jump to navigation

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

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

“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!”

 

Advertisements

America’s Greatest Music: Where or When? February 5, 2014

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

It seems we stood and talked like this before; we looked at each other the same way then;  but I can’t remember where or when.”

So go some very famous lyrics found in the Great American Songbook, the last three of which make title of the song to which they belong, “Where Or When.”

Written in 1937 by the highly adept duo of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for their musical Babes in Arms, the song became an instant hit with the buying public when prominent recording artists such as Benny Goodman (specifically his Trio) recorded the song the same year.  Within a 77-year span of time, singers and musicians across several genres have taken their stab at rendering the tune, from contemporaries of when the song was new to respected artists who primarily traffic in the Standards today.

One of the most appealing aspects to the song is that it speaks to a strong sense of déjà vu with a significant other, potential or otherwise.  Different “takes” on the song also hint at various aspects of intimacy that the song suggests as well.  Moreover, it’s a good choice to play in any number of forms when trying to recall key moments in life with one’s own significant other!

What is also very appealing about the tune is that, like many other elite tunes in the Great American Songbook (e.g., “Night And Day,” “Stardust,” “Begin The Beguine,” and so forth), it works great in standard, sung form, as well as in instrumental form.  The Benny Goodman Trio, for example, took the latter approach, and the band’s leader along with Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson do a good job of bringing out the tune’s intimacy.

A decent, semi-contemporary rendition where the lyrics were not ignored was done by Dick Haymes in the 1940s.

Perhaps the most-recognized version in this day and age, and arguably over the past five decades, is the one by Dion & the Belmonts from 1960.

But this does not even scratch the surface of the prominent artists who have recorded this fine song over the course of more than seven decades.  The laundry list of big names includes, in no particular order:  Julie Andrews, Ray Anthony, Count Basie, Shirley Bassey (yes, of “Goldfinger” fame), The Beach Boys (!), Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Perry Como, Ray Conniff, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr. (naturally!), Dennis Day (the voice of Johnny Appleseed from Disney’s 1948 feature “Melody Time”), Percy Faith (who wants to bet that was rendered instrumentally?), The Flamingos, Ralph Flanagan, The Four Lads, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Harry James, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin (he performed this song at least five times on his show), The Lettermen, Mario Lanza, Steve Lawrence, Vaughn Monroe, Red Norvo, Patti Page, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Artie Shaw, Dinah Shore, Carly Simon, Frank Sinatra (but of course!), Kay Starr, Barbara Streisand, The Supremes, Art Tatum, Jack Teagarden, Mel Tormé, and Andy Williams.

Once you take a moment to catch your breath, it is also worth pointing out that more recent names such as Barry Manilow, Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr. and Rod Stewart have also added their names to this lengthy list.

Indeed, such length of said list, to say nothing of the diversity of musical genres within it, along with the span of time that these artists cover, all add up to the strongest of testaments to the sheer timelessness of this song.

Let us not forget Ella Fitzgerald’s version of it, for she never fails to do a great song like this its proper justice.

But my personal favorite has to be Nat King Cole’s live — albeit instrumental — rendition of his during his 1960 concert at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where many a recording legend had many a great concert.

America’s Greatest Music: I’ll Be Seeing You December 4, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

“I’ll Be Seeing You” qualifies as one of the lower-echelon selections within the Great American Songbook.  That said, it stands out uniquely for the reason that it originated from one Broadway show but later became the namesake in a movie several years later.

Written by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal in 1938 and first performed that same year, it soon became a jazz standard and has been recorded by many notable artists over the course of the decades.  The show for which it was written was “Right This Way”, but six years later it was the title song in the 1944 film “I’ll Be Seeing You” starring Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten.

Billie Holiday recorded a version of the song the same year the aforementioned film was released.  Other artists, in no particular chronological order, who have covered the song include Bing Crosby (same year as Billie Holiday’s version), Anne Murray, Jo Stafford and Carmen McRae (both 1958), The Five Satins (1959), Brenda Lee (1962), Ray Charles (1967), Barry Manilow (1991), Etta James (1994), Rod Stewart (2002), Linda Ronstadt (2004), not to mention Jimmy Durante, Liza Minnelli, Mel Tormé, Michael Bublé, the Skyliners, even Queen Latifah, and a host of others.

But the one that clearly stands above the rest is definitely the Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey version from 1940.  A simple listen will verify this:

Not surprisingly, during World War II this song became an anthem for those who were serving overseas, what with its strongly emotional power, a power that Frank and Tommy capture very subtly in their landmark 1940 recording.