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?

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5 responses

  1. I assume Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” doesn’t appear on these charts?
    It was released in December 1973 and was that year’s Christmas Number One in the UK (en route to becoming a holiday standard there), but I don’t imagine it got any traction over here.
    Still my favorite Christmas song, except perhaps for the contents of the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.

    1. The Slade single was not issued domestically in the U.S. Some small-holed 45s were pressed by U.S. Polydor, but those were strictly for export, since Warner/Reprise had acquired the group’s US rights by the autumn of 1973.

      Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” was also a huge U.K. hit in ’73, but the only stateside release United Artists gave it came a year later, and even that was only in the form of a hand-stamped, plain white label 45 (with no catalog number) sent only to college radio stations. The red and green ink used for those stampings has faded pretty substantially over the years, at least on my copy.

      1. you, sir, are the man. As always.

  2. Kind of surprising considering how huge Elton John was in 1973 that “Step into Christmas” didn’t make the main Billboard chart. Does anybody remember how much airplay it got at the time?

    1. Being heavily involved at my college station, I wasn’t listening to much top-40 radio at the time, so I can’t address your airplay question. It’s possible that a number of stations airing “Step Into Christmas” never reported it to the trades, but the bottom line is that it didn’t make all that big of a splash in 1973. Its stay at #1 on Billboard’s Christmas Singles chart lasted only one week, and if Elvis and even Charles Brown were outselling Elton just one week later, that should tell you the 45 wasn’t getting the saturation airplay you’d expect for such a hot artist. That only ten station surveys turn up listing the song over at ARSA provides an incomplete, yet still telling sign that not every boss jock was spinning E.J.’s brand-new Yuletide wax.

      If Billboard’s competitors were any indication, “Step Into Christmas” likely would not have fared very well, had BB listed it on the Hot 100. Peak positions of #56 in Cash Box and a downright anemic #90 at Record World made it pretty clear that the single didn’t sell very well. By comparison, an earlier holiday single BB had similarly chosen not to list on the Hot 100 – the Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy’s Christmas” in 1967 – also reached #1 on BB’s Christmas Singles chart, but performed much better at CB (#10) and RW (#17) than Elton did six years later.

      Christmas singles were sometimes hard to find back in those days. More often than not, you’d have to hunt them down at record stores, rather than the rack-jobbed dime, drug, department or discount stores that usually stocked just the current hits and maybe a handful of oldies reissues. In addition, a lot of stores stocked just the 45s listed on the local top-40 station’s survey, so if Elton wasn’t listed, they wouldn’t have it. (My nearest record store was located adjacent to the university campus, and its extensive inventory included import albums I couldn’t find elsewhere. But for 45s, they tacked the weekly KDWB survey next to the front door, at kids’ eye level. The singles were stashed away in a box under the counter, filed by chart position, so you had to tell them you wanted the number ___ record on the survey. There was no other signage to indicate they even sold singles, which they viewed as “for the kids.” Elton wouldn’t have stood a chance. On the other hand, the copies of ‘Empty Sky,’ ‘Elton John,’ ’17-11-70′ and ‘Tumbleweed Connection’ I bought at that store were all DJM U.K. imports.)

      “Step Into Christmas” had one peculiar anomaly: its catalog number. Rather than issuing it as part of its current-line 40000 series for 45s, MCA assigned it to the 60000 series it had established for reissue singles when it decided to consolidate all of its labels (Decca, Uni, Kapp, Coral, etc.) under the MCA banner toward the end of 1972. Many of the Decca 45s that had remained in print for decades still bore their original catalog numbers, which would need to be changed for the new 60000 series. Here’s where “Step Into Christmas” fit into the series with its “new” neighbors:

      MCA 65017
      The Goldman Band – “The Star Spangled Banner” & “America” b/w “America The Beautiful” & “Dixie” (formerly Decca 28920, released in 1953.)

      MCA 65018
      Elton John – “Step Into Christmas” b/w/ “Ho Ho Ho (Who’d Be A Turkey At Christmas)” (newly released in 1973.)

      MCA 65019
      Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters – “Jingle Bells” b/w “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” (formerly Decca 23281, released in 1950.)

      Although “Step Into Christmas” probably didn’t meet MCA’s sales expectations that first year, the company had anticipated that it had enough seasonal potential down the road to place it directly into their reissue series. If there were one thing I think that would have helped boost the record’s sales that first year, it would have been putting the single in an eye-catching picture sleeve, rather than the bland generic MCA factory sleeve it had to wear.

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