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Best Christmas Records of the Swing Era December 17, 2020

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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.

These three Christmas records are 60, and they still sound great! December 19, 2018

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This year, 2018, marks three Christmas songs that have become classic hits over the decades.

The Chipmunks Song

One of the three is “The Chipmunk Song”, the title alone sounding confusing to those unaware of its context.  First of all, let us be clear on who The Chipmunks were.  No, in this case, they are not Chip & Dale (that was always my default assumption regarding The Chipmunks back when I was, say, five years old!), rather the other Chipmunks, Simon, Theodore and Alvin.  They were the brainchildren of one David Seville (which was his stage name:  his mother knew him as Rostom [Ross] Bagdasarian), a singer-songwriter, the latter part through which he had hits spanning the whole 1950s.  For example, he wrote “Come On-A My House” in 1950, which Rosemary Clooney had a million-selling hit with the following year and launched her career in the process.

By 1958 he had come up with an idea for a novelty record after experimenting with different playback speeds on a tape recorder.  That idea manifested itself into a No. 1 hit in the Spring of that year with “Witch Doctor”.  Liberty Records released it under Bagdasarian’s new stage name, David Seville.  The tune is a duet consisting of Seville’s real voice and an accelerated version of it, the latter being the genesis of The Chipmunks characters.  “Witch Doctor” went on to sell 1.5 million copies in 1958, and Seville realized he had the opportunity to expand his chipmunk character into a trio.  The names for the three new characters all came from the names of the executives at Liberty:  Simon (Waronker), Theodore (Keep), and Alvin (Bennett).

This new trio debuted with an even bigger smash hit, “The Chipmunk Song”, which sounds generic on the surface, until you hear it and realize how timelessly familiar it is (“We can hardly stand the wait; Please, Christmas, don’t be late”).  So yes, the title might not suggest it, but it’s a timeless Christmas classic.

Such a status came almost instantly: it was released on Nov. 17, 1958, and was No. 1 in America by the week of Dec. 13, and would remain at the top of the charts for the rest of the month, selling 4 million copies in this inaugural run.  At the first-ever Grammy Awards in May of 1959, it won three such coveted awards; Best Recording for Children, Best Comedy Performance, and Best Non-Classical Engineered Song.

Seville himself reaped an outsized share of the benefit of such a huge hit, since he wrote the song, provided all of the vocals, and even produced the record itself.  Its success allowed for him to launch an entertainment franchise based on this rodent trio.  Indeed, Seville/Bagdasarian founded and owned Chipmunk Enterprises, which was the business end of said entertainment franchise, which in turn allowed for him to scream at Alvin (on his records) all the way to the bank until his premature death in 1972 from a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home at age fifty-two.

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Unlike the first entry, the second entry leaves nothing to confusion from a generic title, for it makes no bones about what it is and the season for which it is intended.  “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” By Brenda Lee, a.k.a., Little Miss Dynamite, a nickname she earned because of her short stature – 4’-9” – and her 1957 hit “Dynamite”.  She had already started recording Country hits on the Decca label in 1956 at age 12, and in December of that year, had a minor Christmas hit with “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus”.

The years 1958 through 1962 were her peak period of fame and recording success, having two No. 1 hits alone in 1960, for example (“I’m Sorry” and “I Want to be Wanted”), with other big successes coming with “Sweet Nothin’s” and “All Alone Am I” that same year.

But her biggest hit was, yes, a Christmas song, the aforementioned “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” from sixty years ago this month.  The song was written by Johnny Marks, who already had “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” to his name (written in 1949 ten years after his brother-in-law wrote the story about the red-nosed titular character as an assignment for the Montgomery Ward department stores) and four years later would write “A Holly Jolly Christmas”, which by Christmas of 1964 would forever be associated with Burl Ives.

Unlike “The Chipmunks Song”, which was practically an instant hit, “Rockin’…” was a delayed hit.  Despite the memorably twangy guitar by Grady Martin and the raucous-sounding sax by Boots Randolph, it only sold 5,000 copies upon its first release.  It was released a second time in 1959 and did not do much better.  Not until two years later (again, 1960), when Lee had her banner year with her aforementioned hits, did Decca re-release “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, and it exploded as a hit, eventually selling 5 million copies.

It remains a perennial favorite by folks of all ages six decades later, and is obviously the record by which Lee is best known to this day, not to mention a favorite to sing in grade-school music classes for 60 years and counting.

Interestingly, the record is a deceptively seminal one.  That is, it was one of the first to use what became known as the “Nashville sound”, which at its core consisted of a string section overlayed with legato vocals, combined to make up the musical background of a recording.

Run Run Rudolph

Last but not least, the third entry is the hardest-rocking of all.  But this one is by Chuck Berry, so one would expect nothing less!  And yes, there is a tie-in with the previous entry, and not just with the year, either!  Just as Johnny Marks, who, as mentioned earlier not only wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1949 and later wrote “Holly Jolly Christmas” in 1962, in addition to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in 1958, also wrote “Run Run Rudolph” (well, the lyrics, at least) as a follow-up to his 1949 classic that very same year.

Musically, the credit goes to Marvin Brodie, and some of Berry’s signature, nay, inimitable guitar riffs on his Gibson ES-335 echo that of “Johnny B. Goode”.

