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A Christmas Gift To You, Phil Spector (Philles)

The absolute and utter ground zero of all rock 'n roll Christmas records. People my age tend to know this instinctively, but younger folks may need some convincing. The overall sound is of late 50s to early 60s R&B, and today's youth tends to believe that sound is cornball. But the Spector wall of sound is one of the most important antecedents of modern rock and pop music, and when it comes to Christmas, a little cornball goes a long way. Phil really threw himself into this one, adding various holiday-oriented jingles and chimes to his patented sound, and turning loose some great re-thinks of evergreen Christmas songs, along with the perfect original "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." There are few rock or pop acts whose arrangement of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" isn't a straight rip of Phil's, whether Bruce Springsteen or the Pointer Sisters. Originally released in 1963 -- the same month as the Kennedy assassination -- and re-released on a number of different labels since, and still a mandatory part of any rockin' Christmas. Update: Though most folks refer to this as a Phil Spector album because of his dictatorial control of the content, it's technically a "various artists" album featuring Philles Records acts The Crystals, the Ronettes, Darlene Love, and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. The first reissue came about 1972 on Apple Records through Phil's involvement with the Beatles, then later on Pavilion and Abkco, and in 1987 Chrysalis released "The Phil Spector Christmas Mix," which segued four songs together without breaks in the dance music style of the time; think "Stars on 45." Update: Accused in the 2003 shooting of starlet Patricia Clarkson at his home, Spector remains free following a mistrial.

Merry Christmas, The Sonics, the Wailers and The Galaxies (Etiquette)

Thirty years before Nirvana and the other Seattle groups of the past decade, there was a thriving Northwest rock scene featuring these three groups and a number of others; in fact, there is a case to be made that the 60s Northwest bands were among the earliest practitioners of Nuggets-era punk rock. The Sonics' "Don't Believe in Christmas" and the Wailers' "Christmas Spirit??" are especially sardonic takes on the holiday, and all the tunes but "Please Come Home for Christmas" and "The Christmas Song" are originals. As the liner notes say, "The songs ... may appear to be normal Christmas tunes -- WE DON'T PLAY THAT." A classic rock Christmas album along the lines of Phil Spector's, but overlooked for three decades; miraculously, it was issued on CD in 1991, but it may be hard to find. A 1965 single of The Sonics' "Don't Believe in Christmas" and The Wailers' "Christmas Spirit??" was issued on Etiquette.

The Beach Boys' Christmas Album, The Beach Boys (Capitol)

This is kind of a schizophrenic affair; the first five tunes are Beach Boys originals with their trademark 60s sound, including "Little Saint Nick," then the rest of the album is pop Christmas standards with arrangements straight out of the Four Freshmen songbook and backed by a 40-piece orchestra (cocktail alert!). The CD version adds several outtakes, including two alternate versions of "Little Saint Nick." The Boys revisited the Christmas genre in the 1970s; see the listing for Ultimate Christmas.

Ultimate Christmas, The Beach Boys (Capitol)

Most of this album is The Beach Boys Christmas Album from 1964, but Capitol also has exhumed the tapes of what was supposed to be the Boys' second Christmas album sometime in the 1970s. Of those eight songs, only "Child of Winter" was ever released, and then only as a single two days before Christmas in 1974, after which it promptly disappeared into collectors' heaven. Several of the other songs were simple retoolings of existing Beach Boys tracks from the "Brian's Back" period, a little clumsy lyrically but still possessing the trademark sound. They even managed to do a song called "Melekalikimaka" that is no relation to the other, better known Christmas in Hawaii song. Some toy drive promos and a canned interview with Brian distributed to promote the original Christmas album round out this package. Update: For 2004, this album has been reissued as Christmas With the Beach Boys, minus one cut, "Christmas Time Is Here Again."

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Jimi Hendrix (Experience Hendrix)

The guitar giant's rendition of "Little Drummer Boy," long unavailable except on promos and bootlegs, sneaked out in 1999 on a CD single that gives us two versions of the 1969 rehearsal tape, a concise one and a more rambling version. This is the Band of Gypsies doing a medley of "Drummer" with "Silent Night" and "Auld Lang Syne." It's strictly instrumental, but it's so recognizable that you'll want to throw it on your mix tapes. Also on hand is the long-forgotten "Three Little Bears," done with the Experience. Good liner notes and a friendly purchase price combine for a nice cheap Christmas gift.

