CSOTD 12/24/16: Nanu, nanu

One of the most famous poems in the English language, particularly in the United States, is “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” This 1823 poem, originally published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel, an upstate New York newspaper, is most commonly attributed to Clement Clark Moore, who first asserted his authorship in 1837.

Many of the attributes we still give to Old Saint Nick (Santa Claus) originated or were popularized in this poem, from the concept of his arrival on Christmas Eve to the names of the eight reindeer to the use of the chimney as the way in and out of the house.

Over the years, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” has become better known by its first line, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” or simply “The Night Before Christmas.” It has been put to music more than once, but today, for Christmas Eve, I wish to share a spoken-word version that I found in my collection this past fall.

Because it doesn’t require the ability to sing, many non-musical artists have recorded all or part of the poem over the years. Art Carney did a proto-rap version in 1954, which was  imitated by Ross Bagdasarian (David Seville) on Christmas with the Chipmunks, Vol. 2 in 1963. A bunch of spoken-word versions came out in the 1990s: Members of the Magic Johnson-era Los Angeles Lakers recorded a version; Willard Scott did a version for a True Value Hardware CD in 1991; Jay Leno has done it; Rush Limbaugh did an appropriately conservative rendition for a CD in 1993; comedian Phil Hartman did it as a hidden track at the end of Dave Koz’s 1997 CD December Makes Me Feel This Way.

My Christmas Song of the Day is yet another version from the 1990s. It was recorded by the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams and released on their CD Joy to the World in 1992. In this one, the narrator is Robin Williams (no relation to the conductor), and he injects some humor into it while keeping to the poem. I wasn’t expecting much when I first listened, but I found myself moved by this rendition.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

 

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CSOTD 12/23/16: The Christmas miracle of love

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 23 is relatively little known, but it’s truly moving, and it works on more than one level.

As I was going through my Christmas CD collection, I found a compilation that I had bought at a Ralph Lauren outlet store many years ago. Among the usual holiday suspects was a song called “Just in Time for Christmas,” from 1994, performed and co-written by New York cabaret singer Nancy LaMott. Once I listened to it, I decided I had to share it.

LaMott (1951-1995) had two constants that ran throughout her short life: a beautiful voice, and recurring illnesses that kept her from fulfilling her full potential. At the age of 17, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a bowel and immune system disorder that would flare up just as she was getting breaks.

At the age of 19, she moved to San Francisco from her home state of Michigan. In between hospital stays, she started to make a name for herself, and thanks to a friend, she relocated to New York. She made some good friends who stood by her, but every time she was about to get a big break, her illness would return, and she’d be back to the hospital.

In 1989, she met David Friedman, a composer and conductor, who thought that LaMott should be doing more than singing in clubs; she should be making recordings. So he signed her to his new Midder Music label and started to get the word out. It didn’t take long for LaMott to garner a cult following in New York, but she continued to have health problems. Finally, she got an ileostomy, which changed her life for the better.

By 1994, LaMott seemed to be on her way at last. She had sung for President and Mrs. Clinton at the White House; she had appeared on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee; and her following continued to grow. That fall, her Christmas CD, of which “Just in Time for Christmas” is the title song, sold approximately 5,000 copies – not bad for a poorly distributed CD on an independent label. But in March 1995, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She died before the end of the year.

Those who remember LaMott from her days in New York remember her fondly, but most of the rest of the country has forgotten her.

As I mentioned, “Just in Time for Christmas” can be seen in more than one way. LaMott is disillusioned by the holiday season until a Christmas miracle occurs. It is not explicit what this miracle is; on the surface, it can be seen as the love of her life has finally arrived, but on another level, the song can be about the Christmas miracle that took place in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago, and her discovery of its power. Either way, it’s a wonderful song that deserves greater recognition. Here’s “Just in Time for Christmas.”

CSOTD 12/22/16: Son of a carpenter

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.”

 

CSOTD 12/21/16: The Christmas you get, you deserve

In looking at the list of the songs I’ve highlighted as Christmas Song of the Day the past three seasons, I’m surprised I haven’t featured this one yet. Perhaps it’s because my choice for December 21 gets more airplay than it once did; when I first heard it in the 1970s, it was a wonderful obscurity.

