Christmas Greetings From Bygone Years

(Pictured: Richard and Karen Carpenter.)

A few years ago, when we were reviewing Billboard‘s Christmas charts from various years, we failed to look at 1973, the last year for which Christmas charts were published until a brief revival in the mid-80s. So here we go.

The first chart appears on December 1 and is a listing of only eight albums, topped by the Jackson Five’s Christmas album, first released in 1970. The lone new-for-73 release on the chart is Christmas Greetings From Nashville, a compilation featuring previously released music by some of RCA’s biggest country stars, including Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Porter Wagoner, Chet Atkins, and Floyd Cramer.

The album chart expands to 12 places and a singles chart appears for the week of December 8, 1973. Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas, first released in 1971, is the #1 album. The chart contains a couple more albums new for 1973. An album listed as Motown Christmas Album is officially titled A Motown Christmas. The two-record set collects highlights from various Christmas albums previously released by the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Miracles, the Temptations, and the Jackson Five. Although this release is new in the States, a similar configuration had appeared in the UK under the title Merry Christmas From Motown in 1968. Also new on this chart and for 1973 is Christmas Present by Merle Haggard, the first track of which was his then-current single, the magnificent “If We Make It Through December.” (Me, 2011: “There’s more emotional honesty in the 2:41 it takes this song to play than in all the airings of ‘The Christmas Shoes’ since 2000.”)

The singles chart is topped on December 8 by the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling,” first heard at Christmas 1970. Two singles are new for 1973, including future perennial “Step Into Christmas” by Elton John and future swill exemplar “Please Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas” by John Denver.

The Motown Christmas album ascends to #1 for the week of December 15, and the album chart expands to 15 places. Showing up for the first time this week is The Twenty-Fifth Day of December by the Staple Singers, originally released in 1962. The rest of the chart is made up largely of releases from earlier years: Merry Christmas by Johnny Mathis and a different Merry Christmas by Bing Crosby, The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole, The Phil Spector Christmas Album (re-released on Apple a couple of years before), plus albums by Barbra Streisand, Jose Feliciano, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and the Harry Simeone Chorale. (The latter appears only as Little Drummer Boy with no artist shown; nevertheless, there would have been little confusion about what album Billboard meant.)

The December 15 singles chart also has 15 places, topped by Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas” (shown as “Stepping Into Christmas”). “If We Make It Through December” appears for the first time. Newly listed from a bygone year is Isaac Hayes’ “Mistletoe and Me” from 1969. As on the album chart, familiar past hits abound, including Cheech and Chong’s “Santa Claus and His Old Lady,” Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” and “Merry Christmas Baby,” Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas,” and the Singing Dogs version of “Jingle Bells.”

The album and singles charts expand to 20 places for the week of December 22, 1973. The #1 album is A Christmas Album by Barbra Streisand, first released in 1965. Other 60s releases appearing for the first time in 1973 are Noel by Joan Baez, Give Me Your Love for Christmas by Johnny Mathis, and albums by Perry Como and Jim Nabors. Christmas in My Hometown by Charley Pride, released in 1970, also appears for the first time in 1973.

The singles chart for 12/22/73 is led by “Blue Christmas,” checking in ahead of “Merry Christmas Baby” and “Step Into Christmas.” The rest of the chart is made up of holdovers either from earlier charts or earlier years—Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” makes an appearance, as does “The Little Drummer Boy.” The lone new-for-73 entry is “Daddy’s Drinking Up Our Christmas” by Commander Cody. I can’t imagine why anybody would have put it on the air except for camp value, and there were better examples of camp value, so why bother? Maybe it played differently in 1973 than it does now.

In 1973, the American pop Christmas canon appeared to be set in stone. Apart from the singles by Commander Cody, Elton John, and John Denver, and Merle Haggard’s album, everything listed on the four 1973 Christmas charts had appeared in previous years, even some of the songs on the new-for-73 Motown compilation. I don’t know if that’s why Billboard discontinued the chart come 1974, but who could have blamed them?

The Bulletin

This isn’t what I had planned to post today, but I forgot that today is the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. The following is a historical fiction piece I wrote for one of my clients a few years ago, to appear in a 10th grade language arts book. Technically, I don’t own it anymore, they do, but I’m putting it up here and they can cease and desist me if they want. It’s got nothing to do with the usual subject matter of this blog, and it’s really long, so you can skip it if you want.

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Stick ‘Em in Your Ear

(Pictured: the Cars, 1979.)

One night just after school started in 1979, I was on the air at the college radio station when the studio telephone rang. It was the associate editor of the campus newspaper. “We’d like somebody to write a music column for the paper every week,” she said, “and I can’t think of anyone better qualified to do it than you.”

