Friday, December 30, 2011

Ring Out the Old, Ring in the New

Preparing the New Year's Ball in Times Square
Hard to believe, but in just a matter of hours we'll bring the curtain down on 2011 and begin a bright, fresh new year. I'm ready for it, and I hope it brings some much-needed change. What a wonderful device the new year is -- an opportunity for a clean slate and a fresh start once each year. And it's a testament to the resilience of the human spirit that even those of us who have been through this exercise more than a few times can still view each new year as an opportunity to do better and begin anew. In late 2007, I put together a handful of CDs featuring a collection of offbeat New Year's tunes and gave them to a few close friends with hopes for a better new year. Unfortunately, 2008 started poorly and quickly grew worse, although I'm pretty sure my little CD had little to do with it. So I've posted that CD on my website where it's now available for download HERE. I've been working to put together an updated New Year's collection, but I'm afraid it won't ready in time to share this year. In the meantime, here are three of my favorite New Year's tunes, which I hope you'll enjoy:

Happy New Year, by Charley Weaver

Happy New Year, by Spike Jones and His City Slickers

Happy New Year, by the Glad Singers

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Four Tunes for the Last Night of Hanukkah

Tonight marks the final evening of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem following the Maccabean Revolt in the Second Century BC. In honor of the holiday and all who observe it, this post features several Hanukkah-related songs for your listening (and viewing) pleasure. The first is "Miracle," the latest holiday song from Yeshiva University's all-male a cappella group, the Maccabeats. Their song "Candlelight," which was featured as Track 17 on my latest holiday CD, tells the story of the Maccabees, who were instrumental in the events that Hanukkah celebrates. I posted a little background on that issue on December 12 (see HERE). From the feedback I've received to date, "Candlelight" appears to be the most popular song on this year's CD! I think "Miracle" is equally terrific:

The next song is by 
Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart from last year's Grammy-winning A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!

Next, here's a clip of Adam Sandler singing his popular "Hanukkah Song":

And finally, while one doesn't necessarily identify comedian Sandra Bernhard with movingly beautiful religious-based pleas for peace, she wrote and performed one such song, "Miracle of Lights," which I featured on my 2008 CD, Home for the Holidays.  You can hear that song HERE

Best wishes to all who celebrate the Festival of Lights, and to all who value, pray and work for peace.

Military Wives Top The Christmas Pops

In addition to Boxing Day and the Queen's annual Christmas Message, large numbers of British subjects also observe a third holiday tradition: the annual Christmas afternoon broadcast of Top of the Pops (TOTP)Originally produced as a weekly television show on BBC One, TOTP featured performances of the week's biggest hits based on current record sales figures. When the television version of the show was cancelled and reworked for radio in 2006, the annual Christmas afternoon special was retained, and it remains wildly popular with British viewers. In fact, many families from throughout the Commonwealth apparently gather around the set on Christmas to learn the identity of each year's "Christmas #1." The winner of this year's coveted top spot, announced Sunday afternoon, is "Wherever You Are," performed by the Military Wives Chorus:

This year's battle was hardly a contest at all, as "Wherever You Are" sold over 556,000 copies last week, which is more than the weekly sales totals of the next 12 bestselling records combined. Jolly good!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Hooray! Hooray! It's Boxing Day!

The day after Christmas is typically a bittersweet occasion. On the one hand, there are warm memories of the previous day spent with family and friends, plenty of leftover food and sweets, and, hopefully, some thoughtful gifts to enjoy. On the other hand, there's that let-down feeling that inevitably follows anything good, not to mention guests who just won't leave, mountains of unappetizing food you end up eating anyway just because it's there, and those fun-filled visits to the gift exchange counters to return whatever ill-fitting or distasteful gifts you received. Like so much of life, it's all in how you look at things. Since Christmas this year fell on Sunday, many businesses will remain closed today in order to provide employees with a separate paid day off for Christmas over and above the Sunday off that most would have had in any event. This puts us on par with the British, who for years have extended their Christmas holiday through the 26th to commemorate Boxing Day. The purpose, supposedly, was to facilitate the traditional practice whereby the wealthy would box up whatever stuff they no longer wanted for their servants to cart off as part of the post-Christmas clean-up. That's a nice custom, I suppose, but so, too, is allowing folks an extra day to buy more stuff at the mall, push the last guests out the door, or nibble away at what's left of the holiday roast. What's more, an extra day's holiday would allow time for some appropriate post-holiday music, like any of the following tunes (click on the title of each to listen or download):

