A BAKER’S DOZEN OF 4TR’S XMAS FAVOURITES
Jingle Bell Rock – Bobby Helms 1957
Helms was a C&W/pop crossover performer who had previous hits with Fraulein and Special Angel, before Jingle Bell Rock, a song whose writing credits have long been disputed. Originally attributed to Joe Beal and Jim Boothe, guitarist Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland who played on the original recording session claimed authorship of the melody, and Bobby Helms who wrote the bridge “What a bright time, it’s the right time, to rock the night away…” have unsuccessfully mounted claims for a share of royalties for a song that sold over a million copies. It has become a seasonal standard, covered many times by various artists, and turns up on the soundtrack of Christmas-themed movies, it clearly owes a debt to Jingle Bells and was a rockabilly hit, not a genuine rock ‘n’ roll song.
Rockin’’ Around the Christmas Tree – Brenda Lee 1958
Johnny Marks had already written Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Holly Jolly Christmas before he gave a thirteen -year-old Brenda Lee this song to record, but when released in 1958 it flopped. Lee recalled that she recorded the song in July with Nashville producer Owen Bradley who had dialled the aircon down to zero, brought in a Christmas Tree, and evoked the seasonal spirit to get her in the mood, after Lee had scored a few solo hits the song was re-released and quickly became a Christmas classic.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Xmas – Judy Garland 1943
Written by tunesmiths Ralph Blane (lyrics) and Hugh Martin (music) for inclusion in the Judy Garland movie Meet Me in St. Louis, the song was originally downbeat and melancholy, Judy changed some of the words including the line “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow…” which Frank Sinatra later changed to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough…” which became the standard lyric, and made it a more uplifting yuletide song. Popular versions of the song include those by the Carpenters, Michael Buble, Christine Aguilera, and Diana Krall
White Xmas – Bing Crosby 1943
This 8-line song that paints a picture of holiday nostalgia was written by Irving Berlin for the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, where Bing Crosby sings it from the perspective of a New Yorker stranded in sunny California during Christmas. In the film the song begins with this verse: “The sun is shining, the grass is green/ The orange and palm trees sway/ There’s never been such a day/ In Beverley Hills, LA/ But it’s December the 24th/ And I’m longing to be up north.” Bing and his collaborator Jack Kapp realised that the first verse made no sense outside the context of the movie, and changed it to the now familiar “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”, the song became a monster hit, stayed on top of the US charts for 11 weeks and on top in Australia for 11 months! The song enjoys a sales resurgence every Christmas, the Guinness Book of records has acknowledged that sales in excess of 50 million copies makes it the biggest-selling song of all time, beating out Elton John’s Princess Diana tribute song Candle In The Wind, with sales of 33 million.
White Christmas won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1942, inspired another movie starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye called White Christmas, and has been covered by such diverse performers as The Drifters, Andy Williams, Elvis Presley, Darlene Love, Lady Gaga and Otis Redding. Although Irving Berlin was Jewish, he celebrated the secular American Christmas, as did others like Phil Spector, who vicariously enjoyed the Christmas traditions of their Gentile friends and colleagues and celebrated the season with their music.
Silent Night – Bing Crosby 1944
In December 1818, Josef Mohr, the curate at the little Lutheran church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, north of Salzburg, in what is now Austria, discovered that his church organ was broken, the bellows had apparently been eaten away by mice. He shared his troubles with his good friend, Franz Gruber, the local schoolmaster and an amateur composer, Mohr gifted Gruber with a poem he had written two years earlier, Gruber set about writing music to accompany Mohr’s lyrics. On Christmas eve, the two friends, with Mohr playing his guitar, made sure there was music that night, when they gave the first public performance of Stille Nacht, or as we know it Silent Night.
The song was circulated throughout Europe by travelling folksingers and ultimately found its way to the USA in 1839, Bing Crosby’s version first appeared on Australian charts in 1944, where he had no less than 31 #1 hits in the period 1940-57, he re-recorded and released the song many times throughout his career, and it has been translated into over 300 languages. The first four bars of the song are in the same chord so encouraging others to re-interpret the song, cover versions abound and Sinead O’Connor, The Three Tenors, Lou Christie, Barbra Streisand and Stevie Nicks have all re-invented this most famous of all Christmas carols.
