label would be aware that he recorded multiple versions of many of his hits.  He recorded a spate of new versions of his biggest hits from the 1940s and ’50s during the early 1960s, for example.  When one examines this pattern, the fact that he cut another version of arguably the most legendary secular Christmas record should come as no surprise.

But as many musical connoisseurs – this one included – will quickly point out, Cole’s early ’60s versions lack the sharpness and the soul of the originals.  His early ‘60s renditions of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Paper Moon” are pathetic imitations of the 1940s counterparts.  His early ‘60s re-dos of his 1951 hits “Mona Lisa” and “Too Young” likewise fall short.  Same goes for many more of his respective songs.  As great as his 1961 version of “The Christmas Song” may be, it too falls short of previous versions he himself recorded.  The only reason he made the later versions was to give the public the option to hear his songs in stereo, as his hits from the ’40s and ’50s were all recorded in monaural (due to the technological limitations of the time).

Rewind 15 years to 1946.  “The Christmas Song” itself was only a year old on paper.  Crooner Mel Tormé wrote it in 1945, on a sunny summer day in California, while lounging by a pool.  Tormé’s rationale for this irony was that it was a blistering hot day, and he wrote it as a way to “stay cool by thinking cool.”

Nat King Cole fittingly recorded the first versions of the song, at his own behest, the following year, at first with his Trio.  Thus, the legendary song was truly born:

Later that same year, Cole re-recorded that song again, this time with a string section.  With his youthful energy and younger vocal chords, this version is a treasure, with a quality and a capturing of Americana far superior to the better-known ’61 rendition.  One needs only to give the large-group 1946 version a listen to discern the positive difference.

 

(Is it just me, or were 80 percent of all record labels before the 1950s colored black?)

But wait, there’s more!  As truly wonderful as his “With String Choir” version from 1946 is, Cole, truly on top of his game the following decade, recorded yet another version of the song in 1953.  This will sound rather similar to the ’61 cut, but it has a certain sharpness that the later one clearly lacks, as one would expect from a time when the great singer was clearly in his prime.

(Note the iconic, purple, Capitol Records label from the Fifties!)

I first heard this 1953 version on the radio at age nine.  Even my lesser-educated ears at that tender age could quickly discern that this rendition was far better than its 1961 doppelganger.  The soft beat of the drums in the 1953 recording alone make a huge difference, as they give the tune a key dimension the later one sorely lacks, and that’s just for starters.  Plus, the orchestra was conducted by Nelson Riddle, who was one of the chief reasons why Capitol owned the pop market that decade, but more on that some other time.

Let it also be known that he performed this song live a few times, some of which have been captured as airchecks for posterity, so they too are floating out there for the hard-core music fans to enjoy.

Indeed, it becomes difficult to decide which is the best performance of this song by this artist:  his large-group 1946 version, or the 1953 version?  The latter is probably more palatable to most ears, as it sounds a bit more similar (compared to the former) to the 1961 edition that everyone who has not been living in a cave since then already knows.

The answer comes down to which sort of Americana one prefers, the early post-WWII flavor of Americana, or the 1950s flavor?  They’re both absolutely wonderful, so don’t overthink it and add BOTH to your playlist this Christmas season!

*Unless you’re an unreformed, unrepentant Scrooge.  But as Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd would say, “[T]hat is a ‘you’ problem!”

 

America’s Greatest Music: The Man/Gal That Got Away November 14, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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This tune is something of a break from most American pop standards spotlighted within this series of blog entries in that it is not from the Golden Age of the Great American Songbook (ca. 1920-1945).  Nevertheless, it quickly merited a place in the aforementioned Songbook because of its eloquent lyrics that easily compare to those of said Golden Age.  The viewing public first heard this from the hit 1954 film “A Star Is Born,” and was broken by none other than Judy Garland.  The fact that is was written by Harold Arlen (music) and Ira Gershwin (lyrics) certainly does not hurt, and indeed, accredits the song all the more (they being two songwriting veterans whose penmanship contributed plenty to America’s Greatest Music)!

What is interesting is that the title must be slightly modified depending on whether the person that is singing this is male for female.  When Judy Garland broke the tune, the title was “The Man That Got Away”.  Not so with Frank Sinatra, who recorded his own version on the Capitol label shortly after the song became a hit off the silver screen.  It could not have been recorded any later than 1955, for that was the year that the album “This is Sinatra” was released.  Interesting side-note:  “This is Sinatra” was no concept album, unlike his “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” album from the previous year.  “This is…” was merely a compilation of hit singles he had over 1953 and ’54, not that such a distinction should detract from the collection of masterworks found in one album!

For my money, Sinatra’s version is the definitive one, though that ought not to detract from Judy Garland’s heartfelt rendition.  Whichever your preference may be, few songs better personify the feeling one experiences when the person-of-the-opposite-sex that they thought was “The One” for them has gotten away from them.  That alone should be reason enough why this song belongs in the Great American Songbook, Silver Age or no.