"Christmastime is Here Again," The Beatles (Apple)

Phil Spector notwithstanding, John Lennon had a few years of practice doing Christmas records himself with his fellow Beatles before he got around to doing "Happy Xmas (War is Over)." Those records, however, were only ever released as acetates to fan club members, or bootlegged; see below. This partial song was used as a motif for one of the later Christmas records and was released on the 1994 CD single of "Free as a Bird." A proper release of the Beatles' series of Christmas records has been an oft-rumored possibility for the past 35 years, but the Anthology project has given those rumors yet another life. As in the case of Elvis, the Beatles spawned a number of cash-in novelty records; Christmas-oriented ones cited by Marsh and Propes' book Merry Christmas Baby include "Ringo Bells" by the Three Blonde Mice, "All I Want for Christmas Is a Beatle" by Dora Bryan, "Christmas with the Beatles" by Judy and the Duets and "I Want the Beatles for Christmas" by Jackie and Jill. Again, that's just the holiday ones.

Complete Christmas Collection 1963-1969, The Beatles (Yellow Dog)

Needless to say, this is a bootleg of all those annual flexidisk recordings the Beatles made for their various fan clubs. There once was a legitimate Apple release, The Beatles Christmas Album, which was out only for a brief time in 1970 and, needless to say, commands five-figure prices nowadays. For the purposes of this site, I must point out that these recordings are only peripherally connected to Christmas; the holiday references could be excised from several of them with very little effort. The fact that they aren't generally available now is what makes them such a Holy Grail for Beatles collectors. If you're not a major fan, they don't make such great listening. For those of us who care, however, these examples of Beatle buffoonery serve as road markers for the various stages of their career -- lots of thank-yous for buying records in the earlier ones, "Goon Show"-inspired attempts at radio drama in the middle period ones, visits from Yoko and plugs for their solo projects in the later ones. There's a standalone version of "Christmastime Is Here Again," longer than the one on the "Free as a Bird" single, and an outtake from the 1964 recording on this particular collection. Having finally listened to the whole batch all the way through, it's quite evident why the surviving Beatles haven't made any effort to release these to the general public; they resemble nothing so much as home movies.

A lot of us have the old 8mm film with home movies on them. It is possible to get them converted to DVD. Use a professional for the job if you want it done right. Movies of your brother Fred being handed his health care MBA or your Aunt Agnes marching up to receive her St Mary MBA. These moments are too special to lose.

'Twas the Night Before Christmas, Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns (Westside)

This seminal 1962 album on Ace Records has been reissued on CD by a British label. It's a serious party-down album of the Christmas variety; you can tell just by listening to their version of "Silent Night," on which most acts do too reverent a job. Ironically, this collector's item stacked up in warehouses on its initial issue in 1962, according to the liner notes, because of the inept distributorship of Vee-Jay Records, a firm that would later go on to fumble its brief ownership of The Beatles. But let's talk about Huey and the Clowns, who grafted bits of their earlier hits onto their holiday performances to ramp up the excitement level. Sounds cheesy, but modern acts might want to trot out that technique once in a while; it's at least good for laughs. The CD also includes instrumental-only versions of the tunes, so you can get down all year round! Update: In the course of discovering the track list for A Rock 'n Roll Christmas, see below, Brian Zimmerman discovered there were a fair number of guest artists on this album. The Heartbeats join the Clowns on "Jingle Bells" and "Almost Time for Santa," Jessie Thomas is on "Silent Night," "Doing the Santa Claus," "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and "All I Want for Christmas," and Bubba Anderson is on "Rock 'n Roll Santa Claus."

A Rock 'n Roll Christmas, various artists (Ace)

This album is a real puzzlement. I'm guessing it was originally assembled sometime in the 60s, as I've seen vinyl versions of this for years, and it made the transition to CD at some point. It turns out that most -- but not all -- of it is the seminal 1962 Christmas album by Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns, still a holiday rocker par excellence. All 10 tunes from that album are on here. There are six others, and I'm hoping someone will be able to fill in the gaps in the ensuing rundown. "Christmas Finds Me Oh So Sad" is definitely Charles Brown, as it was one side of a 1960 single on the associated Teem Records. It's similar to "Please Come Home For Christmas," as it's the same melody and chords but different words. Another version of "Merry Christmas Baby" was the A-side, and the version on here sounds like Brown, but the lyrics are all different and the piano player vamps bits of "Jingle Bells" between verses. (Update: It's him, see below.) "Shimmy Winter Wonderland" by The Swingin' Embers is on here too, a 1961 single. "Rappin' Before Christmas," a great talk-through of the old "Night Before Christmas" story, is by just the Clowns. Update: Brian Zimmerman got hold of the full track list from what he believes is a Japanese import, adding "Weary Silent Night" by Earl King (not on the American copy), "Please Come Home For Christmas" and "A Lonely Christmas" by Bob Wagner and "White Christmas Blue" by Johnny Meyers. Update: A variation of this album is sold as A Southern Christmas.

The Four Seasons Greetings, The 4 Seasons (Vee Jay)

This group was caught in the middle between the doo-wop era and the beginning of the self-contained vocal/instrumental groups like the Beach Boys and the Beatles. This was no problem back in the day, as they rode a fairly long string of hit singles like "Sherry" and "Walk Like a Man" from the end of the Fifties through the mid-60s, then made a minor comeback in the disco era with "December 1963," not a holiday tune, though disco revivalists might quibble. Getting back to 1962, the original release of this album, the Seasons mostly succumbed to the pressure to treat the holiday with (too much) reverence, as seen elsewhere with Jackie Wilson and the Beach Boys. Like the Boys, the Seasons did a few tunes in their signature style and devoted the rest of the album to heavily orchestrated versions of traditional carols, including no less than four medleys. The Beach Boys, however, got a whole side of the vinyl LP for their original Christmas tunes; the Seasons only got three tunes on the whole album, one of which, "Jungle Bells," rewrote the popular sleigh-ride tune as a kids' song about animals celebrating Christmas. The remaining two tunes, both released as singles in their day, are "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," both worthy of a holiday mix tape. The album was later issued as The 4 Seasons Christmas Album on Philips and Rhino, and is currently on offer from Curb/Warners. I should probably mention "Christmas Tears," the B-side of both singles, along with "The Christmas Song" and "White Christmas," as examples of the later Frankie Valli solo career, about which you can draw your own conclusions.

Christmas Past, various artists (West Side)

Another troll through the vaults, this one makes a point of noting it got this collection from the back room at the now-defunct Roulette Records. Some of these items are no surprise, as they've turned up on numerous collections. Others are a little more rare. Jim Backus of Mr. Magoo fame and Howard Morris, the once and future Ernest T. Bass, have novelty records here, Backus giving us "Why Don't You Go Home for Christmas," an anti-wife song, and Morris with both sides of his "Department Store Santa Claus" single. The Cadillacs' arrangement of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is the one the Smithereens adapted for their version, the Marcels' "Merry Twist-Mas" is joined by a less-well known item, "Don't Cry for Me This Christmas," and Pearl Bailey and the Orioles contribute a pair of carols each. Little Eva joins with Big Dee Irwin for "I Wish You a Merry Christmas" and the Harmony Grits -- former members of the original Drifters -- do "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." The liner notes don't shrink from criticism; a Vietnam exploitation record by Derrick Roberts gets the note-writer's raspberry (deserved.) A pretty good collection for the oldies fan, with three New Year's songs, including Jo Ann Campbell's "Happy Happy New Year Baby," based on "Happy Happy Birthday Baby," not to mention "Merry Merry Christmas Baby."

The Ventures' Christmas Album, The Ventures (Liberty)

All you "Pulp Fiction" fans out there looking for a way to get medieval on the holiday need only hook up with this one, full of reverb- and vibrato-drenched guitar versions of favorite holiday classics like "Jingle Bells" and "Sleigh Ride." There's lots of genre-swapping here too, with "Jingle Bells" meeting "What'd I Say," a few bars of "Wooly Bully" kicking off "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Jingle Bell Rock" incorporating a little "Memphis" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" riffing on "I Feel Fine." This instrumental combo imposes its trademark sound on everything it comes into contact with; I have other albums by them like The Ventures Meet the Classics and The Ventures in Space. The group is still around and Big in Japan, and they've taken another crack at Christmas in 2002.

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," Brenda Lee (Decca)

Boy, what a living Johnny Marks made off Christmas, between "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Run Run Rudolph" and this song. Brenda Lee recorded this during the salad years of her career, and it's a classic for sure; so good, it made the charts in 1960, 1961 and 1962. Many people have covered this since then, but Brenda's version is tough to top. Flip side is "Papa Noel," if you can find a single of this; otherwise, it's been on a lot of compilation albums and CDs. Universal released a complete CD of all Brenda's Christmas songs in 1999.