Boxing Day, by Dave Kleiner and Liz Pagan -- Written by third-grade teacher Dave Kleiner, this song successfully captures the mix of emotions so many of us feel on the day after Christmas. It features Dennis Diken of the Smithereens on drums, and Graham Maby of the Joe Jackson Band on bass.

After Christmas Syndrome, by A-Side Willie -- This song was written and performed by Geoffrey Willis, who adopted the name "A-Side Willie" after winning first place in a St. Louis songwriting contest and, as a result, the featured spot on the "A side" of the 45 RPM record that was produced in conjunction with the competition. It also captures the peculiar angst of this day rather well. A-Side also composed "A New Song for Old 66" which he wrote in honor of the famous California highway. 

I've Had a Very Merry Christmas, by Jerry Lewis -- This song has the distinction of spending more time than any other track on my "hold for next year's CD" list. I've considered using it on each of my past five holiday CDs but decided against it every time. I think that's because rather than expressing gratitude for a pleasant holiday, as the title suggests, this song is the product of a spoiled ingrate who feels compelled to complain about the many gifts he received. The title, in other words, is meant to be sarcastic. I figure since I'm posting it here today, I no longer need to consider it for next year's CD. Does that sound fair to you? (PS:  Lest you think that Mr. Lewis's resentment is unique, some poor wretch appears to have spent a good part of the past 24 hours combing through people's Christmas tweets to find similar examples of boorish ingratitude. I'm hoping many of THESE were written in jest, but I wouldn't bet on it.)

Hang in there, everybody. Next Sunday is New Year's Day, and, therefore, time for a fresh start.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater

As previously noted, I loved listening to the radio when I was growing up, and one of my favorite programs was the CBS Radio Mystery Theater (CBSRMT), created by the legendary producer Himan Brown. The series consisted of some 1400 original radio plays and ran nightly from 1974 through 1982. Each episode was allotted a full hour of airtime, which, after subtracting news and commercials, amounted to approximately 46 minutes of dramatic content each night. Despite its title, the program's scope extended beyond the mystery genre to include historical drama, horror,science fiction and even comedy, on occasion. During its first eight seasons, CBSRMT was hosted by E.G. Marshall. Each episode opened with the sound of a creaking door followed by an ominous-sounding musical prologue and Marshall's trademark greeting.  In Boston, the series was carried by CBS affiliate WEEI-AM, and each nightly episode began immediately after the 11:00 news at around 11:07 pm. Due to the late hour, I was only permitted to listen on weekends, and during school vacation -- even then, I rarely managed to stay awake though all three acts of the broadcast. But it was fun to try, and I loved listening to each story unfold in the darkness as my imagination created the accompanying visuals.  What does any of this have to do with Christmas? Well, each year on Christmas Eve, CBSRMT broadcast an original adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, starring Marshall himself as Ebenezer Scrooge. It was several years before I managed to stay awake through the end of the broadcast, but I still think back fondly on it as one of the memorable holiday traditions of my youth. I haven't heard this version of A Christmas Carol in more than 30 years, but I'll be driving alone for a few hours tonight and I've got an .mp3 version of the broadcast loaded up and ready to play as I leave Los Angeles. I can't wait! And for the benefit of those who haven't heard it before, I've posted a link to my copy of the show, below. If I'd been smart, I would have posted this earlier, but better late than never, I suppose. Pleasant travels to all, and a very Merry Christmas!

Press HERE to listen to the CBSRMT version of A Christmas Carol, starring E.G. Marshall in his only appearance on the program that extended beyond his typical role as host.

Press HERE for a second Christmas-themed CBSRMT episode, A Holiday Visit (1980), starring Lloyd Battista and Diana Kirkwood. Don't miss the frigid weather forecast that opens the broadcast, which was recorded on December 25, 1980.

(NOTE: Depending on your browser, these tracks may take up to 20-30 seconds to load. Bah! Humbug!)

Some Favorite Songs for Christmas Eve

Tonight is Christmas Eve, and with Santa already making his annual deliveries and good little boys and girls preparing for bed, I thought I'd offer up a few favorite tracks from some of my previous holiday CDs. Fix yourself a mug of your favorite beverage, enjoy the pretty lights on your holiday display, and press whichever titles you wish, below, to hear some classics from the past.

Sleep tight, kids, and be good for at least a little while longer!

Wish List, by Neon Trees

My Gift to You, by Mass Amigos

Santa Came Home Drunk Last Night, by Clyde Lasley and the Cadillac Baby Specials

Lights and Buzz, by Jack's Mannequin

Daddy, Is Santa Really 6'4", by Kay Brown

Happy Birthday, Jesus, by Major Bill Smith and Nancy Nolte

The Night Before Christmas, by George W. Bush

Darlene Love's 25th Anniversary Party

As noted in Tuesday's post, Darlene Love paid her annual visit to the Late Show with David Letterman program last night to sing the fantabulous holiday song "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," which she first recorded in 1963 for A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. It was another terrific performance  the 25th that she, Paul Shaffer, David and the Band have provided for us. Many thanks for this wonderful tradition.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Gee Whiz ... It's Christmas (Again!), Part 12

Here are a few quick thoughts on the two remaining tracks from my 2011 holiday CD:

Track 43
Christmas Must Be Tonight, by The Band (1977)
Robbie Robertson
Many years ago, my elementary school band teacher, Mr. Whittaker, gave our class some wise advice about performing for an audience. The two most important parts of any performance, he said, were the beginning and the end. Start strong and you grab the audience’s attention. Finish strong, and that’s the memory they’ll take away. I think of Mr. Whittaker when I start to assemble each of my new holiday CDs, and I pay particular attention to creating coherent sets of tracks at the beginning and end that set the appropriate tones. I tend to end each CD with a couple of quieter songs with deeper meanings, for as much fun as Christmas undoubtedly is, there are serious principles to reflect on as well. For the final song on this year’s CD, I selected “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” by the venerated group known simply as The Band. Written by the great Robbie Robertson, this song was originally recorded in 1975 for The Band’s Northern Lights, Southern Cross album; in fact, there were plans to release it that year as a holiday single. However, the track was pulled at the last minute, and was ultimately featured on the group’s final studio album, Islands, which was released in 1977, after The Band had formally dissolved. Robertson wrote the song shortly after the birth of his son, Sebastian, and one can sense his reverence for the miracle of birth and the beginning of each new life. Some of the lyrics are lifted directly from the King James version of the Bible, but Robertson recounts the story from a populist perspective, and while he pays due deference to the magnitude of this event, one gets the sense that he might paint a similar picture were he to write about the birth of your son or daughter. In this version of the song, the lead vocal is handled by Rick Danko rather than Robertson, although Robertson subsequently recorded two additional versions of the song as a solo artist, one of which appears on the soundtrack to the 1988 movie Scrooged (see HERE). I’m a huge fan of Robertson’s, but I prefer Rick Danko’s version myself – not only over Robertson’s, but also the dozen or so others who have covered the song, including Darlene Love. For me, this song is nothing less than a modern day Christmas classic, and it’s one of the few songs from the past 50 years that’s worthy to stand next to "Silent Night," "Joy to the World" and the like as legitimate carols. It tells this most miraculous story in simple yet beautiful terms, and it never fails to move me.

Track 42
The La La Christmas Song, by Sherwin Sleeves (2008)
Sean Hurley (or is it Sleeves?)
This song was written and performed by Sherwin Sleeves, an older fellow in his mid- to late 70s, I'd guess, who lives in a small cabin on top of Marked Mountain, in Lemon, New Hampshire. Sleeves writes songs for fun, and he does a great deal of walking. Due to his lack of technological sophistication, he relies on a neighbor named Sean Hurley to record his songs and serve as his public spokesman. As near as I can tell from Sean’s reports, Sleeves wrote this song in 2008 with the idea of submitting it to a radio station’s holiday songwriting contest. It's not clear whether he won or not, but from the feedback on the station’s website, it sure looks like this was the popular favorite. The song itself is filled with beautiful imagery, and there’s something very poignant in the notion of an older man respectfully observing his town’s pre-Christmas activities from afar, with love. 

Sleeve and Sean Hurley share a little community of websites, and you might begin your exploration of them HERE, should you be so inclined.

UPDATE (3.25.14): I recently stumbled on a piece featured on New Hampshire Public Radio that tells the fascinating story behind this wonderful song. Check it out!

Thus ends this lengthy exercise, and just in time to celebrate Christmas Eve tomorrow. More later. Anything is possible, if you’re good.

New Holiday Song from Yoko Ono!

Many people don't believe me when I say I'm a big fan of Yoko Ono and her music, but it's true. I've loved her stuff since the '70s, and I admire her as much as any public figure I can think of. I mean, can you imagine any other 78-year-old woman who's been through everything she's been through who could still maintain her loving and optimistic view of the world? Or top the Billboard Dance Music charts with each of her past seven records?! I'm sorry, but this woman ROCKS! I was thrilled to learn that she's released a new holiday tune this season with the Flaming Lips, and that she's scheduled to perform a couple of New Year's Eve shows with them in their home town of Oklahoma City. The new song is called "Atlas Eets Christmas" (pronounced "at last it's Christmas" -- get it?) and while it took me a couple of listens to really get into it, it's a neat song with a beautiful message:

By the way, you can celebrate the 40th anniversary of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" by visiting Yoko's Download Page and picking up a War is Over poster for your window, car or office. Give peace a chance.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas in the Netherlands

David Sedaris
My friend Susan turned me on to writer and humorist David Sedaris a number of years ago, and I've become a big fan of his insightful observations and dry, self-deprecating wit. Sedaris was initially promoted by radio host Ira Glass, who happened to hear him reading from his diary in a Chicago nightclub. After several appearances on Glass's show, Sedaris was invited to appear on NPR's Morning Edition, where he read from his piece "The SantaLand Diaries," which described his (honest-to-God) stint as a department store elf. The holidays are a recurring theme in Sedaris's work, and his 2008 book Holidays on Ice, also available on CD, is a pure holiday treat. Several years ago, Sedaris published an essay in Esquire titled "Six to Eight Black Men," in which he recounts his conversation with a Dutch tour guide about several holiday traditions in the Netherlands.

An audio version of the essay, read by the author, is available HERE. (Depending on your browser, this may take 10-15 seconds to load.)

Tomorrow, a few thoughts on the two remaining tracks from my 2011 holiday CD.   

Happy Holidays from the White House

The inviting fireside scene pictured above appears on this year's official White House holiday card, and, yes, that's the "first dog," Bo, enjoying the fire's warmth. In recent days, certain political figures and so-called "news" outlets have criticized the card because it wishes recipients "happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," depicts a poinsettia instead of a Christmas tree, and features a family pet "instead of traditions like 'family, faith and freedom.'" It's tempting to fire back against such ridiculous attacks, especially when the card circulated this year by the outraged "news" entity in question not only doesn't mention Christmas but features two cartoon characters killing the mascot of a competing business. However, this is not the season for that kind of nonsense. Rather, this is a time when we should celebrate this country's true religious heritage, which is based on tolerance, freedom and respect for the sanctity of individual conscience on matters of faith. In that spirit, I'm posting pictures below of some of the White House cards from years gone by. Does anyone really think that this year's card falls outside the norm?










