CSOTD 12/15/19: The world begins again

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 15 was all over the radio during the holiday season of 2005. And because it was ambiguous enough to work at any time of the year, I continued to hear it into the early part of 2006. I can probably count on one hand, two hands at the most, the number of times I’ve heard it on the radio in the years since.

Though their first album came out in 1987, the Goo Goo Dolls didn’t really becone popular until the mid-1990s, when many bands falling under the wide umbrella of “alt-rock” began to have hit songs and best-selling albums. The band’s biggest hit came in 1998 with the song “Iris,” fron the film City of Angels, which topped the Billboard airplay charts for a record 18 weeks. Had their record label chosen to release a physical single, which it didn’t (not even on 45), “Iris” likely would have spent at least a few of those weeks at #1 on the Hot 100.

The Goo Goo Dolls continued to have hits well into the first decade of the 2000s, unlike many of their contemporaries. Just in tine for the Christmas season of 2005, the band released “Better Days,” the preview song from its upcoming album Let Love In. No commercial single was issued, but you could buy it before the album came out on a most unlikely place: on the Target department-store chain’s exclusive 2005 Christmas album, Sounds of the Season: The NBC Holiday Collection. This certainly indicates that, at least initially, “Better Days” was seen as a holiday song. Certainly its lyrics, written by lead singer John Rzeznik, are very much in keeping with the ideals of the Christmas season, with requests for better days rather than presents and the exhortation that “everyone is forgiven now, ’cause tonight’s the night the world begins again.”

“Better Days” was a hit in 2005-06, peaking at #36 on the Hot 100, #17 on the lighter-fare Adult Contemporary chart, and #3 on the Adult Top 40 airplay chart. It spent 20 straight weeks in the Hot 100, thus illustrating its appeal beyond the holidays. I thought it would become a perennial, but it hasn’t.

CSOTD 12/14/19: Vee is not for victory

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 14 is another of those songs reminiscing about a lost love at the holidays. It even sounds as if could have been a minor hit in the early 1960s, when it came out. But the record label, despite assigning a catalog number, chose not to release it as a single.

Robert Thomas Velline, better known as Bobby Vee (1943-2016), was one of the most popular singers in the U.S. between 1959 and 1964. He famously replaced Buddy Holly on the Winter Dance Party after the plane crash that killed Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens on February 3, 1959; Vee’s first 45, “Suzie Baby,” was very much in the Holly vein. But after his follow-ups failed to click, he would develop a more mainstream singing style with great success. His biggest hit would be “Take Good Care of My Baby,” a #1 hit in 1961.

One of his other hits, “Run to Him,” had a distinctive string-based intro, and a very similar intro was used on “A Not So Merry Christmas.” Liberty Records assigned it the catalog number of 55517 with a scheduled release in time for the Christmas season of 1962, but there is no evidence that it ever came out. Instead, it served as one of the new songs on the album Merry Christmas from Bobby Vee, which was released the same year.

In “A Not So Merry Christmas,” Vee thinks of many of the secular things thst make the season so special, and that things just won’t be the same because his love has gone. Though not upbeat, the song does move along; this is no cry-in-your-wassail ballad. Enjoy the hit that could have been.

CSOTD 12/13/19: Taylor-made on the farm

Regardless what you think of Taylor Swift (born 1989), there is little question that she was both the most popular and most important singer/songwriter of the 2010s. Even after most people stopped buying albums and listened to the music via streaming and cultivated playlists, she still sells boatloads of records and CDs.

In the wake of a busy 2019, which featured one of the year’s best-selling albums (Lover), a Golden Globe-nominated song from the movie Cats co-written with Andrew Lloyd Webber (“Beautiful Ghosts”), and the much-publicized battle with her old record company for the rights to the hit versions of her music (which she lost), Swift unexpectedly released a Christmas song on December 5, 2019, “Christmas Tree Farm.” This song, which I hope will become a holiday classic, is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 13.

Swift was born in Reading, Pa., in Berks County, about 50 miles west of Philadelphia. As a kid, she lived in neighboring Wyomissing, on a working Christmas tree farm that her father, a stockbroker, had purchased from a client. Swift uses the imagery of a Christmas tree farm as a return to innocence from the modern-day hustle and bustle; it also gives the song’s narrator a chance to remember a long-lost love.

To me, it covers some of the same territory as Swift’s amazing “Christmases When You Were Mine,” my Christmas Song of the Day for December 9, 2017, but from a greater distance.

“Christmas Tree Farm” wasn’t released in time to make its way this year to holiday-radio playlists, which often are compiled months in advance. Don’t be surprised if you hear it more often in the future.

By the way: I swear I didn’t plan it this way, but today is her birthday!

CSOTD 12/12/19: A gentle reminder of 9/11

I have a hard time with my Christmas Song of the Day for December 12. It’s filled with cliches, which is nothing out of the ordinary for a Christmas song. It’s also been the subject of some of the same kind of misinterpretation as “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen. (If you dare, read a few of the comments on the video for proof.) And it’s not only rarely on the radio these days, it’s almost impossible to buy as well.