The Christmas Song – Nat King Cole 1946
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/ Jack frost nipping at your nose/ Yuletide carols being sung by a choir/ Folks dressed up like Eskimos.…” was the lyrical opening to this song, written in the middle of a July heatwave in California by lyricist Bob Wells who showed it to singer Mel “The Velvet Fog” Torme, who was impressed, and 35 minutes later they had written one of the great traditional Christmas songs. Nat King Cole recorded it for the first time in 1946 but a later recording by him which included strings became the big hit, and soared into the charts, it has featured in many movies, and cover versions by Andy Williams, Bing Crosby and even Justin Bieber have also charted
Pretty Paper – Roy Orbison 1963Roy Orbison was a celebrated international artist by the time he recorded this song, after consistently hitting the charts in the early 1960’s with such melancholic big ballads as Only the Lonely, Crying, Running Scared, Working For the Man, Leah , Falling , In Dreams , Blue Bayou, and others. Pretty Paper is a Christmas song composed by Willie Nelson, about an unfortunate homeless person on the streets at Christmas; but there is a genuine absence of festive spirit and Christian charity here, as well-heeled shoppers pass him by. The “pretty paper” serves as a metaphor for the contrast between the glittering lives of the affluent and the deprivations of the poor, and the way we paper over the social problems around us and ignore them, so emotionally it was right in the slot for the “nabob of sob”, it was also covered by Glenn Campbell, Chris Isaak, and Kenny Chesney.
Feliz Navidad- Jose Feliciano 1971A bilingual Christmas classic which comprises a simple English verse with a Spanish chorus “Feliz Navidad, prospero, ano y felicidad”, translates as “Merry Christmas, a prosperous year and happiness.” Puerto Rican singer/songwriter Feliciano’s original version of the song was in Spanish, but he knew that radio stations wouldn’t play it, so he inserted the English lyric, and the song became one of the most downloaded songs in the world, and a perennial seasonal favourite, cover versions abound including those by Boney M, Michael Buble, and Celine Dion. Drivin’ Home for Christmas – Chris Rea 1986
This perennially popular Christmas song was originally recorded by Chris Rea in 1986, even though he had written the song many years before, when he was stuck in heavy traffic as he headed out of London in his wife’s Austin Mini, on the long drive to his North Yorkshire home in Middlesborough on Christmas eve. Rea told BBC radio 4’s Today program, “Driving Home for Christmas, is a car version of a carol.”
Last Christmas – Wham 1984
The song originated one Sunday in 1984 when George Michael and Andrew Ridgely were visiting Michael’s parents, Ridgely recalled to The Mail On Sunday in 2017:
“We’d had a bite to eat and were sitting together relaxing with the television on in the background when, almost unnoticed, George disappeared upstairs for an hour or so. When he came back down, such was his excitement, it was as if he had discovered gold which, in a sense, he had.We went to his old room, the room in which we had spent hours as kids recording pastiches of radio shows and jingles, the room where he kept a keyboard and something on which to record his sparks of inspiration, and he played me the introduction and the beguiling, wistful chorus melody to ‘Last Christmas.’ It was a moment of wonder; George had performed musical alchemy right there.”This song has very little to do with Christmas though, it’s about a failed relationship, and only the phrase “Last Christmas,” when the relationship comes to a head, is there a reference to the festive season; despite this it has become an annual Christmas standard, especially in the UK. It was released as a charity record with the proceeds going to the Ethiopia Relief fund, but it was the Band Aid song Do They Know Its Christmas, another charity single, which also featured George Michael, which prevented Wham from hitting #1 in the UK, in fact Last Christmas remains the highest-selling song in the UK never to reach the #1 position.
The music video features George Michael and Andrew Ridgely accompanying girlfriends to see friends at their home in a ski resort, the duo’s backing singers Pepsi and Shirlie also star in the clip along with Spandeau Ballet bassist Martin Kemp, the boyfriend and future husband of Shirlie Holliman.The songwriters of Barry Manilow’s hit Can’t Smile Without You sued Michael for plagiarism, claiming that the melody was lifted from their composition, and the matter was subsequently settled out of court. With the release of the 2019 movie Last Christmas and its soundtrack which contains no less than 14 Wham and George Michael songs, this song was rebirthed and the album debuted at #1 in the UK.
