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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.

Mischief: Exploring the Soundtrack of Eternal Youth August 21, 2014

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Mischief1985Very few movies can appeal to both our nostalgia for Americana’s bygone eras and also to our, well, mischievous side at the same time. Yet the 1985 film “Mischief” accomplishes just that, putting it in a rare company of films. A critic for the New York Times once said it best: “If Norman Rockwell had wanted to make Porky’s, he might have come up with something like Mischief.” I could not have said it any better myself. “Porky’s,” the 1982 period comedy/raunchfest, also hits the mark of aforementioned simultaneous appeals. Writer/director Bob Clark put together the story of that movie out of his own personal experiences from his high school and college days, as a way of showing the youth of the 1980s that life was not all that different for teens almost 30 years ago (Clark graduated from high school in 1957, and that movie takes place in Florida in 1954).

As for “Mischief,” one can easily surmise a very similar intent.  Screenwriter Noel Black described the film as “somewhat autobiographical,” and did a marvelous job in showing the timelessness of many teenage experiences, from romance to, er, certain obsessions.

The 1980s were a great time for period pieces from the time of Americana, particularly the 1950s (think: “Porky’s,” “Back to the Future,” “Clue,” “Mischief,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and so forth). This was mainly a function of basic logistics at the time.  If you took the established professionals in their mid-forties of that decade, you would need to go back 30 years to examine their experiences as teenagers.  That particular chronological spot just so happened to be the mid-1950s, a special time when Eisenhower was in the White House (let’s face it: Obama does not even deserve to carry Ike’s golf clubs!), Rock n’ Roll had just exploded onto the scene, America was reaching a new level of prosperity, and styling set the pace for new car design, with tailfins, wrap-around windshields, and lots of chrome!

One thing that the viewer is reminded of, as this film itself is almost 30 years old, is the respective rate of change in the patterns of life in America over the two three-decade intervals. Yes, they have changed considerably in America since the mid-‘80s, what with Internet and smart phones, but what remains clear is that the change in patterns of life was even more drastic in the first 30-year stretch.  In the mid-1950s, the center of commercial activity was still Main Street downtown, not at a sprawling shopping mall on the city’s edge, just to point out one example.

That point is hit home all the more at the very beginning of the film.  Right after the opening 20th Century Fox fanfare, the famous opening line “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” comes on to the screen, in the exact same font as that line appears at the beginning of all Star Wars films, no less! Of course, the filmmakers quickly drop the other proverbial shoe when they conclude the opening line with “…Ohio, 1956.” Quod erat demonstrandum.

The filmmakers start things off with a bang immediately, for they begin the opening scene with Fats Domino’s famous rendition of “Blueberry Hill” playing during the opening credits – that song was one of the most recognizable ones from that year, even though it never topped the charts (full confession: I was introduced to that record before I got to kindergarten…which was in 1985).

The female love interests are certainly appealing, and recognizable.  A young Kelly Preston, in her youthful prime, in 1950s dresses?  Yes, please!  Film buffs might also recognize Catherine Mary Stewart as having played the girlfriend of the protagonist in “The Last Starfighter” from the previous year (also one of the late, great, Robert Preston’s last films – no relation to the female lead in this film, though).  Other great bit-parts abound in the movie, too. Terry O’Quinn co-stars, this time sans-moustache (film buffs would recognize him as Howard Hughes from the hit Disney flick “The Rocketeer” from 1991, another great period piece, this time taking place in 1938).

Anyhow, we barely miss the three-and-a-half-minute mark of the movie when we’re treated to our next Oldie offering in the soundtrack, “Young Love,” and the Tab Hunter version, at that (the version that actually did top the charts for a couple of weeks in ’56), not the Sonny James version from the same year that most listeners might ironically more readily recognize today.

The film is not without its fair share of period gaffes, however.  The song selection is, on balance, great, but some of them are a tad anachronistic: a great example can be discerned in the eighth minute of the film, when you can hear Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” playing on a transistor radio.  All well and good, except that “Sweet Little Sixteen” was from 1958, and the story is supposed to take place in 1956. Oops.

Also, one hazard one is likely to encounter in period films from the 1980s and earlier are contemporary re-makes of hit-songs from the past. Remember, this was still a relatively new artistic technique in cinema, largely pioneered by George Lucas in “American Graffiti” from 1973.  But this was 13 years later, and seemingly a disproportionately longer span of time between the contemporary and the bygone era the film attempts to portray.  Nevertheless, after more than a decade, they still apparently had yet to secure the necessary permissions to use certain authentic songs in movies, hence the contemporary knock-offs one hears of Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” among others.  It would not be until the 1990s when, apparently, that process would become more streamlined, and we would not have to settle for the knock-offs, occasional though they may be.

Even with the knock-offs, some are still out of place. Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop” was re-made for the film, but the original hit did not top the charts until the start of 1958, for example.  The ever-popular “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly, also a re-make in this film, did not debut in its original form until the following year, 1957 – same thing on both counts with “Maybe Baby.” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” fits the year, but they had to play a late remake of it, too, for some reason.

Thankfully, one of the most appropriate tunes of the entire film, “School Days” by Chuck Berry, is untainted in its originality of rendition.  Too bad it too was from 1957, not 1956.  Oh well!  The song is played at the perfect time, just as teenage students are walking in to their high school.  With such impeccable timing, who cares if the period authenticity is off by one year?

