CSOTD 12/31/19: Ring in the new

Today marks the end of six years’ worth of the Christmas Song of the Day. I hope that at least a few of the 186 helpings of Christmas cheer I have served over the years have helped brighten your holiday season.

Why my Christmas Song of the Day for December 31 isn’t all over the airwaves during the last week of the year is a mystery to me. It’s catchy, has big production values, and feels familiar all at once. Could it be the silly-sounding, though appropriate, title?

Unless something still resides deep in the vaults, the only former Beatle who never recorded a true Christmas song is George Harrison (1943-2001). Ringo Starr is the only one to record and release an entire Christmas album; Paul McCartney has done a few holiday tunes over the years, including the ubiquitous “Wonderful Christmastime”; and John Lennon did the epic “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” which was not so loosely based on the old folk song “Stewball.”

Today’s featured song, “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” also has “borrowed” elements to it. All of the lines in the simple verses came from inscriptions Harrison found on the walls of his Friar Park estate, which he bought in 1970 and was once owned by the British eccentric Frank Crisp (1843-1919). Crisp had taken some of those lines from the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). Meanwhile, the melody for the singalong chorus came from the Westminster Quarters, the chime melody that was rung by the bell Big Ben at the famous London clock tower at Westminster (now known as Elizabeth Tower). And the production, with many overdubs and horns, is reminiscent of the style of Phil Spector (born 1939), who had co-produced Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album in 1970; George admitted he was also influenced by Spector’s legendary 1963 Christmas album, which had been reissued by the Beatles’ Apple Records in 1972.

“Ding Dong, Ding Dong” was the first single from the album Dark Horse in much of the world except in North America, where it was the second. It was released too close to New Year’s Day to become associated with ringing out the old and ringing in the new; it didn’t enter the Billboard Hot 100 until January 1975, and it peaked at only #38. My own recollection is that I heard the song exactly once either right before or right after the New Year in 1974-75 and then rarely again.

If given the chance, I could imagine hundreds of thousands of revelers in Times Square singing this song’s chorus over and over again. If not there, then I could hear it somewhere — London, perhaps. How about it?

CSOTD 12/30/19: What a difference a year makes

A short, but sweet, lament is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 30. The title is almost as long as the song, which lasts for around two minutes and 20 seconds (many of the labels give the time as only 1:59, but every 45 copy is longer, regardless what the label states).

Though strongly associated with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International label, the O’Jays actually are not from Philadelphia, but came from Canton, Ohio. Originally known as The Mascots, they made two singles for King before adopting the name that they would keep; it was a tribute to Cleveland DJ and power broker Eddie O’Jay. They spent the mid-1960s with the Imperial label, for which they had a series of minor hits, but no big breakthrough. In 1967, they released one single on the Minit label before signing to Bell, a relationship that also failed to yield any big hits, though one single, “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today),” made the top 10 of the R&B charts.

Enter Gamble and Huff.

The two Philadelphia-based composers and producers already had made a name for themselves as independent producers by 1969. They even had started a label called Gamble Records, which had a Top 10 pop hit in 1968 with “Cowboys to Girls” by the Intruders. In 1969, they started another label called Neptune, distributed by the fading Chess Records. In many ways, Neptune served as the prototype of Philadelphia International; the label included the slogan “The Sound of Philadelphia,” and Gamble and Huff had begun using many of the musicians who would become MFSB, PIR’s formidable backing band.

The O’Jays signed with Neptune in 1969, but when Chess dropped its distribution deal with Neptune late in 1970, all the label’s acts were in limbo, and it looked as if the group was going to retire. But when Gamble and Huff got mighty CBS Records to distribute its new Philadelphia International label, they brought the O’Jays on board, and the rest is history — “Back Stabbers” finally gave the group its first big hit, and a lot more big hits followed.

One of the O’Jays’ early PIR (1973) singles was “Christmas Ain’t Christmas New Year’s Ain’t New Year’s Without the One You Love.” (I told you the title was long!) The song indeed covers both holidays; the singer laments that “last year this time” he not only was under the mistletoe at Christmas, but awake at 12 o’clock at New Year’s Eve. But this year, it’s not the same.

Though the song sounded fresh and up-to-date, “Christmas Ain’t Christmas…” was actually recorded in 1969 and was one of the O’Jays’ singles on Neptune (catalog number N-20). First released on a mono 45, Gamble and Huff re-released it in 1973 in stereo (ZS7 3537) and again in 1975 (ZS8 3581). The song would see another reissue on the TSOP label in 1980 (ZS8 3771). All of these contain the same recording with the same long title.

