Frosty The Snowman – The Ronettes and 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. Frosty The Snowman was written by Steve Nelson and Walter Rollins and it was the follow up hit for Gene Autrey after his chart success with Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1949, when it climbed to #7 in December 1950. Although considered a Christmas song it does not mention Christmas, but rather it invokes the special spirit of the season through a snowman who comes to life with the help of a magical hat. The Ronettes where from Spanish Harlem NYC and Ronnie Bennett gives the lyrics a distinctive Manhattan barrio inflexion, while Spector muscled up the Wall Of Sound behind the group, to create a classic re-invention of a favorite seasonal song.
The Crystals, Bobbi Sox and the Blue Jeans and the incomparable Darlene Love also recorded tracks for the album, the session musicians were known as “The Wrecking Crew” and included Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert, Jack Nitzsche, Larry Knechtel, Leon Russell, Barney Kessell, Hal Blaine, and Sonny and a 17-year-old Cher, who provided additional backing vocals. The songs were mostly unique covers of standard seasonal favorites – I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus/ Frosty The Snowman (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. Spector had originally allocated this song to Ronnie Bennett and she demoed it many times in the typically arduous recording sessions that were fundamental to achieving Phil’s Wall of Sound, but he did not think that Ronnie was conveying the right depth of emotion in her vocals, and replaced her with Darlene Love, Ronnie was extremely disappointed. 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 a 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.
Phil Spector has become the Ghost of Christmas Past as his Christmas album and the song Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) have inspired artists in the decades since its release, to try and capture the same spirit and unique sense of longing felt by many at Christmas, several have succeeded – All I Want For Christmas Is You (Mariah Carey), Candy Cane Lane (Sia) and Underneath The Tree (Kelly Clarkson)
Pretty Paper – Roy Orbison 1963
Roy 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; and 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
Little Saint Nick – The Beach Boys 1964
In 1964 the Beach Boys produced what became a definitive festive album titled The Beach Boys Christmas Album, which featured original Beach Boys songs mixed with traditional Yuletide fare. Little Saint Nick was written by Mike Love and Brian Wilson and charted in 1963 before the album was released. Cars were a common theme in early Beach Boys songs, notably Little Deuce Coupe which was the template for this song, as it envisions Santa’s sleigh as a candy apple red Nordic Hot Rod with a 4-speed gear shift. The lyric line “Run, run, reindeer” was copied from Chuck Berry’s song Run Rudolph Run, and required an out of court settlement with Berry, and at 1.59 minutes, Little Saint Nick was both short and not as sweet as the band had hoped. Berry’s song had been based on his early hit Little Queenie, but this ran into copyright issues with the composers of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and also had to be settled out of court.
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 consisted 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 Jnr. reaffirming plans for an open housing march into Cicero, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. It is stated that Cook County sheriff Richard Ogilivie 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”.
Feliz Navidad- Jose Feliciano 1971
A 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.
Happy Xmas (War is Over) – John and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band 1972
John Lennon and Yoko Ono had pursued the cause of world peace for several years via billboards they had placed in major cities around the world that said “War is Over! (If you want it) in 1969, and the song Imagine, which was inspired by the concept that if enough people want something to happen, it will. Two years later they went into Phil Spector’s Record Plant studio in New York in 1971( left to right below- Yoko, John and Phil), with Spector’s Wrecking Crew session musos including, Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, Hugh McCracken, Klaus Voorman, and the voices of the Harlem Community Choir, to record Happy Christmas (War Is Over). Though now a Christmas standard, Lennon originally penned this as a protest song about the Vietnam War, and the idea “that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. If people imagine that somebody’s doing it to them and that they have no control, then they have no control.” This same spirit was echoed fifty years later in the words of teenage Swedish environment warrior Greta Thunberg, when she called world leaders to account to get serious about dealing with climate change and its impact.
The song was originally released on clear green vinyl with Yoko Ono’s Listen, The Snow Is Falling as the B-side, at the beginning of the song, two whispers can be heard; Yoko whispers: “Happy Christmas, Kyoko” (Kyoko Chan Cox is Yoko’s daughter with Anthony Cox) and John whispers: “Happy Christmas, Julian” (John’s son with Cynthia).The actual structure and tempo of the song was influenced by another song called Stewball , a wryly humorous folk song by Peter, Paul and Mary, about a racehorse who only drank wine.