The true spirit of Christmas is imbued with a genuine desire for peace and compassion for one another, regardless of background or beliefs. Part of the power and beauty of holiday music is that so much of it serves to underscore this simple message -- perhaps none more so than the stunningly beautiful "Dona Nobis Pacem." Listen HERE

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Gee Whiz ... It's Christmas (Again!), Part 11

There are 43 tracks on my latest holiday compilation, Gee Whiz … It’s Christmas (Again!) and for the past couple of weeks I’ve been posting some additional bits and pieces of information about each of them, in turn. With just four tracks left to go, it’s time to share a few thoughts on Tracks 40 and 41. Both are by Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, who, until his death this past June at the age of 69, played saxophone in Bruce Springsteen’s fabled E Street Band. He was a gifted sax player, and his stirring solos on songs such as “Jungleland,” “Badlands,” and “Born to Run” helped create the E Street Band’s signature sound. But that was just one piece of the Big Man’s multifaceted role on E Street. He was also Bruce’s comic foil, protector and running mate. His room was where the party was. He had your back. And for nearly 40 years, he was a vital piece of the aspirational tableau Bruce has sought to create from the stage and through his music. Much has been written about Clarence’s unique contributions to the Springsteen mystique, both real and symbolic. I only met him once, and then only briefly, but Clarence’s death left me with a keen sense of personal loss. I’ve been a diehard Springsteen fan from the first night I saw him and the E Street Band at Boston’s Music Hall. In the many, many years that followed, I’ve probably seen them another 30 or 35 times, and each and every show was a thrilling, unique and life-affirming experience. Bruce recently announced that he’ll be touring again with the E Street Band in 2012, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. But it won’t be the same without the Big Man.

Track 41
The Christmas Song, by Clarence Clemons (1981)

Thirty years ago this Fall, Clarence entered the studio to record a couple of holiday tunes at the urging of producers Dennis Bourke and Jim Nuzzo. The first was an original tune of Bourke’s called “There’s Still Christmas,” and the second was an instrumental version of "The Christmas Song," which I selected for this year's CD. Originally intended for release as a holiday single in 1981, the two songs were not completed in time and subsequently shelved and forgotten – until this year. News of Clarence’s passing led Bourke and Nuzzo to dust off the old recordings, and they were marketed along with a slightly longer version of “The Christmas Song” as “a Clarence Clemons album.” Of course, three songs hardly constitute an album, especially when two of them are nearly identical versions of the same number. Nonetheless, I was excited by the prospect of hearing the Big Man performing something “new” for Christmas. Unfortunately, the resulting record fell short of my expectations. Clarence’s vocals on “There’s Still Christmas” are strong and emotive, but the production is flat and uninspired and the song itself strikes me as derivative and trite. Happily, the second number, Clarence’s instrumental version of “The Christmas Song,” works better.  Of course, it helps to have good material. Written by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells in July 1944 as a distraction from the heat, “The Christmas Song” is the most frequently performed holiday song of all time, according to BMI. While it’s been covered by a wide range of artists, it’s most closely identified with the great Nat King Cole, who recorded four separate versions of it from 1946 to 1961. Listening to this version, the song almost seems to have been tailor-made for the Big Man, whose saxophone seems to echo the beautiful voice we’ve grown so used to hearing whenever this song begins. 

Track 40
The Big Man’s First Saxophone, by Clarence Clemons (2010)

Clarence liked to tell the story of how he happened to take up the saxophone, partly, I’m sure, because it illustrates that there’s good to be found even in disappointing events. It seems that when Clarence was nine, he asked for a train set for Christmas, and he was told that if he was good, his wish would come true. Naturally, he was good as gold (or so he reported), and on Christmas morning he raced downstairs to open the package that was addressed to him. Upon opening the box, however, he became confused and disappointed. The train set had no wheels. That’s because it wasn’t a train at all, but rather ... his first saxophone. Naturally, he came to love that gift, and the rest, as they say, is history. I'd heard this story several times over the years, and I was thrilled this Fall to discover a video in which the Big Man recounted it just last December in an appearance with his friend Narada Michael Walden. There was just one problem. In this version of the story, Clarence got his facts wrong! He spoke of running to the tree believing there was "a saxophone" in the box (when he actually thought it was a train) and wondering "why the saxophone didn't have any wheels." I admit I did some selective editing on this clip before I included it in this year's compilation as Track 40. With the descriptive title I added, I think it works. What I couldn't edit out, of course, is the sadness that comes from hearing him speak of a 70th birthday that would never arrive. Not among us, anyway. Rest in peace, Big Man.

