Tag Archives: 1963

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.


CSOTD 12/25/21: God is not dead, nor doth he sleep

Merry Christmas! I hope today finds you filled with comfort and joy, however you celebrate the season. Thank you for reading these stories, and I hope they have enriched your holidays in some way. By the way, as always, these features will continue until the end of the year, so stay tuned.

The Christmas promise of “peace on earth, good will toward men” has been elusive throughout human history. Yet even in the midst of war, some still maintain the hope that this lofty goal can happen. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 25 came from one of America’s greatest poets during the height of one of the most terrible times in U.S. history — the Civil War.

On Christmas Day in 1863 (or 1864 — sources vary), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was consumed by grief. His beloved second wife, Frances Elizabeth Appleton, died on July 10, 1861 in a horrible accident at home in which her dress caught fire; Longfellow never recovered from the loss. Then, in 1863, against his wishes, his eldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union cause in the Civil War and was critically wounded in the Battle of Mine Run (New Hope Church), which took place in Orange County, Virginia from November 27 to December 2, 1863. (In the 1864 origin story, Longfellow also was sorrowful over the death of his friend, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who died May 19, 1864.) Wondering if the accursed war would ever end, but hopeful that it would, Longfellow wrote a seven-stanza poem he called “Christmas Bells.” It first appeared in print in the February 1865 edition of Our Young Folks, a literary magazine for children aged 10-18 published in Boston.

Today, we know this poem as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

The original version of what eventually became known as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (Source: Internet Archive, public domain)

Two of the seven verses are specific to the war and are rarely sung today. But the other five are, although sometimes the order is shuffled.

Longfellow’s poem has been set to music several times. The first known to do so was English composer and organist John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), who in 1872 melded it to a melody known as “Waltham,” which Calkin had composed no later than 1848. This is the version most often found in hymnals, as it has long since passed into the public domain.

Johnny Cash (1932-2003) recorded a nice version of the Calkin melody for his 1963 album The Christmas Spirit.

In 1956, Johnny Marks (1909-1985), already well known as the composer of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” set Longfellow’s words to a new melody. This may be the most familiar version today. Bing Crosby (1903-1977) was the first to record it, on one of his last singles for the Decca label before he became a musical free agent. I am most familiar with it through the 1958 version by Harry Belafonte (born 1927), who recorded it for his album To Wish You a Merry Christmas; a slightly edited version was released as a 45 that year.

Here’s the Belafonte version of the Marks melody, which was the first I heard.

More than 50 years later, Mark Hall (born 1969), lead singer of Contemporary Christian band Casting Crowns, teamed with guitarist Dale Oliver (born 1970) to create yet another new melody for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” This version, which is an interpolation of four stanzas of the Longfellow poem with some linking words, appeared on Casting Crowns’ 2008 Christmas album Peace on Earth and hit #1 on the Billboard Top Christian Songs chart that year.

Whichever version you prefer, or if you find meaning in all of them as I do, Merry Christmas!

(A version of this entry was my Facebook-only Christmas Song of the Day for December 8, 2014.)

CSOTD 12/9/20: Chipmunks off the old block

Sixty-two years ago, a singer and composer named David Seville (real name Ross Bagdasarian, 1919-1972) created a fictional group of singing rodents he called The Chipmunks. Using sped-up versions of his own voice, “The Chipmunk Song,” or “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” became one of the fastest selling singles of all time, spending four weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of 1958. For 61 years, it was the only Christmas song to reach the top of the Hot 100.

“The Chipmunk Song” was hardly the first record to use sped-up voices; earlier in 1958, Seville had created “Witch Doctor,” and Sheb Wooley created “The Purple People Eater.” As far back as 1950, Nat King Cole’s version of “Frosty the Snow Man” had a group of similar chirpy backing vocalists called “The Singing Pussy Cats.” But Bagdasarian was able to turn Alvin, Theodore, and Simon into superstars, first with several follow-up hits and then in 1961 with The Alvin Show, a prime-time cartoon with the three rascally rodents.