7 O’Clock News/Silent Night – Simon and Garfunkel 1966
The duo had just released their third album Parsley, Sage , Rosemary and Thyme, and this song created a stir when played on radio stations, as it juxtaposed a rendition of the reverential Christmas carol Silent Night with a simulated 7 O’Clock News bulletin of the actual events of August 3, 1966.The track is a sound collage which consists of the duo singing Silent Night in two-part harmony over a grimly arpeggiated piano accompaniment, the voice of the newscaster was DJ Charlie O’Donnell. As the track progresses the news report assumes a greater presence as its volume increases, so making a bluntly ironic comment by contrasting the social ills of the day with Christmas sentiments.
The following events are reported in the order given:
- A dispute in the House of Representatives over “the civil rights bill“. It is stated that President Johnson had originally proposed a full ban on discrimination for any type of housing — dismissed as “having no chance” — and that “a compromise was painfully worked out in the House Judiciary Committee.”
- The death of comedian Lenny Bruce from an overdose of narcotics at the age of 42 [actually 40].
- Martin Luther King Jr.reaffirming plans for an open housing march into Cicero, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. It is stated that Cook County sheriff Richard Ogilvie urged its cancellation, and that Cicero police plan to ask the National Guard to be called in.
- The grand jury indictment of Richard Speck for the murder of nine [actually eight] student nurses.
- Disruption by protesters at House Un-American Activities Committee hearings into anti-Vietnam War protests.
- A speech by “former Vice-President Richard Nixon“ to the Veterans of Foreign Wars[actually to the American Legion] urging an increase in the war effort in Vietnam, and calling opposition to the war the “greatest single weapon working against the US”.
All I Want For Christmas Is A Real Good Tan – Kenny Chesney 2003US C&W performer Kenny Chesney recorded his debut Xmas album in 2003 and the title track was this one, a disarmingly laid-back alternative to the snow, sleigh, tinsel and wintry tropes of most Northern Hemisphere songs about the festive season. Set in Hawaii and referencing bikinis, mahi-mahi grillin’, pina coladas in the blender chillin’, and palm trees swaying, it could just as easily be about Xmas Downunder. OK the un-PC references to tanning and rubbing on oil are not recommended but who doesn’t like a Xmas song with the lyrics “ All I want for Christmas is a real good tan/ Take me to the islands put my feet in the sand/ Rockin’ to and fro to the rhythm of the ocean/ Singin’ Silent Night while the palm trees are blowin’.”
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love 1963
Phil Spector was famous for his “Wall of Sound” production techniques in the 1960’s as he churned out hit singles for the Crystals, the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers and Ike and Tina Turner. Albums were not really his thing, but in 1963 he decided to produce the ultimate Christmas album, “A Christmas Gift for You”, an unusual gesture as Spector was Jewish, but he still celebrated the secular Christmas. In addition to the Crystals, the Ronettes, and the incomparable Darlene Love, the session musicians who were known as “The Wrecking Crew” included Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert, Jack Nitzsche, Larry Knechtel, Leon Russell, Barney Kessell, Hal Blaine, and Sonny and a 17-year-old Cher provided additional backing vocals.The songs were mostly unique covers of standard seasonal favourites – I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (Ronettes), White Christmas (Darlene Love), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Crystals), but there was one original song written by Spector and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich (who wrote such hits as Be My Baby, Leader of the Pack, River Deep Mountain High, and Doo Wah Diddy) called Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) recorded by Darlene Love, and it was the standout track. It was not a joyful festive song but more a plea for people to reunite with their loved ones at Christmas, but on the day the album and the single were released John Kennedy was assassinated. Spector withdrew the record from sales, and it laid dormant throughout the 60’s and 70’s, until radio stations began to add it to their playlists at Christmas time and after decades it became a hit and seasonal classic. David Letterman invited Darlene Love to perform the song on his show every Christmas, and it has been covered by Cher (who sang backup on the original), Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, and U2.