Here's the full clip of Clarence last December:

And here's one of Bruce's thousands of introductions for "the biggest man you'll ever know," Clarence Clemons (WARNING: It doesn't happen often, but Bruce uses the "F" word in this short clip):

And, finally, a beautiful farewell video by director Nick Mead. Don't miss the ending:


Just two more tracks to go. Have you finished your holiday shopping?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Darlene Love's on Letterman this Friday!

One of my very favorite holiday traditions is the annual appearance of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Darlene Love on the Late Show with David Letterman singing what is perhaps my very favorite holiday song of all time, "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)." This song was first released 48 years ago (can you believe it?) on what Rolling Stone has called "[h]ands down, the best holiday album in the history of pop music," A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Letterman first saw Love perform the song in 1986 in a show called Leader of the Pack, in which his band leader, Paul Shaffer, was also performing. Letterman told Shaffer he loved the song and asked him to arrange for Love to sing it on their show during the holidays that year. That performance must have been terrific, because Love's been invited back to perform "Christmas" on the final pre-holiday broadcast every year since. (There was no Late Show in 2007 due to a writers' strike, but even then CBS replayed an earlier Love appearance.) Well, folks, this year's final pre-Christmas Late Show is this Friday, December 23, so make plans to watch or set your DVR! Also appearing on Friday will be Jay Thomas, who, in another Late Show holiday tradition, will join Dave in a unique football-throwing contest and recount his famous Lone Ranger story. To help get you in the proper spirit, here's a mash-up of clips from Love's various performances over the past 24 years: 

Many other artists have tried their hand at cover versions of "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home," but none have been able to approach the indescribable magnificence of a Darlene Love performance. No, not even Bruce Springsteen, who was joined by an all-star cast in a noble attempt at one of his Asbury Park benefit shows in 2001 (below). 

As one particularly savvy YouTube commentator noted, "Nice try, but it comes off as souless. This belongs to Darlene Love and nobody else will ever get close." I expect Bruce himself would be the first to concede this point. Certainly, Bruce and E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt were among Love's biggest supporters when she was under consideration for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year. A number of years ago, Steve gave Love a holiday tune he authored, "All Alone on Christmas," which Love performed for the movie Home Alone 2 and knocks out of the park in this version with the E Street Band and its Mighty Horns

More on Springsteen and company tomorrow, when we look at Tracks 40 and 41 of my 2011 holiday CD.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Gee Whiz ... It's Christmas (Again!), Part 10

Well, we’re now in the home stretch of our review of the 43 tracks on my latest holiday CD, Gee Whiz … It’s Christmas (Again!). As a quick reminder, this year’s CD is available for download on my holiday music website, HERE, though December 25. You can download the CD either as a single .mp3 file or as a zip folder with all 43 individual tracks. My first project on this new blog has been to share some thoughts about the various tracks in the mix, and we continue today with Tracks 38 and 39.

Track 39
I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus, by Amy Winehouse (2010)
On several of my most recent holiday CDs, I’ve tried to include a couple of numbers by famous entertainers who died during the preceding 12 months as a tribute to their work. Sadly, we’ve lost more than a few notable people in 2011, and of them, this year’s CD honors Amy Winehouse, Andy Rooney and Clarence Clemons. Winehouse was an exceptionally talented British singer with a remarkable range of styles and musical interests. Her first album, Frank, won very favorable reviews after its 2003 release, but it was her sophomore release, Back to Black, that elevated Winehouse to music’s A List. At the 2007 Grammy Awards, she took away a record five Grammy statues, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Unfortunately, Winehouse struggled with a variety of personal issues, including substance abuse, relationship troubles and mental health issues, and she was known as much for her troubled lifestyle as for her musical talent. Although she never had the chance to record a holiday album, her version of “I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus,” taken from a British television broadcast, gives us an idea of what one might have sounded like.