But in the end, I choose to like it. Let me re-introduce you to “Christmas in America” by Pat Benatar.

Benatar (born 1953) was one of the most regular hitmakers of the 1980s; to steal a line from one of her most famous hits, she was a real tough cookie with a long history. After “All Fired Up” made the top 20 in 1988, the hits dried up, but she continued to perform and sometimes record with her husband, Neil Giraldo (born 1955). By 2001, Benatar had not released a new album in four years.

Then 9/11 happened.

The Giraldo family was on the West Coast nearing the end of its annual summer tour. The night of September 11, 2001, Benatar was scheduled to perform at an outdoor venue in Napa Valley, California. After much back-and-forth, first in her own mind, then with the promoters, and finally with people who wanted to attend despite (or because of) what had happened earlier that day, the show went on. And Benatar and her audience found the concert to be cathartic. She sat on a stool between songs and talked more than usual, in essence having a conversation with the crowd. That night, the concert opened with “America the Beautiful” followed by her 1985 hit “Invincible,” a song that took on new meaning in the wake of the attack. At one point during the show, Benatar recalled in her 2010 autobiography Between a Heart and a Rock Place, an audience member wondered aloud about the 2001 holiday season:

“How are we gonna have Christmas? How will anyone feel like celebrating?” one person called out. “Oh, we’re gonna have Christmas,” I shouted back. “We’re gonna do what we do best: pick ourselves up and move forward. We are going to have Christmas!”

This started the idea for the song that became “Christmas in America.” Back at the hotel room that night, Benatar wrote down some of the things her audience had said at the show — in sadness, anger, determination, love and raw emotion. All of this was reflected in the song. Perhaps that’s why the lyrics wander all over the place and are filled with cliches. But I can hear the understated sincerity in Benatar’s delivery. Had “Christmas in America” been released any time other than in the wake of 9/11, it probably wouldn’t have worked.

The song was released as a CD single that fall, with proceeds going to 9/11 relief efforts. I remember trying to find it in the areas I traveled that Christmas season, and I couldn’t locate it anywhere.

The first time I heard it on the radio, in December 2001, I recall that I was parked on Main Street in Iola, Wisconsin about to run a holiday-related errand. I actually cried. I imagine that many other Americans had the same reaction when they first heard it.

“Christmas in America” peaked at #22 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart that holiday season. It was issued as a bonus track on Benatar’s 2003 album Go, and it appeared on one other CD I know of: a Salt Lake City, Utah radio-station Christmas compilation released in 2002, An FM100 Continuous Soft Hits Christmas, Volume 2. In other words, it’s not easy to find. But you can still hear it.

By the way, I know of at least three other songs called “Christmas in America,” by Kenny Rogers, Crystal Gayle, and Melissa Etheridge, and there may be more. But Pat Benatar’s is my favorite.

CSOTD 12/11/19: Make up your mind, Clint

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 11 has a significant identity crisis. Over the years, the same exact recording has been released with three different titles, and occasionally more than one at the same time. We’ll try to sort it out as you enjoy a ditty that almost never gets played except on country stations.

One could argue that 1989 was one of the great years for country debuts; Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Clint Black all released their first albums that year. Of the three, Black was quickest out of the gate, as his first four singles hit #1 on the country charts.

Black’s label, RCA, started releasing periodic collections of new and recent country Christmas recordings in 1982; one of the decade’s biggest country Christmas hits, “Christmas in Dixie” by Alabama, was released on one of these albums (and as a 45) several years before it appeared on Alabama’s first Christmas album. In 1990, RCA issued two different country CDs for the holidays, Home for the Holidays (catalog number 2276-2-R) and A Season of Harmony (catalog number 2388-7-R). The two have five songs in common; one of those is an original Christmas song written by Black and frequent collaborator Hayden Nicholas.

On both these CDs and a simultaneous 45 rpm single release (RCA 3709-7-R), Clint’s new Christmas song is called “‘Til Santa’s Gone (I Just Can’t Wait).”

The first several years the song was out, it didn’t get enough airplay to make the Billboard country charts. It did start to appear on third-party compilations; for example, it was on Happy Holidays, Volume 28 from True Value Hardware in 1993.

Two years later, in 1995, the same recording as on the 1990 holiday CDs appeared on Clint Black’s own album, Looking for Christmas (RCA 66593-2). Here’s where the song-title confusion begins.

Perhaps to emphasize one of the more prominent phrases in the song, it was retitled “‘Til Santa’s Gone (Milk and Cookies)” on this CD. Curiously, also in 1995, the song appeared on the RCA compilation A Country Christmas, Volume 5 (catalog number 66573-2), and on that one, the song maintained the original “I Just Can’t Wait” subtitle!