"Jingle Bells" / "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," the Blues Magoos

This may be a bootleg; my copy has no label information and a cheesy 2-color cover. But the Magoos, early garage psychedelic pioneers with one hit to their credit, "We Ain't Got Nothing Yet," take a fairly original tack to the arrangement of "Jingle Bells," revisiting it in a minor-key 60s blues-rock style. "Santa" is a short blues shuffle, and there's a third tune on this 45, "Dante's Inferno," which is not holiday-oriented and is about what you'd expect. Martin Johns writes in to assure us that "The Blues Magoos 45 was issued by Mercury in 1967 (catalog #72762)." So while my copy is most likely a bootleg, the record was officially released. Update: the band's single hit's title above was corrected as requested by Ken Froeschner. My fault for letting my fingers do the thinking.

"Pretty Paper," Roy Orbison (Monument)

The Voice charted with this holiday tune in December 1963 that seems more country in retrospect; indeed, it's country folk who do covers of this Willie Nelson tune nowadays. Nevertheless, a must-hear at Christmas time if you're a fan of the other man in black.

Holiday Magic With Patti LaBelle & the Bluebells, Patti LaBelle & the Bluebells (Definitive)

They say success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan. That's the story of this album in a nutshell. Patti's a well-known diva nowadays, but she hasn't sounded anything like this in oh, say 40 years -- her style has evolved and, naturally, her voice is a little darker with age. Thrown together on short notice and a tight budget, it's 10 traditional carols and holiday standards with standard mid-1960s arrangements, ponderous and unoriginal, that do nothing to bring out what was fun about that era's girl groups. Unless you're stuck in this particular era, this CD will probably get pretty old a couple of cuts in. It's instructive that I have so far had no success turning up anything about the history of this record, including its original release date. Meanwhile, this orphan will always manage to turn up in somebody's bargain bin at Christmas, thanks to cheap and neglected resale rights. Update: Martin Johns, once again, checks in with some more info. "The Patti LaBelle & Bluebells album was originally released on Newtown Records in 1962 (as Sleigh Bells, Jingle Bells and Blue Bells), retitled and rereleased in 1971 on Trip... and on and on."

"Twistin' Bells," Santo and Johnny (Canadian American)

The "Sleepwalking" duo returned to the charts in 1960 with this record, a holiday take on the biggest dance craze of the year based on "Jingle Bells." Then they disappeared again.

A Christmas Present.... And Past, Paul Revere and the Raiders (Columbia)

An early stab at a concept album, this 1966 vanity project was written by Mark Lindsay and Terry Melcher, except for "Jingle Bells." It's fairly full of itself and horribly dated, as we learn from the very first (unlisted) cut, with a half-hearted Salvation Army band, smarmy narration and stupid schtick. "Wear a Smile at Christmas," the advertised first cut, is dopey and features a really bad Lyndon Johnson impression. The version of "Jingle Bells" doesn't even feature the band, but a couple of actors pretending to be half in the bag while singing the song. "Valley Forge" is just stupid, as is the Greensleeves cop "Brotherly Love." Some of the songs deeper into the album, like "Dear Mr. Claus" and "Macy's Window," are a little better, but the Salvation Army band preludes on most cuts get old quickly. And bail out before you get to "A Heavy Christmas Message."

"Sock It To Me Santa" Bob Seger and the Last Heard (Cameo-Parkway)

This actually is Seger's first shot at a Christmas song before he came forward with a fairly straightforward cover of "The Little Drummer Boy" for A Very Special Christmas. Two years before 1968's "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" put him on the national charts, Seger did this Mitch Ryder-styled number for the holidays, a real classic stomper. Available only on the Excelsior compilation A Rock 'n Roll Christmas, as far as I know.

"Merry Merry Christmas Baby," Dodie Stevens

The doo-wop group Margo Sylvia and the Tune Weavers originally had a hit with "Happy Happy Birthday Baby" back about 1957 or so, and guess what? The phrase "Merry Merry Christmas Baby" had exactly the same cadence. According to the liner notes of Doo Wop Christmas on Rhino, Dodie Stevens recorded this Christmas variant of the song first in the early 1960s. If you liked it once, you'll love it with mistletoe. Margo was in the mood to try a comeback about 1988 or so and recorded the Christmas version herself, which is on the above-mentioned Rhino album. She died a few years later.


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

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Special Reports: Recent Releases, Hanukkah, Miscellaneous