The film’s soundtrack is not without its pleasant surprises, either.  For example, I have been listening to ‘50s tunes my entire life, and was still not aware that the Fontaine Sisters did a cover version “I’m In Love Again.”  As if the filmmakers read my mind, they waste little time in switching to the more popular rendition of that hit by Fats Domino! Later in the film, we are treated to a third recording by Fats, this time “Ain’t That a Shame” from 1955, one of the songs that contributed to rock n’ roll exploding onto the scene that year.

They also do get it correctly, however, in the 25th minute of the film by playing part of Elvis’ 1956 hit ballad “Love Me Tender.”  Ditto with Mickey and Silvia’s hit “Love is Strange” in the 41st minute. Another example of an out-of-year tune, though is in the 47th minute.  The protagonist gets his first kiss with the girl of his dreams, and they play “One Summer Night” by The Danleers (1958).  Again, oh well!  Another interesting example is when the protagonist is in the process of cultivating a relationship with an attractive girl, they play Clyde McPhatter’s “A Lover’s Question (1959).

The best way I can explain these slight incongruities in the years of some of the selected tunes is that the filmmakers were less focused on being period-correct and more focused on trying to recreate the overall era with songs that were, in some cases, recorded three years after the story’s timeline.  A similar technique was used in the movie “American Hot Wax” (1978), where early rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest hits are all mashed in together ca. 1959-1960.

Other times, the filmmakers got it right in terms of correct-to-the-year tunes, but goof elsewhere. During the main love scene of the picture, they put on a 45 RPM record, supposedly “My Prayer” by the Platters (yes, from 1956, and in fact, the group’s first No. 1 hit).  But the Platters recorded on the Mercury label, and what is seen spinning on the turntable is a Roulette record – from the mid-1960s, no less!  Another curious choice of song is later in the main love scene, when they switch to “It Only Hurts a Little While” by the Ames Brothers.  Period-correct, yes, but I can think of dozens of more romantic records between 1954-’56 than that one!  They couldn’t play “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, for example? To be sure, Kelly Preston’s nude scene lives up the hype, but I digress.  At least the version of “My Prayer” is the real deal.

ThreeRecordLabels_Mischief

When one of the characters in the movie puts on a 45 RPM record, the song one hears is “My Prayer” by the Platters (right). Yet the record one clearly sees is a record with the Roulette label, from the mid-1960s at that (see left). In the mid-1950s, Roulette’s label had the design seen in the center. Translation: this was a double period goof.

Semi-curious is the choice later in the same love scene, where they are playing Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” (the flip-side to “Peggy Sue,” but from 1957, not 1956).  But shortly thereafter, they made a fine 1956-correct choice in Bill Haley’s “See You Later, Alligator.”  The timing is also great when they break out the venerable Platters hit “The Great Pretender” from 1955, though it peaked in the charts in early 1956.  Also finely-selected for setting the mood was the exquisite doo-wop ballad “Since I Don’t Have You,” by The Skyliners.  The song was not recorded until December of ’58, and did not chart until ’59.

By the time the 75th minute rolls around, you cease to care that Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” (the first song I consciously remember ever hearing, and that is NOT a joke!).  After all, what Fifties-themed soundtrack is complete without it?  Same thing goes for the use of “It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwardsone of the greatest records of all time – even though it was a No. 1 hit in 1958, not ’56.

As an aside, is it not odd that they played a modern knock-off of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,”  but played the correct, original version of its flip-side, “Everyday” (Coral 61885)?  Just asking.

The usage of the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Heart and Soul” by the Cleftones, while a great tune, is even more curious, in that it was not recorded until 1959, and was not even released to the buying public until 1961.  That group had three solid doo-wop hits in 1956 (“Little Girl of Mine,” “You Baby You,” and “Can’t We Be Sweethearts?”).  Could they, the filmmakers, not have chosen one of those three instead, say, the third?  That said, and much to their credit, they nail it in terms of year and mood with the usage of the timeless Elvis hit “Don’t Be Cruel” from that year.  It takes an hour and half, but after holding out on us for the whole movie, we finally get to hear from Little Richard, singing “Rip It Up,” also correct to 1956, no less (to be sure, LR had a huge bumper crop of hard-rockers from that year)!

One aspect of the movie where the filmmakers did it consistently period-correct was the cars.  Not a single automobile that I observed – and as a long-time classic car nut, I observed very closely! – was more recent than 1956, and even they were relatively few compared to the other model years I noticed.  Plenty of 1953 Chevies, 1950 Nashes and Studebakers, and 1954 Buicks abound, among others. Only in the second half did I finally find one Cadillac – a 1956 model, one of the few cars actually from that year in the film.  Plus, there’s the occasional ’53 Studebaker, ’50 Hudson, ’47 and ’55 Plymouth, etc. So, there is a nice mix of cars and model years, overall.

It is my love of cars that made me cringe in some of the scenes.  “My goodness, I sincerely hope they did not actually warp the bumper on that ’50 Studebaker, or bend the front quarter-panel of that ’53 Chevy Bel-Air, or totally smash up that nice ’55 Chevy Bel-Air convertible.”  Hey, I care about my true classic cars!

All in all, though, the movie is well-written, very entertaining, and the soundtrack is, even with some of the unnecessary knock-offs, one of the best I have heard in a movie in a long time.  If you want to make for a cozy night in with your significant other with a great film on DVD, by all means choose this (provided you can stomach the occasionally awkward moment or two)! Who knows?  You might even gain some nostalgia for that time gone by yourself, even if the events taking place in the story predate your birth by a quarter-century or more.