Tag Archives: 1974

CSOTD 12/12/2022: A ray of hope

If you were a resident of the United Kingdom, my Christmas Song of the Day for December 12 would be considered a standard rather than an obscurity. It seems as if every British artist who has made a Christmas album in the past 40-plus years has recorded it.

But in the United States – well, that’s a different story. Only a small handful of American singers have touched it. One of them, though, sang the most successful version in the UK.

Thus is the strange and wonderful saga of the song that became “When a Child Is Born.”

Our story begins in 1972. That year, Italian singer-composer Ciro Dammicco (born 1947) recorded his first album, entitled Mittente, for Columbia Records (an EMI Italiana label, no relation to Columbia in the USA). The third song on Side 2 was a song called “Le Rose Blu,” which served as the beginning of today’s song. Dammicco co-wrote it with lyricists Alberto Salerno (born 1949) and Francesco Specchia (1929-2019). It wasn’t released as a single in Italy or anywhere else.

Dammico must have liked the melody of the verses, though, because he wasn’t done with the song yet. He re-tooled it, eliminating the bridge and lyrics, and in the process came up with an instrumental with wordless lyrics entitled “Soleado,” which he wrote using the pseudonym “Zacar.” He recorded the song in 1974 on the Odeon (EMI) label with the newly formed Daniel Sentacruz Ensemble, and the song became a big hit in Italy, peaking at #2 on the national music charts in August.

EMI figured correctly that the song would easily translate to other countries. Though it wasn’t as big a hit elsewhere, “Soleado” was released in England, Japan, Canada, Mexico, and various Western European nations. It even was issued, as best as can be determined, as a promo-only 45 on EMI in the United States in either December 1974 or January 1975. (No stock copy is known to exist.) Famed orchestra leader Percy Faith recorded a cover in 1975 for his very last album, Summer Place ’76.

For the purposes of our story, the most important country to license “Soleado” from EMI Italiana was West Germany, which released the song on its Columbia label (also no relation to USA Columbia) in 1974. Michael Holm (born 1943), a schlager singer (roughly the equivalent to a U.S. pop/easy listening singer) whose first single came out way back in 1961, wrote a set of lyrics to the song, “Tränen lügen nicht” (English translation: “Tears Don’t Lie”). His version, released in West Germany in September 1974, became a #1 hit in his home country and soon spread to neighboring German-speaking areas such as Austria and Switzerland.

Meanwhile, Austrian-born Friedrich Jacobson, who composed under the name Fred Jay (1914-1988), created a set of words in English. Jay already had a long career as a songwriter; his credits go back to World War II. His most famous co-written hits before 1974 were “What Am I Living For” (Chuck Willis, 1958), “I Cried a Tear” (La Vern Baker, 1959), and the English version of “The Wedding” (Julie Rogers, 1964). By the end of the 1970s, Jay was the primary collaborator with Frank Farian on songs recorded by Boney M.

Jay’s song, “When a Child Is Born,” never specifically mentions the Christ child, but the words are easily interpreted as referring to the anticipation of the holy birth. Holm was given the first chance to record the new lyrics, which he did. Mercury Records picked it up for release in the United States and Canada. Amazingly for a German singer, Holm’s song was a hit in the States during the Christmas season of 1974-75. The American musical trade papers had widely diverging opinions as to how big a hit it was: In Billboard, it peaked at #53, but in Cash Box, it got to #38 and in Record World, it made it all the way to #24. Then it disappeared from the airwaves.

It was a different story in England, however. The original Holm version was released too close to Christmas in 1974 to make the charts. But in 1976, Johnny Mathis recorded a version of “When a Child Is Born” for his album I Only Have Eyes for You, released that spring. Just in time for Christmas, CBS Records, Mathis’ British label, issued it as a single, where it became a surprise #1 single for three weeks – the only #1 single he ever had in the UK. (In the US, his version reached #145 in Record World in 1976-77 and #123 in the same magazine in 1977-78, but that’s it.)

Since then, artists from Boney M to Sarah Brightman to the Moody Blues have recorded “When a Child Is Born.” With rare exceptions, the popularity of the song is mostly a British phenomenon.

You may skip as many of the early versions as you wish, but here’s the audio timeline of “When a Child Is Born.”