The editor happened to be a former girlfriend of mine, and that was my main qualification for the gig. I had no other legitimate credentials at that point. I’d been on the campus station for less than a year, and I had neither a recognizable on-air style that made me unique nor a golden ear for picking the hits. What I did have was passion for music and the ability to cobble together strings of sentences in English. It was this that she remembered, and so “Stick ‘Em In Your Ear” was born.

Working at a radio station gave me access to new music, concert news, and the occasional concert ticket. Because the station was populated by other music freaks, we often talked, and more often argued, about our preferences and prejudices. As a result, my opinions came to be passionately held and in my columns, bluntly expressed.

I still have clips of these columns somewhere, but I am not proud of them. The young man who wrote them comes across as pompous and arrogant, utterly convinced of his own rectitude and completely lacking empathy for anyone else. Also, the writing is pretty rough. Even the best columns have a tossed-off, stream-of-consciousness feel to them, because that’s how I wrote in those days. When you think you’re perfect just the way you are, you don’t bother to edit.

Thirty-seven years ago this week, the paper published its last edition of the calendar year. In my column that week, I listed my top albums and singles of 1979. Here’s the album list:

1.  Candy-O/Cars
2.  The Long Run/Eagles
3.  Minute by Minute/Doobie Brothers
4.  In Through the Out Door/Led Zeppelin
5.  52nd Street/Billy Joel
6.  Breakfast in America/Supertramp
7.  Rickie Lee Jones
8.  Get the Knack
9.  Time Passages/Al Stewart
10.  Spirits Having Flown/Bee Gees

And the singles:

1.  “What a Fool Believes”/Doobie Brothers
2.  “Cruel to Be Kind”/Nick Lowe
3.  “Heart of Glass”/Blondie
4.  “Goodbye Stranger”/Supertramp
5.  “Rise”/Herb Alpert
6.  “Bad Case of Loving You”/Robert Palmer
7.  “Let’s Go”/Cars
8.  “Tragedy”/Bee Gees
9.  “Goodnight Tonight”/Wings
10.  “Sail On”/Commodores

It strikes me that those aren’t bad lists, even after all this time. On the singles list, I overrated “Rise” and “Goodnight Tonight,” and I liked “Heart of Glass” a lot more then than I do now. (If I were ranking these 10 songs now, “Sail On” might be #1.) About Candy-O, I wrote, “It typifies what the late 70s have been about, rockwise.” I don’t agree with that now. Candy-O is actually a break with 70s styles and a precursor of the polished, chilly, danceable 80s rock that MTV would make famous. Including the Bee Gees on both lists was an act of reverse iconoclasm, in which I praised an act most of my readers would have hated—although I still think the dramatic “Tragedy” is pretty good.

What’s missing from these lists is what was missing from our radio station: punk and new wave, with the exception of Blondie and Nick Lowe, whom we considered new-wavey. Also missing: the kind of adventuresome music associated with college radio. We were Top-40 and album-rock fans, as well as aspiring disc jockeys. We wanted to play the hits by the bands we loved, the ones we heard on the radio. Our station played a few songs by new, below-the-radar bands, but most of them left most of us cold. (If we’d paid better attention, we might have realized they resembled the Cars more than they did the Eagles or Doobies.)

About the time this list was published, I was elected program director of the campus radio station, which gave me an entirely new way to inflict my vanity, egotism, and lack of empathy on other people. But that’s a story I’ve told before.

(Rebooted from a post that first appeared on December 6, 2005. Hot damn, I’ve been at this a long time.)

One Day in Your Life: December 2, 1976

(Pictured: the Sex Pistols on stage in December 1976.)

December 2, 1976, was a Thursday. The weather across the Midwest and the Northeast is bitterly cold with heavy snow in some areas. Fidel Castro, who has been prime minister of Cuba since 1957, becomes president of Cuba, a position he will hold until 2008. A Utah judge has ordered the firing-squad execution of Gary Gilmore be carried out on Monday after Gilmore turned down a further stay of execution. Sentenced to death in October for two murders, Gilmore has waived all appeals and wants his execution to go forward. (It will, but not until January.) The state of Illinois holds a legislative hearing on a proposal to reinstate the death penalty. An amendment has already been stripped from the bill that would require legislators who vote for the death penalty to witness executions. President Ford holds meetings with the National Security Council, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and the chairman of a commission on governmental salaries. He also holds a budget meeting. Ford’s half-brother, Bud King, is killed in a traffic accident in Tennessee. Former Pittsburgh Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh, who won two World Series titles with the team and retired at the close of the 1976 season, dies of a stroke at age 59. In Britain, the country is abuzz over a TV interview yesterday in which members of the Sex Pistols used obscene language while talking with interviewer Bill Grundy. The Chicago Tribune reports on a study suggesting that young people who consume popular food additives such as caffeine and monosodium glutamate may be risking their health. Hanley-Dawson Cadillac in Chicago will sell you a new 1977 Coupe de Ville for $7,995. In today’s Peanuts strip, Linus discusses his grandfather.

