Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Christmas Mixtape (2011)



This is a digital update of a Christmas mixtape that has been in the works for roughly thirty years. It is a collection of MP3s, the equivalent of a double CD, 36 songs, 2 hours, 18 minutes running time. All through this article you will see references to the Capitol Christmas album that my sister and I listened to as kids. At the time that the bulk of this was written, I had yet to find that elusive LP from 1955, but only few days later, I made that momentous find. You can read all about it and hear some tracks by clicking here.

Through the annotated track list that follows, I have included some of the songs from the mix to listen to while you read. If you would like to hear the mix in it's entirety, drop me an email, wkates@hotmailcom.

The Music: Like that Capitol Christmas album from childhood, the new MP3 mix consists of traditional, popular, and novelty songs. The mix includes all genres of music covering seven decades; from the earliest songs of the 1950's right up to a song recorded this year, all the decades are represented.

This is not meant to be any sort of list of the best Christmas music; it's just a collection of tunes that I've grown attached to over the years. Even though my normal pattern of Christmas listening involves mostly albums, albums are not represented in the mix except for just a few songs. Most of the songs in the mix began life as singles, some have been released on CD, and some of them are rarities. I hope you like it.

1. Dave Cameron - Twas the Night Before Christmas (1975)
In the mid-seventies, I worked at WRHY, Starview (PA). Starview was an FM rock station broadcasting to the Harrisburg/Lancaster/York market; I did weeknights, 7pm to midnight. Dave Cameron was the morning drive-time host and he was multi-talented; in addition to the radio show, he was a singer, he worked weekends as a singing waiter at a restaurant in Valley Forge. He was also a humorist and he wrote and recorded this version of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" which was aired on the station during the Christmas season of 1975. This recording opened the funny side of my old Christmas mixtape. There are lots of pop culture references such as Telly Savalas who played a Tootsie Pop sucking police detective on the show Kojak.

Listen to Dave Cameron - "Twas the Night Before Christmas"



2. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band - Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
"It's all cold down along the beach, wind whippin' down the boardwalk..." In the mid-seventies, Columbia Records sent out this live recording to radio stations. They did not put it on record until many years later. At the time the only way to get this, if you were a Bruce fan, was to record it off the radio. Which is exactly how this song ended up opening the rock side of my old Christmas mixtape. Now it can be found on numerous Christmas collection CDs. Bruce is not doing the traditional tune here, this is a cover of the Phil Spector version as done by The Crystals. As you can tell by listening to it, this recording captured Bruce and band at their absolute best.

3. Prelude - A Message From Prelude
Prelude was a classic one-hit wonder band. In 1974, they had a hit with a beautiful a capella version of Neil Young's "After the Goldrush". When the Christmas season rolled around, their label sent this Christmas message out to radio stations on a promo 45. Like their hit, they sang their greeting to the tune of "After the Goldrush".

4. Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song
Considered by many (including me) to be the greatest Christmas song ever recorded, this song was written by Mel Torme and Bob Wells in 1944. I consider Nat King Cole to have possessed the best male singing voice I've ever heard. Here he is graced with the perfect arrangement for a small jazz band with strings. I can only imagine what it would have been like to be in the recording studio when this was cut. I've enjoyed this song ever since hearing it on that Capitol Christmas album we listened to as kids.

5. Mindy Smith - My Holiday
In 2007, Mindy Smith released her third and best album, My Holiday. This record contained about half familiar Christmas songs and the rest were all new songs written by Mindy. The familiar songs are good but what really makes this album great is the quality of the original songs. The songwriting is exceptional and the whole recording has great vocals, instrumental performances, and production. This is my favorite Christmas album of the past twenty years. The songs from this album routinely show up on the most listened to section of my iTunes and since I only listen for one month each year, that should tell you something.

Listen to Mindy Smith - "My Holiday"



6. Chris Rea - Driving Home for Christmas
Chris Rea has had an excellent career in Britain and Europe which is now in its fourth decade. He had a minor hit in the US with a track from his first album, but some mishandling by his American label lead to his inclination not to pursue a career here. The closest his tours ever brought him was Montreal; my brother and I drove ten hours each way just to see him in concert (it was well worth it). In 1988, "Driving Home for Christmas" was the title track of his Christmas EP, released in the UK. It has great British vernacular like "top to toe in tailbacks" which means bumper to bumper traffic.

7. The Whispers - Merry Christmas Darling
"Another Christmas on the road..." This Carpenters classic has not had many cover versions, in fact it is the only one I know of and it works so well in a soul version that I had to include it even though you will hear the original later in this mix. This comes from an album called 'Tis the Season which was released in 1997. It featured a who's who of contemporary sou/jazz artists and even though each track had a different artist, the excellent production by George Duke, Russ Freeman, and Maurice White made the album sound cohesive and it is a true delight from start to finish.