Gamble and Huff certainly believed in the song; shortly after they founded Philadelphia International in 1971, they had a group called The Ebonys re-record “Christmas Ain’t Christmas…” on record number ZS7 3513, using the same backing track and with the title listed as “(Christmas Ain’t Christmas, New Year’s Ain’t New Year’s) Without the One You Love.” But once G&H could use the O’Jays’ original, the Ebonys’ version vanished.

The original mono mix of the Neptune single appears on the 1988 CD Have a Merry Chess Christmas; all other CD appearances, I think, are in stereo.

CSOTD 12/29/19: Macy’s doesn’t deal in love

I always had at least a small selection of Christmas records from the time I started collecting music in 1973. In the late 1980s, I started adding Christmas music to my collection in earnest; at some point, I found a copy of the 45 that I am featuring as my Christmas Song of the Day for December 29. I think I got it because I knew the artist’s one big hit, and I figured it would be at least decent. I was right.

Contrary to some people’s opinions, Edward Bear was a group, not an individual. The Canadian band, which featured drummer/lead singer Larry Evoy, took its name from A.A. Milne (“Edward Bear” is the proper name for Winnie the Pooh). They signed with Capitol of Canada in 1969; their first single, “You, Me, and Mexico,” was a modest hit in the States.

Their biggest success wasn’t to come for another several years. In early 1973, “Last Song,” written by Evoy, got all the way to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. A later single, “Close Your Eyes,” managed to make the top 40 as well. But that was about all for Edward Bear; the group had gone its separate ways by the end of 1974.

Before Edward Bear went away, the group recorded a truly melancholy Christmas song, “Coming Home Christmas,” in time for the holiday season of 1973. Written by Dennis DePorter and Tim Wynveen, it sounds as if it could have been about the same woman Evoy wrote about in “Last Song.” The singer is hopeful that a certain woman — probably an ex-girlfriend for whom he still carries a torch — will show up for Christmas, but the sad tone of the song makes it sound as if he’s engaging in wishful thinking. The line I used in my headline was one of the first I noticed back when I first played it several decades ago; Macy’s may beg to differ, but it’s true.

The song wasn’t a hit; in fact, I can’t find any evidence that Capitol in the U.S. ever released the 45 except as radio-station promo copies. (Capitol of Canada did make it available for sale.) It also seems to have completely vanished; I don’t think it was ever on a CD, even in Edward Bear’s home and native land. Here’s “Coming Home Christmas”:

CSOTD 12/28/19: A Kaempfert-able sleigh ride

Instrumental Christmas tunes have one big thing working against them. They have no words, so if someone doesn’t know the name and is trying to elicit help to find it, all one can do is try to hum it.

I imagine that a generation of listeners to Christmas music will recognize my Christmas Song of the Day for December 28, though I can’t remember the last time I heard it on the radio. It hearkens back to a time when radio stations would play nothing but Christmas music during the several days leading up to and including December 25, with almost all of it orchestral or vocal easy-listening background sounds, perfect for trimming the tree, wrapping last-minute presents, or getting the kids off to bed on Christmas Eve.

Bert Kaempfert (1923-1980), a German bandleader, had his first big hit in late 1960, “Wonderland by Night”; it hit #1 on the American charts in early 1961. Throughout the early and mid 1960s, Kaempfert recorded a bunch of successful albums. In his role with the German Polydor record label, he also was the first to produce a session by The Beatles, who served as a backing band for Tony Sheridan on at least six songs recorded in 1961. (They also got to record two of their own without Sheridan’s lead vocals.) Kaempfert also wrote the melodies for songs that became “Danke Schoen,” “Spanish Eyes,” and “Strangers in the Night,” among others.

In time for the Christmas season of 1963, Kaempfert released a splendid album called Christmas Wonderland. That year, for the first time, Billboard shunted all holiday music to a special Christmas chart and didn’t allow those albums onto the main LP chart, so it’s hard to know just how popular it was. But the album got to #6 on that special chart in 1963. It then made the Christmas album chart every year through 1968. Christmas Wonderland remained in print on vinyl and tape in some form or another until around 1989. It then all but vanished; a 1996 CD on the Taragon label was its only U.S. CD release, and that has been out of print for years.

