CSOTD 12/31/2022: The happiest New Year

Another year of the Christmas Song of the Day ends today. My choice for December 31 is one I first heard when I was a kid back in the 1960s, but only sporadically in the years since. It’s best known as a collaboration between two 20th Century musical giants, but they didn’t originate it.

Les Brown (1912-2001) formed his first band when he was a student at Duke University in Durham, N.C. This touring group became the core of his Band of Renown, which officially was founded in 1938. Brown signed with the OKeh label, Columbia’s home for most big bands and folk singers, in 1940; his band had its first hit, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” in 1941. After the 1942 recording ban, Brown’s band was reassigned to parent label Columbia; in 1945, they had their biggest hit, “Sentimental Journey,” featuring lead vocalist Doris Day.

With vocalists now the focus of the record industry, the bands became less relevant to their old labels. In 1951, Brown moved to the Coral label, and then to Capitol in 1955. After a couple more label changes, by 1961 the Band of Renown was back on Columbia.

For the Christmas season of 1961, Columbia assembled an album, We Wish You the Merriest: An All-Star Christmas, with mostly artists who either never did or had yet to record a full Christmas album. Brown contributed a song he wrote himself, which ended up being the sort-of title track, “We Wish You the Merriest.” This short song was a brassy celebration of both the Christmas and New Year’s season.

As enjoyable as the album was, it was out of print by 1964. That year, “We Wish You the Merriest” received its most notable cover.

It’s possible that none of the three artists involved wanted to record a full Christmas album, as each already had done so in the past. Instead, Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) and Bing Crosby (1903-1977) collaborated with Fred Waring (1900-1984) and His Pennsylvanians on 12 Songs of Christmas. The album’s liner notes stated that the LP was a companion piece to an album the three had recorded earlier in 1964, America, I Hear You Singing. The Christmas album remained in print on record well into the 1970s, but I don’t think it’s ever been reissued on CD in its entirety. All the tracks with Sinatra have, but I’m not sure about the non-Sinatra songs with Crosby or Waring.

The triumvirate closed the album with their version of “We Wish You the Merriest,” which I first heard on the radio way back in the 1960s. I found a copy of the original LP, probably in the 1980s, and there I found the song I probably hadn’t heard in 15-20 years. In the years since, I found out it had been released as a 45, and I have that in my collection now, too.

A few versions have come out since 1964, but the Sinatra/Crosby/Waring recording still sticks out. Here’s their version of “We Wish You the Merriest”:

And for comparison’s sake, here’s the original by Les Brown:

Thank you once again for following the Christmas Song of the Day. I really appreciate you!

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CSOTD 12/30/2022: Peace and joy to you

I had a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit this year. Between a viral bug that refused to let go, which ruined much of November and part of December, and a lot of the usual self-doubt, it took until basically a week before the big day. But I finally did.

As I was still trying to capture the magic this year, I found myself on YouTube, which of course I use to find the versions of the Christmas Song of the Day that I add to these posts. And among the suggestions that popped up was the 1978 PBS special Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. I remember seeing this show on television when I was in college, and thus much older than the target audience. It certainly wasn’t when it debuted, which was December 3, 1978, because I would have still been at school. I saw it after I’d arrived home from college for Christmas break one year, either 1979 or 1980; I happened upon it trying to find something to watch. I was most likely by myself at the time, because I likely never would have heard the end of it from my younger siblings as a college kid watching something related to Sesame Street. My memory from back then was that I found it oddly moving for what was supposed to be a kids’ show.

Well, I decided to re-watch it. There were many things I’d forgotten – Cookie Monster’s hilarious attempts to write a letter to Santa Claus, for example – but I remembered the primary focus of the show: Oscar the Grouch plants the seed of doubt in the head of Big Bird about the existence of Santa Claus. I found myself liking it as much in 2022 as I had 40-plus years ago; I also fully understood some of the references that would have flown over my head back then.

Anyway, Christmas Eve on Sesame Street included several songs, both new and old. One of them is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 30.

The charming “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year)” was used twice in the show. Its use in the end credits is where I paid most attention, because the lyrics were shown on the screen, so one could sing along.

The song was written by David Axelrod (1931-2017) and Sam Pottle (1934-1978) for the 1975 album Merry Christmas from Sesame Street. In the years before writing for Sesame Street, Axelrod was a performer and producer for Capitol Records, most notably producing albums for Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley. Pottle, who wrote for musical theater in the 1960s, began writing for Sesame Street in 1974, with dozens of songs to his credit. He also co-wrote the theme for the adult spin-off, The Muppet Show.

The members of the cast who appear on the 1975 original are Susan (Loretta Long), Gordon (Roscoe Ormam), Big Bird (Carroll Spinney), Luis (Emilio Delgado), David (Northern Calloway), Bob (Bob McGrath), Prairie Dawn (Fran Brill), and Ernie (Jim Henson). In Christmas Eve, in addition to its use as the closing song, it is shown in a scene where the kids are signing the song with a deaf friend. Over time, “Keep Christmas With You” became a showcase for McGrath (1932-2022), who often sang it either solo or as primary singer.

Various Sesame Street Christmas programs have used the song frequently in the years since, as its message is every bit as resonant today as it was in 1975. Some members of the cast performed the song with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square (formerly the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) in 2014; the concert was issued on CD and DVD in 2015.

A rare non-Sesame Street version was released by Nova Scotia native Katherine Penfold in 2017. It served as the title song of her holiday CD released the same year.

Here’s the original 1975 version:

This is the version from Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978) where the cast is signing the song:

Finally, here’s the 2017 version by Katherine Penfold:

CSOTD 12/29/2022: A future is shining

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 29 is not the usual retelling of the birth of Christ and its aftermath.

I’ve featured the music of Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn (born 1945) before. But this is one that does not appear on his 1993 album Christmas, which is likely why I’d missed it for so long.

“I wanted to write a Christmas song,” Cockburn told Paul Zollo in the magazine SongTalk in 1994. “I went at it like trying to tell the Bible story but put it in modern terms. … I thought the story in the Bible is such an interesting story, but you forget how interesting it is because it’s held up as a cliche so much to us. And over the years people have lost their humanity, who are in the story, and they’ve become larger-than-life figures. And I just thought it would be interesting to play at putting them in a human context. So Mary becomes a little bit shrewish and has a little bit of an attitude.”

In Cockburn’s song, “Cry of a Tiny Babe,” from his 1991 album Nothing But a Burning Light, Joseph thinks Mary has been sleeping around, a paranoid Herod sends death squads after the Babe, and the Savior reveals himself to, as the lyrics state, hookers and bums. It sounds irreverent, but this is not the case at all. According to Cockburn in a 1991 interview, session drummer Jim Keltner broke down in tears. “Well, he didn’t break down – he kept playing – but he was fighting it off throughout the song because he was so moved by what was going on.”

The song is seven and a half minutes long, which likely is why it isn’t on the radio much, if at all. But in listening to it for this post, I never once wanted to shut it off. Here’s the studio version of “Cry of a Tiny Babe.”

CSOTD 12/28/2022: Twelve days of classical fun

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is one of the most familiar traditional non-religious Christmas songs. It, along with “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” are the best-known examples of what is known as a cumulative song, in which each verse builds upon the one before. It is believed that this type of song originally served either as a memory builder or as a game.

The song is either of English or French origin, with the former more likely. The words were first published in London in 1780, implying it had been around before then. Over a period of more than a century, the list of gifts varied somewhat; the final version, more or less, was codified by Frederic Austin (1872-1952) in 1909.

I wish to clear up two stories about the song, one true, one false. First, it is true that the oldest versions refer to “four colly birds” (blackbirds) rather than “four calling birds,” which is in the 1909 version. So if you see a reference to “colly birds,” it’s not wrong, but archaic. Second, it is false that the gifts have some coded theological meaning for persecuted Catholics in England; this claim seems to have been made up around 1979 and then expounded upon during the 1980s. As one who grew up Catholic, if this was true, I would have heard about it in Sunday school or in the halls of the University of Notre Dame, and I didn’t. Even now, I sometimes see this urban legend posted as fact. It’s not.

Anyway, back to the song: Outside the context of a “memory and forfeits” game, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is pretty boring. In fact, the version recorded by the Chipmunks in 1963 has Alvin complaining about the song’s length, including him saying “I’m getting tired” and “Can we stop now, Dave?” This may be why it is the most parodied of all songs associated with this time of year.

Even those artists who sing it relatively straight add some flourishes to keep it interesting, from the slowed-down “seven swans a-swimming” in Perry Como’s version, to the addition of the word “gaily” in later verses of the Ray Conniff Singers version, to the way Miss Piggy, pardon the expression, hams it up when she sings “five gold rings – ba-dum-bum-bum” in the Muppets’ version with John Denver.

As for the variations, Andy Williams (“a song and a Christmas tree”), Allan Sherman (“a Japanese transistor radio”), and the Sinatra Family (“a most lovely lavender tie”) sang it with different sets of gifts, as did Canadians Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas under the name “Bob and Doug McKenzie” (“a beer… in a tree”). Jeff Foxworthy created a “Redneck 12 Days of Christmas.” Radio DJ Bob Rivers came up with the “Twelve Pains of Christmas,” describing different annoying aspects of the holiday season. More recently, the a cappella group Straight No Chaser decided that the “12 Days of Christmas” should be sung to the tune of Toto’s hit song “Africa.” And then there are the “Twelve Days After Christmas,” a popular choral number written by Frederick Silver in which the recipient tells the true love what was done with all those goofy gifts – and it’s not pretty. And this is far from a complete list.

This, at last, in almost as long a buildup as the song itself, gets us to the version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that serves as my Christmas Song of the Day for December 28.

Craig Courtney (born 1948) wrote “A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas” as a commissioned work for the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony Chorus and its 1990 Holiday Pops Concert. The piece then was published in 1991. Each verse of the song is set in a different style of classical music, from the first day as Gregorian chant to the twelfth day as…oh, I won’t ruin the surprises if you haven’t heard it before. It’s one of Courtney’s most popular works, and every couple years or so, he posts the sources of each verse on his Facebook page. I’ll add them to the end of this article, after the link to YouTube.

I first learned of this fun piece in 2014, when the Jefferson Choral Society of Lynchburg, Va., of which I am a member, performed it for its Christmas concert. We pulled it out again for our 2022 concert. It’s always enjoyable to watch and listen to the reactions of audience members as each day is sung in a different style.

“A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas” has been performed by countless groups over the years. Possibly its high point is when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with its hundreds of voices and large orchestra, recorded it in front of a live audience for its 1994 CD This Is Christmas.

This is the version I present today. It’s long (12 minutes), but worth it. Have fun with “A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas” by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

A spoiler alert from Craig Courtney himself, from his Facebook page:

I often get asked which classical pieces A Musical Journey Into the 12 Days of Christmas are based on. Here they are:

  • Day 1: Gregorian Chant
  • Day 2: Ars Nova
  • Day 3: In the style of Palestrina
  • Day 4: Vivaldi’s Gloria
  • Day 5: In the style of C.P.E. Bach
  • Day 6: In the style of Mozart
  • Day 7: Saint-Saens’ The Swan
  • Day 8: Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries
  • Day 9: Strauss’s Emperor Waltz
  • Day 10: Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours
  • Day 11: Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Reed Pipes
  • Day 12: Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever

(A version of this entry was my Facebook-only Christmas Song of the Day for December 30, 2014.)

CSOTD 12/27/2022: It’s mighty dark

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 27 is more whimsical than most I feature in this series. It’s not obviously a Christmas song by its title, and everyone involved is better known for other songs. But it was a minor hit in 1953, and it’s evidence that mistletoe wasn’t necessary for yuletide osculation.

Our story begins in the early 1940s. Two sisters, Bea Rosse (1915-2002) and Marge Rosse (1917-2003), joined with older brother Frank Rosse (1914-1945) as The Ross Trio, who were signed by NBC radio and assigned to perform in Cleveland even though they were from New Jersey, just outside New York City. Returning to New York in 1944, Frank was drafted and was killed in action during the waning months of World War II. Bea and Marge continued the act with younger sister Geri Rosse (1921-1993), and in 1946, they adopted the name of The Fontaine Sisters; Fontaine was the surname of a French-Canadian great-grandmother. After recording four sides for the Musicraft lanel in 1946, they dropped the I from their name and became The Fontane Sisters.

