Thursday, December 6, 2012

Here Comes Santa Claus, Part 7

My ongoing current assignment involves providing interesting background information about the various tracks from my latest holiday mix CD, Here Comes Santa Claus. I’ve been examining a few tracks each day, more or less. I started with Track 1, and the plan is to continue to the bitter end, which hopefully means completing all 38 tracks. I’d hate to consider any alternative bitter ends, thank you. Anyway, we’ve taken care of Tracks 1-16, so today it’s Tracks 17, 18 and 19.

Track 19
Honky the Christmas Goose, Johnny Bower (1965)
The name Johnny Bower should be familiar to many Americans and a larger number of Canadians over the age of 60, but it’s not because of his musical talent. In fact, “Honky the Christmas Goose” is the only record Bower ever recorded, for which we can all be grateful. But when it comes to scrappy goaltending in the hockey arena, there was a time when Bower had few rivals. Known as “The China Wall,” he helped lead the Toronto Maple Leafs to three Stanley Cup championships during his tenure with the team from 1958-69, and he was ultimately elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. How did he come to record the monstrosity I included in my latest holiday mix? According to Bower, the story begins after a brutal practice session in 1965, when a man named Chip Young talked his way into the Maple Leafs’ locker room in the hope of convincing one of the players to record a song he’d just written to benefit a local charity. All the other guys showered, changed and headed for home pretty quickly that night, Bower recalls, and he was the only player left by the time the songwriter made his approach. As tough as he was on the ice, Bower must have been a soft touch for a charity appeal, because he not only agreed to make the record, but even recruited his 9-year-old son and a group of neighborhood kids to appear with him. It wasn’t long before “Honky the Christmas Goose” hit the Canadian airwaves, and while it posed no real threat to the chart-topping singles of that holiday season – including Turn, Turn, Turn by The Byrds; The Sound of Silence, by Simon & Garfunkel and We Can Work it Out by some British group – it was a respectable hit in Canada and apparently raised over $40,000 for a worthy local charity. Bower says he had fun making the record, and he didn’t mind the heavy ribbing he took from his teammates after the record came out. It was a little tougher to shrug off the angry calls he received from parents whose kids were driving them crazy by repeatedly playing the song, but Bower says he’d probably do it all over again. It was, after all, made for a worthy cause.

You can hear Johnny Bower himself tell the “Honky” story right HERE.

Track 18
O Holy Night, Ellis Chadbourne (c. 1979)
This one’s something special, something unique. I only wish I knew more about it. I found it several years ago on a terrific blog by Bob Purse called The Wonderful and the Obscure, which he describes as “[a] look at some of the more remarkable items found during my 30 years of collecting all manner of recordings.” Bob and I seem to share some similar enthusiasms, including an appreciation for song poems and so-called “outsider music.” He’s also big on Christmas tunes. Several years ago, he wrote that his two favorite Christmas songs are “Silent Night,” and “O Holy Night.”  The rest, he wrote, all lag far behind. In support of his position, he offered two versions of the latter work – the first, a rollicking arrangement by The Christmas Jug Band; and the second, the version I’ve used in this year’s mix by the relatively obscure Ellis Chadbourne. I hope Bob won’t mind if I reprint what he wrote about the song, because I really like what he had to say about it:

In a completely different direction, I offer up Ellis Chadbourne, a singer I was introduced to by my friend Citizen Kafka, a man I have subsequently lost touch with. Also offering up rewritten text, in this case significantly so, to remove all Christian references, Mr. Chadbourne instead is seeking for a Holy Night in which the Bomb has been banned, and peace reigns over the Earth.

This (and all of Mr. Chadbourne's work) tends to be quite divisive – either you "get it" or you don't.…Yes, some say he can't sing, and/or even that this is painful to listen to. I won't disagree with anyone about taste, and I recognize that there is one howler of a note here.

But I will disagree (and have, quite forcefully) with those who have said there is nothing to "get" – there is a passion, a life-affirming spirit captured in Ellis Chadbourne's records, particularly this one, which gives me chills. When he gets to "O Night Divine", and seems at the very top of his range, it takes my breath away – and yet then, I realize there is a higher note yet to come. Will he make it? When he reaches that note, just at the end, I feel I am hearing a man singing directly to God, and I rarely can hear this track without tearing up.
Well, OK, Bob seems to have been a little more affected by this track than I was. But only a little, for I, too, find it to be a powerful and moving statement by a genuine individual who’s singing directly from the heart.  Try as I might, I haven’t been able to learn much more about Mr. Chadbourne, except that he also recorded a song called The Last Round-Up at some point, and possibly another called “Pagan Love Song” from an album titled “Americana Volume I: Vox Populi.” I also found a series of essays about America’s youth and the youth movement that were written by someone named Ellis Chadbourne from New York City during the first several years of the Great Depression – no idea if it’s the same guy.

Track 17
Preparing for the Christmas Pageant, The Cast of “Frasier” (2005)
The Cast of "Frasier"
I was watching TV with a wonderful friend one sweltering morning this past summer when one of the several Christmas-themed episodes of Frasier came on. I’d just added the Ellis Chadbourne version of "O Holy Night" to my mix list, and, wouldn’t you know, one of the subplots of this episode involved that very song. Frasier’s Dad, Martin, is performing in a local Christmas pageant and his part involves singing this most difficult number before a sizeable audience. He works throughout the show to prevent others from attending the performance, especially Daphne. Frasier is one of my favorite shows. I especially like Frasier’s producer, Roz Doyle, and his Dad, played by the very talented John Mahoney.

We're now half-way through the 38 tracks on my 2012 holiday mix, and I'll be back before you know it with some further commentary. In the meantime, click on the lovely lady below for another important reminder from the business community:


  1. This looks like a great compilation! However both the album and the alternate seem to have been blocked by MediaFire. Any alternatives?

  2. I need to look into this. The content doesn't appear blocked from here, but that may only be because it's material I posted. Send me your email if you'd like a personal solution, otherwise I'll try to devise a more general solution if I can properly do so. Thanks.

  3. It's working now! Thanks so much!