First, “Le Rose Blu” by Ciro Dammicco:

Next, “Soleado” by the Daniel Sentacruz Ensemble:

Now, “Tränen lügen nicht” by Michael Holm:

At last, to “When a Child Is Born” by Michael Holm, the consensus Top 40 hit in the U.S.:

Finally, the 1976 UK #1 version by Johnny Mathis:

(A version of this entry was my Facebook-only Christmas Song of the Day for December 11, 2014.)


CSOTD 12/31/19: Ring in the new

Today marks the end of six years’ worth of the Christmas Song of the Day. I hope that at least a few of the 186 helpings of Christmas cheer I have served over the years have helped brighten your holiday season.

Why my Christmas Song of the Day for December 31 isn’t all over the airwaves during the last week of the year is a mystery to me. It’s catchy, has big production values, and feels familiar all at once. Could it be the silly-sounding, though appropriate, title?

Unless something still resides deep in the vaults, the only former Beatle who never recorded a true Christmas song is George Harrison (1943-2001). Ringo Starr is the only one to record and release an entire Christmas album; Paul McCartney has done a few holiday tunes over the years, including the ubiquitous “Wonderful Christmastime”; and John Lennon did the epic “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” which was not so loosely based on the old folk song “Stewball.”

Today’s featured song, “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” also has “borrowed” elements to it. All of the lines in the simple verses came from inscriptions Harrison found on the walls of his Friar Park estate, which he bought in 1970 and was once owned by the British eccentric Frank Crisp (1843-1919). Crisp had taken some of those lines from the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). Meanwhile, the melody for the singalong chorus came from the Westminster Quarters, the chime melody that was rung by the bell Big Ben at the famous London clock tower at Westminster (now known as Elizabeth Tower). And the production, with many overdubs and horns, is reminiscent of the style of Phil Spector (born 1939), who had co-produced Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album in 1970; George admitted he was also influenced by Spector’s legendary 1963 Christmas album, which had been reissued by the Beatles’ Apple Records in 1972.

“Ding Dong, Ding Dong” was the first single from the album Dark Horse in much of the world except in North America, where it was the second. It was released too close to New Year’s Day to become associated with ringing out the old and ringing in the new; it didn’t enter the Billboard Hot 100 until January 1975, and it peaked at only #38. My own recollection is that I heard the song exactly once either right before or right after the New Year in 1974-75 and then rarely again.

If given the chance, I could imagine hundreds of thousands of revelers in Times Square singing this song’s chorus over and over again. If not there, then I could hear it somewhere — London, perhaps. How about it?

CSOTD 12/25/2015: It’s Latin to me

Merry Christmas to all my readers! I hope that my choices for Christmas Song of the Day have made your holiday season better in some way.

For December 25, I’ve decided to go back to a song that, at the absolute latest, was written in the late 16th century, as that was its first known publication. Its liturgical themes indicate that the melody may date from the medieval period. Even more amazing is that a version of this ancient song made the top 20 of the British charts in 1974, even though it was sung a cappella and entirely in Latin.

“Gaudete,” which means “rejoice,” first appeared in print in the songbook Piae cantiones (Pious songs) in 1582. The refrain – “Gaudete, gaudete, Christus est natus ex Maria virgine. Gaudete!”  – translates to “Rejoice, rejoice, Christ is born from the virgin Mary. Rejoice!” The verses also mention grace, Ezekiel, salvation and praise. “Gaudete”is every bit as joyful as the event it celebrates.

Over the years, “Gaudete” has become part of the standard repertoire of groups that specialize in madrigal and Renaissance music. Much of that popularity can be traced to a British folk revival group, Steeleye Span.

On the suggestion of group member Bob Johnson, who had heard the song at a service of folk carols, Steeleye Span  recorded “Gaudete” for their 1972 album Below the Salt. Their British record label, Chrysalis, released it as a single that fall. The label thought that the other side of the single, a version of the better-known carol “The Holly and the Ivy,” was more likely to be a hit, as it released a special promo 45 with that song on both sides. Initially, the single failed, but it was reissued two years later, and the unorthodox “Gaudete” got to #14 on the UK charts. It remains a Christmas favorite in England.

In the United States, Chrysalis also released “Gaudete” as a single twice, in 1972 and 1974, but it generated no interest.

On the LP, the song slowly fades in, hits peak volume at its halfway point, and just as slowly fades out. The British 45 stays at constant volume throughout. Here is that single version. Rejoice!