CSOTD 12/24/17: A work of Art

On this Christmas Eve, I wish to share with you a familiar tale of the holiday. Odds are, though, you’ve never heard it quite like this. The Christmas Song of the Day for December 24 is one of the coolest versions of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” you’ll probably ever hear.

Multi-talented actor Art Carney (1918-2003) is best known for his role as Ed Norton in the classic television sitcom The Honeymooners. Years later, in 1974, he starred as Harry Coombes in the classic film Harry and Tonto and won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. He had appeared in only four films before that, and for the next decade, he worked steadily in Hollywood.

In 1954, Carney signed a contract with Columbia Records and branched out into recording. His first single, “Song of the Sewer,” was done in his Ed Norton character. His next one, released in time for Christmas that year, is fondly remembered by Christmas music aficionados but mostly unknown to the general public. One side of the 45 (or 78) was the odd but charming “Santa and the Doodle-Li-Boop.” The other side, the one I prefer, is a rapid-fire, “word jazz” version of the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

I just love how he keeps going through all the lines, sometimes gasping for air, and then, about three-quarters of the way through, suddenly stopping and letting the drummer have a mini-solo, after which Carney says, “Crazy!”

“Crazy” is the best way to describe this rendition, which would be covered at a less frenetic pace in 1963 by Ross Bagdasarian, better known as David Seville, on the album Christmas with the Chipmunks, Volume 2. Have some fun with Art Carney’s original:

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CSOTD 12/23/17: You’re all I need

I’m starting to hear the Christmas Song of the Day for December 23 on the radio more often. When it came out, it was hailed as a potential modern classic, in the same vein as Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” I guess we’ll know when other artists start to put their own spin on it, which is usually the sign of a Christmas standard.

For the first time in several years, I was not in a romantic relationship during the holiday season of 2013. And then Kelly Clarkson (born 1982) had to come along to rub it in, with one of the coolest holiday love songs in years.

The first time I heard “Underneath the Tree,” I mostly just took it in. I notice music before I notice lyrics most of the time, and I loved the Wall of Sound elements of its production, complete with a sax solo right from the Phil Spector songbook. Then, when Clarkson wigged out, going up an octave on “underneath the tree!” just before the final chorus, it caught me completely off guard. This was an unquestioned classic in my book the first time I heard it. And then, as I started to grasp the lyrics upon later listening, I cried. Even now, four years later, it moves me.

Clarkson co-wrote “Underneath the Tree” with her producer Greg Kurstin. At the time she was recording her Christmas album Wrapped in Red, Clarkson was in love with the man she would marry later in 2013, and it seems clear to me that the lyrics are inspired by her relationship. Revel in the joy of “Underneath the Tree.”

 

 

CSOTD 12/22/17: New love at Christmas

The year was either 1995 or 1996. At the time, one of my sisters lived in the northeast sector of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I was visiting her and her family for Christmas. It was Christmas Eve, and her excited young daughters were finally asleep, or at least pretending to be. I was sitting on the couch in their family room as she and her then-husband were doing some last-minute wrapping. As background noise, they had the local country music station on the radio, and it was playing holiday music. And in this hectic but pleasant scene, I first heard the Christmas Song of the Day for December 22.

Naturally, the station didn’t say what the song was, so I had to wait until December 26 to try to find it. (The Internet was still in its infancy.) Fortunately, it had a memorable first line, and after some exploration using a Phonolog in a record store, I found out that the memorable first line was the song’s title – “It Must Have Been the Mistletoe” – and that it was recorded by Barbara Mandrell.

Though she only had minimal success on the pop charts, Mandrell (born 1949) struck me as one of the most pop-sounding country stars of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even her best-known hit, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” doesn’t sound very country until George Jones comes in with his cameo near the end of the song. Much of that pop sensibility carried over to her 1984 holiday album, Christmas at Our House.

“It Must Have Been the Mistletoe” was written in 1979 by Justin Wilde and Doug Konecky. In a 1999 interview, Wilde said that the song was rejected 375 times over a five-year period before Mandrell finally recorded it. In the years since the first version, “It Must Have Been the Mistletoe” has been recorded periodically, most notably by Barbra Streisand. But my favorite remains Barbra Mandrell’s.

“It Must Have Been the Mistletoe” makes it sound as if the Christmas season is the best time of all to fall in love. Not that I would know or anything.

CSOTD 12/21/17: Christmas romance on ice

One of the more somber songs set during the Christmas season is Joni Mitchell’s “River,” which was my Christmas Song of the Day exactly two years ago today. The Christmas Song of the Day for December 21, 2017, is virtually its polar opposite.

I no more can skate than I can fly. I tried it once, when I was a Cub Scout. Our den went to a local skating rink on an open-skate night, and I remember hopelessly sitting on a bench all night with ill-fitting rental figure skates on, watching as everyone else effortlessly glided on the ice. I finally decided to try to get there. Somehow, I precariously balanced on the edge before I took a single step onto the ice. Splat! I fell right on my rear end and needed other people to help me up. I never tried to skate again.

But there’s something romantic about skating just to skate. I watch the scenes from Rockefeller Center on TV or elsewhere, and part of me wishes I’d tried again. When I was a kid, I guess I figured that if something didn’t come immediately, it wasn’t going to come at all.