After the success of the album Brain Salad Surgery and the following world tour, the prog-rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer took a hiatus. During that break, Greg Lake and frequent collaborator Pete Sinfield came up with a Christmas single that has the best of both worlds: It’s memorable, and it has a message.

“I Believe in Father Christmas” began with what Lake called a “Christmasy” chord progression. Sinfield began to write words around it, starting with memories of his own childhood Christmases and his eventual disillusionment once he found out almost everything he believed was contrived and phony. Rather than end on that note, he wrote a more upbeat third verse, which brings things to a nice resolution.

Between each verse, on Keith Emerson’s suggestion, is an instrumental passage lifted from the “Troika” portion of Serge Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé suite, which he wrote in 1933. (“I Believe in Father Christmas” isn’t the only popular song to use part of that suite; a different segment is in Sting’s 1985 single “Russians.”)

The 45, which was released in 1975, features a choir and orchestra. On the British charts, the song peaked at #2, failing only to get past Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the vaunted Christmas #1 spot. In the U.S., “I Believe in Father Christmas” was a rare charting Christmas song in the era; it peaked at #95 on Billboard and #92 on Cash Box.

In 1977, Emerson, Lake and Palmer put out two albums on three records consisting of both group and solo recordings. The second one, Works, Volume 2, featured “I Believe in Father Christmas,” but it wasn’t the same version as the 45. It featured the same basic track as the original single, but minus the “distant choir” and orchestra, and with an Emerson piano coda tacked on to the end. (If you listen closely, you can hear the original recording fading to nothing behind the coda.) For a long time, this was the only version that was played on American FM radio, because the Lake original was only on a 45 and had not been reissued on LP, and FM stations tended to play tracks from albums.

Still later, ELP did a new version in 1993 for its Return of the Manticore box set, and Lake did another solo version in 2002 for a various-artists CD called Classic Rock Christmas.

The song is easier to find on physical CD than it ever was on record, but it can be confusing: I’ve seen compilations that claim to have the “Emerson, Lake and Palmer” version but play the original version, and I’ve seen the reverse. Because four different versions are floating around, it’s best if you can listen to the CD before you buy it to know which version you’re getting. To me, the original ’75 version still resonates the most.

CSOTD 12/20/16: A mensch, a virgin and a God

I first heard “Spotlight on Christmas” by Rufus Wainwright, the Christmas Song of the Day for December 20, in 2005.  That year, Elton John put together a wonderful CD of some of his favorite Christmas songs for Starbucks coffee shops. Entitled Elton John’s Christmas Party, it sold well enough to make the Billboard charts that year. (An abridged version came out a year later, but missing six songs.)

Many of the songs on Elton John’s Christmas Party rarely appeared on other CDs. This one caught my ear immediately, and it quickly made my short list of songs I love to play and share.

Wainwright (born 1973) is the son of two singers: Loudon Wainwright III, who, despite a long career of many albums, is best known for his novelty song “Dead Skunk,” and Kate McGarrigle. His parents divorced when he was three, and he spent his youth living with his mother in Canada. When he was a teen, he was part of the touring group The McGarrigle Sisters and Family, with whom he sometimes stole the show.

In 1996, he signed with the DreamWorks label, for whom he recorded several critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums. He gained some measure of fame because he recorded Leonard Cohen’s oft-covered “Hallelujah” for the soundtrack album of the movie Shrek (though the version heard in the film is that by John Cale).”Hallelujah” is enough of a signature song for him that, in June 2016, he made a special appearance at Toronto’s Luminato Festival to serve as lead singer for an epic version of the song, accompanied by 1,500 singers from the ad hoc Toronto-based group Choir! Choir! Choir!

Wainwright wrote and recorded “Spotlight on Christmas” for one of the Canadian Nettwerk label’s well-received holiday compilations, Maybe This Christmas Too? That CD, which was released in 2003, started with the spoken “One, two, three, four” of Wainwright’s song.