The song made its Billboard country singles chart debut during the 1995 holiday season, only five years after it was first released; on the printed chart, the “Milk and Cookies” subtitle was used.

I can’t find any significant reason why, but during the 1998 Christmas season, when the song returned to the Billboard country airplay chart, the listed title reverted to the “I Just Can’t Wait” subtitle, and it would appear that way in 1999 as well. In the Joel Whitburn book Christmas on the Charts, he implied that “I Just Can’t Wait” was the second subtitle when it was actually the first. Confused yet?

Wait! It gets better!

In 2004, Black’s new label, Equity Music Group, released a CD called Christmas with You. At first glance, it looked like a new holiday album; actually, it was a re-release of Looking for Christmas with only two new songs.

Clint couldn’t leave well enough alone with his oldest Christmas song; on this album, the title was now “Milk and Cookies (‘Til Santa’s Gone).”

That is where the story rests for now.

As for me, I still call it by its original title, “‘Til Santa’s Gone (I Just Can’t Wait),” just as I still prefer “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)” for the song that starts “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” Whatever you choose to call it, here it is.

CSOTD 12/10/19: Lost in the fog

If all you know of the British hard-rock band Foghat is their biggest and most enduring hit, the 1976 Top 20 single “Slow Ride,” my Christmas Song of the Day for December 10 likely will come as a surprise.

I can’t say that I’m an expert on Foghat, but I’ve heard enough of their music to know that they were quite versatile. They had originated as an offshoot of the British blues band Savoy Brown in the early 1970s, so it’s probably no surprise that another of their Top 40 hits (they had five in all) was a live version of the Muddy Waters hit “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” In late 1979, Foghat had its second biggest hit with a mid-tempo love song that I really liked at the time but now has been all but forgotten, “Third Time Lucky (First Time I Was a Fool).”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there wasn’t much of a market for Christmas music outside of the easy listening and adult contemporary genres, and it was still decidedly uncool for hard rockers. But Foghat recorded enough Christmas music over the years for at least an EP.

Before Mariah Carey basically retired the title for good, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was a reasonably common name for a holiday song: Including Carey’s, I know of five different songs with that name, and a sixth started with the line “All I want for Christmas is you” (“A Christmas Love Song” by the Manhattan Transfer, my Christmas Song of the Day for December 20, 2017).

In 1981, Foghat released a promo-only 45 called “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” written by the band’s lead singer, “Lonesome Dave” Peverett. It’s a delightful romp firmly rooted in rockabilly, of all things, complete with Chuck Berry-like guitar riffs and piano and the wonderful overuse of echo.

I think I first heard this on The Christmas Rock Album, a 1987 compilation on the Priority label that is still fabulous after all these years; almost all of its contents made their LP debut here, and I think it was the first place “All I Want for Christmas Is You” could be found in the U.S. other than on that promo-only 45.

In 1994, the CD Billboard Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas on the Rhino label contained a previously unreleased extended version; the longer version doesn’t add much to the song except some saxophone. (The single version fades shortly after the final “Ho, ho, ho.”) Alas, I couldn’t find the single length on YouTube, so here’s the extended version. It would be nice to hear this on the radio in place of that same-titled Mariah Carey song once in a while.

CSOTD 12/9/19: The wizardry of Osmonds

Some people might consider Meredith Willson (1902-1984) the Broadway equivalent of a one-hit wonder, for his enduring musical The Music Man. But he did write another successful musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and a third that was less successful. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 9 comes from that final one.

A musical based on the classic Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street isn’t a bad idea, but the final product, called Here’s Love, didn’t have the staying power of Willson’s earlier two hits. It opened on Broadway on October 3, 1963, but closed on July 25, 1964, after 334 performances and two previews — a lackluster showing for its era.

Only one reasonably well-known song came from Here’s Love. Interestingly, part of it already had been a hit years before.

In 1951, “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas,” a Willson composition, was a hit for Perry Como with the Fontane Sisters and also was covered in a less successful, but more often heard today, version by Bing Crosby the same year. For Here’s Love, Willson incorporated his previous hit with a new counterpoint, “Pine Cones and Holly Berries.”

The medley remained fairly obscure until it was recorded by the Osmonds on their sprawling two-record set, The Osmonds’ Christmas Album, in 1976. (I can’t think of very many Christmas albums, other than compilations, that last for two records. Even during the CD era, most single-artist holiday albums would fit comfortably on one record had they been manufactured that way.) The Osmonds’ version ended up on the Rhino Records CD Have a Nice Christmas! Holiday Hits of the ’70s, and a few more adventurous radio programmers felt that the wonderfully syrupy version would work on the air. To these ears, it does, but you still don’t hear it very much.

Here’s the Osmonds’ version of “Pine Cones and Holly Berries”:

Just for kicks, this is the rendition from the 1963 original cast album of Here’s Love, sung by Laurence Naismith, Janis Paige, and Fred Gwynne: