Another year of the Christmas Song of the Day ends today. My choice for December 31 is one I first heard when I was a kid back in the 1960s, but only sporadically in the years since. It’s best known as a collaboration between two 20th Century musical giants, but they didn’t originate it.
Les Brown (1912-2001) formed his first band when he was a student at Duke University in Durham, N.C. This touring group became the core of his Band of Renown, which officially was founded in 1938. Brown signed with the OKeh label, Columbia’s home for most big bands and folk singers, in 1940; his band had its first hit, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” in 1941. After the 1942 recording ban, Brown’s band was reassigned to parent label Columbia; in 1945, they had their biggest hit, “Sentimental Journey,” featuring lead vocalist Doris Day.
With vocalists now the focus of the record industry, the bands became less relevant to their old labels. In 1951, Brown moved to the Coral label, and then to Capitol in 1955. After a couple more label changes, by 1961 the Band of Renown was back on Columbia.
For the Christmas season of 1961, Columbia assembled an album, We Wish You the Merriest: An All-Star Christmas, with mostly artists who either never did or had yet to record a full Christmas album. Brown contributed a song he wrote himself, which ended up being the sort-of title track, “We Wish You the Merriest.” This short song was a brassy celebration of both the Christmas and New Year’s season.
As enjoyable as the album was, it was out of print by 1964. That year, “We Wish You the Merriest” received its most notable cover.
It’s possible that none of the three artists involved wanted to record a full Christmas album, as each already had done so in the past. Instead, Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) and Bing Crosby (1903-1977) collaborated with Fred Waring (1900-1984) and His Pennsylvanians on 12 Songs of Christmas. The album’s liner notes stated that the LP was a companion piece to an album the three had recorded earlier in 1964, America, I Hear You Singing. The Christmas album remained in print on record well into the 1970s, but I don’t think it’s ever been reissued on CD in its entirety. All the tracks with Sinatra have, but I’m not sure about the non-Sinatra songs with Crosby or Waring.
The triumvirate closed the album with their version of “We Wish You the Merriest,” which I first heard on the radio way back in the 1960s. I found a copy of the original LP, probably in the 1980s, and there I found the song I probably hadn’t heard in 15-20 years. In the years since, I found out it had been released as a 45, and I have that in my collection now, too.
A few versions have come out since 1964, but the Sinatra/Crosby/Waring recording still sticks out. Here’s their version of “We Wish You the Merriest”:
And for comparison’s sake, here’s the original by Les Brown:
Thank you once again for following the Christmas Song of the Day. I really appreciate you!
When I chose my Christmas Song of the Day for December 18, a 1964 single that sounds as if it could have been recorded by Motown in the pre-assembly line days, I had no idea how hard it would be to find any information on the group that blessed us with “Christmas Is the Time to Be with Your Baby,” which was released on the Columbia label.
Their name is The Orchids, and even as I write this, I’m still confused.
Here’s what I do know: They were a New York-based black quintet, thus not to be confused with a white British female trio also known as The Orchids. A photo from one of their first, if not their first, sessions exists; they are pictured with Terry Melcher, Doris Day’s son and soon to become a prominent producer, and Bobby Darin, who by 1963 was on the Capitol label. I’ve never seen an authoritative list of the five women who comprised The Orchids.
They had three singles for Columbia in 1963 and 1964, including “Christmas Is the Time to Be with Your Baby,” and one for Roulette in 1965 before vanishing into even greater obscurity.
But there may be more to the story. According to girl-group historian John Clemente, the Orchids actually recorded a couple tracks in 1964 that were released with the names of other girl groups!
This wasn’t completely unheard of in this era; the 1962 hit song “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” credited to The Blue-Bells (Patti LaBelle’s early girl group), was actually by a group called The Starlets, and another hit the same year, “He’s a Rebel” by the Crystals, was actually recorded by Darlene Love with the Blossoms. There are dozens more less prominent examples, and even today, some of this chicanery remains undiscovered.
Clemente’s research claims that “Please Be My Boyfriend,” a 1964 “Crystals” recording produced by Phil Spector in New York, was actually The Orchids. So was “Some of Your Lovin’,” a 1964 single on Fontana that was credited to The Honey Bees, which on a previous 45 was a pseudonym for The Cookies of “Chains” fame. Confused yet? And who knows, The Orchids may have pretended to be other girl groups in the same era.
