CSOTD 12/31/16: Wizzard in winter

It’s time to end our Christmas Song of the Day feature for another year. Including today, I have featured 93 different songs, the majority of which don’t get the love from Christmas radio stations that they deserve. I’ve heard from several people that they’ve made playlists based on my selections, and at least one person who circulates an annual Christmas mix to friends has used some of my choices. I thank all of you for listening and reading the past three years.

I love most aspects of the Christmas season, and my song for December 31 is a reflection of how I feel about it – “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.”

British singer Roy Wood was one of the founders of the band called The Move, which had some success in the U.K., but never broke through in the U.S.  Late in The Move’s life, Wood and one of his fellow band members, Jeff Lynne, came up with the idea for Electric Light Orchestra, which would meld classical instruments with rock. Part of the inspiration behind ELO was to be able to reproduce the later songs of the Beatles in a concert setting. After one album, Wood left ELO because of creative differences with Lynne; ELO went on to become one of the most popular groups of the 1970s and early 1980s.

As for Wood, he formed a band he called Wizzard with a couple members of the original ELO, an ex-member of The Move, and several others. His goal was to emulate Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound in a concert atmosphere, and at first, he succeeded. Right out of the box, Wizzard had two #1 singles in the U.K., “See My Baby Jive” and “Angel Fingers.”

Just in time for the Christmas season of 1973, Wizzard recorded “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.” It got to #4 in the British charts, but it was overwhelmed by Slade’s slab of holiday cheer, “Merry Xmas Everybody.” Regardless, it became a perennial, as it has made the British pop charts in 12 different years. It was a different story in the U.S.: The single wasn’t officially released here at all, though a white-label test pressing is known to exist.

In the years since, the song has been covered regularly by British artists, but rarely by Americans. An exception is the 2010 version by Wilson Phillips from their album Christmas in Harmony. Their cover, which was probably the first time most Americans had heard the song, was a Top 20 hit on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart that Christmas season.

Though common in England, the Wizzard version is quite rare in the States. Steve Van Zandt included it on his Little Steven’s Underground Garage Presents Christmas A-Go-Go compilation CD in 2008, and that might be the only time it’s ever been released on an American compact disc.

 

CSOTD 12/30/16: A train to Bethlehem?

In the early days of all-Christmas radio, it wasn’t the overly formatted mess that it is today; it was a more glorious mess. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 30 is one from those days, and one you almost never encounter on the air any more.

I first heard “Mary Had a Baby” by Bruce Cockburn in either 1997 or 1998. WLJY, a central Wisconsin radio station with an adult-contemporary format, became the first in that part of the country to go all-Christmas for a few weeks. If memory serves, it didn’t change over until around the first weekend of December and it kept playing holiday music until New Year’s. It called itself “The Holiday Light,” and, in those days before every commercial Christmas station sounded the same except those in really small towns, its playlist was eclectic. You could tell what CDs the station owned based on what it played; one it certainly had was Must Be Santa! The Rounder Christmas Album because it played many of the songs on that disc, even the strange ones.

It also evidently had Cockburn’s Christmas CD, which was released on both the Columbia (secular) and Myrrh (contemporary Christian) labels in 1993. (A side note: Until relatively recently, it was common for artists who had both secular and sacred followings to have their albums released simultaneously on different labels for both markets. Once most of the Christian labels were bought by the majors and once Christian stores adopted the same UPC codes as secular stores, separate releases ended. You now get the same CD on the same label whether you buy it at Walmart or Family Christian Stores.) One of the songs it played regularly was this rollicking version of a 19th century African American spiritual that usually is sung at a stately tempo.

“Mary Had a Baby” probably originated on the island of Saint Helena, off the coast of South Carolina in Beaufort County, which may have been an early port for the colonial slave trade. Based on the repeated line “People keep a-comin’ but the train done gone,” it dates from the 19th century, when the train served as a symbol of both salvation and escape in African American spirituals.  It is also a great example of the call-and-response song, where a leader sings a line and the congregation or choir echoes with a related line.

The song was first collected by Nicholas G.J. Ballanta in his 1925 book Saint Helena Island Spirituals. Recorded and transcribed at Penn Normal, Industrial and Agricultural School, Saint Helena Island, Beaufort County, South Carolina. A few years later, legendary spiritual arranger William Dawson published a choral version, and it spread from there. At least 20 verses are known to exist, and Cockburn sings most of them.

Cockburn (born 1945; his last name is pronounced as if it were spelled Coburn, as in the actor James Coburn) is a Canadian national treasure, with more than 30 albums to his name. He has won numerous Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent to the Grammy, and is in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He remains a cult figure in the United States; here, he has had only one big hit, “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” which peaked at #21 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1980, and he also gained some renown for his 1984 song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” Not all of his albums have been released in the U.S., but his Christmas album, which is filled with delights, was.