By now in Chicago, early in their postwar career, they met Perry Como (1912-2001). Changes in NBC’s radio lineup allowed the Fontanes to join Como and return to New York, closer to home. Around this time, they signed to RCA Victor, also Como’s label, and regularly were paired with the singer on record, a la the Andrews Sisters with Bing Crosby on Decca.

But unlike the Andrews Sisters, who had many hits by themselves, the Fontane Sisters had a hard time escaping Como’s shadow. The Fontanes made the Billboard pop charts 13 times with Como, including two #1 hits on the Most Played by Disc Jockeys chart, “A – You’re Adorable” (1949) and “Hoop-De-Doo” (1950). They also recorded the biggest hit version of “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas” in 1951. But by themselves, the best the Fontane Sisters could do with RCA Victor was a cover of “I Wanna Be Loved” (#11 on the Disc Jockey chart in 1950); the biggest hit version was by the Andrews Sisters.

In 1954, the Fontane Sisters signed with Dot Records, for which they had a great deal of success, mostly with white-bread covers of R&B songs. Their second Dot single, “Hearts of Stone,” a cover of the Charms’ cover of the Jewels’ original, got all the way to #1 on the Billboard Best Sellers and Most Played on Jukeboxes charts. Except for one last album in 1963, the Fontane Sisters retired the act in 1961.

Before they left RCA Victor, the Fontanes recorded several Christmas songs. The last of these was “Kissing Bridge,” about a covered bridge in the country where couples liked to go on sleigh rides to kiss at Christmas, or for that matter, any time of the year. By 1953, covered bridges were becoming increasingly rare as they were replaced by more modern spans that were easier to maintain. During their heyday in the mid-19th century, as many as 14,000 covered bridges were built; only about 750 remained as of the early 2000s, mostly in the North and East. So already, there was a certain amount of nostalgia and mystique about them. Oh, and even in daylight, they were dark, which made them a great place to steal a kiss or two.

“Kissing Bridge” was written by the songwriting duo of Al Stillman (1901-79) and Robert Allen (1927-2000). As a duo, they wrote many more famous songs, including “Moments to Remember” (1955, a big hit for the Four Lads), “It’s Not for Me to Say” and “Chances Are” (1957, both for Johnny Mathis), and, a year after “Kissing Bridge,” the classic Christmas song “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays,” a big hit for Como.

The Fontanes were joined on the song by an unknown male trio; at least I couldn’t find out who they were. And about 55 seconds into the song, a famous voice sang a verse of the song; it was none other than Como, who was not credited on the single, either on 45 or 78. This no doubt was intentional, as the Fontanes had not had a big hit in three years without him. But his disembodied head hovers over those of the sisters on the single’s picture sleeve.

In 1953, the Billboard charts had only 20 spots on them. Had the charts even had 25 places, which they did earlier in the decade, “Kissing Bridge” likely would have charted. It did get to #21 on the Cash Box charts. And it promptly vanished into oblivion.

CSOTD 12/26/2022: The mothers mourn

The Christmas season isn’t over yet! Traditionally, the twelve days of Christmas started on December 25 and lasted into early January. I will compromise based on modern sensibilities, as always, by continuing the Christmas Song of the Day through December 31. I hope you continue to read along until then (and beyond, if you want to explore eight years of entries; if you’ve liked what you’ve seen, please do!)

In many past years, I’ve chosen a traditional, but lesser-known, song of the season for my December 26 Christmas Song of the Day. My entry for this year is no exception.

Several areas of England have carols named after them. One of the best known, but still relatively obscure, is from a city northwest of London and just east of Birmingham, the song known today as “Coventry Carol.”

Back in 2009, I helped compile a Christmas CD for the choir I belonged to at the time, the Wisconsin Master Chorale of Stevens Point, Wis. I used recordings from the first few years of the chorale’s existence, chose 20 of the best performances from our Christmas concerts, did some minor remastering, designed the cover, and wrote the liner notes. The result was A Wisconsin Master Chorale Christmas, and the first pressing of 100 (it was only sold at our concerts and through choir members and didn’t have a bar code) sold out. Anyway, one of the songs I included was “Coventry Carol,” and I called it in the liner notes an illustration of the dark side of Christmas.