To add to the fun, “Christmas Is the Time to Be with Your Baby” was written by Joey Brooks, then an aspiring singer, songwriter, and jingle writer. Years later, under the name Joe Brooks, he wrote “You Light Up My Life,” the biggest #1 hit of the 1970s. His misdeeds, both at the time and later, are beyond the scope of this entry.
I first heard this on a budget Sony Music Special Products various-artists CD called Reindeer Rock, which may be its only U.S. CD appearance. Once you get past the intrigue and mystery, this is a fine record.
One of America’s best-known modern composers is Burt Bacharach (born 1928). He has written hit songs for dozens of artists since 1958 and has collaborated with many lyricists, most notably Hal David, with whom he wrote most of Dionne Warwick’s 1960s hits. My Christmas Song of the Day for December 16 is one of those rare holiday songs Bacharach co-wrote.
In 1962, Bacharach still wrote with numerous others, though after the success of Gene Pitney’s version of “(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance,” he wrote exclusively with Hal David until 1973. One of his collaborators in 1962 was a young lyricist named Larry Kusik. In 1961, Kusik wrote the words for Adam Wade’s hit song “As If I Didn’t Know.” Years later, Kusik would write the words to the love theme from Romeo and Juliet, otherwise known as “A Time for Us,” and the words to the love theme from The Godfather, also known as “Speak Softly Love.”
Kusik came up with a bizarre lyric about a bell missing its clapper. Only when Jack Frost froze a teardrop inside the empty bell could it play its proper role by jingling on Santa’s sleigh. This is the basic plot for “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle,” a mostly forgotten song recorded fairly often in the 1960s and well remembered by many people who grew up then.
The Bacharach-Kulik song was first recorded by Paul Evans, who is probably best known for his 1959 novelty “Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Back Seat.” He released it as a single for the Christmas season of 1962, arranged and conducted by Bacharach. It wasn’t a hit.
The next time “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle” was recorded was in 1964. Bobby Vinton did it for his album A Very Merry Christmas, and it was released as one side of a two-sided holiday single, coupled with the even more forgotten “Dearest Santa.” I’ve seen this version on a couple of Christmas CD compilations over the years, usually when Sony Music digs deep into its vast archives.
Bobby Helms of “Jingle Bell Rock” fame recorded “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle” as a single in 1965 for Kapp, with a new version of his 1957 standard on the other side, but it, too, failed to catch on.
Probably the most fondly remembered, especially because of the cult following many early artists on the A&M label have today, are two versions that Herb Alpert’s label released in 1968. One was an instrumental version by Alpert himself on his Christmas album; the other was credited to Burt Bacharach. Bacharach had a contract with A&M for a couple years, but he didn’t sing on the records with his name on it; instead, he produced easy-listening versions of some of his own songs using studio pros. Bacharach’s version of “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle” first appeared on the B.F. Goodrich promotional album Something Festive! in 1968, and as far as I know, it has made exactly one CD appearance in all the years since.
These are far from the only versions of “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle.” But these are the ones that people seem to recall the most.
Tonight’s the night for my radio re-entry. I’m nervous, but in a good way, the same way I get nervous before a choral concert.
The first time I remember singing in public was when I was seven, in front of classmates and teachers at the old Telford Elementary School in Telford, Pa. Every spring, the school had a competition it called “May Day” or “Field Day”; in the morning, the indoor events (vocal music, instrumental music and “declamation,” usually poetry reading) took place; then, after lunch, the outdoor events (50-yard dash, broad jump, overhead basketball throw, other feats of athletic prowess I know I’m forgetting) took place on the playground or in the grass. When I was in the second grade, I sang a song that started like this: “Oh, I’m gonna sing, gonna sing, gonna sing, gonna sing all along my way…” I remember finishing second.
Fifth grade was the youngest one could be in my school district to join the chorus, and I did as soon as I was allowed. Though sometimes I had to be dragged into it and convinced of my ability, I sang all the way through high school and then into college. When I first arrived on the Notre Dame campus, I was too scared to audition for any of the choral groups, but a coed group from across the street at Saint Mary’s College had a booth at the annual activities night, and I was talked into going across what was then U.S. 31 to join the Collegiate Choir. Eventually, I was encouraged to audition for the selective Saint Mary’s Chamber Singers, another coed group. I sang there until I graduated.