Christmas Wonderland had several Kaempfert originals on it. The most enduring is “Jingo Jango,” which was released as a single in 1963. For all the world, it sounds like an attempt to rewrite Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” for the 1960s. I can picture a ride through the snow on a cart pulled by horses…

Listening to “Jingo Jango” took me back to the only time I can remember going on a horse-drawn sleigh ride. It was in February of, I believe, 1997, near Green Bay, Wisconsin on a farm. During the snowy winters, the farmer’s fields lay fallow, so he created a path through them and some nearby woods that was perfect for an hour-long (or so) journey to the past. About halfway through the ride, we stopped at a bonfire and warmed up. The whole time, I was sitting next to a really nice woman that I already knew, though we weren’t on the ride alone. We talked a lot, both before, during, and after the sleigh ride, but neither one of us could get past whatever resistance we had to actually ask the other out. In retrospect, I guess she was one who got away. I have no idea how she felt about me, or even if she remembers that cold February night as vividly as I do; I haven’t seen or spoken with her in more than 20 years now. But every so often, I still remember her and the sleigh ride.

The video I’ve included with this entry is of a Christmas light show set to the jaunty music of “Jingo Jango.”

CSOTD 12/27/19: I was lost but now I’m found

I wasn’t prepared for my reaction when I became re-acquainted with the song I’ve selected as my Christmas Song of the Day for December 27. I know that, when it came out in the Christmas season of 2008, it was inescapable. Since then, I think I’ve heard it, on average, once a holiday season in the 2010s. And, as of my writing this, I have not heard it on the radio at all in 2019, not even on the Christian-music station.

I literally got goosebumps as I listened to “A Baby Changes Everything” by Faith Hill.

By 2008, Hill (born 1967) was the rarest of country-music singers, because she was an international superstar (country music generally is not that successful outside the U.S. and Canada). Her first country hits were in 1993, when “Wild One” and “Piece of My Heart” were back-to-back #1 hits. By the end of the 1990s, she had started to cross over to the pop charts in a big way; her hit song “Breathe” hit the top of the country, adult contemporary, and Hot 100 charts. The song that broke her in the UK and elsewhere in Europe was “There You’ll Be,” which was from the soundtrack of the film Pearl Harbor.

Also by 2008, Hill already was (and remains) a presence on Christmas radio with “Where Are You Christmas?”, from the 2000 soundtrack of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas; I’ve written before, and still feel, that the album is much, much better than the movie for which it was compiled.

So it was with much anticipation that Hill’s first Christmas album, Joy to the World, was released. It turned out to be one of the biggest new holiday albums of 2008, as it got to #13 on the main Billboard album chart. Five of the 11 songs on the CD made the then airplay-only Billboard country charts. And “A Baby Changes Everything,” the only new song on the album, spent three weeks at #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, which until recently was the best indicator of the popularity of a new Christmas song.

The song, written by ace country composers Craig Wiseman and Tim Nichols, tells the tale of an unwed mother who wonders aloud about the child she is carrying. By about two-thirds of the way through the song, if not sooner, we know for sure that the mother is Mary and she is carrying the Christ child. The end of the song touches on the meaning of the blessed event, quoting from “Amazing Grace.” Even today, a baby changes everything.

Back when this song was inescapable, I wanted to escape from it. But as I started deciding what songs to feature this year, “A Baby Changes Everything” came to mind because of how rarely it gets played any more. I already told you my reaction when I cued it up. How about yours?

CSOTD 12/26/19: A Bohemian rhapsody

I don’t usually write about well-known songs, unless I am shining the light on a lesser-known version deserving of more attention. Today I am making an exception.

At some point, you’ve probably heard, or at least heard of, “Good King Wenceslas.” This song has been associated with the Christmas season since I was a kid, and certainly before I was born, but it doesn’t mention the holy birth or Santa Claus or holly and ivy or much of anything else having to do with the season, at least at first listen. But it does, and that’s why it’s my Christmas Song of the Day for December 26.

It’s also one of the very few traditional carols that makes utterly no sense if you only sing the first verse. Even though all of them have multiple verses, you can sing just the first verse and chorus of everything from “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and still have a reasonably complete song. Not so with “Good King Wenceslas.”

The gist of the saga is this: Wenceslas and his page see a poor man gathering wood “on the Feast of Stephen.” They choose to visit him, but the journey is long and cold, and the page is about to give up, when Wenceslas tells him to literally follow his footsteps, which have warmed the ground beneath them. The song ends with a moral: “Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.”

First, the reason this song is closely associated with Christmas is because the Feast of Stephen is December 26, the second day of Christmas on the traditional Catholic liturgical calendar. Stephen is considered by Rome to be the first marytr (see the biblical account in Acts chapters 6 and 7), thus his day’s proximity to Christmas. In many places, especially Eastern Europe, St. Stephen’s Day is a holiday; in British Commonwealth countries, it is celebrated concurrently with Boxing Day.

