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"Jingle Bell Rock," Bobby Helms (Decca)

Although many songs mentioned on this site predate it, this song is probably the first one to cross rock 'n roll with Christmas in an overt way. There are comparatively few covers of the Bobby Helms original, however, considering how famous it is; one that charted was Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker's 1961 performance, and "Sea Cruise" singer Frankie Ford does a faithful cover on A Creole Christmas. VH1 and MTV run the Hall and Oates video of that song every year at Christmas time, and it's a pretty faithful copy of Helms; it was a 7-inch or 12-inch single between 1983 and 1985 and is now on VH1 The Big 80s Christmas. By the way, Helms' B-side was "Captain Santa Claus (And His Reindeer Space Patrol)." Helms had several other hits in the 1956-7 time frame, and then vanished off the charts for good.

"Merry Christmas Baby," Charles Brown (Exclusive)

Predating "Jingle Bell Rock," it's more of a blues tune, first done by Charles Brown in 1947 and widely covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Chuck Berry to Bruce Springsteen to Otis Redding to Southern Culture on the Skids. Blues and Christmas seem not to go together, but this one has more of a happy ending. Note that Chuck Berry contemporized it by changing "radio" to "stereo" in the line "I'm feeling fine, got good music on my radio." From Mojo magazine, January 1997: "Brown... was approached by a songwriter named Lou Baxter who tried to sell him a seasonal ditty titled "Merry Christmas Blues." Brown then, allegedly, revamped the song... but listed Baxter's name as composer so that he would get a cut. Brown... recorded it as lead singer with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers and Exclusive Records promptly placed Moore's name on the label." Brown has recorded this several more times since the original performance under his own name.

"Please Come Home for Christmas," Charles Brown (King)

This is more of a blues for Christmas, and Charles further burnishes his reputation as a Christmas bluesman par excellence with this 1961 song. James Brown did a great version, The Eagles did a passable rendition, VH1 wears out the video of Jon Bon Jovi's version from Very Special Christmas 2 and it turns up from time to time by others.

Hipsters' Holiday, various artists (Rhino)

The cover says "Vocal jazz and R 'n B classics," and they span a period from 1946 to 1966, a period during which popular vocal dance music began to separate from the jazz realm and cleave to the R 'n B and rock genres. Nevertheless, some fairly significant jazz names appear here doing what was essentially the pop music of the time -- Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne. This album features great songs that live up to their titles: "Cool Yule," "Santa Done Got Hip," "Dig That Crazy Santa Claus," and so on. Highlights include Eartha Kitt's original version of "Santa Baby," from which The Material Girl gleaned a few lessons when she covered it for A Very Special Christmas. Big John Greer gives us "We Wanna See Santa Do the Mambo," Ms. Bailey asks for a "Five Pound Box of Money" and Satchmo himself is represented three times, the best of which is "'Zat You, Santa Claus." Great stuff for when your Christmas party needs a "hip" replacement.

"Santa Baby," Eartha Kitt (RCA)

This 1953 record was the Catwoman's greatest hit, and it's a tough one to cover; Madonna's version on A Very Special Christmas is basically an homage. If it's possible for a human being to purr a three-minute record, Eartha did it. The gold-digging sentiments in the song may sound dated, but it wouldn't take much imagination to make them current. Of course, a lot of folks today wouldn't mind having that '54 blue convertible she asks for, especially in showroom condition. Not satisfied with her haul for '53, she recorded a sequel, "This Year's Santa Baby," in which the convertible's a clunker and she wants a private plane, and the yacht's leaking so "hold your breath... I want the Queen Elizabeth." Bob Bailey tips us that Eartha also recorded "Nuttin' For Christmas" and she alters the lyrics to "I'm gettin' nuttin' for Christmas/Cause I didn't want to be bad." He adds, "Guess the approach in 'Santa Baby' didn't work."

"White Christmas," The Drifters (Atlantic)

Clyde McPhatter leads the way on this 1954 rendition of the Hollywood classic, the version on which Elvis Presley based his rendition. Which makes it historic on two counts, since this arrangement is the one that got Irving Berlin angry enough to try and get Elvis' version banned. On its own merits, of course, it's wonderful, adding a languid rhythm to a song typically crooned a little too reverently. The flip side is a ballad version of "The Bells of St. Mary's." The Drifters, a later iteration anyway, returned in 1964 with "The Christmas Song," available on Atlantic's Soul Christmas.

Elvis' Christmas Album, Elvis Presley (RCA)

The King never actually charted with a Christmas single, according to Rock On, but this LP no doubt did very well on the album charts on its release in 1957. It's been repackaged a number of times since and the track lineup has changed; my budget re-release copy has the standards "Silent Night," "White Christmas," "I'll Be Home For Christmas," "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem," "Here Comes Santa Claus," along with "Blue Christmas," the tough blues "Santa Claus Is Back In Town," the rocking "Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me," and "Mama Liked the Roses." Some of the repackages throw in gospel performances that have nothing to do with Christmas, like "Peace in the Valley." About 1970 or so, he released Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas, an album with a completely different track lineup, including "Merry Christmas Baby," "The First Noel," "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," "On a Snowy Christmas Night," "It Won't Seem Like Christmas (Without You)," "Silver Bells," and several more, a more serious and lugubrious performance than the original. Both albums remain available today, along with a compilation of all his original holiday performances, If Every Day Was Like Christmas, available in a gift box with a fold-out of a snow-covered Graceland. The near-frantic pace of reissues out of the Elvis universe in the past couple of years has resulted in a further number of repackagings of his Christmas repertoire, so a collector could make a mini-specialty of acquiring them all. Christmas Peace, a new 2-disc compilation for 2003, includes one disc of his traditional gospel tunes and one disc of Christmas tunes. Update: Yet another Elvis Christmas repackage for 2004, White Christmas, appears to have the same track listing as If Every Day Was Like Christmas.

