(Pictured: parody singer Allan Sherman.)
My laptop Christmas library isn’t all that big—about 850 tracks in all, and I never manage to get through all of it in any given year. And that means I periodically forget about some of the oddities therein.
Take, for example, “Mister Russian, Please Don’t Shoot Down Santa’s Sleigh,” credited to Sensational Little Shana Lynette. I got this one a few years ago from the Half Hearted Dude, in a collection of right-wing pop. Although some of the collection has historical and/or curiosity value, most of it is pretty terrible. Listening to those songs is revealing—some are 50 years old, but we hear the some of the same rhetoric from today’s right-wing culture warriors, proving either that some things never go out of style, or more likely that such people never learn anything from history.
I wouldn’t call “Mister Russian, Please Don’t Shoot Down Santa’s Sleigh” good, although the musicians on the backing track swing nicely and clearly have some chops. Almost every citation you can find for it on the web dates it to the 1950s, an era when people worried that Sputnik might lead to the Soviets raining down destruction on the good people of the Western world. But I found pictures of a four-song Christmas EP that includes “Mister Russian,” which Shana Lynette released on the Antique label of Pittsburg, Kansas. (The link where they once appeared is now dead.) The front cover shows her in the sort of western getup a Kansas girl might have worn in 1955, but the back cover of the picture sleeve says “Merry Christmas 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986.” It turns out that the EP was indeed cut in the early 80s, when Shana Lynette was nine. She’s older than that now, still in Kansas, and still singing.
Let’s call that the first track for another random Christmas playlist. Find nine more on the flip.
“Silent Night”/Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. From the brand-new album It’s a Holiday Soul Party! This bluesy version of “Silent Night” should make you want to buy the album, if not the mere fact that the album exists.
“The 12 Gifts of Christmas”/Allan Sherman. First heard at Christmas 1963 and still funny.
“Merry Christmas Baby”/Charles Brown. This first appeared at Christmas 1947, credited to Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers—Brown was the singer and guitarist. Brown recut “Merry Christmas Baby” a couple of times under his own name; versions on the Imperial and King labels made Billboard‘s Christmas chart over the years. His performances have been anthologized dozens and maybe hundreds of times, and the song itself has been covered about as many.
“Happy New Year”/Lightnin’ Hopkins. The short window for New Year’s songs means they have to intrude on the Christmas season, even though they never sound right when they do. Hopkins includes the line “Don’t think about Christmas cuz Christmas just now left.”
“Blue Christmas”/Richard Hawley. In 2011, Carole King did a Christmas show in England with several guests, including Hawley, who has cut several successful albums in the UK. His version of “Blue Christmas” is terrific.
“There’s Trouble Brewin'”/Jack Scott. Scott was one of the many male singers who trailed in Elvis Presley’s wake and sounded somewhat like him, although Scott’s idol was actually Hank Williams. He was a big deal for a while, hitting the Hot 100 19 times between 1958 and 1961, most successfully with “Burning Bridges,” “My True Love,” and “What in the World’s Come Over You.” “There’s Trouble Brewin'” dates to 1959.
“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”/Thurl Ravenscroft. You can play this in your head right now, and you probably know that Ravenscroft was also the voice of cereal mascot Tony the Tiger. But his singing career began on radio in the 1930s, and at one point in the 50s, he and his group the Mellomen were among the most in-demand jingle singers in advertising. He sang with the Norman Luboff Choir and the Johnny Mann Singers, recorded his own albums of Christian music and recitation, and was 91 years old when he died in 2005.
“Purple Snowflakes”/Marvin Gaye. This is actually a 1964 song of Gaye’s called “Pretty Little Baby,” with new and only somewhat seasonally flavored lyrics. “Purple Snowflakes” really should be much better known than it is.
“Hang Your Balls on the Christmas Tree”/Kay Martin and her Bodyguards. And I believe that’s the perfect ending.