Craig Allen’s Favorite Christmas Classics
Santa's big night is tonight...
...the BIG day, Christmas Day is tomorrow...
...and for the past few weekends, New Jersey 101.5 has been spreading the joy, playing "Jersey's Favorite Christmas Classics and Holiday Hits."
There are so many great Christmas songs...of varying moods, tempos and genres. Some are religious, and some are just fun...like the now-classics from the cartoon Christmas specials. Think about it: How many of the Christmas songs that put a smile on your face come from "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" or "A Charlie Brown Christmas" to name just two? Over the past few weekends, I've been jotting down titles.
Of course, I love "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby (click here for The White Christmas Story)...
...and "The Christmas Song" from Nat "King" Cole. I've written the story behind "Christmas Wrapping" by the Waitresses (click here to read my article) My mission today is to go beyond the obvious, the "gimmes." Also, the songs I am listing as favorites are in no particular order...
It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year-Andy WilliamsThis up-tempo song celebrates the many traditional activities of the Christmas season, such as get-togethers, sledding, caroling, roasting marshmallows and more. It was written in 1963 by Edward Pola, and by George Wyle, the vocal director of "The Andy Willams Show," specifically for the show. It was included on his (debut) "Andy Williams Christmas Album" that year. Andy's wholesome, family oriented TV specials ran from 1962-1971.
The song gained in popularity, as Williams sang it on the show each year, and as it was increasingly included on compilation Christmas albums. In 2009, it was listed as #5 on Billboard's "Top 10 Holiday Songs." In 2010, ASCAP (the music publishing/music rights group) ranked the song at #4 in radio airplay.
I fondly remember "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year" playing on the family stereo (above) when I was small child. I would lie on the floor near the tree, watching the lights twinkle, with the "sounds of the season" playing in the background!
"It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year" was also the kickoff song on my Philadelphia radio "Christmas Star"...I told the story here at nj1015.com, last month: "Back in the late 90's, when I was in Philadelphia, each of us "jocks" went into the studio a few days ahead of December 25th, and pre-recorded our "Christmas Star. In our hour (broadcast on Christmas Day), we could play any Christmas music we wanted...even if it was "out of format." In between our holiday faves, we shared stories of family Christmases past. I remember my friend Amy telling me that she started crying during one of my more poignant stories. This from the guy who included a Smothers Brothers comedy bit in the same "Christmas Star."
All Alone On Christmas-Darlene Love This song is full of Jersey connections! It was written, arranged and produced by by Steve Van Zandt. This 1992 recording features the powerful vocals of Darlene Love, backed up by members of both the "E Street Band" and "The Miami Horns." The song was featured on the "Home Alone 2" movie soundtrack. It returned Love to the pop charts for the first time since she sang lead on songs by the "Crystals" (one of Phil Spector's "Wall Of Sound" groups of the early 1960's) and Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans. She also had a solo career at the same time! Its a powerful vocal...plus, you just have to love a Christmas song sung by "Trish," Danny Glover's long-suffering wife in the "Lethal Weapon" movies of the 1990's...
A Holly Jolly Christmas-Burl Ives Folk singer (and actor) Burl Ives was the voice of "Sam Snowman" in the "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" stop-motion animated Christmas special, which debuted in 1964.
Celebrating 50 years, this classic was made by Videocraft International, with producer credits for Rankin & Bass.
The title song was written for the special, by Johnny Marks. In 1965, Ives put out his own Christmas album "Have A Holly Jolly Christmas." It included his versions of "A Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer." His album version of a "Holly Jolly Christmas" is of a slower tempo than the version he sings on the beloved Christmas special. I DVR "Rudolph" each year...it never gets "old."
Now, if I could only find MY stuffed "Rudolph" and "Hermie," "Yukon Cornelius" and "Abominable Snow Monster" figures from the late 1990's...they're in limbo, in a box somewhere, from one of my moves!
Sleigh Ride-Leroy Anderson This is another one of those Christmas classics that I fondly remember from my youth. My parents had the 1959 "Stereo" Leroy Anderson album, with the conductor pictured on the front cover. That vinyl album played year after year on the big family stereo, seen above (AM/FM Radio with turntable, complete with nickel taped to the tone arm). Sadly, the album is long gone...probably needle-worn right through the grooves to the other side! Anderson came up with the original idea for the piece during a heatwave in July 1946. He finished the instrumental in February 1948. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops first recorded the song in 1949. It was a huge hit, and became a signature song for the orchestra. Lyrics were added by Mitchell Parish in 1950...telling the story of a person who would like to take a sleigh ride on a wintry day. Although "Sleigh Ride" has become a Christmas song, nowhere in the original lyrics is there a mention of a holiday, or religion. Later groups to cover the song, such as the "Carpenters," would substitute "Christmas party" for "birthday party." As a matter of fact, the mention of "pumpkin pie" at the end of the song might align this classic more with Thanksgiving than Christmas.
Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer-Elmo & Patsy This Christmas novelty song was written by Randy Brooks, and recorded in 1979 by then-husband and wife "Elmo & Patsy." Elmo (Shropshire) was a veterinarian! Brooks tells the story of playing the song for Elmo & Patsy in December 1978, at the Hyatt Lake Tahoe. They asked him to make them a cassette, so that they could learn the words. A year later, they were selling 45's of the song from the stage...Elmo appearing on the sleeve's cover art in "drag" as Grandma. For the first few years, the duo put out the song on their own label, and it got airplay first on country, then on pop music stations. In 1982, the duo re-recorded and re-released the song, as part of an entire album. Epic Records picked up the song (and whole album) in 1984, and the rest is Ho-Ho history!
Flash forward to the early 1990's...I am the Program Director of a Central Jersey radio station, and my General Manager (lets just say that we never saw eye-to-eye) expressly forbid me to play "Elmo & Patsy."
Along comes Christmas morning. Its my birthday. Of course, I'm doing the morning show, as my morning man has the day off. My "grinch" GM happens to be out of town (with no way to hear the station...this is pre-internet). So, I left it up to the listeners...explaining that I was forbidden to play the song, "but, this is Christmas, and a democracy." I opened up the phone lines for a yes or no vote! The listener response was overwhelming...my favorite call coming from an (obviously) elderly woman who told me: "I want to hear Grandma Got Crushed!"
Mary's Boy Child/Oh My Lord-Boney M Our own "Don Tandler the Record Handler" turned me on to this song! Boney M is the brainchild of German record producer Frank Farian. "Mary's Boy Child" is a cover version of a 1956 hit from Harry Belafonte, made into a medley, with the Farian song "Oh My Lord." The song was quickly recorded in November 1978, and became a #1 Christmas song across Europe. It was later included on Boney M's 1981 "Christmas Album." While it initially was ignored in America, "Mary's Boy Child" has become somewhat of a staple for stations that flip to "All Christmas" formats (for weeks). One side note: Frank Farian, who gave us Boney M in the 1970's would go on to infamy in the late 1980's...giving us...Milli Vanilli.
Heat Miser/Snow Miser Both the Heat Miser and Snow Miser are characters from the 1974 Rankin-Bass stop-motion animated special "The Year Without A Santa Claus." Voiced by Dick Shawn, "Snow Miser" controls the cold weather around the world. His signature line is "whatever I touch turns to snow in my clutch." His nemesis is his half-brother the "Heat Miser," who controls the warm weather, saying: "whatever I touch, starts to melt in my clutch." Heat Miser is voiced by character actor George S. Irving. Their mother, "Mother Nature" wants the volatile siblings to compromise, for the sake of Santa. Both songs were written by Maury Laws and Jules Bass, for their Christmas Classic. With the silly lyrics, the half-brothers' dance moves, and all the 'tude, they're "too much!"
This Christmas-Donny Hathaway This is another one of those Christmas Classics that was brought to my attention by a friend and fellow "radio personality." The late (and great) "Big Ron O'Brien" played "This Christmas" in one of his "Christmas Stars." He didn't front-sell or back-sell it, so when I heard it, I had to ask him who the artist was! "This Christmas" is a song that "has it in the grooves!" Released on the ATCO label in 1970, it was co-written by Nadine McKinnor and Donny Pitts (the stage name Hathaway used). "This Christmas," a song that first came to my attention when Ron played it from his original vinyl 45, has become a Christmas standard since, and has been recorded by many other artists. An R&B artist himself, Donny Hathaway is best known for his 1970's hit duets with Roberta Flack, "Where Is The Love" and "The Closer I Get To You." Sadly, this talented writer/composer/singer/producer jumped to his death from the 15th floor of a New York City hotel in January of 1979. He was 33.
It Doesn't Have To Be That Way-Jim Croce The most poignant of my Christmas faves, this Croce-penned song is the story of a man who has just ended a relationship. As he walks down the street, the sights and sounds of the season are all around him...but they don't seem the same. The festivities themselves "are not to blame" for his new-found sadness. He becomes more self-aware as the song continues...and I'll let you discover (or re-discover) this insightful song for yourself. The song is made more poignant by the fact that Jim Croce died in a tragic plane crash in September, before "It Doesn't Have To Be That Way" was released in December 1973. Croce was 30.
I have wondered on-air, and here at nj1015.com, what Jim Croce would be writing about today...were he still with us. I'm sure that, in true singer-songwriter tradition, his songs would be amazing!
You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch-Thurl Ravenscroft He may be a "mean one," but I just LOVE the Grinch! Story first: What do you do when you're in the car for about 18 hours, driving from New Jersey to Wisconsin at Christmastime, with 2 small kids...and the car radio doesn't work? My mother recorded "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" on audio tape...and she played it over and over, as we made our way slowly across the snowy, slushy miles. While the tape spooled out, she would describe what the Grinch was doing during the songs, and some of the (scary?) faces he would be making. So, my first memory of the 1966 Christmas special (IN COLOR!) is actually the audio soundtrack...like Cindy Lou Who, I was sound asleep while the Grinch was "slinking about." And, there were no "sugar plums" for me...I had no idea what they were...
Anyway, I've been hooked ever since!
As I said during the Sunday night show a few weeks back, lets "debunk" a common misconception. Because Thurl Ravenscroft is not listed in the closing credits, many viewers (still) believe that the songs were performed by Boris Karloff. Not true! Karloff is the "narrator" of this classic Dr. Seuss book-turned-Christmas special. In fact, when Ted "Dr Seuss" Geisel realized the oversight, he personally called Thurl Ravenscroft to apologize. And then, he wrote letters to influential columnists nationwide, informing them of the error, and giving Ravenscroft credit for the songs!
Ravenscoft sang two versions of "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch." One that you sing along to in the TV special, and a separate, more straightforward, version for the soundtrack (as appears on the above CD). Thurl Arthur Ravenscroft had his earliest success as a member of the vocal group the "Mellomen," who were background singers on many recordings of the "Big Band" era.
With his deep, rich voice, Ravenscroft is best known as the (uncredited) voice of "Tony The Tiger." He made famous the phrase "They're GRRRREAT!" for more than 50 years, until his death in 2005, at the age of 91.
And there you have it. Today's faves list...a few facts...and a few fun stories. I could go on and on... If you had asked me to list my favorites a few days ago...or even ask me tomorrow, Christmas Day...the list might be a little different.
For example, I might include the "Linus & Lucy Theme" or "Christmas Time Is Here" by Vince Guaraldi, from "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
Hmmmm...I think that I'll award them "Honorable Mention" for Christmas 2014.
Remember: "Christmas Day is in our grasp...as long as we have hands to clasp!"
Have a "Holly, Jolly Christmas!"