Friday, November 30, 2012

Here Comes Santa Claus, Part 4

My 2012 holiday mix has 38 tracks and this week I started posting a little background on each of them. We've looked at the first nine tracks already, and today we have two more, each of which is a terrific example of one of the styles I grew up on and still love today. You can't persuade me that today's top sellers are anywhere near as good as this: 

Track 11
Ain't No Chimneys in the Projects, by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings (2009)
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
Based in New York City, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings were formed as part of a greater movement to revive and rejuvenate that delicious brand of 1960s and ‘70s funk and soul that once blared from stereos and transistor radios in cities from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. That’s a pretty tall order in a culture that worships superficiality and considers the 140-character tirades of a bankrupt casino huckster to constitute hard news. But they seem to be making steady progress – and you can’t help but root for them. From the old school riffs on their 2002 debut, Dap-Dippin’ with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, to the loose sensual energy of their more recent album Soul Time, these guys would have sounded right on in a James Brown Revue or opening up for Sly and the Family Stone. They’re serious and seasoned musicians, most of whom have played with or behind big-name talents and could easily outshine most of the so-called talents whose music sells well today, and when you add Sharon Jones’ powerful and emotive voice to the mix you end up with some truly fine music.

I downloaded Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects without listening to it shortly after it was released in December 2009. Somehow I filed it in the “Sad and Depressing” folder I kept on the portable hard drive where I store my collection of digital holiday music. Maybe I assumed from the title that this record would tell a “sad and depressing” message? I don’t know. Fortunately, I discovered the song this Fall, as I sought to locate some suitably dark and somber tunes for the alternative mix I made to distribute in the event the President was defeated for re-election. (For more on all that, check out my holiday music website.) Well, the message is anything but sad and depressing. Indeed, it’s one of the most joyous and touching songs in this year’s mix, and it’s the only one to appear on both the official and “apocalyptic alternative” holiday mixes I put together this Fall.

According to Jones, “Ain’t No Chimneys” was something of a happy accident as they were finishing work on their critically acclaimed I Learned the Hard Way album:

This song came from one of those great jams the Dap-Kings have up their sleeve at any time. The band was playing the groove and suddenly the holiday spirit hit me, and with all the thoughts of Christmas it brought me right back to my childhood and I got to thinking about all the questions kids ask, ya know? Is Santa real? How does he fly around the whole world in one night? Ya know, all those kind of questions. And, of course my question was, 'How the hell did Santa get all those presents under my tree when there ain't no chimneys in the projects?'

You’ll have to listen for yourself to figure out the rest, but I can report that the story’s got a pretty damn fine ending.

Track 10
Black Christmas, by the Harlem Children's Chorus (1969)
The Harlem Children's Chorus
This tuneful number was recorded in 1969 and was originally released as part of the album "Christmas Time with the Harlem Children's Chorus" on the Commonwealth United label. It first came to my attention 40 years later when it showed up on the In the Christmas Groove compilation from Strut Records. I wish I could share more information about it than that, but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot more information out there about either the song or the Harlem Children's Chorus. There seem to be a few copies of the older album available on eBay, but the closest thing to a review that I've been able to find is a short piece from the Associated Press that was carried by the Observer-Reporter newspaper of Washington, Pennsylvania:
The soloist seems to be a young man of around 13 or 14, I'd guess, and he does a fine job. It's a touching song that harkens back to a different era not only of music but race relations and racial consciousness. I could be wrong, but I sense a certain firm defiance in way the soloist delivers many of the song's most pertinent lyrics:

Bitter days, December nights,
City haze, apartment lights,
In the ghetto,
In the ghetto,
Black Christmas.

In the night a siren wails,
They’re still filling up the jails,
In the ghetto,
In the ghetto,
Black Christmas.

People don’t dream of a Christmas that’s white,
Without a tree in sight,
We have a dream we dream every night:
Black is just as beautiful as white.

Looking for that moment when,
There’s peace on earth, goodwill to men,
In the ghetto,
In the ghetto,
Black Christmas.

In the ghetto,
In the ghetto,
Black Christmas.

Looking for that moment when,
There’s peace on earth, goodwill to men,
In the ghetto,
In the ghetto,
One of these days . . .

Yes, maybe one of these days.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Here Comes Santa Claus, Part 3

My latest holiday mix is called Here Comes Santa Clausand a couple of days ago I started sharing some of my thoughts about the 38 individual tracks that appear on it. I plan to review a few tracks each day until done, and while I'm reviewing the tracks from first to last, each day's post will proceed in reverse order to yield a final list that runs from 43 to 1 without bouncing back a few spaces at the start of each new post. Today, I've got some background on Tracks 7, 8 and 9:

Track 9
Honky Tonk Hanukkah, by Honky Tonk Confidential (2006)
Bob Scheiffer with his band, Honky Tonk Confidential
I featured a great track by Honky Tonk Confidential (HTC) called Christmas Prison on my 2011 holiday mix, and "Honky Tonk Hanukkah" was a relatively easy choice for the follow-up. It's easy to see why this song is their best-selling download, for like "Christmas Prison" it's got an infectious melody and the band really plays the hell out of it. Based in Washington, DC, HTC's had a lot of press the past couple of years because of their association with Bob Scheiffer, occasional presidential debate moderator and host of CBS's Face the Nation. Scheiffer's one of the few real honest-to-God professional journalists left in Washington, and while he did a fine job moderating the third and final debate this Fall between President Barack Obama and that other guy, he seems to be enjoying himself even more when he's onstage with "his band." Sure looks like fun to me. Incidentally, I wrote a little bit about holiday surf rock instrumentals in yesterday's post and was thrilled (and a little surprised) to discover that this fine country bluegrass band has stuck its collective toe in that water, too. So put on your baggies and check out HTC's surf rockin' version of O Come O Come Emmanuel.

Track 8
Happy Holidays Jingle
I have no idea who produced this track or where it came from, but I've had it kicking around on my computer for at least five or six years and it seemed like a fun little addition to this year's mix.

Track 7
Here Comes Santa Claus, by Esquivel (1959)
The title track of this year’s compilation is a genuine Christmas classic, written in 1947 by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman, and while it’s been recorded by hundreds of different artists and was cited by ASCAP several years ago as the 21st most frequently performed Christmas song of all time, this is the first and only time it’s turned up on one of my mixes. The song was inspired by Autry’s participation in the annual Santa Claus Lane Parade, now known as the Hollywood Christmas Parade. Autry was a fixture at the annual event, and as he rode his horse along the route in 1946 he heard crowds of children wherever he was shouting “Here Comes Santa Claus!” From that line, he says, the song was born. Autry's first public performance of the song was on the Gene Autry Melody Ranch Radio Show before a live radio audience on November 30, 1947 (65 years ago tomorrow). The song quickly became a big hit, ultimately reaching #7 on the Billboard singles chart that winter. It’s subsequently been recorded by a wide range of artists including Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Bob Dylan, and Ludacris, and Autry himself released two additional versions of the song in 1953 and 1957. The version I used for this year’s mix is by the late Juan Garcia Esquivel, better known simply as Esquivel. Originally recorded in 1959, Esquivel’s version was first released that same year as part of the RCA Victor compilation “The Merriest of Christmas Pops,” but it made a bigger splash when it was re-released 37 years later on the last album Esquivel worked on, Merry Christmas from the Space Age Bachelor Pad. In the interim, Esquivel had slowly built an impressive following with his signature blend of quirky instrumental pop that ultimately became known as “sophisticated lounge” or “space age bachelor pad” music. Marked by its wordless vocals, exotic percussion and deliberately overstated dynamic shifts, Esquivel’s style is often described in jazz-related terms, but in contrast to most modern jazz, it tends to be tightly arranged and carefully scripted. I've used stuff from Esquivel on two of my previous mixes – "Stop Singing Those Dreadful Songs," which featured holiday greetings from the artist, and "Hooray for Santa Claus," which included Esquivel’s version of "Auld Lang Syne." He was a cool cat and a solid hipster whose stuff was always in orbit.

Incidentally, the Gene Autry website has a wealth of Christmas-related material in a special section called Gene Autry's Cowboy Christmas. In addition to "Here Comes Santa Claus," Autry recorded dozens of other holiday tunes, and in 1949 his version of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer hit #1 on the Billboard singles chart. It's the only song in Billboard history to ever fall off the chart completely from the #1 position. You can read more about Autry's other holiday releases and even download lots of free stuff including some great desktop backgrounds from the Autry site. But don't delay! There's no guarantee it will remain up past Christmas.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Here Comes Santa Claus, Part 2

Yesterday, I started posting a little background on the various tracks included on my latest holiday mix, Here Comes Santa Claus, and I'm hoping to continue with that until I've provided at least a little information about each of the 38 tracks on this year's CD. With that word of warning, let's press on!

Track 6 
Window Wonderland Stencils Kit Commercial, Gold Seal Glass Wax (c. 1963)
The sixth track on this year's CD is an edited version of a vintage TV commercial touting the use of Gold Seal Glass Wax with the company's holiday stencils kit to create decorative seasonal images on glass windows. Glass wax, which I vaguely remember, was a popular window cleaner in the 1950s and '60s. Many people disliked using spray or aerosol window cleaners such as Windex because they supposedly left streaks. Glass wax, by contrast, was applied to the glass with a sponge, and, once it had dried it could be easily rubbed off with a dry cloth leaving sparkling clear, streak-free windows. As this commercial explains, glass wax could also be applied with a stencil and left on the window in a distinctive pattern. Once painted on the window, it looked like etched glass or frost, and was easily removed after the holidays. I don't recall decorating our windows with this technique growing up, although I believe my cousins did. I vividly recall cleaning a whole mess of windows every spring, however: regular and storm windows at our home in Massachusetts, as well as the very old glass windows at our summer home in Maine, and at "the Studio" behind my grandmother's home on the Stroudwater River in Portland, Maine. Her home was previously owned by the impressionist painter Walter Griffin (1861-1935), to whom she was related by marriage, and "the Studio" was where he did a lot of his work. My cousins, my brother and I frequently slept there in the warmer months, and I lived there for two summers during college while working as a cook to earn money for school. That place had lots of windows, and over the years I'd guess we used pretty much every possible type of window cleaner on them.

Track 5
Three Blind Christmas Mice, The Bel-Airs (1962)
The Bel-Airs, c. 1961
I can't remember where I first ran across this bouncy little number, but I'm sure glad I did. It's by a group called The Bel-Airs, and it's a great example of the underappreciated surf rock genre that became popular in Southern California and certain other parts of the country in the early to mid-1960s. The Bel-Airs were among the earliest and most influential West Coast surf rock bands. Formed in 1960, they had their biggest hit the following year with an instrumental titled Mr. Moto, which was apparently based on the fictional Japanese secret agent created in the 1930s by author John Marquand. Three Blind Christmas Mice, also known as "The Three Blind Mice Make It to Santa's Village," was released in 1962 and appears to be the only holiday song The Bel Airs recorded. It's an instrumental mash-up of "Jingle Bells" and  the popular children's tune "Three Blind Mice," but it's the high-octane surf-rock beat that makes it great. Sadly, the surf rock scene pretty much fizzled out with the arrival of the British invasion, and by 1964 The Bel-Airs were gone. Happily, most of the members remained in music after the break-up. Guitarist Eddie Bertrand formed Eddie & the Showmen in 1964, while guitarist Paul Johnson joined Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys in 1970. Original Bel-Airs drummer Dick Dodd joined Bertrand in Eddie & the Showmen, and later joined the legendary Los Angeles garage band The Standells, playing drums and singing lead on their 1966 surf-style hit, Dirty Water, which is pretty much the national anthem of Boston rock. That's right, surf rock's always been big in Boston, and it doesn't come as easily to folks in Massachusetts as to residents of California. For proof, check out one of my favorite Boston rock classics, the Gremies' No Surfing in Dorchester Bay.  

Track 4
Holiday Greetings from the S.O.S. Band (c. 1987)

The S.O.S. Band
I've been using celebrity holiday greetings between songs ever since my very first holiday mix, although I use them less frequently with each successive mix.  They're an easy way to transition from one song to another, much as commercials were back in the days of Top 40 AM radio. It's hard to segue directly  from an uptempo song to something sad, for example, without some kind of bridge, and devices like the celebrity greeting allow you to make those transitions without a whole lot of thought. (Former American Top 40 host Casey Kasem addressed this topic in one of the most famous backstage rants to ever hit the internet.) Depending on who's involved, celebrity greetings can also add a certain cachet to a project, or at the very least a sense of recognition or familiarity. The ones I like best, however, are the ones from B-, C- or D-list celebrities -- the clips that leave you wondering "who the hell is this person and why do I care that he's wishing me a Merry Christmas?" Which brings us to the S.O.S. Band. Well  no, wait. That's not really fair to them. In fact, I really liked this band, back in the day. You may remember their first single, Take Your Time (Do It Right), which was a huge hit during the Summer of 1980. I was living in New York City that summer and had just discovered the club scene there, and I guess I'll always associate this song with a set of experiences and memories that have no place in an upstanding holiday music blog like this. If you want to know more about the S.O.S. Band, you can look them up on Google. I'm too busy right now enjoying the first rays of sunlight on a long-ago July morning, as I make my way up Eighth Avenue with the beat of the disco still thumping in my ears.

PS: Casey Kasem offers a snapshot of the top-selling records of that summer in the America's Top 10 broadcast that aired on August 17, 1980. The YouTube clip notes at 5:20 that "Take Your Time (Do It Right)" was the number three song in the country that week. What was #1? Olivia Newton-John's "Magic," God help us all. Incidentally, Newton-John and John Travolta recently released an album of holiday music that Travolta describes as "intimate," and "not [ ] too ostentatious or showy." Benefits from the album go to charity, which seems to be the record's one redeeming feature.

Stay tuned for more tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Here Comes Santa Claus, Part 1

As noted earlier, I finished my 2012 holiday mix early this year and I'm currently preparing to send it in CD form to my holiday card list. Titled Here Comes Santa Claus, it consists of 38 tracks and runs just over 78 minutes. I'm pleased with the final product, and I hope you will be, too. It's currently posted on my regular holiday music website, and anyone who's interested can download it from there either as a single .mp3 file or a zipped folder containing all 38 individual tracks. I probably won't keep it up past Christmas, so if you want a copy, don't delay!

Between now and December 25, I'm planning to share some additional information and personal thoughts about many of the tracks on this year's CD. I'll be going through the tracks in order beginning with Track 1, but the tracks within each day's individual posting will be listed in reverse to yield a final list in true reverse order.

Ready? OK, let's get started!

Lillian Briggs
Track 3
Rock 'n Roll-y Poly Santa Claus, by Lillian Briggs (1955)
When she first attracted the attention of legendary promoter Alan Freed in 1952, rockabilly bombshell Lillian Briggs was driving a laundry truck by day and playing trombone at night in an all-girl band. Between her movie-star good looks and sensationally strong voice, Briggs quickly became a crowd favorite at Freed’s New York stage shows, and she landed a contract with Epic Records. Her debut single, I Want You to Be My Baby, was a smash hit, selling over a million copies, and it wasn't long before she started popping up on the most popular network TV programs like The Tonight Show. Briggs even made it to the big screen, appearing opposite Jerry Lewis in “The Ladies Man.” Like so many other American stars of the 1950s and early ‘60s, however, Briggs’ popularity started to wane around the time of the British Invasion, but not before she released the holiday number I've included on my latest mix, which, while not a big seller, certainly shows off her voice to good effect. Although Briggs continued to record into the 1970s, she gradually shifted her focus to real estate, and by the 1980s, she’d become a very wealthy woman. Settling in Florida, Briggs developed a wide network of friends and business associates, which is how she became a footnote to one of the biggest political scandals of the ‘80s. It was on her yacht “Monkey Business” that presidential hopeful Gary Hart was photographed with his mistress, Donna Rice, which brought an end to his political career. Briggs died of lung cancer in Miami on April 11, 1998.
Track 2
A Christmas Song for You, by The Kik (2011)

It’s not unusual for successful bands to give their fans a free holiday song or two during the Christmas season as a thank-you gift for their support. The Beatles did this every year until they broke up, and the vinyl records they gave away are now valuable collectors’ items. But the Dutch group The Kik may have broken new ground last year by giving away their free holiday song, “A Christmas Gift for You,” before they’d even finished their first album or released so much as another song. Formed in 2010 in Rotterdam, The Kik is best known for their power pop arrangements of 1960s beat classics. Their version of The Monkees’ classic “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was a big hit in the Netherlands, and their first album, Springlevend earned strong reviews in a number of European countries. They were recently signed as the house band for 12 episodes of the the Dutch television show De Wereld Draait Door. From the first time I heard this one, I was sure that it would be a great opening song for one of my mixes. What do you think?
For those who are interested, YouTube features a bunch of great videos from The Kik in addition to the Christmas classic featured above. Check out some of the suggestions on the right of this page for links to their live performance at the famed Cavern Club and lots more.

Track 1
Introduction and Christmas Message, by MetLife President Haley Fiske (1923)
Haley Fiske

This year’s introductory track is a combination of audio clips I found on the internet. The first is an edited version of the first few minutes of the annual Christmas broadcast of the NBC game show Concentration from 1969. Concentration aired on NBC from August 25, 1958 through March 23, 1973, and to this day it remains the longest-running game show in NBC history. Hugh Downs was the host for much of the show’s network run, and each Christmas the program invited celebrity guests to appear as secret Santas and compete to raise money for CARE. I can remember watching the show with my mother as a young child, and our family had a copy of the home game that I probably broke or lost at some point.

The second half of the track is an edited version of a Christmas message recorded in 1923 for employees of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company by MetLife President Haley Fiske. I found the original on Lee Hartsfeld’s wonderful blog Music You (Possibly) Won't Hear Anyplace Else, often referred to by holiday music collectors as MY(P)WHAE. As Lee correctly notes, the sentiments expressed in Fiske’s holiday message appear rather quaint compared to today’s corporate culture:
Travel back to a time when doing good deeds and succeeding in business weren't regarded as opposite ends. Travel back to a time when humility rated as a corporate virtue ("While Christmas is a time for rejoicing, it is not for boasting"); when company presidents had a fine command of English and employees were deemed smart enough to digest complete thoughts. In today's business environment, such quaint middle-class-Christian sentiment has been replaced by a culture of self-congratulation. Behold with your own ears a company message devoid of sports metaphors--a company holiday greeting that focuses on (of all things) the holiday.

This one’s for all of you, “my dear children in the field.” 

More tomorrow . . . or the next day.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Some Background on My Latest Holiday Mix

As a reminder, my 2012 holiday mix is now available on my recently redesigned Holiday Music website, along with a special companion CD and Ringin' in a Brand New Year, a bonus CD of New Year's music and noise. Tomorrow I'm going to start posting some background on each of the 38 tracks on this year's CD. Like last year, I'm going to write about two or three tracks a day with a few days off here and there and the occasional post on some other topic. I'll start tomorrow with tracks 3, 2 and 1 in that order, so by the time I'm done the posts will run in reverse consecutive order from 38 to 1 (and if that makes sense to anyone but me, I'd be surprised). Hang on for the ride, and hopefully we can finish with nary an upsot rider!

Memories of Christmases Gone By

I was recently rummaging through some old files I'd been keeping in my closet when I happened upon a folder of drawings and collages that look like they'd been made by a young child. None of them looked like anything I'd made, and then I realized they were all made by my mother, which means they're something like 70 or more years old. There were a good number of Halloween-related drawings, and a few from Thanksgiving -- but only one had a Christmas theme, and that's the one to the right. My mother was an only child, and she died shortly after my ninth birthday, but I remember enough to know that Christmas was always a very big deal in her home when she was growing up. Unfortunately, I don't have much in the way of holiday memorabilia from her side of the family. However, we do still have the angel that sat atop her family's tree each year, and atop our own as well when my brother and I were growing up.

Our Tree-Topping Star
Back then, we always followed the same general pattern each Christmas. My maternal grandmother and my godmother would join my Dad, my brother and I at our place on Christmas Eve and we'd exchange gifts on Christmas morning. I can remember how difficult it was to stay asleep that morning, and I was usually wide awake before 5 am. Somehow I managed to keep myself from sneaking downstairs before the others on all but one occasion -- the year I received my own workbench and set of child-sized tools, which was exactly what I'd hoped for that year. Funny, because I can barely hammer a nail now that I'm grown. Anyway, sometime around mid-afternoon we'd get together with my father's sister's family, including my cousins Dana, who was close to my age, and Sandy, who was close to my brother's age. One year they'd all come to our place, and the next year we'd go to theirs, and those visits typically lasted for a day or two after Christmas. They were wonderful times, and I remember them vividly.
My mother, my younger brother and me
 in our home in Westwood, Massachusetts.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Baby Huey's Christmas Eve Visit from Santa

I used to love the Baby Huey cartoons and comic books when I was a child, and so I was delighted when this Baby Huey Christmas short happened to come up in an unrelated search I did on YouTube recently. Huey was supposedly a baby duckling that somehow got to be many times larger than the other ducks his age. Despite his giant size, however, he was incredibly naive and he'd navigate lots of extremely difficult situations in blissful ignorance of the danger around him. I don't think I've thought of Baby Huey since I was 10 or 11, except for the one time Bill Clinton compared himself to the character. "I'm a lot like Baby Huey," he said. "I'm fat. I'm ugly. But if you push me down, I keep coming back." This old clip doesn't seem to be quite as entertaining as I remember the series, but it was fun to see all the same.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Ready or Not . . . Here Comes Santa Claus!

I've got three little surprises for anyone who survived "Black Friday" without getting trampled or shot and still has a drop or two of holiday spirit left in them. First, I've rebuilt my holiday music website in honor of the holidays, and the new and improved version is now up and running at the familiar old address: www.marksholidaymixcds.net. Feel free to visit and poke around at your leisure, but don't open any of the closets or look under the beds because the holidays are coming any you never know where presents might be hidden. Second, my latest annual holiday mix -- Here Comes Santa Claus -- is now complete and ready for distribution and you can read all about it on the Latest page on my website. In fact, you can do more than read about it, you can listen to the first ten minutes or so and download a copy of the track list, the artwork for the CD label and jewel box insert and even the contents of the mix in two different formats. Don't wait too long, as the downloads won't be up for long. Finally, this year's mix comes with an alternative mix and a disturbing story, both of which are briefly described on the Home page of the website. I'll share some further info here tomorrow or the next day, but I wanted to at least put it out there that these goodies are now available -- earlier than ever and ready for your enjoyment. I plan to start posting the background on the contents of this year's mix on this upcoming Monday, November 26, and I'll have a note or two to share between now and then. Enjoy, and glad you survived this crazy and miserable Black Friday.

Monday, November 19, 2012

2012 Christmas Season Has Officially Begun

Bruce and the E Street Band in Omaha last Thursday night
Everyone seems to have a different idea about when the Christmas season officially begins. For shopping types, it's "Black Friday," a day on which I try not to leave the house. For merchants, it's typically the day the Halloween stuff comes down. For me, this year at least, it's the night Bruce Springsteen first plays "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" at one of his live shows. Yeah, I know it's been overplayed on radio for each of the past 37 Christmas seasons (it hardly seems that long), but it's a genuine classic that manages in just 4:30 to both call up the Christmas spirit and capture the magic of a Springsteen live performance. Thus, by this admittedly subjective personal measure, the 2012 holiday season officially began last Thursday night when the song made its first appearance of the year as the penultimate number in Bruce's 26-song show at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska. This was the first time Bruce played the song in public since the death of band mate Clarence Clemons, whose booming "ho ho hos" and signature "you'd better be good for goodness sake" line are such a key part of the E Street version. Rather than designate a single individual to assume Clarence's part this year, Bruce asked the crowd to take on the job. Thanks to the magic of YouTube you can catch the results HERE, HERE or HERE, and you can find out more about the history of Bruce's version of the classic at the impressive Lebanese Tribute to Bruce Springsteen website. I knew that the classic Springsteen version of the song was recorded in 1975 at C.W. Post College and made available on tape to rock radio stations as a promotional item, and I knew it was officially released on vinyl in 1985 as the B-side to "My Hometown," the seventh Top 10 single from Born in the USA. But I didn't know that Bruce first performed the song live in December 1973 at the Bristol Motor Inn in Bristol, Rhode Island, or that it's the best-selling single download of Bruce's entire catalog. The song itself was written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie in 1934 and first performed on Eddie Cantor's radio show that November. (I featured Eddie Cantor's 1939 song "The Only Thing I Want for Christmas" on my 2009 holiday mix, "I Just Can't Wait 'til Christmas.") It was an instant hit, with orders for over 100,000 copies of the sheet music sent in the very next day! "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" has since been recorded by scores of other artists ranging from Alice Cooper to the Partridge Family.

By the way, "Santa Claus" is hardly the Boss's only foray into Christmas music. In November 1986, the E Street Band's version of Merry Christmas, Baby was released as the B-side of "War," the first single from the blockbuster five-record set Live 1975-85. Over the years, Bruce has played numerous other holiday classics live, including Jingle Bell Rock, Blue Christmas, and my favorite Christmas song of all time, Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home). He's even written a couple of holiday songs -- a touching tune called "The Wish" that describes how his mother scrimped and saved to buy him his first guitar for Christmas one year, and a second number, touching, too, in its own way, called Pilgrim in the Temple of Love, which, believe it or not, chronicles the Boss's pre-holiday visit to the Fabulous Girls Nude, Nude, Nude strip club. This is one of Bruce's few X-rated numbers, but the live version of the song I've linked to (above) includes a sweet story about the existence of Santa Claus. (NOTE: This one's not safe for work, and make sure you don't play it near any kids or impressionable older folk.) I'm looking forward to seeing Bruce and the Band two weeks from tomorrow night in Anaheim, and I'm betting we'll hear something from his Christmas catalog. In the meantime, here's hoping the 2012 holiday season is a little more merry and peaceful than the pre-holiday run up has been and that Santa's magic touches you this year before the season ends.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Working Alone in the Office on New Year's Eve, Nixon Sends Holiday Wishes by Phone

Nixon at His Desk (notice the buttoned jacket)
I've always been a history buff, and from a very young age I've been interested in reading about our nation's political leaders. Growing up in Massachusetts, I idolized John F. Kennedy, and he and his two younger brothers remain my personal heroes to this day. I've also had a longstanding interest -- a fascination, really -- in their nemesis and contemporary, Richard Nixon. My parents were Republicans for the most part, as was I until college, but by the time he left the White House in 1974 I'd come to detest President Nixon and most of what he represented; in fact, the night he resigned I led a small group of other kids on a celebratory parade around the small Maine island where we spent our childhood summers. Over the years, I've developed a more balanced view of our 37th president. Thanks to his infamous secret taping system, we've all had a chance to eavesdrop on some of his most private White House conversations, and while much of what he said is repulsive and pathetic, it's hard not to feel a certain measure of sympathy for someone who was so awkward and uneasy in his own skin. I've included excerpts from Nixon's White House tapes in at least a couple of my previous holiday CDs, and I was thrilled this year to discover recordings of two telephone calls the President made on New Year's Eve in 1971. Looking back, these calls were made at the height of Nixon's presidency, some six months before the third-rate burglary at the Watergate that became his undoing. Of course, he couldn't have known what lay ahead, nor did he seem to appreciate the relative strength of his political position at the time. These two calls reflect a certain unease and insecurity, wrapped tightly, as usual, in a masque of resolve and bravado. This New Year's Eve found Mr. Nixon alone in the Oval Office, working late, as he told one of the men he called that night, on "the year-end review." 

Nixon's first call was to Elmer Bobst, a former pharmaceutical executive and old friend of President Eisenhower who had become something of a mentor to President Nixon (and one of the very few who could get away with calling him "Dick" in conversation).  It was a touching call in many respects, from Bobst's enthusiastic review of Nixon's performance to the President's awkward assertion that Bobst "still ran with the best of them" when it came to the society circuit.  But despite his able performance as a stand-in presidential father figure, Bobst's public image ultimately sunk well below even Nixon's own.  For one thing, he was later revealed to be a notorious anti-Semite, telling the President later that year that "Jews have troubled the world from the very beginning" and were responsible for most of the country's ills. Perhaps more shocking, Bobst was later accused of repeatedly raping his two granddaughters, starting when the youngest was four years old. Making money and wielding power clearly have nothing to do with moral character. 

Nixon's second New Year's Eve call was to someone far better known than Bobst, and certainly more respected -- future President George H.W. Bush, who held a variety of different posts in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Two years earlier, Bush had given up a safe congressional seat at Nixon's urging to challenge Texas Democrat Ralph Yarborough for his seat in the U.S. Senate. Yarborough had become increasingly liberal while serving in the Senate and it was assumed he'd have considerable trouble getting re-elected in Texas, which was true, as he never made it to the general election but rather was defeated in the Democratic primary by fellow Democrat Lloyd Bensten. Far more moderate than Yarborough, Benstsen had  lots of Texas oil money behind him, and he went on to defeat Bush in the general election. Nixon rewarded Bush for his sacrifice by making him U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a position Bush was still getting used to at the time of Nixon's call.  Bush was viewed as something of a Republican wunderkind at the time, although he was sufficiently modest to take issue with Nixon's strong review of his recent performance and to later tell the President he thought he'd let him down.  It was also interesting to hear the President ask Bush whether he enjoyed "fighting that New York society crowd" (that presumably included Elmer Bobst).  "I don't like that part of it," Bush responded emphatically, before quickly, and wiselychanging the subject.

It's not clear how late Mr. Nixon remained in the office that New Year's Eve, but hopefully he left for the mansion well before midnight and was able to enjoy some quiet time with family and friends.

Tomorrow is Election Day, and the curtain will soon come down on one of the least attractive presidential campaigns in my lifetime.  In some ways, this year's contest makes me yearn for the relative civility of Nixon's day.  This blog is about holiday music, not politics, but my thinking about this Election Day was expressed rather eloquently by the unrepentant progressive rocker who spent much of today traveling with the President on Air Force One:

Don't forget to vote!

For your Election Day enjoyment, here are several moving tributes in song to our 37th president:

Richard Nixon in '76

The Great Richard Nixon

Richard M. Nixon (God's Infinite Wisdom)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Charles Nelson Reilly and the Gang Celebrate Launch of Match Game '76

(L to R) Brett Sommers, Gene Rayburn and
Charles Nelson Reilly

I didn’t realize this until after it was completed, but my latest New Year’s CD, Ringin’ In a Brand New Year, features content that spans an entire century. From 1912’s “New Year’s Medley” by The Prince’s Orchestra to the New Year’s Greeting recorded last year by Newt and Callista Gingrich, this mix covers a lot of ground. Like my annual holiday CDs, this collection draws from a variety of musical styles and features a number of non-musical tracks that help capture certain historical and cultural images in sound. One such track is a recording of the New Year’s Eve ritual observed during much of the 1970s on the set of the popular Match Game television show. Launched exactly 50 years ago, The Match Game survived several different incarnations and aired on all three of the major commercial networks at various times. The original program debuted in December 1962 on NBC and aired weekdays from 4:00 to 4:30 pm. This version featured two teams of three, each of which was led by a guest celebrity. Host Gene Rayburn read questions aloud and awarded points based on the number of matching answers on each side. Although the show was a perennial ratings success, it was dropped by the network in September 1969 to make room for a new show called "Letters to Laugh In." Producers Mark Goodson and Bill Toddman revived the program for CBS during the summer of 1973, although the debut of this second incarnation was postponed by several weeks because of the Senate Watergate hearings. Gene Rayburn was once again tapped to host, but little else from the original survived intact. As Rayburn noted, "This is a now version of your old favorite, with more action,. more money and more celebrities." The number of celebrities increased from two to six, with two non-celebrity contestants. Under the new format, Rayburn alternated questions between the two contestants, who competed to earn the most matching responses from the celebrity panel. The new set was designed in garish '70s style with shag carpeting, lots of blinking lights and plenty of orange. Perhaps the biggest change was the nature of the questions themselves, which had become significantly more risqué. This was undoubtedly a key factor in making this second version of the show the most successful of all. The new version of the show was called Match Game ’73, which, of course, required the title to be updated on an annual basis, and each New Year’s Eve, the gang did something special to mark the unveiling of the new name. From all appearances these special arrangements included an open bar, as a number of the celebrities seemed to have difficulty sitting upright let alone matching answers. My latest New Year's CD includes a recording of the festivities that aired on December 31, 1975, featuring the flamboyant and irrepressible Charles Nelson Reilly, who, with Brett Sommers and Richard Dawson, served as a regular guest on the show. Reilly is probably best known for his work on Match Game, but he enjoyed an illustrious stage career and was also a gifted acting teacher and director.  He enjoys the distinction of having appeared with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show more often than any other guest, due in part to the fact that he lived less than two minutes away from the studio and was typically available to fill in for last-minute cancellations. His last major project was a one-man autobiographical show called The Life of Reilly, which won rave reviews both as a live performance and film.  I heartily recommend it. 
Here’s the excerpt that's included on Ringin’ In a Brand New Year, which captures the transition from Match Game '75 to Match Game '76 on December 31, 1975: 

And for those brave souls who want more, here are clips of three additional Match Game year-end celebrations:

For more Match Game trivia and history, check the Game Show Network's Match Game page or Wikipedia.

Tomorrow (or the next day):  Richard Nixon Spreads His Unique Band of New Year's Cheer!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Start Your New Year's Party Early with "Ringin' In a Brand New Year"

There's always been a certain tension between the Christmas and New Year's holidays -- a sibling rivalry, if you will. Separated by merely a week, they're typically seen as an indivisible package. Together, they serve to protect us from everyday life for at least a couple of weeks each year with a collective force that far exceeds their individual powers. Yet they are also indisputably unique -- one is pious, sentimental and child-like; the other secular, ribald, and free-wheeling. Little wonder then that each of these year-end holidays has its own canon of songs, and its own distinct set of cultural icons and ephemera.

My first New Year's mix was prompted by my discovery of two incredibly wonderful tunes one snowy afternoon in late 2007 while visiting my brother and his family at their home in Maine.  The first was Happy New Year, by Spike Jones and His City Slickers; and the second was Happy New Year, by Charlie Weaver.  Each of these songs was new to me, and they immediately raised my spirits.  In fact I remember singing them aloud as I shoveled and snowblowed my brother's long driveway several times that evening.  The mere fact that I'd volunteered for outside work during a Nor'Easter speaks volumes about my good mood at the time. Anyway, it was a relatively easy matter to find enough additional New Year's material to fill a CD, and by the time I returned to Los Angeles on December 30, my first New Year's mix was recorded and ready to go.

I've kept my eyes and ears open for additional New Year's material over the past five years, and by last Fall I had at least 50 strong candidates for a follow-up mix. But it wasn't until recently that I felt any particular interest in preparing something.  Once I started, however, the whole thing came together quickly, and I'm pleased with the result, which is titled Ringin' In a Brand New Year!  There are 30 tracks altogether, and the complete mix lasts just under 70 minutes. As with my annual Christmas mixes, "Ringin' In a Brand New Year" is a mish-mash of wildly different styles, and it features songs and music interspersed with celebrity greetings, spoken features and short comedy bits.  This mix opens with what I believe to be the oldest recording I've used in any of my mixes to date -- a 1912 recording of a New Year's Medley performed by The Prince's Orchestra, one of the most successful musical acts of that time.  Also included are songs by Death Cab for Cutie, Tom Waits and The Dismemberment Plan, and historical snapshots such as the audio track of the following broadcast from Times Square as Ben Grauer welcomed viewers of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show to the start of 1966:

My latest New Year's mix is now available for download for a limited time from my holiday music website.  You can download the mix as a single .mp3 file or as a zip file containing 30 individual tracks.  You can also download a track list, CD label and jewel box insert, and you can listen to the first nine or ten minutes of the mix from the website itself.  Enjoy the mix, and Happy New Year!