The song is set shortly after Christ’s birth, based on the account in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 2, verses 16-18) in which King Herod is said to have ordered the massacre of all infants two years and younger; tipped off earlier (Matthew ch. 2, vss. 13-15) by an angel of the Lord, Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt with the Child before the slaughter. Though King Herod was by all secular accounts a cruel ruler, historians and even many Biblical scholars believe that the Massacre of the Innocents never took place.

Regardless, “Coventry Carol” was part of one of the Coventry Mystery Plays, which told stories from the Bible in story and song and were very popular in their day. Many of these were created, but only two are known to exist today, as they were suppressed in 1579 under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I and mostly lost. They were seen as a part of England’s Catholic past, and the Protestant rulers of the day tried to end these traditions, often brutally.

“Coventry Carol” was the second of three songs included in a larger work, The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, which covers the period in Matthew’s Gospel from the Annunciation to the Massacre of the Innocents. In the context of the play, the song is a lullaby sung by mothers of several children who are about to meet their undeserved fate, which makes it especially dark.

The first mention of the Coventry mystery-play tradition was in 1392. In 1534, Robert Croo (or Crewe), who acted as manager of the mystery plays, made copies by hand of two of the plays, which survived until 1879, when they were lost in a fire. Fortunately, a historian named Thomas Sharp was able to gain access to many of the ancient Coventry documents and made extensive notes and copies from them. No later than 1807, he had shared “Coventry Carol” with an antiquarian friend, and the song was eventually published widely.

Amazingly, to this day we use the same basic melody to the words that were sung in Coventry. Croo’s original manuscript was edited by Thomas Mawdycke in 1591 to include the tune, which was originally three-part harmony (most choral arrangements since have added a fourth part). As this was after the mystery plays had been banned, this may have been in an unsuccessful attempt to revive them. The tune is assumed to date from long before 1591.

Perhaps the greatest miracle is that the song has survived at all, much less the way it was almost 600 years ago.

I now will present three renditions of “Coventry Carol.” There are dozens more on YouTube.

First, here’s the Choir of The Queen’s College from Oxford with the Martin Shaw arrangement, which is the same arrangement the Wisconsin Master Chorale sang on the CD I mentioned earlier.

Next is probably the most frequently heard version, by Alison Moyet (born 1961), originally from the Essex region of England. Before going solo, she had been half of the duo Yazoo (Yaz in the USA), best known here for the dance hit “Situation.” Her version is on the multi-platinum 1987 album A Very Special Christmas.

Finally, here’s the version recorded by Lancashire native Christine McVie (1943-2022), first released in 1993 on the Steve Vaus charity compilation The Stars Come Out for Christmas, Volume V and on a few CDs in the years since. It’s the only song associated with the season McVie is known to have recorded, which is why I chose to include it (she cut two verses).

CSOTD 12/25/2022: Let the earth receive her King

Merry Christmas! I hope this season has been good to you, however and wherever you celebrate. As always, we’ll continue the Christmas Song of the Day through December 31, so stay tuned.

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 25 is a true celebration of the central event of the holiday for Christians – the birth of Christ. Unlike, say, “Silent Night,” which is quiet and reverent, “What a Glorious Night” is joyful and raucous until near the end.

This modern version of the Gospel According to Luke, chapter 2, verses 8 through 18, was released in 2013. I heard it a fair amount on Christian radio the following holiday season; it then vanished for a while, and now it seems to be back again. I still think it would be great on a commercial Christmas radio station.

The band Sidewalk Prophets was formed at Anderson College, a Christian school in Anderson, Ind., in the early 2000s. Dave Frey, the lead singer, joined forces with rhythm guitarist Ben McDonald. The two recorded a demo, which, without their knowledge, was submitted to a campus music contest; the result was a chance to perform. In 2003, the band released its first album independently; a series of chance encounters with stars in Christian music eventually led to a tour and then a contract wirh Word Records in 2009. They won the 2010 Dove Award – the Christian music equivalent to the Grammys – as New Artist of the Year.

