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!