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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.

The Real King of Rock turns 85 December 5, 2012

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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Editor’s update:  This article was originally written in 2012 in honor of Little Richard’s 80th birthday.

Today marks the 85th birthday of Richard Wayne Penniman, a.k.a., Little Richard, one of the most important of Rock n’ Roll’s “Founding Fathers,” and arguably the real king of the genre.  “The cat with the ten-inch crew cut” was rocking and rolling at the very beginning of the music, and kept on rocking long after others hung it up or had softened into balladeers.  But he was also a great innovator, coming up with rhythms that spoke to the essence of the genre, using the funkiest of saxophone backings than others, played the piano more frantically than others, and combined it all with over-the-top, gospel-style singing, along with wails and moans.  It all added up to the hardest rocking and rolling of the era when the music was born.

Born in Macon, Ga., on Dec. 5, 1932, Richard had been performing on stage since his early teens in 1945, but started recording in earnest as early as 1951, the same year that Ike Turner’s band recorded what most historians consider to be the first Rock and Roll song in “Rocket 88.”  LR started making an impact in the Rhythm and Blues charts with “Get Rich Quick” that same year.  The tune clearly has the influential finger prints of R&B pioneers such as Roy Brown, and Richard seems to be channeling him to an extent on this and other tracks he cut around the same time.  The following year, 1952, he showed that he could cut strong, moderate tempo songs with his R&B hit “Rice, Red Beans and Turnip Greens.”  He took things to a higher level in 1953 with “Little Richard’s Boogie,” using a percussion instrument that nobody would associate with a Little Richard song, as none other than Johnny Otis (of “Hand Jive” fame, 1958) himself played the vibraphone on that track.  Fans who already know Richard’s more familiar tunes can easily sense the direction he was taking in developing his music in terms of the rhythmic pattern.

And what a pattern!  Little Richard took inspiration from the sound of trains that he heard thundering by him as a child and molded that idea into a unique 2-2 time, boogie-woogie tempo that helped him drill down to the very essence of Rock ‘n’ Roll itself as the music and its era exploded onto the scene by the middle of the 1950s.  Indeed, by September of 1955, he joined Arthur Rupe’s Specialty label, and really began to fully hit his stride.  Not even 23 years old yet, he cut a hit in “Tutti Fruitti” that year, and thus helped demonstrate that the new era in youthful music was not just a flash in the pan, and it set the template for many other hard-charging hits to follow.  Even today, “Tutti Fruitti” ranks as a great pre-game hit at football stadiums to enliven the crowd, as well as to psyche players up before taking the field of battle.

While it reached #2 on the R&B charts in 1955 (and was also covered by Elvis and Pat Boone[!]), what “Tutti Fruitti” also did was help open the floodgates for many other awesome Little Richard records to soon follow – 17 hits in three years, to be more exact.  A good bulk of those hits came the following year in 1956, including “Slippin’ and Slidin’”, “Rip it Up,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “She’s Got It,” “Ready Teddy,” “Heeby-Jeebies,” “All Around the World” and even “Lucille.”

But one tune that stands out above all others that year was his inimitable “Long Tall Sally.”  That recording exemplified the freight-train effect rhythm that Richard gradually crafted to perfection, and in so doing, achieved the holy grail of Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Giving the sax solo an extra eight bars certainly did not hurt, either!

One can hear that defining tune prominently played during the helicopter scene in the Arnold Schwartzenegger movie “Predator” from 1987.

To be sure, Little Richard did not save his recording energies for only “Tutti Fruitti” in 1955.   That same year yielded some other gems, including one of the hardest-rocking tunes he ever cut in “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” though that record was not released until 1958.  Same thing goes for “True Fine Mama,” a true, hard-core gem, where Little Richard augmented the funkiness level with a call-and-response vocal backing; recorded in ’55, but not released until ’58.

The year 1957 was also a strong one for Richard, in that “Send Me Some Lovin’” (the flip side to Lucille, and a good example of his ballad capabilities) charted, but he also had hits with “Jenny Jenny,” – one his most vocally energetic hits of them all, which is saying something! – “Miss Ann,” and one of the hardest rockers he ever did in “Keep A-Knockin.” Those who doubt the early influence of the swing era on rock ‘n’ roll from later decades clearly overlook that Louis Jordan had a hit with the same song – albeit a more comparatively sedate version! – in 1939.  If that were not enough, 1958 also yield two more marvelous, rocking holy grails, such as “Ooh My Soul,” and the ever-timeless “Good Golly Miss Molly

Richard’s hits on the charts started to wane not because he lost his recording energy, as so many of his contemporaries eventually did, but rather he was making major transitions in his life of the spiritual nature.  In 1958, he enrolled in a theological seminary and soon started recording gospel music instead of rock ‘n’ roll, though by 1962 he made the return back to secular music, and even started touring in England that year, where his records were still selling well.  A fine example of how he still maintained his energy that decade can be seen in this 1964 live performance of “Lucille” in that county (it is arguably a better version than the original 1956 recording):

Little Richard’s influence and legacy spread far and wide throughout the popular music world.  Otis Redding claimed that he entered the music business because of him.  The Beatles cited him as an influence in general; Paul McCartney idolized him while still in high school, and wanted to learn to sing like him.  Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones also referred to LR as his “first idol.”  Jimi Hendrix actually recorded with Little Richard in 1964 and ’65.  George Harrison, Keith Richards, Bob Seger, David Bowie, Elton John, Freddy Mercury, Rod Stewart, band AC/DC, and even Michael Jackson have claimed LR as a primary influence to some varying extent.  One can hear his influence in popular recordings of later years on one’s own.  Surely one can recognize, for example the direct influence that the opening drum riff on “Keep A-Knockin” has on the ever-famous opening drum riff on Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.”

Over the past 30 years, Little Richard has appeared on TV and in films as an actor as well as in dozens of soundtracks.  Even within the past few years, Richard has still managed to remain in the spotlight, having appeared in a Geico commercial, as well as one for Zaxby’s.

But as good as it is to casually remain in the spotlight, these recent examples must not obscure his real cultural contribution as being one the greatest standard-bearers Rock ‘n’ Roll has even known.   His unmatchable energy in his recordings and on the stage, along with his everlasting legacy of some of Rock ‘n’ Rolls greatest, most timeless, most energetic records demonstrate time and again that Little Richard is, and ever shall be, in a class by himself.  Happy 80th birthday, your majesty!