Then, except for a few important occasions – for example, three of my sisters’ weddings – I didn’t sing in public again until 1997. A notice appeared in the local paper that a nearby community choir was seeking singers for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Except for three of the choruses, I’d never sung Messiah and thought it would be cool to take part. I’ve been singing in choral groups ever since, and I’ve wandered outside my comfort zone to become a soloist once in a while. In addition to many shorter numbers, I’ve soloed in Faure’s Requiem, Mozart’s Requiem and J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
In 2001, I was one of the founding members of the Wisconsin Master Chorale in Stevens Point, Wis. I sang with them until the spring of 2013. Since moving to central Virginia, I’ve been a member of the Lynchburg-based Jefferson Choral Society. I enjoy singing very much; it brings me great joy, and at times it has been the only stable part of my life.
All of this is yet another roundabout way of getting into today’s entry from The Top 1,000 Hits of the 1960s.
So far, I haven’t posted any entries about the Beatles. They have by far the most songs in the countdown (26). Here’s one of them, a song that wasn’t a single in England, but hit #2 in 1964 in the U.S.
Do You Want to Know a Secret / The Beatles / Vee-Jay VJ 587
(Total points: 1,138 / Chart debut: 3/28/1964 / Chart peak: 2 / Weeks on chart: 11)
How crazy was Beatlemania in early 1964? And how much did Vee-Jay Records, which claimed to own the rights to the first 16 tracks they recorded for Parlophone in the U.K., want to milk that cash cow before it gave out? One of its more interesting ideas was a short-lived plan to issue every song from Introducing the Beatles, the album it released in January 1964, as a single. Instead, it chose a couple of well-selected LP cuts, one of which was “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” with a rare lead vocal by George Harrison.
Recorded as part of the marathon February 11, 1963 session that resulted in 10 of the 14 songs that appear on the British Please Please Me album, “Do You Want to Know a Secret” was a true John Lennon-Paul McCartney collaboration (though Lennon later claimed he wrote most of it). It was inspired by the song “I’m Wishing” from the Walt Disney animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and both Lennon and McCartney agreed that it was tailor-made for Harrison’s then limited vocal range.
In England, the song was promptly covered by Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas for their first single, which was issued on April 26, 1963 and reached #2 on the British charts. In typical fashion for 1963, Capitol, which owned first U.S. rights to the Kramer hit, chose not to release it. Instead, Liberty Records picked it up and issued it as Liberty 55586 in June of that year. At the start of Beatlemania, Liberty would once again issue the Dakotas’ version of “Secret,” this time as the original B-side of “Bad to Me” (Liberty 55667). That single was quickly withdrawn, and Kramer and the band were moved to Imperial, which by then was a Liberty subsidiary. “Bad to Me” was re-released paired with “Little Children,” which is still to come in our Top 1,000 Hits of the 1960s countdown.
Meanwhile, the original version was part of an ongoing legal battle between Capitol and Vee-Jay, which was finally resolved in April 1964. Before the settlement, Vee-Jay issued the Beatles’ “Do You Want to Know a Secret” on 45 only two weeks after it released “Twist and Shout” on the newly created Tollie subsidiary. Seven weeks after it debuted, it reached the runner-up spot, kept from #1 by the newer, fresher Capitol release, “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
Collector’s notes: As was true of all Beatles records on Vee-Jay, a dizzying number of label variations exist. At least 12 different pressings were made on different combinations of the oval, brackets and plain-text Vee-Jay logos, with or without the color ring along the outside of the label. One of the 12 was pressed, probably in error, on the yellow label that was used for early Tollie 45s rather than the typical black label. Most of these 12 have the catalog number as VJ 587, but a couple have a hyphen in the number (VJ-587).
“Do You Want to Know a Secret” was issued with a flimsy paper picture sleeve, which by the standards of Vee-Jay releases, is fairly common – certainly more common than either the “Please Please Me” or “Love Me Do” picture sleeves.
Fast fact: Of the 26 Beatles recordings in the Top 1,000 Hits of the 1960s chart, “Do You Want to Know a Secret” ranks 22nd.