Here’s Bruce Cockburn’s version of “Mary Had a Baby.”

CSOTD 12/29/16: Christmas through generations of babies

One of the joys of collecting music is finding that unexpected treasure – not a monetary one, but an aural one. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 29 is one I wanted to feature a couple years ago, but it wasn’t on YouTube then. Fortunately, it is now.

I spent 18 years living in Wisconsin. In most of those years, I traveled to Minnesota for the Christmas holiday so I could spend time with a sister and her family who lives there and, later, with my mom after she moved from Pennsylvania. One year, at least 10 years ago by now, I was on my way home after my visit, and by then, radio stations with Christmas music on them were few (as I’ve said many times, I bemoan the fact that radio can’t wait to shut off the holiday cheer as soon as possible after 12:01 am December 26). I caught a mostly automated, somewhat low-power station based in western Wisconsin that was audible in certain parts of the Twin Cities metro area; I believe the station was WEVR-FM from River Falls, and it was playing a wonderful, country-sounding Christmas song about loving to watch the lights. I couldn’t stop humming that line! Once I got home, a lot of Internet searching finally yielded the title and artist – and I discovered, too, that I already had the CD in my collection. I love when that happens.

I am pretty sure that I’ve never again heard the song on the radio. But in the years since, I’ve included it on more than one Christmas CD mix, and I’ve played it on my own radio show at Sweet Briar College during the holidays, even though it’s five and a half minutes long. I want to share it with you today.

Kerri Sherwood (born 1959) is a pianist and singer who was born in New York and relocated to southeastern Wisconsin. She’s been a teacher, music minister, conductor and composer who has released both instrumental and vocal albums of many genres of music. She’s done three Christmas CDs, the first of which, The Lights: A Christmas Album, was released in 1996. (It’s also been released as simply A Christmas Album in a special edition sponsored by a Milwaukee-area bank and a radio station.)

Most of the CD consists of very nice piano instrumentals of famous carols. But she saved the best for last – “The Lights,” the title song of her disc. This was the song played on that Christmas long ago on that radio station in River Falls, Wisconsin that had me transfixed as I drove east on I-94 toward Eau Claire. She sings and plays piano, and is accompanied by fiddle, mandolin and percussion to give it a vaguely country-Americana feel. Sherwood sings about several generations of mothers on Christmas Day, and it leads her to think about Mary on that first Christmas. And she sums it up by thinking of her own child and how, some day, Sherwood will reminisce with her about the lights.

“The Lights” is probably rarely heard outside Wisconsin. Give yourself the five and a half minutes to listen to Kerri Sherwood sing about the joy of motherhood at Christmas.

CSOTD 12/28/16: Christmas the whole year through

Most of Bing Crosby’s best-known Christmas recordings are from his years at Decca Records. His first holiday single, seven years before “White Christmas,” coupled “Silent Night” and “Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)” in 1935, and he had his last Christmas single for the label in 1956.

After that, Bing became a free agent, leasing his music to whatever label would release it and rarely spending more than 2-3 years on any one label. Some of his best Christmas music came from his later years, but it’s mostly forgotten. The exceptions are “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, which he recorded as a single for Capitol in 1963, and the off-the-wall, but effective, duet with David Bowie from 1977, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy.”

During these years, he acted once in a while, too. Crosby starred in the 1959 film Say One for Me as a priest, which was not a stretch for him, as he had played a man of the cloth in the 1944 movie Going My Way. Say One for Me received mixed reviews at best and scathing ones at worst; it is listed in the groundbreaking 1978 book by Harry and Michael Medved, The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. The movie may not be all that great, but it did yield an underrated Christmas song.

Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, two regular contributors to the so-called Great American Songbook, wrote the music for Say One for Me. One of the songs talks about the importance of not merely being kind and giving on Christmas, but of doing the same the entire year. Entitled “The Secret of Christmas,” it appeared on the soundtrack of the film, which was released by Columbia in 1959. It also was released as a 45 that Christmas season.

“The Secret of Christmas” has been recorded by others over the years, including Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis, and The Captain & Tennille. Crosby himself did it more than once; he re-recorded it in 1964 with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians when he was with Reprise Records. I’ve found that the 1959 recording isn’t easy to find on CD, and the 1964 version is even more rare on shiny metal discs. I prefer the 1959 rendition myself.

Think about the lyrics as you listen to Bing Crosby sing “The Secret of Christmas.”

CSOTD 12/27/16: We will remember

A beautiful celebration of the season is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 27.

Lady Antebellum is composed of Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood, and Hilary Scott, the latter of whom famously was an American Idol reject. They formed in 2006, and in 2007 they made their recording debut as the featured artist on a Jim Brickman song, “Never Alone,”  followed by their self-titled debut album.