It is a very unusual Christmas song, instead of evoking sleigh bells and mistletoe, it asks us to think about those who live in fear, and collectively bring about the end of war. It was released in the US for Christmas, but didn’t chart, the next year, it was released in the UK, where it did much better, charting at #4, eventually, the song became a Christmas classic in America, but it took a while. Delta Goodrem famously included this song on her double-A side hit Predictable in 2003, and the Beatles still hold the record for the most Christmas #1 singles in the UK with four between 1963- 67.
Step Into Xmas – Elton John 1973
In her biography Elton John In His Own Words, Susan Black quotes Elton thus: “The Christmas single is a real loon about and something we’d like to do a lot more of. We’ve never written a song especially tailored to be a single.”
Many Christmas singles are best forgotten, but this one has real merit, meaningful words by Bernie Taupin, and a typically strong melody from Elton. They wrote it as a thank you card to their fans; 1973 had been a particularly good year for Elton, the song was written on a Sunday morning and recorded in the afternoon at the London Trident Studios. The single was released in November 1973 and received heavy airplay although it only reached #24 on the UK chart; It may have done better but buyers where reportedly put off by the B Side – Ho! Ho! Ho! (Who’d Be A Turkey At Christmas?)
Merry Xmas Everybody – Slade 1973
Ambrose Slade were originally a covers band from Wolverhampton led by Neville “Noddy’ Holder, when Chas Chandler, former member of the Animals, who had managed Jimi Hendrix, saw them live at London’s Rasputin Club, and liked the way they were doing raucous, unsophisticated, audience-participation type performances, so different from their contemporaries who favored long solos and very introverted music. Their rasping cover version of an obscure Little Richard song, Get Down And Get With It, took them into the charts in 1970, and although they remained virtually unknown in the USA, they would have no less than six UK #1 hits in the next two years from 1971-73, with such phonetically-contorted song titles as Coz I Luv You, Take Me Back ‘ome, Mama Weer All Crazee Now, Cum on Feel the Noize, Skweeze Me Pleeze Me, until they landed in December 1973 with their sixth consecutive UK #1, the more grammatically-correct Merry Xmas Everybody.
The song was based on a psychedelic track Holder had written in 1967 entitled My Rocking Chair and in 1973, after a drinking session with bass player Jimmy Lea, they started to collaborate on a Christmas song. At the time the UK was depressed, Thatcher’s government has closed mines and industrial action and unemployment was rife, Holder correctly sensed that people needed cheering up at Christmas, and his line “ Look to the future now, its only just begun “ certainly resonated with fans. The record sold 300,000 copies in the first week of release, went on to sell a million in the UK alone, and remained a UK seasonal favorite forty years later. Slade are thought to earn almost a million dollars a year from this song and co-writer Noddy Holder has said “It is definitely a pension plan”.
Little Drummer Boy – Bing Crosby and David Bowie 1977
This was originally a Polish Christmas carol which was translated into English in 1941 by Katherine Davis, and titled Carol of the Drum. It found its way to Dot Records (USA) where producer Henry Onorati and arranger Harry Simeone revised several of the lyrics and added finger cymbals and backing vocals to produce what became Little Drummer Boy. It was a hit for the Beverley Sisters (UK) and the Pipes and Drums and Military Band of the Royal Scots Guards in 1972, but it would become a famous duet in 1977, when Bing Crosby and David Bowie sang the song on Crosby’s Merrie Old Christmas Special, filmed in London.The old crooner Bing Crosby was 73 and the glam rocker Bowie was 30, Bowie was reluctant to participate, but his mother was a big Crosby fan and she encouraged him to appear. He insisted on the song being re-arranged with him singing the words “Peace On Earth” and some additional lyrics as a counterpoint to Crosby’s vocals, and he further insisted that the song never be released as a single. The unique pairing of the cross-generational duo produced a Christmas classic, unfortunately Crosby died before the special aired, which drew even more attention to the song, bootleg copies of the duet leaked out and RCA subsequently released it as a single in 1982, when it climbed to #3 in the UK; a disgusted Bowie left RCA soon after.