Two different themes run through the song. One is that we claim to love those who work hard for a living, but we seem to admire the rich more than them – and perhaps, for at least the 12 days of Christmas, we ought to “put the measuring away.” He also references the story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in ways that most typical Christmas songs don’t.

The original studio version wasn’t on YouTube for a long time, but it is now.

 

CSOTD 12/19/16: While they chime, we’ll have a happy time

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 19 is a joyous, uptempo celebration of the season that, as is true of so many of the songs I feature, deserves wider recognition.

I first heard “Ring Those Christmas Bells” at least several decades ago. I either bought or was given a copy of the album The Sounds of Christmas, a classic vocal-group LP by Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians. It has a cool concept: The Waring musicians are in a small town and greet passers-by with song. Sounds of trains coming and going from the local depot, cars moving about, and other non-musical sounds of hustle and bustle blend in with the music, though not to the point of distraction. The first full-length song on the album, which plays as two continuous sides and is not banded, is “Ring Those Christmas Bells,” a song I had not heard anywhere else. At the time, I assumed it was an original.

Years later, I found out, quite by accident, that it was not.

At this date, I can’t remember if I first heard it on a store’s PA or on a CD, probably the former. If anything, the version, sung by a female, was even more joyous than the already exciting Waring rendition. It didn’t take me long to find it.

The first to record “Ring Those Christmas Bells” was Peggy Lee, one of the great American vocalists. She made her first recordings with Benny Goodman’s orchestra in the early 1940s; after going solo, she recorded for Capitol in two stints, first from 1944-1951 and again from 1958 to the early 1970s. Among her most famous hits were “Mañana” from 1948, “Fever” from 1958, and “Is That All There Is?” from 1969. When at Capitol, she did a Christmas single in 1949, an entire Christmas album in 1960, and several more Christmas songs in 1965.

“Ring Those Christmas Bells,” recorded on September 14, 1953, comes from Lee’s years at Decca, during which she recorded a couple of concept albums and quite a few singles. Though it sounds as if she could have written it, the song was composed by tunesmiths Marvin Fisher and Gus Levene. Until the CD era, this song was completely forgotten, but it’s been on a few compilations in recent years.

Here’s Lee’s original toe-tapping version. Sing along if you like!

CSOTD 12/18/16: Not always merry and bright

‘Tis the season to be jolly, to be filled with tidings of comfort and joy, right? Well, not everybody feels it, and it’s an especially hard season for people who are sad and lonely, or both. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 18, though brand-new, already has  spoken eloquently to those who feel something besides happiness and cheer this time of the year.

Amy Grant (born 1960) released yet another Christmas album in 2016, Tennessee Christmas. Garnering much attention was that some of the new songs on the album look at the season from a different point of view than we’re used to hearing from her.  Grant’s originals on past albums have been based to some degree on personal experience. One of the songs on the new album is based more on the experience of some of her fans.

When the new album was released, it became the source of controversy: The LifeWay chain of Christian bookstores, a ministry of the Southern Baptist Convention, chose not to carry Grant’s Tennessee Christmas because it “wasn’t Christian enough.”

One song in particular that caused controversy is “Melancholy Christmas.” In it, Grant imagines herself as a lonely person whose only contact with the outside world is through social media, if that. And then she tries to reach out: “You don’t need presents … We can sing carols … If you feel lonely, I feel it, too.”

Grant’s manager, Jennifer Cooke, in an article in the Washington Post, wrote:

“… one of Grant’s longtime fans started a thread on her Facebook fan page saying how listening to ‘Melancholy Christmas’ makes her cry because, for the past few Christmases, she has sat alone in her wheelchair all day on Christmas.

“Several other fans opened up and said the same was true of their lives. Some openly grieved about dysfunctional family situations, health troubles that leave them isolated, loss of loved ones and the isolation of having no one who cares enough to call. They shared each others’ pain and offered hope and encouragement to each other, all because of a song that never mentions Jesus.

“And really, isn’t that what it’s all about? Aren’t we supposed to be the hands and feet of Jesus? Does the name Jesus need to be said for his love to be shown or his message to be lived and shared?”

Here’s “Melancholy Christmas,” my Christmas Song of the Day for December 18.