So who was this Wenceslas guy, anyway, and why is he deserving of a song that has lasted so long?

The subject of the song is a beneficiary of title inflation: In reality, Wenceslas, also known as Vaclav the Good (ca. 911-935), was the Duke of Bohemia, not a king. His father died when he was around 13, thus elevating him to duke before he was of age. After the usual intrigue of the era, he took his rightful place as leader of Bohemia when he turned 18, and he remained as such until he was murdered by nobles allied with Wenceslas’ younger brother Boleslav in September 935.

Alnost immediately, a cult of personality formed around the slain duke. Several pious pseudo-biographies were written, and many miracles were attributed to him. Because the Church considered him to be a martyr, and later a saint, he was posthumously declared a king. A song about Wenceslas is known to date from the 12th century, and it remains popular in the Czech Republic, which contains ancient Bohemia within its borders, to this day.

“Good King Wenceslas,” the song, is a far more modern creation. The words were written by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), an Anglican priest and hymnist; Neale also wrote English translations of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” to name two of the most familiar. Neale put his ballad about Wenceslas to a 12th-century melody called “Tempus adest floridum,” a spring carol. (The less well known Christmas hymn “Gentle Mary Lay Her Child” uses the same tune.) Many scholars of the day detested Neale’s welding of the pious legend to an uptempo, non-religious spring melody. But “Good King Wenceslas” has outlasted its critics — even though, as I noted earlier, the song makes no sense unless sung in toto.

Lots of versions have been recorded over the years. My favorite vocal version with the entire song is by the Ames Brothers from 1957:

A great instrumental version is by Percy Faith and His Orchestra, from their 1954 album Music of Christmas:

CSOTD 12/25/19: We’re gonna get born now

Merry Christmas! I hope Santa was good to you, and I hope you also took some time to reflect on the deeper meaning of the holiday. Also, thank you once again for reading and commenting on my posts, whether here or on Facebook. I appreciate all of you.

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 25 has been described as an anti-Christmas carol, thus it’s been popular among alt-rock and college-radio crowds. It’s also been described as an utterly sincere celebration of the birth of Christ from a singer-songwriter who was probably somewhere between agnostic and atheist. However you choose to interpret it, I just love “Jesus Christ” by Big Star.

First, some background. Big Star has been described as the early 1970s version of the Velvet Underground in that, at the time, hardly anyone bought their records, but everyone who did formed a band. The most recognizable name from Big Star is Alex Chilton (1950-2010), who at the age of 16 already had a #1 hit as lead singer of The Box Tops with “The Letter.” By 1970, with only two original members left in the Box Tops, they mutually decided to break up.

Chilten was briefly considered as a replacement for Al Kooper in Blood, Sweat & Tears (David Clayton-Thomas was chosen instead). After learning to play guitar and recording some demos, Chilton joined with a long-time friend, Chris Bell, plus Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, in a new band called Big Star, which was named after a chain of Memphis supermarkets. The group’s debut album, #1 Record, received rave reviews from outlets as diverse as the still-underground Rolling Stone and the staid industry bible Billboard. But Big Star had the misfortune of a bad record label, Ardent Records, a new subsidiary of Stax Records; Stax, despite having success in 1972 with especially the Staple Singers, was having cash-flow problems and had difficulty both promoting and distributing Big Star’s records. A second album, Radio City, followed, with the same great reviews but also the same poor distribution. By 1974, drug and various personal problems led to Big Star’s dissolution.

Amid the chaos, Chilton and Stephens worked on a new album, which at one time was going to be the debut of a new band they called Sister Lovers, as the two were dating sisters at the time. After more or less finishing it, in early 1975 they had 250 demo copies pressed in hopes of finding a record deal, but they never did. In 1978, the PVC label got the rights to the album and released it under the name of Big Star’s 3rd, as if it was to be Big Star’s third album. Over the years, it’s been issued by myriad labels under both the names 3rd (or Third) and Sister Lovers, sometimes both on the same cover.

The song “Jesus Christ,” which is on this third album, starts with a weird attempt at playing Peggy Lee’s 1948 #1 hit “MaƱana” before it goes into earnest power pop. Chilton quotes from numerous hymns of the season, including “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” “Once in Royal David’s City,” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” as he also declares, “Jesus Christ was born today/Jesus Christ was born.” But he also adds some levity as he declares just before the final instrumental break, “We’re gonna get born now.”

I first encountered “Jesus Christ” on a great compilation released in 1997 by Rykodisc, Xmas Marks the Spot. It’s a song I’ve come back to often in the years since. Merry Christmas!