On daytime TV, guests on Dinah! with Dinah Shore include Orson Welles, Dyan Cannon, and Rob Reiner. On TV tonight, the ABC lineup includes Welcome Back Kotter, the holiday special Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, and The Streets of San Francisco. CBS airs The Waltons, Hawaii Five-0, and Barnaby Jones.  NBC has the first episode of the nine-hour miniseries Once an Eagle, about two soldiers and their experiences in the World Wars. The Jacksons are on the cover of Jet and Linda Ronstadt is on the cover of Rolling Stone. Linda and her manager strongly dislike some of the sexy Annie Leibovitz photos that accompany the cover story. Lynryd Skynyrd plays St. Paul, Minnesota, KISS plays Memphis, and Elvis Presley opens an 11-night stand at the Las Vegas Hilton. The Bee Gees play Madison Square Garden in New York, Aerosmith wraps up a two-night engagement in Detroit, and Black Sabbath plays Providence, Rhode Island, with opening act Montrose.

At WLS in Chicago, “Tonight’s the Night” by Rod Stewart spends the second of what will be five weeks at #1. “Muskrat Love” by the Captain and Tennille holds at #2. Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” “Disco Duck,” and “You Are the Woman” by Firefall round out the Top 5. “Beth” by KISS is the only new song in the Top 10, moving from #11 to #8. “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” by Leo Sayer, “You Don’t Have to Be a Star” by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., and “Livin’ Thing” by ELO are all up seven spots, from #23 to #16, #29 to #22, and #33 to #26 respectively. Two other songs farther down the chart make eight-place moves: “Love Ballad” by L.T.D. (#38 to #30) and “Baby Boy” by Mary Kay Place, singing as aspiring country singer Loretta Haggers, her character from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (#39 to #31). On the album chart, the top three hold their places from the week before: Frampton Comes Alive at #1, Boston at #2, and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life at #3. The fastest-moving albums of the week are Elton John’s Blue Moves (#20 to #14) and the debut album by Firefall (#29 to #23).

Perspective From the Present: WLS never had a stronger lineup than it did in 1976, with Larry Lujack and his newscaster Lyle Dean in the morning, Tommy Edwards on middays, Bob Sirott in the afternoon, John Landecker and Steve King at night, and Yvonne Daniels on overnights. You can hear the last part of Daniels’ show and a bit of Sirott filling in for Lujack on the morning show on December 2, 1976, here.

Three in a Row

(Pictured: David Bowie, 1973, in the middle of a good run.)

This morning I tweeted an Ultimate Classic Rock story about the anniversary of the release of the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed and asked if any band other than the Beatles ever released three albums in a row better than Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. I got several suggestions, and here are some of them:

From a couple of people, including friend of the blog Bean Baxter at KROQ in Los Angeles: Springsteen’s Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and The River.

From Tim Rolls: David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane.

From Trey Andrews: Something Else by the Kinks, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and Arthur.

From Sly_3 and Derrick Hinton: Radiohead’s The Bends, Kid A, and OK Computer.

From J. Daniel Rollins: Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, and Skull and Roses by the Grateful Dead.

From Patrick Kelleher: Ten, Vs., and Vitalogy by Pearl Jam.

From Citylife80: U2’s War, The Unforgettable Fire, and The Joshua Tree.

What I do not know about rap and hip-hop music is, well, everything. Steven named Graduation, 808s and Heartbreak, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. Cardigan Spumante suggested the 1997-2002 run of The Untouchable, Last of a Dying Breed, and The Fix by Scarface. Another person suggested three by Ice Cube: Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate, and The Predator. Another suggested any three albums by Insane Clown Posse, which I suspect may be arguable. A different suggestion about which I don’t know enough to comment included the first three albums by Creed (My Own Prison, Human Clay, and Weathered).

Sportswriter Doug Farrar (to whom I wave hello and say “love your work”) suggested a pair of threesomes: Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix and Tommy, Live at Leeds, and Who’s Next by the Who. This led another person to suggest that Quadrophenia would make that four in a row by the Who.