But by 1962, the TV show had been canceled, and the hit songs were drying up. In time for that year’s Christmas season came Christmas with the Chipmunks, featuring the previously released “The Chipmunk Song” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” a hit in 1960, plus 10 new recordings. The album only got to #84 on the Billboard chart that year, but it sold well enough to warrant Christmas with the Chipmunks, Volume 2 the following year. It is from the second of these LPs that my Christmas Song of the Day for December 9 was drawn.

Five years after “The Chipmunk Song” became a music-industry phenomenon, Bagdasarian wrote the almost identical “Wonderful Day.” It has a similar melody, a similar theme, and even gallops along in the same 6/8 meter as the original hit. But lightning failed to strike again, and in the holiday season of 1963, “Wonderful Day” failed to recapture the magic.

The Chipmunk trio would have only one more hit album, 1964’s The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles’ Hits, before Bagdasaian gradually brought their career to an end by 1969. Eight years after Ross’ death in 1972, his son, Ross Bagdasaian Jr., revived the Chipmunks for new generations.

The two original Chipmunks Christmas albums have been sliced and diced into so many permutations that it seemed for a while that a new reissue was out evey year. Except for one CD that included all 25 Chipmunk holiday tunes, 24 from the two albums and one single-only cut, most of them were abridged, and some omitted the wannabe hit from 1963. Here is “Wonderful Day.”

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 12/17/19: Great Scott, it’s Santa

For the second straight day, my Christmas Song of the Day pays tribute to a recently deceased singer. This time, it’s one of the most underrated singers of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll, Jack Scott, who died on December 12, 2019.

Scott was born Giovanni Dominico Scafone in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, just south of Detroit, Mich. in 1936. He could rock with the best of them, but he’s best known for ballads, assuming he’s remembered at all. He had four Top 10 hits from 1958 to 1960, including “My True Love” and “Burning Bridges,” both of which peaked at #3. In all, he had 19 songs that made the Billboard Hot 100, and as recently as 1974, he had a minor hit on the country charts.

My Christmas Song of the Day for December 17 was recorded after his peak years, but it absolutely rocks; it sounds as if Elvis Presley could have done it well.

In 1963, Scott signed with the newly reactivated Groove label, an RCA Victor subsidiary. (The original Groove label, active from 1955-57, is best known as the label for “Love Is Strange” by Mickey & Sylvia.) His first single for Groove was a Christmas 45. One side was called “Jingle Bells Slide,” an adaptation of the famous James Pierpont song, which rocks pretty well in its own right. But the other side is an original, “There’s Trouble Brewin’,” which is killer. The singer finds out that his woman has been messing around with Santa Claus, and he’s itching for, at the least, a confrontation.

Both sides sound as if the same Nashville cats that played on Elvis’ best rockers of the early 60s, including “Little Sister” and “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise,” are accompanying Scott. Why “There’s Trouble Brewin'” especially isn’t better known is an open question.

I first heard this song on the old Time-Life compilation Jingle Bell Rock, which remains one of the few places it’s been reissued since the 1980s. I loved it immediately. I hope you enjoy it, too.

CSOTD 12/9/19: The wizardry of Osmonds

Some people might consider Meredith Willson (1902-1984) the Broadway equivalent of a one-hit wonder, for his enduring musical The Music Man. But he did write another successful musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and a third that was less successful. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 9 comes from that final one.

A musical based on the classic Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street isn’t a bad idea, but the final product, called Here’s Love, didn’t have the staying power of Willson’s earlier two hits. It opened on Broadway on October 3, 1963, but closed on July 25, 1964, after 334 performances and two previews — a lackluster showing for its era.

Only one reasonably well-known song came from Here’s Love. Interestingly, part of it already had been a hit years before.

