Sometimes, I find it amazing that certain Christmas songs are as obscure as they are. A perfect example is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 22, “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” which was recorded by one of rock’s most critically acclaimed bands. Even during the heyday of FM rock radio, before it devolved into “classic rock,” this song received little airplay.
The Band evolved out of a Canadian group called The Hawks, which originally served as backing group for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. They split from Hawkins in 1963, and after a couple singles, they joined with Bob Dylan as the backing band on his first “electric” tour in 1965 and 1966. After Dylan had a motorcycle accident in 1966, the Hawks played some small gigs separately, but they eventually reunited with Dylan for the sessions that became known as The Basement Tapes.
In 1968, the Hawks became The Band and released their debut album, Music from Big Pink, which contains arguably their best-known song, “The Weight” (better known by the first line of its chorus, “Take a load off, Fanny”). Several more critically acclaimed albums followed; they also had their biggest hit in 1970 with the Top 40 single “Up on Cripple Creek.” The B-side of the 45, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” would become Joan Baez’s biggest hit song when she took it to #2 in 1971.
By the mid-1970s, The Band was winding down. The original lineup of Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel decided to have one final concert as a quintet, which became the film and album known as The Last Waltz. Before it could be released through the Warner Bros. label, The Band had one more album due to Capitol, for which it had recorded since 1968. Islands, a collection of odds and ends, was the result. One of the songs on there is “Christmas Must Be Tonight.”
The Band first recorded the song during the sessions of their 1975 album Northern Lights – Southern Cross, but left it in the can. (That version was released when The Band’s back catalog was remastered in 2001.) They revisited it and lengthened it somewhat for the version that saw release. Probably because of the hodgepodge nature of the album, and that Capitol didn’t do a lot of promotion, The Band’s fine Christmas song remained buried.
Over the years, it’s only rarely been on compilations. Probably the most notable inclusion was on 2005’s Starbucks CD Elton John’s Christmas Party, which I mentioned a couple days ago in relation to Rufus Wainwright’s “Spotlight on Christmas.” The song isn’t even covered very often; Daryl Hall and John Oates did a version on their Home for Christmas CD, which gave the song a little more attention, and Robbie Robertson did a solo version for the 1988 soundtrack of the film Scrooged, which is where I first heard the song.
Here’s the 1977 version of “Christmas Must Be Tonight.”