Others also suggested four in a row. Friend of the blog Brian Rostron and music writer David Cantwell (one of my favorite writers and a follower I’m pleased to have) both suggested that my list of Stones albums should be expanded, adding Beggar’s Banquet before Let It Bleed. Similarly, Patrick Orr would add Nebraska to the list of Springsteen albums. And on the subject of four-album runs, JMRF nominates Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.

Nick Beck suggested a run of five: Led Zeppelin’s first four plus Houses of the Holy. And the CD Project suggests the Miles Davis period from 1959 through 1970, which covers 13 albums, from Porgy and Bess through Bitches Brew.

A few of respondents named performers without naming albums: Prince, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, and Outkast. Regarding Steely Dan, my three would be Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, and Aja, but you could persuade me that it should be Can’t Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy, and Pretzel Logic. I presume the Joni threesome would be Blue, For the Roses, and Court and Spark. My guess for Prince would be 1999, Purple Rain, and Around the World in a Day. With Outkast, you’d have to tell me.

I should probably Storify all of the tweets I got, but that’s going to take longer than I have today. If you’d like to add your own run of three (or more) albums that you think can rival Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street, please put it in the comments.

Christmas the Way It’s Supposed to Feel

I like Christmas music. I always have. And I listen to a lot of it between Black Friday and Christmas Day. What follows is a list of my 10 most-listened-to albums, according to play information from Media Jukebox, my laptop music player.

10.  A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector/Various Artists. Originally released on November 22, 1963, and now as familiar as the weather—which is the most appealing characteristic of Christmas music. It’s music we already know. It takes us to places we have been and places we want to go again.

9.  The Spirit of Christmas/Ray Charles. Released in 1985. Who’s gonna say no to Brother Ray singing holiday tunes?

8.  Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas/Kenny Burrell. An album celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016, and one for the short list of holiday albums that sound good in July. Burrell, a guitarist who turned 85 this year, still teaches jazz at UCLA.

7.  In the Christmas Spirit/Booker T and the MGs. Another album celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016. I’m not the first person to marvel at the economy of this band, and this record. Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Al Jackson never play one more note than they need to, and the ones they do play could not be improved upon. (Hear the whole thing here.)

6.  Winter Wonderland/Earl Grant. If you know Earl Grant at all, it’s from his 1958 hit record “The End.” Winter Wonderland features a mix of vocals and instrumentals with Grant on piano and organ. It was released in 1969, just months before Grant’s death in a traffic accident at age 39. (Hear the whole thing here.)

5.  Christmas Variations/Rick Wakeman. On which Wakeman applies a filigree of piano, synth, and Mellotron to change up familiar seasonal music, hence the “variations” in the title. A positively lovely record, released in 2000. (Hear the whole thing here.)

4.  Merry Ole Soul/Duke Pearson. On the list of life’s great stuff, classic Blue Note Records small-combo jazz is right up there. Merry Ole Soul, released in 1969, is one of the best examples of the style, regardless of the season. (Whole album here.)

3.  Holiday Soul/Bobby Timmons. Holiday Soul came out in 1964, when soul jazz was growing in popularity, and Timmons was right on time. This thing swings. (Somewhat scratchy vinyl version of the whole thing here.)

2. MoJazz Christmas/Various Artists. Motown made several forays into jazz. The subsidiary label Workshop Jazz released a few albums in the early 60s, including some of the first recordings by the Four Tops. In 1969, a jazz single by Funk Brother Jack Ashford was the only release on the Blaze imprint. And in the 1990s, Motown founded MoJazz. Among its most prolific artists were drummer/vocalist Norman Connors (whose single “You Are My Starship” made the Top 40 in 1976), ex-basketball star and bassist Wayman Tisdale, guitarist Norman Brown, and saxophonist J. Spencer. The label also reissued albums by the Crusaders, Hugh Masekela, Grover Washington Jr., and even Stevie Wonder’s instrumental album, which he recorded in 1968 under the name Eivets Rednow. Brown and Spencer are heard on MoJazz Christmas, which is pleasant enough when it pops up on shuffle but not something I’m going to put on deliberately. (But you can. The whole thing is here.)

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas/Vince Guaraldi Trio. Some albums simply wear out on us. We loved them for years, we listened to them a million times, we know they’re great and/or historically important, but we simply don’t need to hear them anymore. But for me, A Charlie Brown Christmas isn’t there yet. It makes the Christmas season feel the way it’s supposed to feel, and nothing else does it quite the same way.

Honorable Mention: The Spirit of Christmas With the Living StringsWhy my laptop music player doesn’t show this among my 10 most-played Christmas albums I do not know, but it certainly belongs on the list because it’s been a part of every Christmas in my life since my parents brought it home way back when. It, too, makes Christmas feel the way it’s supposed to feel. (Full album here.)

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