In 1951, “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas,” a Willson composition, was a hit for Perry Como with the Fontane Sisters and also was covered in a less successful, but more often heard today, version by Bing Crosby the same year. For Here’s Love, Willson incorporated his previous hit with a new counterpoint, “Pine Cones and Holly Berries.”

The medley remained fairly obscure until it was recorded by the Osmonds on their sprawling two-record set, The Osmonds’ Christmas Album, in 1976. (I can’t think of very many Christmas albums, other than compilations, that last for two records. Even during the CD era, most single-artist holiday albums would fit comfortably on one record had they been manufactured that way.) The Osmonds’ version ended up on the Rhino Records CD Have a Nice Christmas! Holiday Hits of the ’70s, and a few more adventurous radio programmers felt that the wonderfully syrupy version would work on the air. To these ears, it does, but you still don’t hear it very much.

Here’s the Osmonds’ version of “Pine Cones and Holly Berries”:

Just for kicks, this is the rendition from the 1963 original cast album of Here’s Love, sung by Laurence Naismith, Janis Paige, and Fred Gwynne:

CSOTD 12/4/16: Twelve gates to Christmas

In the exploration of my Christmas CD archive this fall, an ongoing project, I have found myself pleasantly surprised many times. One of those is with the New Christy Minstrels.

A folk group founded by Randy Sparks, the Christies had a revolving door of membership. At various times the Minstrels included such luminaries as Barry McGuire, Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes, Gene Clark (later of the Byrds), and Jerry Yester (later of the Association). Their biggest pop hits were “Green, Green,” which features McGuire on lead vocal, and “Today,” a beautiful ballad with Sparks on lead.

During their most popular years in the mid-1960s, they recorded two Christmas albums and several other holiday songs that first appeared on tire-store Christmas albums. Of their two Christmas albums, the first one, Merry Christmas!, is the better one. On it, the Christies were arguably at their best. The opening track is my Christmas Song of the Day for December 4.

The gospel song “Twelve Gates to the City,” first recorded by the Reverend Gary Davis and later by artists as varied as the Weavers, the Davis Sisters (the gospel group, not the 1950s country duo), Ralph Stanley and Carly Simon, served as the source for “Beautiful City.” The original song was inspired by the Bible’s Book of Revelation, chapter 21, verses 12 and 13, in which the prophet described his vision of the new Jerusalem as having twelve gates, three in each basic direction of the compass. Sparks and arranger Nick Woods kept the basic structure of the song the same, but changed the city in question to Bethlehem and retold the Christmas story in the new lyrics.

When I was auditioning my CD of the complete Christmas works of the New Christy Minstrels, I heard “Beautiful City” coming through my headphones – and I was floored. Within seconds, I was singing along, alternately snapping my fingers and clapping my hands along. How had I missed this one all these years? When it was over, I knew that it would be a Christmas Song of the Day at some point this year. Enjoy the Christies at their 1963 peak.


CSOTD 12/29/2015: Christmas for the birds

We are in the midst of the traditional 12 Days of Christmas, which used to start on December 25 and continue until January 6. This celebration, of course, inspired a song that we all know.  That same song also has inspired countless parodies. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 29 is one of the least known, but one of the funniest.

Alexander “Sascha” Burland (born 1927) made his name writing jingles for radio and television ads. In 1959, he and a friend, Don Elliott, capitalized on the fad for fictional groups of rodents with squeaky voices by creating The Nutty Squirrels; they promptly had a top 20 single called “Uh! Oh! Part 2.” Unlike the pop-oriented Chpmunks, the Nutty Squirrels were rooted in jazz. They also made it to television before Alvin, Theodore and Simon, but The Nutty Squirrels Present, which aired in 1960-61, was not a success.

As happens with most novelties, the Nutty Squirrels soon became dated. Burland went back to his mostly behind-the-scenes work; he was the credited composer on the T-Bones’ 1966 Top 10 single “No Matter What Shape (Your Stomach’s In),” which originated as an Alka-Seltzer jingle.