By 2013, Sidewalk Prophets had expanded to five members: Frey, McDonald, lead guitarist Shaun Tomczak, bassist Cal Joslin, and drummer Justin Nace. This lineup recorded Merry Christmas to You, which opens with “What a Glorious Night.” Distinctively, the song opens with a sound clip from Linus’ speech from Luke’s Gospel as heard in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Frey later related that he had to go through many hoops to be able to use it, and he wasn’t sure he’d get permission until just before the CDs went to press. The final necessary approval came from the widow of Christopher Shea (1958-2010), the voice of Linus in the original special. A version without the monologue was also prepared, and this was sent to radio in 2014 to use for airplay. The song reached #6 on the Billboard Top Christian Songs chart that holiday season.

As noted, this is no quiet contemplation of the blessed event; this is a party until near the end, when the Christ child finally settles in for a long winter’s nap. So until then, clap along, dance, or otherwise celebrate with “What a Glorious Night.” Merry Christmas!

(A version of this entry was my Facebook-only Christmas Song of the Day for December 16, 2014.)

CSOTD 12/24/2022: There arose such a clatter

When I was a kid in single digits, I remember that one of the first longish pieces of literature I read about Christmas was “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Usually attributed to Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), the poem was first published anonymously in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, an upstate New York newspaper. Moore first took credit for it in 1837. Some sources claim the poem was written by Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828), but that dispute, which has been ongoing for more than a century, is otherwise beyond the scope of today’s song.

Regardless who wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the first time that parts of the poem were set to music was in 1942, and that version is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 24.

Even today, when a song can be recorded one day, mastered the next, and released the day after next, most Christmas music is recorded in either spring or summer, which can sometimes make it difficult to set the right mood. Adding to the challenge in 1942 was a looming strike by the American Federation of Musicians against the record companies, which was scheduled to begin on August 1. Most of the U.S. record labels remained skeptical that the recording ban would actually happen, but just in case, there was a flurry of activity in July 1942 so that the labels would have enough new masters to make it through a few months of inactivity.

It turns out that the ban lasted much longer than the industry expected. With smaller archives than Victor and Columbia, newer major labels Decca and Capitol, as well as some specialty labels, settled with the union in September and October 1943. The AFM didn’t end its strike against the big two until November 1944.

But that was still in the future.

Over a period of several days –July 15, 23, 29, and 31, 1942 – the aggregation of singers and musicians known collectively as Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians recorded eight sides for one of the first, if not the first, Christmas albums consisting of all newly recorded material. Saving the centerpiece of the album for last, they recorded “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” in two parts. Part 1 was waxed on July 29, and Part 2 was recorded on July 31, just before the strike deadline. Because of the technology of the time, the full song, which lasts close to seven minutes, had to be recorded in two separate segments.

Waring (1900-84) first made a name for himself musically when he was a student at Penn State. He formed a group of musicians, which he eventually named Waring’s Pennsylvanians, and they recorded extensively for the Victor label from 1922 through 1932. By this time, his group had expanded to include solo and choral singers. Waring abruptly stopped making records in 1932, fearing that discs would compete against his national radio show; the Pennsylvanians did not return to a label until 1942, when they signed with Decca Records.

In 1938, Waring brought on a young graduate of Pomona College in California named Robert Shaw (1916-99) to recruit and train his glee club. By 1941, Shaw would form his own group of singers and still later become conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. But by 1942, Waring still had some well-known talent to help out.

Ken Darby (1909-92) had formed a male quartet called The King’s Men in 1929. The would perform on radio for years, including on Paul Whiteman’s and Rudy Vallee’s shows and later as the vocal group on Fibber McGee and Molly. Darby’s group would serve as the off-screen voices of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (1939); Darby himself dubbed the voice of the Mayor of Munchkinland. Starting on December 22, 1942 and continuing well into the 1950s, the King’s Men and several members of the cast performed “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” on holiday episodes of Fibber McGee and Molly. They also recorded it for a Fibber McGee and Molly Christmas album in 1945.

The King’s Men evolved into the Ken Darby Singers for recording work; they appeared on both the 1942 and 1947 hit versions of “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby.