8. Stan Freberg - Green Chri$tma$
"Green Chri$tma$" is a dead-on send up of Christmas advertising by one of the best at the real ad game. Stan Freberg is an author, recording artist, animation voice actor, comedian, radio personality, puppeteer, and advertising creative director. When "Green Chri$tma$" was recorded in 1958, it met with huge resistance because of feared offense to the advertising community; and it wasn't just radio that resisted, his own label, Capitol initially refused to release it. By the 1970s it started getting airplay on FM rock stations which is where I heard it and the record was a much sought after collector's item until it was included in Dr. Demento's Greatest Christmas Novelty CD of All Time.

9. John & Yoko & The Plastic Ono Band With The Harlem Community Choir - Happy Christmas
"And so this is Christmas..." This has been a perennial Christmas classic ever since it was first released in 1971. I remember getting a festive green vinyl single when it first came out. Now you can find this on many various artist Christmas CD collections.

10. Leroy Anderson / Arthur Fiedler & the Boston Pops Orchestra - Sleigh Ride
Leroy Anderson was one of the best songwriter/composers in his time. His forte was the super catchy melody, often adorned with sound effects. There is no better example of his work than "Sleigh Ride" which was performed and recorded in 1949 by Arthur Fiedler and his orchestra.

11. Greg Lake - I Believe in Father Christmas
"They said there'd be snow at Christmas..." Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, released this ode to innocence at Christmas back in 1975. Lake, who was never one for understatement, pulled out all the stops for this one including a signature riff by Prokofiev, full orchestra and choir. Over the next several years there were at least three different versions of this song recorded by ELP all with stripped down arrangements. Lake even did a revised version at one point. The version here is the original Greg Lake single with all the orchestral and choral bombast intact. I love this record.

12. Cheech and Chong - Santa Claus and His Old Lady
"Santa Clause is not a musician..." "I can dig, that cat didn't know any tunes..." You don't need to smoke anything to enjoy the humor of Cheech and Chong. This good-hearted look at Santa Claus and Christmas from the standpoint of a misguided musician works every time. The more years you listen to it, the more endearing it gets. This was first released as a single in 1971. Now it can be found on various Christmas collection CDs including the Dr. Demento CD.

13. Yogi Yorgesson - I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas
"Just before Christmas dinner I relax to a point, then relatives start swarming all over the joint". This dates back to that Capitol Christmas album we played as kids. This is as funny now as it was then. Yogi Yorgesson may not actually have been Swedish, but as a Norwegian born comic singer he knew his territory. Yogi Yorgesson was a stage name used by Harry Stewart (born Hans Skarbo) who had several humorous personas of different nationalities. I've been listening to this record for so long that this screwball view of Christmas has been assimilated by my brain as part of Christmas tradition. "I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas" was released by Capitol in 1949, backed with "Yingle Bells". It was his biggest selling record, earning a gold record for selling one million copies; hard to believe, Harry.

14. Billy May and His Orchestra - Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Mambo
Here's another track that dates back to that Capitol Christmas album that we had as kids. The Billy May Orchestra recorded this in 1953 and it really swings. I'm sure that the players had a blast recording it. "What heck is a mambo!"

15. Yogi Yorgesson - Yingle Bells
I first heard this song in the mid-seventies when I finally found the re-released single of "I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas". Even though we already heard Yogi in this mix, the record is too funny to leave out. If you listen to the mix in your iTunes player, you will see the original 1949 picture cover as released by Capitol Records. Just looking at it cracks me up.

Listen to Yogi Yorgesson - "Yingle Bells"



16. Stan Freberg - Christmas Dragnet
Here's another Christmas classic by the great Stan Freberg, a perfect parody of a Dragnet episode. Dragnet was a police drama that began on radio and also became a popular television show in the fifties and sixties. Each episode was based on a real case from the files of the Los Angeles Police Department. Jack Webb was forever associated with his character, Joe Friday. Freberg's parody got the voices and personalities of the characters sounding as real as could be. The story is so well written that if you hear it a few times you won't get through the Christmas season without quoting it. "Love to have ya..."

17. Tom Lehrer - A Christmas Carol
"Relations sparing no expense will send some useless old utensil..." Musical satirist Tom Lehrer released this bit of Christmas cheer in 1959 on a live album, An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer.

18. David Bowie & Bing Crosby - Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth
This delightful duet comes from a 1977 TV special called Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas. Initially released on record only in England, I have an import 12" vinyl single that has the complete long version that includes the dialogue introduction from the show. The song minus the dialogue is now fairly common on American CD Christmas collections. For this mix we had to go with the long version. Bowie reportedly hated "Little Drummer Boy" so the producers had "Peace on Earth" written specifically for the show. Sadly, Bing Crosby died shortly after recording this show.

19. Chrissi Poland - I'll Think of You On Christmas
Back in 2006, a good four years before her wonderful debut album/EP, Chrissi Poland released a Christmas single on iTunes (where it's still available). Even though this song is somewhat different from what she is doing now, it's still a nice slice of pure pop that will surely bring you some holiday cheer. I have the Mariah Carey Christmas album and there's nothing on it any better than "I'll Think of You On Christmas".

20. Elton John - Step Into Christmas
Elton John got into the swing of Christmas with this peppy party single released in 1973. Like most Elton John songs, Elton wrote the music and Bernie Taupin wrote the words. This was on the rock side of my old mixtape.

21. Johnny Mercer - Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town
"Fat man's comin', fat man's comin'..." The forties and fifties were something of a golden age for popular singers and orchestras, and as a result this was also a golden age for Christmas music. Because Capitol Records was so dominant in this period, they wound up with a vault full of Christmas classics by the best artists of the time. This track first appeared in 1955 on that Capitol collection I listened to as a kid. One of the earliest singer-songwriters, Johnny Mercer was also a lyricist and wrote the lyrics to about fifteen hundred songs. He also co-founded Capitol Records. His "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" really swings.

Listen to Johnny Mercer - Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town"


22. Mel Blanc - Yah Das Ist Ein Christmas Tree
Mel Blanc is best known as the voice of the classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons; he also did characters from The Flintstones and The Jetsons to name a few. He recorded this Christmas song in the fifties as a parody of a certain type of German song that was used as a teaching tool. This initially came out on a 78 rpm record. It was included on that Capitol Christmas album that molded my childhood.

23. Joe Dolce - Jingle Bell Rock
Joe Dolce is a singer/comedian who did straight music for most of his career but he had his biggest hit with a comedy record done with Italian accent and slang, called "Shaddap Up You Face" which was inspired by his Italian grandparents; the record went on to sell 6 million copies. In the wake of that success, he made a Christmas album using the same Italian persona. "Jingle Bell Rock" came out as a single in 1981 which is when John DeBella used to play it on the WMMR Morning Zoo, and it wound up on my old mixtape.

24. Billy Squier - Christmas Is the Time to Say 'I Love You'
This fun Christmas song came out as a single in 1981 and was quickly adopted by MTV for their video Christmas card. The video was shot in the MTV studios with the five original VJs and all the rest of the MTV office staff and technical crew singing along and partying with Squier. This was back in the early days of MTV when they actually played music videos and had VJs to introduce them sort of like a video version of a radio station (hence the name MTV which stood for Music Television). This one was on the rock side of my old mixtape.

25. The Royal Guardsmen - Snoopy's Christmas
"Merry Christmas, my friend..." The Royal Guardsmen first hit in 1966 with "Snoopy vs. The Red Baron", followed by "The Return of the Red Baron". "Snoopy's Christmas" was released in 1967 and is actually the best song of the three. For the mix I did not use my old 45, but instead this is a 1999 remaster for CD.

Listen to The Royal Guardsmen - "Snoopy's Christmas"



26. Larry Saklad (Alan Mann Band) - Christmas On the Block

Alan Mann was a local musician in Philadelphia who developed a following in the 1980s. In 1986 he released this poignant Christmas song as a local single. Larry tells the story behind the song on his website. "… Alan Mann was late getting home to his girlfriend, and somewhere in West Phila-Overbrook, had a vision of the wonderful lights decorating a School For The Blind, feeling both the irony and magic of how that must be for those students, that “their’s is the most beautiful Christmas On The Block”, and had the whole song written by the time he arrived." He did make a video which got some play on MTV. Mann was tragically killed in 1987. His keyboard player Larry Saklad has kept the spirit of this song alive over the years and this year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the original, he recorded a new version minus the kid chorus. The original was also part of my old mixtape.

27. National Lampoon - Kung Fu Christmas
"Kung Fu Christmas" originated on the National Lampoon Radio Hour which was a syndicated, comedy radio show in 1974. When NBC first put Saturday Night Live on the air, they used almost all the staff of the Lampoon Radio Hour for their Not Ready for Prime Time Players and also their writing staff; and those who didn't go to SNL all went on to Second City. "Kung Fu Christmas" was written, performed and produced by Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Gilda Radner, and Brian Doyle Murray.

The NLRH
produced a great many song parodies which were all amazing in their writing (hugely funny), and in their execution; Christopher Guest was most especially good at sounding exactly like whoever was the subject of the parody. The names of the people who worked on the NLRH read like a who's who of comedy: Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Christopher Guest, Michael O'Donoghue, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, Gilda Radner, Harry Shearer, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, Richard Belzer, Tony Scheuren, and Flo & Eddie, just to name a few. We carried the NLRH on my college radio station WECI. "Kung Fu Christmas" was released as a single in 1974; it also appears on a CD box set of NLRH, but that is a different version. For the mix I used the single.