This leads, at last, to the song of the day. First released in 2000 on the mostly excellent various-artists CD Christmas Songs on the Nettwerk America label, “Skating on the River” by Canadian singer Lily Frost has entered and then left my consciousness more than once over the years.

I was re-introduced to it a few years ago via the Cities 97 “24 Hours of Christmas” show, during which the legendary Minneapolis FM radio station would play a truly eclectic mix of holiday music from 6 p.m. Christmas Eve to 6 p.m. Christmas Day. That show is responsible for a bunch of Christmas songs I’ve written about in the past.

In “Skating on the River,” Frost sings of winter and Christmas and holding hands and dreaming of the future. What a great thought for this time of year.

CSOTD 12/20/17: I’m not going to rule it out

Lots of songs have been written about falling in love or being in love during the Christmas season. A couple of the most enduring are “Winter Wonderland” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” For the December 20 Christmas Song of the Day, I want to feature a gorgeous song that ought to be a standard – “A Christmas Love Song.”

Academy Award-winning lyricists (and married couple) Alan and Marilyn Bergman (born 1925 and 1929, respectively) wrote “A Christmas Love Song” with another Oscar-winning composer, Johnny Mandel (born 1925). The song was copyrighted in 1988, but I can’t find any evidence of a released version of the song until 1991. That year, jazz singer Blossom Dearie (1924-2009) included the song on her holiday album, Christmas Spice So Very Nice. Because it was on a small label (Daffodil) with limited distribution, neither the album nor the song caught on.

A year later, 1992, my favorite version of “A Christmas Love Song” was released, by the well-known jazz vocal group The Manhattan Transfer on their CD The Christmas Album. This is the first version I heard, and though it’s been recorded by such stalwarts as Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett in the 2000s, the Manhattan Transfer rendition is the one I come back to year after year.

The first line of the song is “All I want for Christmas is you,” which at first makes it seem to be a song of longing, like some songs with that title. But after that, it’s obvious that the singer doesn’t have to search or wish, because love is already there. 

December isn’t a big month for weddings, but I could imagine “A Christmas Love Song” as a great first dance for a newly married couple during the holiday season – and as a song to slow-dance to forever.

Geez, how did I feel so romantic all of a sudden?

CSOTD 12/19/17: Through the chaos and the noise

More than once during the time I’ve written the Christmas Song of the Day feature, I’ve highlighted one of the original songs by Amy Grant (born 1960). On today’s holiday radio stations, I mostly hear her new versions of old chestnuts, but I feel her new songs are deserving of attention as well.  The Christmas Song of the Day for December 19 is one of them.

Grant’s 2008 album The Christmas Collection compiled some of the best tracks from her first three holiday albums, and it also contained four newly recorded songs. The one that stuck out for me was “I Need a Silent Night.” In it, she frets the Christmas rush that she goes through, with each year feeling more frazzled than the one before, “trying to buy Christmas peace.” She finally realizes that, after all this bustle and noise, she has to take time to remember what the season is really about. It includes children reading the famous passage from the Gospel according to Luke, the most charming rendition since Linus famously read it during the Christmas play in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

At the end of the song, all is calm and all is bright at last. Here’s Amy Grant singing “I Need a Silent Night”:

 

CSOTD 12/18/17: Angels are in flight

The first time I heard the music of Irish chanteuse Enya (born 1961) was in 1989. I was listening to the radio, and I heard a sound unlike anything I’d heard before: heavy layers of instruments, both reminiscent and very different from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, accompanied by a voice that was as much a part of the mix as the instruments, punctuated periodically by the triumphant words “Sail away, sail away, sail away…” The song, of course, was her first big hit, “Orinoco Flow,” which I enjoy to this day.

During the 1990s, Enya faded in and out of my consciousness, though I’m pretty sure I first heard her Gaelic version of “Silent Night,” which she recorded around the same time as “Orinoco Flow,” during that decade. In the States, she came back in a big way with her 2001 hit “Only Time,” which remains her biggest U.S. hit.

In 2006, she was aproached by the Target department-store chain to record an EP for their annual series of exclusive Christmas CDs. The result was a six-song disc, including the prevously released “Silent Night.” One of the new songs from that CD is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 18.

A lot of emotions went through me when I first spun the disc and heard its second track, “The Magic of the Night.” I felt the joy and mystery of the early days of winter. I sensed the anticipation of nights finally getting shorter after the solstice. Finally, I felt sadness because it celebrated a youthful innocence that I thought I had lost. The idea that, as the lyric states at one point, “everything is right” didn’t seem possible.

In the fall of 2006, I was still recovering from the end of my first serious relationship, even though it had happened much earlier in the year. Because the prior holiday season, 2005, had been so joyous, almost everything Christmas-related in ’06 had a tinge of melancholy to it; even a song as ever-present as “Merry Christmas Darling” by the Carpenters moistened my eyes that year when it never had before. Perhaps the layered sound of “The Magic of the Night” got through layers of me I didn’t believe existed.

Though 2006 is long past, the memory lingers. I still can’t listen to “The Magic of the Night” without my soul feeling that hint of sadness that seems to be hiding underneath the song’s celebration of miracle and wonder.

It doesn’t stop me from loving it, though, and wishing it were on the radio more often.