"White Christmas," Elvis Presley (RCA)

This was never released as a single, but is notable for the fact, as reported in Merry Christmas Baby by Dave Marsh and Steve Propes, that the composer, Irving Berlin, took it upon himself to call radio stations across the country and demand they not play The Pelvis' version of his treasured song. Few people paid any attention to him although, according to the liner notes of If Every Day Was Like Christmas, one Portland disc jockey was fired for playing it and the whole album was banned in Canada. Elvis did release "Blue Christmas" as a single in 1964, however, and "Merry Christmas Baby" in 1971.

"Run Rudolph Run," Chuck Berry (Chess)

The rock 'n roll answer record to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," it's even co-written by the previous song's author, Johnny Marks, although most people assume Chuck Berry, who recorded it first, wrote it. Possibly they got that idea from Chuck's autobiography, although it's not impossible that he got cheated out of a writing credit; after all, it sure doesn't sound dissimilar to his many other hits. A classic rockin' Christmas record, it's been widely covered in the 40 years since it was written, probably as much for its classic Berry arrangement as for its lyrics, which never seem to go out of style. Originally paired with "Merry Christmas Baby."

Rockabilly Xmas, various artists (Buffalo Bop)

This is the real deal, original 50s rockabilly Christmas singles, not a single re-creation in the bunch. The liner notes aren't real comprehensive, but they do list the original label and serial number of every one of the 30 songs, along with photographs of some of the actual labels. In some cases, both sides of the same single appear here, like Johnny Preston's "(I Want a) Rock 'n Roll Guitar," which takes off from "Night Before Christmas," and "New Baby For Christmas." If you don't know much about original rockabilly, you'll hear the many influences of rockabilly, some more country, some swing, others more rock, still others pop and novelty records. Not to mention a few borrowed licks from some non-Christmas tunes of the period and a few imitations of more famous artists. The period recording quality and tape hiss on some of these might put off the young'uns, but there are lots of great candidates for a Christmas mix on here. An interesting artifact is the Outlaws' version of "Run Rudolph Run" with a writing credit to Chuck Berry shown on a picture of the original label. "Rock Around the Christmas Tree" by Big Bud is not the familiar song, but it's just as good. The Cadillac fixation lives on with The Four Imperials' "Santa's Got a Coupe de Ville" and Little Joey Farr's "Big White Cadillac." Barry Richards' "Baby Sittin' Santa" and Marlene Paul's "I Wanna Spend Christmas With Elvis" are probably the best-known tunes here. Oldies fans will snarf this up, but everybody's likely to find something they like on this collection.

Rockin' Christmas, The 50s, various artists (Rhino)

Rockin' Christmas, The 60s, various artists (Rhino)

Originally released in 1984 as two separate albums, they were later blended into a single CD called The Best of Cool Yule, but it apparently is no longer available. Some of the tunes appeared on other Rhino Christmas compilations, but overall these are good compilations. The 50s includes Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock," the first actual rock 'n roll Christmas song; Buchanan and Goodman's "Santa and the Satellite" fake-interview recording; The Penguins' "Jingle Jangle"; and Oscar McLollie's "Dig That Crazy Santa Claus." The 60s bring us Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Mash" sequel, "Monster's Holiday"; Paul Revere and the Raiders with the dated "Wear a Smile at Christmas"; and other 60s semi-legends like the Trashmen, Wailers and Sonics weigh in as well. A dated item that's still a hoot is the Turtles' "Santa and the Sidewalk Surfer." And James Brown's "Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year" is here, too.

A Million Dollars Worth of Christmas Doo-Wop, various artists (Live Gold)

They mean it literally; these doo-wop Christmas songs collected for this album are all collector's items of some value. Marsh and Propes' book Merry Christmas Baby lists some of these tunes among the rarest Christmas songs on the market. Many of these tunes were mastered to CD directly from the cleanest vinyl copies the producers could find because in most cases, the original tapes simply don't exist. Some of these turn up on other compilations, like "Christmas in Jail" by the Youngsters and "Rockin' and Rollin' With Santa Claus" by the Hepsters, but a lot of these probably are making their CD debut here. Songs here range from The Robins' 1951 "Have a Merry Xmas" to "The Christmas Spirit" by The Motivations from 1970. The producers give the listener value for money too; there are 27 songs on this CD. I'm partial to "Santa Claus Baby" by The Voices, "Mambo Santa Mambo" by The Enchanters and "All I Want For Christmas Is You" by The C. Quents, but you may have some other favorites. There are two New Year's tunes, "I'll Stay Home New Year's Eve" by The Creators and "New Year's Eve" by The Cameos.


Eras: The Beginning, The Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties, The Nineties, The 21st Century

Genres: Reggae, Soul/R&B, Rap, Blues, Punk, Surfin' Xmas, Tropical

Novelties: Fifties and Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties, The Nineties, The 21st Century

Compilations: Regular Comps, Charity Comps, Soundtracks

Special Reports: Recent Releases, Hanukkah, Miscellaneous