(Pictured: a family Christmas, circa 1970. I’m not sure, but I think my family had the same edition of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas that Father is reading aloud.)
When I have my laptop library on shuffle, which is nearly all of the time, songs do not play purely at random. I rearrange the list to avoid going from (for example) “Okie From Muskogee” to “Satin Doll” to “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.” Something similar is true of this Christmas shuffle: my music player served up a list of songs, and I chose the ones to write about.
‘Tis Yuletide/Roscoe Robinson. From one of the excellent Christmas mixes at Any Major Dude With Half a Heart. Robinson was a gospel and soul singer from Arkansas whose lone Hot 100 hit, “That’s Enough,” made #62 in 1966. In the 80s, he sang with the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, despite the handicap of not being blind himself.
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”/Moog Machine. After the synthesizer album Switched-On Bach became a hit in 1968, an executive at Columbia Records commissioned several additional albums of synthesizer music, eventually released under the name of the Moog Machine. Christmas Becomes Electric, released in 1969, sounds both futuristic and primitive at the same time, and is not bad.
“Christmas Without You”/Eric Clapton with John Popper. In December 1998, Clapton appeared on a bill at the White House for a Special Olympics benefit, excerpts from which appeared on a TV special and were released on CD as A Very Special Christmas Live From Washington, DC. “Christmas Without You” is exactly the sort of muscular, straightforward blues you’d expect from Clapton and Popper.
“The Little Drummer Boy”/Chicago. I have tried really hard to like Chicago’s Christmas album over the years, but I just don’t. It sounds like it was recorded by a Chicago tribute band.
“Mary’s Boy Child”/John D. Loudermilk. In 1966, Loudermilk went into the studio with some of Nashville’s top session cats, including Floyd Cramer, Ray Stevens, Charlie McCoy, and Norro Wilson, plus the Jordanaires and the Anita Kerr Singers, and recorded John D. Loudermilk Sings a Bizarre Collection of the World’s Most Unusual Songs, which is not a Christmas album, and is only bizarre and unusual in spots. It includes a version of his “Indian Reservation” and also “Mary’s Boy Child,” made famous by Harry Belafonte in the 50s.
“Riu Chiu”/Monkees. In which Mike, Davy, Micky, and Peter harmonize acappella on a traditional Spanish carol and knock it out of the park.
“Hip Santa”/Jimmy McGriff. From Christmas With McGriff, which was released in 1963 with one of those risque covers that so often were found on instrumental albums during the late 50s and the first half of the 1960s, eye candy for the type of guy who would spend big money on sophisticated hi-fi.
“In the Bleak Midwinter”/Blind Boys of Alabama with Chrissie Hynde. Years ago, I wrote about “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and the darker verses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that didn’t make it into the Christmas carol adapted from his poem. “In the Bleak Midwinter,” from a poem by Christina Rossetti, gets a similar treatment. Her verse about frosty winds moaning gets left in, but other, bleaker ones get left out. (Read the whole poem here.)
“Merry Christmas Baby”/Bruce Springsteen. The version that came up on shuffle is from a 1980 concert bootleg, on which the E Street Band is tight and right and Springsteen himself is in great voice. Call it his version of Otis Redding’s version of a song famously recorded by Elvis and Charles Brown.
“Silent Night”/Earl Grant. Your mileage may vary with Grant’s album Winter Wonderland. Some of the tracks lean heavily on an old-fashioned organ sound that’s miles removed from McGriff or Jimmy Smith. But “Silent Night,” on which Grant hums along with the ancient carol while swinging it on piano and organ, is lovely. Grant’s voice is a dead ringer for Nat King Cole and he sings a couple of times on Winter Wonderland, but it’s mostly an old-fashioned instrumental album, and the kind of thing that sounds better in December than at any other time of the year.
(Pictured: Andy Kim, bubblegum god, coming to take your woman, circa 1970.)
Come with me now into a young boy’s bedroom. Atop the cheap wooden toy chest next to the bed is a radio, a relatively recent addition to the room. It’s a rectangular green box with a large tuning dial on the front, an on/off/volume control on one side, and tubes inside. On this particular evening, the young boy has the radio on, tuned to WLS in Chicago, its dial position marked with a bit of masking tape. Although he hasn’t been listening long, he already knows he has to periodically re-tune the radio because it drifts. Listening at night adds an additional difficulty—the signal on 890 occasionally fades, for reasons he won’t understand for a few years yet.
We are, of course, in the fabled fall of 1970, a season firmly fixed in the mythology of this blog, the beginning of nearly everything that matters the most. It’s late that fall—December, actually, coming on Christmas, when giants walk the earth and play on the radio. Because the boy is only 10, his taste runs toward bubblegum, the Partridge Family and Dawn, and on this particular night, we find him digging on one of bubblegum’s giants, Andy Kim, and one the hottest records in the country at the moment, “Be My Baby.”
0:00: A drum kick that is not so much a kick as an explosion, then echo-drenched piano chords with little dots of bass flicking beneath, as if the guitarist is twitching a string in anticipation but holding himself back, “Now? Wait . . . now?”
0:09: The bassist is unleashed for a quick, tumbling run and the drums fall in, rat-tat-tat.
0:10: “The night we met I knew I . . . needed you so.” The singer sounds woozy from the jump, as if he’s just roused himself from romantic reverie. “And if I had the chance oh . . . I’d never let you go.” Like he has to pause and gather himself between every line.
0:27: Background singers show up, your standard garden variety oohs and aahs. But then . . .
0:45: Background singers go falsetto: “Be my . . . be my baby . . . my one and only baby . . . be my . . . be my baby . . . na-a-a-a-ow.” Years from now, the boy will think that they sound like the Bee Gees. Right now all he can think is sweet mama this is awesome.
1:02: Refrain ends, verse two begins, and the record starts to feel like a freight train at full steam on a fast track—going like hell, but under control.
1:20: “But from the day I saw you, I have been waiting waiting waiting for ya . . .” The boy knows little or nothing about girls yet, but he suspects that waiting waiting waiting is a whole lot more serious than regular waiting.
1:56: The boy does not know it, but 46 years from now, he still won’t know what this sound is, exactly. It might be a violin, double-tracked and processed. It might be a theremin. From time to time during the approximately 15 seconds it plays, it occasionally seems to disappear amidst the galloping band and Andy’s ooh-ing—but only to his future self, who is listening in futuristic high-fidelity stereo. To the boy, listening to a fading AM radio wave through a plastic speaker, it sizzles like a goddamn laser beam.
2:12: Refrain reprised twice, with the singer testifying a little harder now, background singers still falsettoing it up, punctuated by machine-gun bursts from the drummer.
2:50: Fade out.
The boy will learn, of course, that the original 1963 “Be My Baby,” by the Ronettes, is considered one of the greatest records ever made, There must have been some people in 1970 who found Andy Kim’s version to be a cheap, disposable ripoff. But not the boy then, or the old man he has become. Forty-six years later, Andy Kim’s “Be My Baby” holds up as one of the half-dozen greatest examples of the art of bubblegum.
I was browsing the November 24, 1973, edition of Billboard the other day, as one does. A section called “What’s Playing?” listed “a weekly survey of recent purchases and current and oldie selections getting top pay.” It’s a listing of what amusement companies were buying to stock their jukeboxes—in other words, what they were betting on to capture the most nickels, dimes, and quarters in their customers’ establishments.
Modern Specialty Company of Madison, Wisconsin—which is still in the amusement business today, although out on the east side of town instead of their downtown location of 1973—bought the following from the Hot 100: “Mind Games” by John Lennon, “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder, “Me and Baby Brother” by War, “Painted Ladies” by Ian Thomas, “Leave Me Alone” by Helen Reddy, and “Let Me Try Again” by Frank Sinatra. In Appleton, Wisconsin, Alice Maas of Cigarette Service bought “Mind Games” and “Leave Me Alone,” but also Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” “Oh No Not My Baby” by Rod Stewart, “Mammy Blue” by Stories, and “Let Me Serenade You” by Three Dog Night. In Green Bay, distributor Roger Broockmeyer bought “The Joker” by Steve Miller, along with the DeFranco Family’s “Heartbeat It’s a Lovebeat” and Marie Osmond’s “Paper Roses,” plus something by the Spinners for which a title isn’t listed. Broockmeyer’s report also includes, under the heading “oldie,” the title “Scotch and Soda,” which is most likely the 1962 hit by the Kingston Trio. I like to imagine he bought it for some rural tavern owner with a persistent customer (or a wife) who really wanted it on their jukebox.
Kiddietime, an amusement company in Natick, Massachusetts, reported that it bought “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan and “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye, along with Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep on Truckin'” and “Angie” by the Stones. Peach State Music Company in Macon, Georgia, joined those buying “Paper Roses” and “Keep on Truckin’,” but also reported “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers Band with the note, “a local act here.” Amusement Services of Lincoln, Nebraska, bought “D’yer Mak’er” and “Loves Me Like a Rock” by Paul Simon, along with “Country Sunshine” by Dottie West. Dottie’s big country hit was on the list of Mohawk Music in Greenfield, Massachusetts, along with several other hits that were getting both pop and country airplay: “Paper Roses,” “The Most Beautiful Girl” by Charlie Rich, Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” and Conway Twitty’s “You’ve Never Been This Far Before.” Also big in Greenfield: Nashville session man Charlie McCoy’s country-blues performance of “Release Me” and “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” by Hank Wilson, better known to history as Leon Russell.
The listing that most interests me, however, is the one from Brodhead, Wisconsin. Brodhead is not far from my hometown, and it’s where my mother graduated from high school (although she grew up on a farm closer to Orfordville, if you want to be precise about it). The report is from Marie Pierce of C. S. Pierce Music—somebody my Brodhead/Orfordville relatives probably knew personally. Her report includes “Mind Games,” “Living for the City,” and “The Joker,” along with “Rockin’ Roll Baby” by the Stylistics, “Rock On” by David Essex, “Who’s in the Strawberry Patch With Sally” by Dawn, and “Rock and Roll I Gave You the Best Years of My Life” by Kevin Johnson, which is the original recording of a song that would become a hit for Mac Davis. (Johnson’s version is much, much better.)
I probably find this feature, which looks to have run regularly in Billboard during the first half of the 1970s, more interesting than you do. I like that it shows the human element in record marketing, before analytics were designed to take the human element out. I like that it puts small businesses in small towns—like C. S. Pierce Music of Brodhead, Wisconsin—into the national spotlight.
Most of all, I like to imagine some young guy walking up to a jukebox in Natick or Macon or Orfordville, change jingling in his pocket, seeing “Mind Games” or “D’yer Maker” there on the box, and deciding he has to hear it right now.
(Pictured: Bing Crosby with Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, and an unidentified pianist, circa 1944.)
For most people, Bing Crosby’s voice is one of the Christmas decorations. At least two generations of Americans don’t really know that he was one of the most popular human beings of the 20th century—a multimedia star before anybody knew what that was, on records, on radio, in the movies, and on television.
Especially on records. Crosby’s singles chart entries take up 11 pages of Joel Whitburn’s marvelous Pop Memories: 1890-1954, although to find his first charted recordings, you have to check the listing for bandleader Paul Whiteman. Crosby joined the Whiteman band as a singer in 1926, and sang on Whiteman’s recording of “Side by Side,” which made the primordial charts in 1927. He appears, but is not always credited, on various Whiteman singles through 1930. He joined the Gus Arnheim band after that, and sang on Arnheim’s “I Surrender, Dear” in the winter of 1931. He scored two #1 singles under his own name that summer. That fall, CBS signed him for a 15-minute weekly radio show, and his fame began to snowball.
I count something like 36 #1 songs for Crosby between 1931 and 1948, and that doesn’t count the two additional times “White Christmas” made #1 after its initial run at the top in 1942 (1945 and 1946). Some of those #1 records were once among the best-known performances in American popular music: “Moonlight Becomes You,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Swinging on a Star,” and “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” Crosby charted steadily through 1954. His final major hit was “True Love,” recorded with Grace Kelly in the movie High Society, which made #3 in 1956. He scored at least 335 pop chart entries under his own name, not counting a string of hits with the Andrews Sisters and those with various big bands, credited and not.
But “White Christmas” is the hit that will be most closely associated with Bing Crosby until time shall be no more. In terms of chart performance, it’s undoubtedly the #1 song of all time, all eras, all genres. After its initial 11-week run at #1 (which, according to Whitburn, started on October 31, 1942), it returned to the pop charts for 19 of the next 20 Christmases, missing only in 1952. After 1962, it continued to appear on Billboard‘s special Christmas charts through 1970, missed 1971, and charted in 1972 and 1973. Billboard discontinued its Christmas singles chart after that, but when the chart was revived in 1983, “White Christmas” not only charted again, it made #1.
Although “White Christmas” is Crosby’s most famous Christmas song, several others are widely heard this time of year. There’s his 1977 duet with David Bowie on “The Little Drummer Boy” of course, along with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and his version of “Jingle Bells” with the Andrews Sisters. And then there’s “Silent Night.” It was actually Crosby’s first Christmas hit, recorded in 1935, although a version he cut in 1942 is more famous. For a long time, “Silent Night” was as well-known as “White Christmas.” When Casey Kasem did his Christmas countdowns in 1971 and 1973, he ended each show with it, even though it didn’t place among the 40, simply because a recap of America’s all-time Christmas favorites would have been inconceivable without it.
Crosby’s “Silent Night” is not so popular anymore, but maybe it should be, because it is magical. For the two minutes and 40 seconds it takes to play, as Crosby sings tenderly with John Scott Trotter’s orchestra and Max Terr’s mixed chorus behind him, you are transported . . . home.
Home. Back to childhood, back to Christmas Eve, to the tree and the gifts beneath it. To a candlelit church and the thought of a baby in a manger. To when your parents were young and your grandparents were alive. To a place where there is nothing to fear and everything will be all right. To a place you see so clearly with your mind’s eye, and it’s a good thing too, because the eyes you use the rest of the time are filling with tears.
Or maybe that’s just me.
(Pictured: Greg Lake at a snowy rehearsal for an outdoor show in Montreal, 1977.)
We went to grade school together, and to the same church. When I started to really notice her, she was tall, with long hair, and glasses that made her look really intelligent (which she was), and I liked her.
She liked me, too, although not in the same way I liked her. I am sure you understand the difference.
It should have been easy. I should have been able to open my mouth and say, “Would you like to go to a movie/the dance/the game with me?” But I could not form those words in her presence.
One day, I hit upon an alternate plan. A conversation among a bunch of kids had gotten around to music, and she mentioned a group that she liked: Emerson Lake and Palmer. I had heard of them, but I hadn’t heard anything by them. And I made the following leap of logic: She likes ELP. If you listen to ELP, maybe you will like them too, and that might make her start to like you the way you like her.
I see now that there were some flaws in the plan, but 14-year-old me thought it made a lot of sense.
So I borrowed a copy of Brain Salad Surgery. (It might have been hers, actually; she was a kind and generous person even at 14. Or I may have snagged it from the public library.) Honesty compels me to report that I had trouble figuring out what she liked about it. I wouldn’t be confused for long, however. My adolescent prog-rock stage was not far off, and within a year or so, I became an ELP obsessive.
I was a keyboard nerd, so Keith Emerson was the focus for me. But Lake’s voice was the perfect instrument for the stories the band wanted to tell: the war between humanity and computers in “Karn Evil 9,” the brief and tragic love between a soldier and a nurse in the overlooked “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman” from the otherwise-disastrous album Love Beach, the wild west tale of “The Sheriff,” and whatever the hell “Tarkus” is about. Several of his songs from the Works albums, co-written with Peter Sinfield—especially “Closer to Believing,” “C’est La Vie,” “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight,” and “Watching Over You”—are powerfully romantic. Lake’s acoustic guitar work on “Lucky Man,” “From the Beginning,” and “I Believe in Father Christmas” is beautiful, and his electric solo on “Battlefield” from the live album Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends still blows me out of my chair.
In 1977, Emerson Lake and Palmer played two shows in Madison within
an eight-month a five-month span. I went to both. If she went to either, it wasn’t with me. We were friendly all through school, though, and we stayed in touch after we went to separate colleges. One year, we were at the same New Year’s Eve party and she let me kiss her at midnight. She invited me to her wedding, and as I sat in the church, a guy in his 20s with his own life and his own wife, a little piece of my heart broke as she went up the aisle.
And suddenly, it’s 2016. Greg Lake dies, and somebody posts the story on Facebook. She comments, and I decide to jump on. “True story that you probably don’t know,” I write. “I started listening to Emerson Lake and Palmer because you said you liked them, and it was easier than asking you for a date.”
“I hope they brought you the years of happiness that they did for me,” she responds. “And I’d have probably said yes.”
(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?