In between, Burland, with help from The Skipjack Choir and Mason Adams, recorded one of the great lost Christmas novelty records.

Imagine that you are the conductor of a small choir that is in the midst of singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Now imagine that one of the choir members starts receiving the gifts in the song from her overeager boyfriend. The various birds get loose, interfere with the singers and the instruments, and chaos ensues. Finally, as the choir is finally trying to run down the entire list of gifts, the exasperated director shouts the line that became the title of this parody – “The chickens are in the chimes!”

Released in 1963 as a 45 on the RCA Victor label, it’s never been released on CD as far as I know, but people in the Christmas-music community love to share the song because it’s both rare and unusual.

Cluck along with “The Chickens Are In the Chimes!”

CSOTD 12/23/2015: The cradle will rock

Today, all you need to do is turn the radio to a Christmas station and you’ll hear something from Nat King Cole’s 1960 album The Magic of Christmas – or, to be more accurate, the 1963 reissue called The Christmas Song. The title song of the ’63 version is an undeniable classic, and almost all the other 13 songs are in semi-regular rotation. But one song from this LP is ignored, and to me, it’s a great mystery why. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 23 is that odd one out – “A Cradle in Bethlehem.”

The song seems to have spent a long time in limbo. It was composed by Larry Stock, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame best known as co-writer of “Blueberry Hill,” and Alfred Bryan, another Hall of Famer whose most famous song is probably “Peg o’ My Heart”; though it was copyrighted in 1952, I can’t find any recording of “A Cradle in Bethlehem” before Cole’s 1960 version. Bryan had died in 1958, thus would never know that the song would end up on the biggest-selling Christmas album recorded in the 1960s.

Cole recorded The Magic of Christmas on three consecutive days in July 1960. “A Cradle in Bethlehem” was one of five songs recorded on July 7, the last of the three sessions. It is a beautiful rendition; perhaps because it was the only “new” song on the album, it has been lost in the shuffle.

CSOTD 12/14/2015: Dino brings you peace

In 1977, the producers of Bing Crosby’s last Christmas special, Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, added a counter-melody called “Peace on Earth” to “The Little Drummer Boy” so that David Bowie would sing a duet with Bing on the TV show.  (Bowie hated “Drummer Boy,” thus the new song.) Once the song was released officially in the early 1980s, it became a Christmas classic.

Many years earlier, a different counter-melody called “Peace on Earth” was added to a familiar carol – and this one has been largely forgotten. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 14 is an attempt to rescue that beautiful medley from obscurity.

In 1955, Walt Disney released the beloved animated feature Lady and the Tramp. Famed singer Peggy Lee voiced four different characters; she also collaborated with Sonny Burke to write 10 songs that were heard, in whole or in part, during the film.  Lee and Burke wrote “Peace on Earth” as a counterpoint to the traditional “Silent Night,” and short snippets are heard twice in the movie.  She also recorded a full-length, three-minute version for the 1955 soundtrack album released by Decca Records, her label at the time.  A 45 rpm single was supposedly issued in November 1957 as Decca 9-38005, part of Decca’s special 38000 numbering system for promotional and other special-markets releases, but no copy has surfaced.

For the Christmas season of 1963, the two-year-old Reprise Records label decided to release a various-artists collection of new recordings of Christmas songs from its stable of artists. The album, entitled Frank Sinatra and His Friends Want You to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, was reissued more than once during the 1960s and was sometimes used as a corporate premium, but except for fans of vintage vinyl, it is no longer in the public consciousness.

Perhaps inspired by the 1962 re-release of Lady and the Tramp, Dean Martin chose Peggy Lee’s medley for his contribution to the Reprise album. “Peace on Earth and Silent Night,” as its title appears on the LP, was recorded on August 13, 1963 at Western Recorders in Los Angeles. It started to reappear on compact disc in the early 2000s, but it remains largely ignored and forgotten.  Once again, I hope you enjoy this medley as much as I do.