Waring’s arranger in 1942 was Harry Simeone (1912-2005), who would later go on to fame as namesake of the Harry Simeone Chorale, who made “The Little Drummer Boy” famous in 1958. Simeone arranged the Darby composition for full choir and orchestra.

One of the interesting elements of this version of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” was its extra verse, in which the singers noted not only the chaos of Christmas Eve, but the detritus of the day after: Broken presents, no more visions of sugar-plums, and Mama and Papa at last can settle down for their long winter’s nap.

Initially released over two sides of the same 78 rpm single in 1942, the two parts weren’t spliced together until 1949, when Decca released ’Twas the Night Before Christmas as a 10-inch LP. The album was a holiday best-seller in its early years, as it made the Billboard album charts every year from 1946 through 1951. It also was re-released on a box set of four 45s and later as two extended-play 45s, where once again “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” was together uninterrupted.

In 1954, Waring and the Pennsylvanians re-recorded what was by then their signature song; it would appear on the 12-inch LP version of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, released on Decca in 1955 with a front cover drawn by Norman Rockwell. Once more, the Waring group would remake the song in 1961, in stereo for Capitol Records this time, for the album The Meaning of Christmas; this version, usually considered inferior to the other two, can be easily identified by the spoken introduction “To children of all ages, Christmas means Santa Claus.”

Regardless of version, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” remains a great listen after 80 years. It would be nice to hear it on the radio once in a while.

Here’s the 1942 version, which has never been on CD in the United States, but might be on a public-domain release elsewhere:

Here’s the 1955 rendition, which has been on CD, but still rarely:

Finally, here’s the 1961 version, which was used on the best-selling 1987 collection The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas and on a Capitol Christmas Cocktails compilation.

My own preference is the original, with the 1955 version close behind.

(A version of this entry was my Facebook-only Christmas Song of the Day for December 26, 2014.)

CSOTD 12/23/2022: I hope it finds you, too

The biggest-selling Christmas album of 1993, when new holiday music was finally starting to become a thing again, was the mostly retro When My Heart Finds Christmas by New Orleans musician Harry Connick, Jr. (born 1967). Even now, all these years later, this album remains his biggest seller regardless of genre.

In my neck of the woods, three songs from this album are in regular rotation on the local holiday radio station. Naturally, in keeping with the general trend in holiday radio in recent years, they are all his versions of standards rather than originals.

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 23 is one of Connick’s four originals from this album. It used to be on the radio a lot more often than it is today, and I’ve love to see it come back.

I think the first Connick Christmas song I heard was his instrumental version of “Winter Wonderland,” which was included in the 1989 soundtrack album of When Harry Met Sally…, which helped put Connick on the map. As Christmas radio formats grew, that version joined songs from his 1993 album on the radio.

The first couple times I heard “When My Heart Finds Christmas,” the title song of the album, my mind was telling me it was a lost Frank Sinatra holiday song. Its length was closer to the four-and-a-half-minute “My Way” than the barely two-minute length of “Mistletoe and Holly,” and had a similar style, complete with dramatic buildup and subdued ending, as the former. But otherwise, I came to think of it as the best Christmas song Sinatra never recorded.

As the years have progressed beyond the 1990s, “When My Heart Finds Christmas” continues to grow in meaning for me. I’ve written before that in some years it’s harder to get into the holiday spirit than others, but I always do in some way, shape, or form. And if you who are reading this might be having problems this season, I hope that Christmas finds you, too.

CSOTD 12/22/2022: The story of “Pretty Paper”

Most of you reading this have heard the Christmas song “Pretty Paper.” Written by Willie Nelson (born 1933), it was a big hit during the holiday season of 1963 for Roy Orbison (1936-1988). But the song is based on a real person at a real location, and odds are that the song’s subject never knew the song was about him.

Here’s the story of my Christmas Song of the Day for December 22.

Once upon a time, in the days when it was still a big deal to make special trips from the boonies to downtown, every city, large and small, had its own, often large, department store. Some larger municipalities had multiple choices. I remember when Philadelphia had John Wanamaker, Strawbridge and Clothier, and Lit Brothers, all on Market Street, an easy walk from the Reading Terminal train barn. New York (Manhattan) famously had Macy’s and Gimbels. Minneapolis had Dayton’s, Detroit had Hudson’s, South Bend (Indiana) had Robertson’s, Allentown (Pa.) had Hess’s and Leh’s, neighboring Bethlehem had Orr’s. Even Souderton, Pa., population 5,000 or so in the 1960s, had Yocum & Godshalk. Changing shopping habits and the growth of suburbia ended the heyday of the downtown emporium, but they are fondly remembered by people of a certain age.

Fort Worth, Texas, had a couple major downtown stores, but the big one was Leonard’s, which was founded in 1918 and lasted under that name until 1974. From all accounts, by the early 1960s, Leonard’s was huge. It even had its own subway line from a distant parking lot that dropped off patrons in the middle of the store. And for Christmas, it went all-out.

Outside Leonard’s during the bustling holiday season was a street merchant named Frankie Brierton (1899-1973). He sold wrapping paper, ribbons, and his main stock in trade, pencils. Other merchants in downtown Fort Worth had issues with Brierton and others like him, but Leonard’s didn’t mind, as long as they didn’t interfere with the flow of customers and didn’t directly compete with what was in the store.

Nelson remembered his trips to Leonard’s as a youth from the area, and the man outside the store inspired the songwriter to compose “Pretty Paper.”

Brierton was left with mostly useless legs from a bout with childhood spinal meningitis, but he refused to let that stop him. He pridefully refused to use a wheelchair; instead, he used his strong arms to drag himself where he wanted to go. Thus, when he sold his wares at Leonard’s and elsewhere, he indeed sat on the sidewalk, hoping customers wouldn’t pass by without buying something.

Not until the early 2000s did readers and a writer from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram solve the mystery of who the disabled man in front of Leonard’s was. When contacted, Brierton’s descendants were surprised at the story behind the song, which was long known to have been based on a street scene at Leonard’s in Fort Worth, but even Nelson didn’t know all the details.

In 1963, Orbison was still one of the most popular singers in not only America, but Britain as well. He had one of the most unusual voices in all of pop music, which already had been put to good use in hits like “Only the Lonely,” “Running Scared,” “Crying,” “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream),” and “In Dreams.” He co-wrote most of his hits, but he wasn’t averse to doing songs written by others; “Dream Baby” came from country songwriter Cindy Walker, for example.

Orbison heard Nelson’s demo of “Pretty Paper” in 1963 and, learning of the basic backstory and recalling his own trips to Fort Worth, decided to record it. But at the time, he was on tour in England, and time was short to get it out in time for the holiday season. So on September 11, he recorded the song at the Pye Records studio in London, based on an arrangement by Bill Justis, with Ivor Raymonde producing and conducting. It was the only hit during his classic Monument Records period (1960-65) recorded outside Nashville.

In a year loaded with new Christmas songs, “Pretty Paper” was the biggest, as it got to #11 in Music Vendor, #15 in Billboard, and #16 in Cash Box in 1963. Nelson made his own version for RCA Victor in 1964; it was reissued on 45 in 1966, 1970, and 1975 with different catalog numbers. He would make a brand-new version for his 1979 Christmas album Pretty Paper. It’s been covered dozens of additional times, too.

I first heard Orbison’s version of “Pretty Paper” in the 1970s. A promotional copy of the 45 was in a box lot I bought at a yard sale, and because it was Orbison, I played it. I was surprised that it was a Christmas song, as “Pretty Paper” doesn’t immediately stick out as a holiday title.

Before learning the song’s history, it sounded like a typical lovelorn Orbison lament. On the surface, the chorus sets the scene. The verse makes it sound like a man who is alone, and a woman (his ex?) sees him and tries to decide whether to stop. The man sees her, but she’s too wrapped up in the hustle of the holiday, and as she continues on, he can’t help himself and starts to cry.

Of course, it works on that level, which is why I’ve always loved it. But the focus on the paper, ribbons, and pencils in the chorus becomes clear with the song’s true motivation.

To me, “Pretty Paper” is beat heard in its original hit version by Roy Orbison, so that’s what I present today.