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

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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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.

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The Top Three Greatest Christmas Albums December 18, 2014

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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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.