Sunday, December 7, 2014

Is There Really a Santa Claus, Part 6

There are 39 tracks on my latest holiday mix, and we're taking a few moments to look at each one, in turn. We've finished with the first 14 so far, and today we're going to consider three more:

Track 17
Thanks for the Electric Shaver, Spiro, by Richard M. Nixon and Spiro Agnew (1972)
President Richard Nixon (left) and Vice President Spiro Agnew
I've always had a keen interest in politics and history, and I'm especially fascinated by the character and personalities of those who seek positions of authority in this country and elsewhere. Human nature being what it is, the true essence of our leaders is often quite different from the public image they work so hard to create. This is especially true of Richard Nixon, whose secretly recorded White House tapes reveal a gravely insecure and tormented man. Tragically, his keen intellect proved no match for his deep-rooted prejudices and petty obsession with exacting revenge on his so-called enemies. Listening to Nixon's tapes is a painful and embarrassing exercise, not only for the ugliness they expose, but because they confirm that the public had been so thoroughly duped by Nixon's packagers. It's difficult, too, to hear so many wise and accomplished individuals debase themselves by their shameless attempts to flatter and woo the President. This short clip highlights an especially awkward attempt at ingratiation by Nixon's vice president, former Maryland governor Spiro Agnew. Nixon's selection of Agnew as his running mate in 1968 surprised and confounded most experienced observers, as he seemed to add little or nothing to the Republican ticket. He'd been governor for less than two years at the time and had accomplished little or nothing during that brief period. His earlier service as a Baltimore County commissioner was similarly undistinguished, and there was no evidence that he was especially bright or gifted or that he had the strong support of any particular voting bloc or special interest group. The Democrats sought to make Agnew's lack of experience an issue in the campaign, and polls showed that Edmund Muskie, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, was more highly regarded by the public than Agnew. Ultimately, however, the Nixon/Agnew team defeated the Humphrey/Muskie ticket in one of the closest presidential contests in history.

Once in office, Nixon did little to involve Agnew in much of anything, other than to keep him out on the hustings where he worked to keep the President's conservative base happy with a steady stream of increasingly combative speeches and a long string of unvarnished and intemperate remarks. Nixon reportedly wanted to dump Agnew from the Republican ticket in 1972 in favor of former Texas governor John Connolly, but it was ultimately decided that sticking with Agnew was the safer choice. In 1973, however, Agnew was forced to resign the vice presidency after an investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office for Maryland revealed that Agnew had accepted bribes in connection with a number of public works projects. President Nixon selected Rep. Gerald R. Ford of Michigan as Agnew's successor, only to see Ford succeed him as president in 1974 when Nixon, too, was forced to resign as a result of his role in the Watergate scandal.

This clip is a recording of a telephone call the President placed to Mr. Agnew in January 1972 to thank him for the electric shaver he had given him for Christmas. Nixon seems relatively comfortable and relaxed throughout the call, opening the conversation with a self-deprecating reference to the five o'clock shadow some say cost him the presidency in 1960. Agnew, on the other hand, comes across as an obsequious toady. At first, I found his passionate defense of the shaver's merits to be rather pathetic, but then I found myself wondering just what sort of gift would a vice president ordinarily give to the president, and wouldn't any exchange of gifts between such two such individuals come across as awkward, especially where, as here, the two people had little or no personal relationship to draw on? I imagine there would have been a similar degree of awkwardness had Lyndon Johnson given President Kennedy a gift, or George Bush offered a present to President Reagan. I'm not sure about Vice President Biden, however. My guess is that he's rarely uncomfortable dealing with any social situation, although he sometimes makes the people around him slightly uncomfortable as a result of his well-meaning, bull-in-a-chinashop style of communication.

Track 16
That's the Christmas Spirit, by Frank Luther (c. 1941)
I chose this short clip primarily as an introduction to the conversation between Messrs. Nixon and Agnew about Agnew's Christmas gift to the President. Yet the message it conveys — "the more you give to others, the happier you are" — is undeniably true and profound, and it deserves to be considered on its own merits, too. This clip is from the 45 RPM single A Child's First Christmas, by Frank Luther. Luther enjoyed a long and successful career as a recording artist that began in the early 1920s and pretty much continued until his death in 1980. His early records primarily featured country and western tunes, but beginning in the 1930s he also became a popular dance music vocalist. Shortly after signing with the Decca label in 1934, Luther began to record children's records, and it's this style for which he is best remembered today. The combination of his lush baritone and soothing speaking voice proved popular with children and their parents, and Luther began to record material on a wide range of children's subjects ranging from instructional records on manners and safety to the more standard fairy tales and stories. Included among Luther's children's records were several holiday-themed singles and albums, and I'm hoping to include additional samples on future mixes.

Track 15
Sha La Da La La (Christmas Time), by the Sha La Das (2013)
As I noted in an earlier post about this year's mix, this track by the Sha La Das is one of my very favorite holiday songs of the past dozen years or more. Just listen to this piece of audio confection and tell me it's not a sheer delight:

I don't have an awful lot of information to share about the group, other than the short blurb that was posted last Fall on the website of their record label, Daptone Records:
Introducing Staten Island's newest sensation: The Sha La Das!  Making their debut, they offer up two sides of unadulterated holiday cheer - Sha La Da La La (Christmas Time)' b/w 'I Wish Christmas Time Was Over.'  Discovered by Dunham Records mogul and one man musicial gang, Tom 'TNT' Brenneck, you may recognize their doo-wop tinged harmonies from such SMASH records as Charles Bradley's Victim Of Love. Ring a bell? Well I should hope so! And if that's not enough to make you wanna fill yer belly with Egg Nog and cover your house in lights, the Sha La Das are a legitimate family affair. Comprised of Patriarch Bill Schalda with sons, Paul, Will, and Carmine - this ain't no Patridge family people, this is the REAL DEAL. Side A, penned by Thomas Brenneck and Bill Sr. is a mid-tempo seasonal masterpiece, decorated to the nines with lush harmonies, gratuitous sleigh bells, and an insistent Yuletide groove, courtesy of the Menahan Street Band. Side B composed by Bill Sr. is a classic group harmony carol, sure to warm even the coldest of souls. Save yourself the trip to the Macy's window and get hip to the sonic Holiday realness of Daptone Records and the Sha La Das. 
This single seems to be the group's only official release to date, but I sure hope we'll be hearing more from them soon. They take me back to that fabulous soul/R&B sound of the 1960s and '70s, epitomized by such groups as The Stylistics, The Chi-Lites, The Delfonics and Baltimore favorites The Whatnauts. Daptone is on a mission to rediscover the old style soul and funk sound of that magical error, and so far they same to be succeeding.

[I'm not ordinarily drawn to conspiracy theories and I shudder when I glance at the comments sections of most video posting websites, but I read an interesting comment on YouTube the other day. Someone had written in response to an old Stevie Wonder tune that the soul and R&B music of the 1970s was so far superior to the garbage that's marketed today that they couldn't understand why young listeners were choosing the latter over the former. This observation drew the response that this was all a part of a conscious effort by the Illuminati, the New World Order, or some similar force to divide us into increasingly hostile groups and replace love with hate so we could be more readily controlled by the monied interests. I'm not sure it's possible to simply write-off that kind of thinking anymore, as it almost seems to be the story of the last 20 years, doesn't it? I'm on Daptone's side in this fight!]

Order a copy of the Sha La Das Single from Daptone Records

We're nearly half-way through this year's mix, so join us in a day or two when we look at the next couple of tracks, including one that addresses the "Great Menorah Debate" — do you begin the first night of Hanukkah by lighting one candle or eight?

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