More to the point, this rocking Christmas classic is actually a close musical copy of a hit Chuck Berry had earlier that year in “Little Queenie”.  Indeed, one could easily transplant the lyrics of the former and superimpose them on the latter.  Hear for yourself:

Ironically, “Run Run Rudolph” peaked at only No. 69 in 1958, but it remains a perennial favorite anyhow.  Its popularity does not manifest itself so much in record sales, as its appeal in other areas:  the numerous cover versions this tune has invited over the decades.  For example, Luke Bryan, Whitney Wolanin, and Justin Moore have all made cover versions of this timeless rocker within the past 10 years alone.  Other previous covering artists included Lynyrd Skynyrd, Billy Ray Cyrus, The Grateful Dead, Kelly Clarkson, Jimmy Buffet, Dwight Yoakum, and that’s just the short list.  This (admittedly) random selection does nevertheless beg a question:  what do all these country artists within said list want to want to do with a 12-bar blues riff?  Food for thought.

So as we continue to enjoy these hits at this month’s Christmas parties, let us pause to appreciate their timelessness and how well they have endured over the course of six decades.  If nothing else, it’s further proof that, as Danny and the Juniors famously said, “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay”, especially at Christmastime.

The Top Three Greatest Christmas Albums December 18, 2014

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NKC-the-christmas-songNo. 1:  Nat King Cole:  The Christmas Song.  What merits this as number one?  Start with the fact that the title cut of the album is perhaps the most iconic recording of a secular Christmas song.  Add in the fact that A) this is Nat “King” Cole, whose vocal talents just feel perfect for music to promote Yuletide cheer, and B) this is a Capitol Records album, produced at the time (1960, specifically) when the label included not only Cole, but also both Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as his stablemates and thus the label pretty much owned the mainstream popular music market in that era.  But Cole mixes well the secular and religious songs, making fun, upbeat versions with some (e.g., “Deck the Halls” and “Hark!  The Herald Angels”) and poignant versions with others (e.g., “O Tannenbaum” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”), making for a compilation that spans the proper emotional gamut during this sentimental time of year.

The only irony is that it does not contain the best version of “The Christmas Song,” a tune that Cole himself would record officially at least three different times, but that is a discussion for another day.

FS_XmasNo. 1a:  A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra.  Make no mistake about it, this album was cut in 1957, when Ol’ Blue Eyes was on top of his game, only a year or so removed from recording his two greatest albums ever (“Songs for Swinging Lovers” and “A Swingin’ Affair”).  It shows in this album, too.  Just as the previously mentioned album introduced me to Nat “King” Cole, so too did this particular album introduce me to Sinatra at a very early age.

Certain songs grab you in such a way that you remember where you were the first time you heard them.  For me, it was Christmastime while I was in kindergarten when I first heard the opening track, “Jingle Bells,” on this album, and it stuck with me ever since.  The song is so well-known as to be trite, but every once in a while, one hears a version that is so well-rendered as to rise above the triteness.  This is one of those songs.

But if you are first grabbed by that opening track, you stay for “Mistletoe and Holly.”  To this day, few have attempted to cover it because Sinatra did it so well the first time.  But two additional tracks truly cement the album’s timelessness.  Sammy Cahn’s “The Christmas Waltz” truly helps define the song collection, and no Christmas season is complete without enjoying this track a few times.  Others have tried to duplicate Frank’s efforts with this song over the years, but each time, they keep coming up short.

The other track that seals the album’s greatness for all time is Sinatra’s definitive version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  Sinatra truly captures the essence of the song itself, arguably outdoing the other definitive version by Judy Garland from 1944.  Listening to this song proves to any discerning listener why Frank Sinatra was indeed the singing voice of the 20th Century.

The religious songs on the latter part of the album are not too shabby, either.  Recent re-releases of the album include an alternative version of “The Christmas Waltz,” which is not quite as good as the official rendition, but it remains a good listen nonetheless (it being a Nelson Riddle arrangement, compared to the Gordon Jenkins arrangements that populate the rest of the track line-up).

AChristmasGifttoYoufromPhilSpectorcoverNo. 3:  Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You (1963).  One unique aspect of this album is that it does not center on one artist, but rather on several artists/groups that were the talent pool on Spector’s label at the time.  The recording effect that defined the legendary producer’s records came to be known as the “Wall of Sound,” (a primer for those unfamiliar with this effect of recorded sound) and while that effect lifted many Spector-produced tracks to legendary status and made for a definitive element in some music from 1960s, one could argue that this effect was perfected on this very album.  If that exceeds credibility in the minds of some readers, I invite them to listen to the last several bars of instrumentation of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by The Crystals:  it’s vintage Phil Spector (this is not to mention that the song’s arrangement has been copied by many artists in the 50+ years since).

There is not a bad track in the line-up, and they include some of the most iconic versions of certain secular Christmas songs.  The Ronettes’ version of “Sleigh Ride”, for example, remains the definitive version of this song – in most circles – to this day, though ironically paced with a shuffle beat (one of the oldest rhythmic patterns in popular music).  Bob B. Soxx’s rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” is a fresh take on that song, too.   Indeed, there is a timeless “hipness” to these tracks, which is what makes the album so classic.

Of course, Darlene Love contributed the lion’s share of musical gems.  Her version of “White Christmas” is the closest one to rival Bing Crosby’s eternally popular 1942 and 1947 versions.  “Baby Please Come Home” has become an iconic song in its own right, and her multi-dubbed vocals on “Winter Wonderland” have made it arguably the best version of that winter-themed song to date.  With such a strong line-up of recordings, it almost makes “Marshmallow World” get lost in the mix, but an attentive listen reveals that this track is the most underrated on the album.  This is easily the greatest version anybody has made of the song, and the energy that Love puts into the vocals on this track are positively contagious.  Moreover, if one focuses just on Love’s contributions to this song compilation, one cannot help but conclude that these make up the very cornerstone to her musical legacy.

Put all three albums together, and you have a solid trifecta of timeless Christmas music that has stood the test of time for more than five decades, which is all too fitting for a holiday season partially defined by timeless traditions.