Their second album, in 2009, yielded one of the biggest crossover hits in recent memory, “Need You Now,” which got to #1 on the country and adult-contemporary singles charts and #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Just like that, Lady Antebellum had become one of America’s most popular groups. In time for the holiday season of 2010, they recorded a six-song extended-play CD that was available only in Target department stores, A Merry Little Christmas. All six of the songs on that disc made the country charts, and I heard four of them on the local all-Christmas station in 2010.

Two of the standards caught my ear: First, they recorded “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in 3/4 time, as a waltz, rather than the standard 4/4.  They were the first artists I heard to record Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” as a ballad, which gave the song a different spin and new life.  But the EP’s real standout was an original, “On This Winter’s Night.”

Co-written by all three members and Tom Douglas, “On This Winter’s Night” reflects on the joy of Christmas, both in the secular trimmings and the sacred significance. Kelley sings lead, with harmonies from Scott and Haywood, and a children’s choir enters during the second chorus. I remember it getting a decent amount of airplay in the 2010 holiday season, but I haven’t heard it very often in the time since.

In 2012, when Lady Antebellum released a full-length Christmas CD, comprising the six songs from the Target album and four new recordings, they named it On This Winter’s Night.  The song really deserves to become a standard.

 

 

 

CSOTD 12/26/16: Still opening those toys

Once again, I am continuing my Christmas Song of the Day feature until the end of December. As I’ve said before, in the olden days, Christmas was the start of the 12 Days of Christmas and not the end, and one of my pet peeves with radio stations that play holiday music is that they cut it off abruptly at the end of December 25, if not before.

The Christmas Song of the Day for December 26 is a tribute to all the parents out there for whom wrapping presents, then waking up before the break of dawn to watch the kids open them, was only the start of the battle.

I don’t have any children and (probably) never will. But I’ve been a visitor at several of my sisters’ homes for various Christmases when their children were younger. I’ve seen first-hand the struggles of opening those desired toys, which often come hermetically sealed in the most ridiculous molded plastic packages ever devised by man.

One of the many joys I found when I was exploring my CD collection this year was the album O Holy Night by Sara Groves, a contemporary Christian singer. Recorded in 2008, O Holy Night is filled with unexpected pleasures, including great versions of seldom covered songs like “A Cradle in Bethlehem”; traditional lyrics set to new melodies, such as her version of the title song; and some excellent originals. “Toy Packaging,” a short ditty worthy of Dr. Demento, is one of the latter.

In the song, Groves bemoans how difficult it is to extricate those doggone toys from that awful plastic. As Christmas morning dissolves into Christmas night, she resorts to more and more extreme measures (if you haven’t heard the song, I won’t spoil it; the first time I heard it, I literally laughed out loud). And even then, it’s hard to say if it worked.

Here’s the wonderfully whimsical, yet all-too-true, song about “Toy Packaging.”

CSOTD 12/25/16: The plow will bury the sword

Merry Christmas everyone!  I hope you’ve enjoyed my Christmas Song of the Day feature again this year, and I hope it has added to your enjoyment of the season. Perhaps you discovered a new favorite song you’ll want to make part of your own holiday traditions.

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 25 is one I’ve known for almost 50 years. I first heard it in 1967, when my parents bought the album A Very Merry Christmas at the local W.T. Grant store, which at the time was in the Souderton Shopping Center just outside Souderton, Pa. (I grew up in neighboring Telford.) It was the first “grown-up” album I can remember being allowed to play on my dad’s stereo system, and I really liked it. It started my lifelong love of Christmas music.

Probably because of the kind of music we listened to on records (i.e., kiddie records for us and my dad’s classical albums for him), there was a disconnect between what was on LP and what was on the radio. They seemed to be two different universes. And then, I heard today’s song on the radio. For the first time, something we had on record was coming from the FM dial! It was yet another life-altering event.

The song that bridged the gap between records and radio was “Touch Hands on Christmas Morning” by Mike Douglas.

Douglas was a well-known daytime talk-show host based in Philadelphia. His nationally syndicated show started a couple years before Merv Griffin’s similar program; for years, they dominated daytime talk until Phil Donahue came along. For the most part, Douglas’ show was a mellower version of The Tonight Show, with celebrity chit-chat and music.

It turned out that Douglas could sing, too. In early 1966, at the same time that “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys and “Nowhere Man” by the Beatles were in the top 10, his salute to “The Men in My Little Girl’s Life” was right there with them. He would go on to make several LPs, one of which was a Christmas album in 1967. A year before the holiday LP, “Touch Hands on Christmas Morning” was issued as one side of a 45.

The song has some great lyrics, including its chorus: “Pray that with tomorrow, the plow will bury the sword,” a restatement of the theme of “peace on earth” found in both Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3 in the Old Testament. It’s an uplifting number for a glorious Christmas Day, and I hope you find it that way, too.