28. Martin Mull - Santafly
In all that discussion of "Kung Fu Christmas", we didn't even get into the content of the parody; it was soul hit records of the time such as "Shaft", and also the prevalence of the martial arts/Blaxploitation movies that inspired Kung Fu tin many aspects of popular culture. On the other hand, Martin Mull's Christmas parody is much easier to identify; it was Curtis Mayfield's classic "Superfly" theme from the movie of the same name. Martin Mull is an actor, comedian, recording artist, and painter. At the time of "Santafly", Mull had not moved into acting in movies and television. Back then he was a comedian/singer-songwriter and he was known for his live performances where he set up the stage with living room furniture. In the seventies, Mull released a string of albums containing his songs which were all enormously funny. "Santafly" has never been released on an album or CD, this is the single from Christmas, 1973.

Listen to Martin Mull - "Santafly"



29. Robert Earl Keen - Merry Christmas From the Family
This delightfully dysfunctional Christmas song was recorded by alt-country singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen in 1994. It's the kind of song that even if you don't like it at first, it grows on you like a fungus. This track came from Keen's Gringo Honeymoon album. C'mon down to Texas and hang out with us at the trailer park y'all.

30. Willie Nelson - Pretty Paper
Willie Nelson wrote this song in 1963 when it was recorded and became a hit for Roy Orbison. Willie recorded his own version as the title track for his Christmas album released in 1979. A classic.

31. The Waitresses - Christmas Wrapping
This great record has been a perennial favorite for many people ever since it first appeared in 1981 on The Waitresses album A Christmas Record. "Christmas Wrapping" still gets to me after all these years. This was also on my old my old mixtape.

32. Leon Redbone - Christmas Island
No one takes you back to the forties like Leon Redbone who seems to have time traveled here. "Christmas Island" is the title track of his Christmas album, released in 1987. This Hawaiian Christmas song has been recorded by many, but it originated in the 1940's with the Andrews Sisters backed by Guy Lombardo and his orchestra. Redbone's version sounds at least that old, and his warm baritone sounds great for late nights at Christmastime.

33. Joe Williams - What Are You Doing New Year's Eve
There's something about the union of Christmas music and jazz that really works. Longtime jazz singer Joe Williams recorded That Holiday Feeling in 1990. His smooth voice, combines with perfect jazz ensemble arrangements to create the ultimate late night Christmas album. In fact, every year after everyone in the house went to bed on Christmas Eve, I would put this album on while arranging the presents under the tree. There are loads of versions of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve", but I never heard any that I like better than this.

34. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
I originally had a different version of this song at this position in the mix. Hamish Stuart actually made a lovely Christmas EP but his take on this song was a little too straightforward to follow Joe Williams. I needed something a little bit jazzier. So I sampled all of the versions in my iTunes library (49 of them), and I found this jazzy version that fit perfectly between the Joe Williams and the Mindy Smith tracks, from a most unlikely source. Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison are two country singer-songwriters who, it just so happens, are married to each other. I've followed Kelly's career for some time now, and if you don't know her, you may have heard of her sister, Shelby Lynne.

35. Mindy Smith - It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)
The original songs that Mindy Smith wrote for her Christmas album are just so good that I couldn't resist including one more. The joy in this song is reflected in the slightly jazzy arrangement, and the feeling is hard to resist, just go with it.

36. The Carpenters - Merry Christmas Darling
"Greeting cards have all been sent..." After Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song", this is my next favorite Christmas record. Many consider The Carpenters to be lightweights or a guilty pleasure, or both. I like The Carpenters (and I don't feel the slightest bit guilty about it) primarily because I can't get enough of Karen's voice which was a magic, one of a kind gift. To my ears, her voice was sort of a female counterpart to Nat King Cole. We can only guess what she might have done with her career, had her life not been tragically cut short due to complications of anorexia. As for them being lightweights, sure they had a lot of top forty hits, and they are known for covering some of the best American songwriters, but this song is a Carpenters original, written by Richard Carpenter and Frank Pooler. It was an immediate hit when it was first released as a single in 1970 and it's retained its popularity over the years. This is another one that gets to me every time.

Listen to The Carpenters - "Merry Christmas Darling"



About the Cover: The photograph at the top of this article is of an ornament that's been in my family since probably before I was born. It's a plastic cylinder with a metal fan blade suspended on a pin so that it can spin freely. By locating it on the tree above a light bulb, the heat generated by the light makes the air rise which makes the spinner turn. We have two of these ornaments and placing them on the tree is always a high priority. When I first planned the mix, I knew I would want a picture of this for the cover. This photo was taken Christmas Eve 2004.



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