Track 38
Christmas Catalogs, by Andy Rooney (2008)
Writer Andy Rooney was best known for his trademark commentaries at the end of the CBS weekly show, 60 Minutes. Rooney joined the program in 1978 and retired this past September at the age of 92. He died just one month later. Rooney was something of a curmudgeon, but a lovable and popular one. I included an excerpt from a relatively recent Rooney commentary on this year’s CD. The subject is holiday catalogs, and it’s vintage Andy Rooney. The full commentary can be seen HERE. For another Rooney holiday piece, see HERE.

More tomorrow. And before we go, there's an important public service announcement waiting for you HERE.  (Thanks, Mondo Diablo).

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gee Whiz ... It's Christmas (Again!), Part 9

Thanks for joining me today as I continue to offer inspired commentary on the 43 tracks from my latest holiday CD, Gee Whiz … It’s Christmas (Again!). We started this endless trek what seems like ages ago -- what? it's only been 10 days? Well, we've made a lot of progress anyway. After today, it'll be 37 down, 6 to go. With gratitude for your courage, I say let's press on!

Track 37
Christmas Lost and Found (Part 9), from Davey and Goliath (1960)
See Comments on Track 6

Track 36
Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah, by The Yule Logs (2009)
I’ve always loved this song, and I especially like this version of it by “the hardest working band in snow business,” The Yule Logs, from Chico, California. This high-energy, power pop foursome features Marty Parker on vocals and percussion, Kirt Lind on bass, Jake Sprecher on drums and Maurice Spencer on guitar. These guys have been getting together to play select holiday shows for something like six or seven years, and for the past three years they've celebrated each season by releasing a new album of rockin' holiday tunes. How awesome is that? Each of the three includes a mix of classic and original songs, and, happily, Hanukkah songs are well represented, too. My Track 36 comes from their 2009 self-titled debut album, which was followed in 2010 with Walked with a Reindeer, and, finally – no, let’s not say that – ah, yes, most recently, this year’s new release, You Ruined Christmas. This is an awesome band that deserves our support, especially as they have to pack a whole year’s worth of action into the all-too-short holiday season each year. Check out their website, or consider buying their music on iTunes, CD Baby or amazon. Unfortunately, their last gig for this season is tonight at the Chico Women’s Club (see their website for details), but I trust they’ll be back next year.

Here's a clip of The Yule Logs doing Christmastime Is Here (Again!) from their self-titled debut album:

Track 35
Merry Christmas, Boston, WBCN-FM Boston (1983)

I’m not sure I fully appreciated it at the time, but we had an embarrassment of riches on the radio in Boston when I was growing up. No matter what you were into, there was always at least one great station playing lots of it. As a youngster, I’d listen to whatever station broadcast the Red Sox, which I’m pretty sure was WHDH in those days. By the time I was 11 or 12, I was listening to WEEI-AM, which was a talk radio station before talk radio became big. I loved anything that had to do with politics. (Yeah, I was a nerdy little kid.) By age 13, I’d discovered rock music, and I listened to WBZ-FM every day after school and followed their Top 40 countdowns religiously. But from the time I started college until I left Boston for L.A., my station was WBCN-FM, the “Rock of Boston.” WBCN was one of the first free-form progressive rock stations in the country, which meant that the individual DJs enjoyed relatively wide discretion in deciding what to play. They were especially well known for playing stuff from struggling new and local bands, and the station is credited with helping to launch such groups as the Police, U2, Dire Staits, the J. Giels Band, and the Cars, among others. WBCN's on-air talent included such notable figures as Charles Laquidara, Ken Shelton and Carter Allen, while the gifted Billy West and Tom Sandman created a seemingly endless supply of comedy bits and promos that served as a great complement to the music. “Merry Christmas, Boston” is a track that was played for at least seven or eight years during the holidays, and listening to it makes me a little homesick for those 10°F December days. Not homesick enough to relocate, mind you, but a little wistful anyway. Here it is:

As a special treat for any other former Bostonian BCN junkies out there, here are a few more Billy West/Tom Sandman creations to make you smile:

With just six tracks left and seven days ‘til Christmas, I figure I can finish my commentary at a pretty leisurely pace. Unless anyone objects, I’m planning to throw in a few other holiday treats over the next week or so. It just doesn’t feel right to slack off too much while Santa and his team are kicking into highest gear.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Holiday Greetings from Sananda Maitreya

I've been a fan of this guy ever since his first album in 1987. Back then he was known as Terence Trent d'Arby, but he now goes by the name of Sananda Maitreya. Either way, he's one of the most underrated talents in modern music. His debut album, Introducing the Hard Line According to Terence Trent d'Arby, took the music world by storm, selling more than a million copies in its first three days of release and ultimately selling more than 14 million copies. He's released a number of astonishingly great albums since his debut, but the most recent ones have been strictly self-promoted and therefore haven't received the attention they deserve. Of course, as a truly independent artist, he's pretty much free to do as he likes and release what he wants, and there's an advantage to that. He currently lives in Italy with his beautiful wife and, I'm pretty sure, their new son. He's worth a listen for sure, and there's lots of free stuff and music for sale on his website, and on YouTube. Check him out.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gee Whiz ... It's Christmas (Again!), Part 8

Where are we and what are we doing here? Oh, yes … I’ve been sharing some thoughts about the tracks on my latest holiday CD, Gee Whiz … It’s Christmas (Again!), starting with Track 1 and continuing through all 43 tracks. Well, let’s press on!

Track 34
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (Korean)
I’m not the world’s most organized person, and while I hardly ever lose anything, I do misplace things occasionally. Moreover, I don’t always document everything as well as I should when I’m in a hurry. This was never much of a problem when I was younger because I had a good memory for details. Nowadays, however, with my memory overflowing, I find I need to document things in real time or run the risk of forgetting certain details. For example, sometime during the past several years I downloaded an album of Christmas songs performed in Korean, one of which is the song that appears as Track 34 on my latest CD. It's one of the songs on the album that's pictured above, but, unfortunately, I don’t read Korean and I didn’t keep notes on where this album came from, so I can’t tell you anything more about it. If anyone can help shed some light on this, I'd be grateful!

Track 33
Christmas Lost and Found (Part 8), from Davey and Goliath (1960)

Track 32
U.S. Savings Bond Promotion, by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball (c. 1955)
Several years ago, while on vacation with my brother and his family, I played an excerpt from an old episode of I Love Lucy for my young niece, a terrific girl who had celebrated her eighth birthday a few months earlier. Like most children today, she’s used to fast-moving video games and sophisticated high-tech entertainment, but to my delight she immediately fell in love with Lucy, Ricky and their neighbors, the Mertzes. Few shows enjoy this sort of cross-generational appeal and none have survived so well as I Love Lucy. After hearing the pitch on this short promotion, I came awfully close to buying some bonds myself. ("There's no better way to 'spress the spirit of Christmas!") If only we could be sure that our federal Treasury will have the same staying power as the Ricardos!

Track 31
Santa Claus Polka, by Bob Rule and the Rays (1960)
This odd little tune isn’t what it appears to be. For one thing, it’s not really performed by Bob Rule and the Rays. There is no such group. It isn’t really a polka tune, either. It’s just sluggish little number set to music for a fee as part of an assembly line operation tended, among others, by a fellow named Sammy Marshall. You see, Santa Claus Polka is a song-poem -- a uniquely American art form that’s been described as “about half a promise shy of a swindle.” The business of recording song poems was promoted by way of small ads in the back of largely low-brow magazines with headlines reading, “Send Us Your Poems, Earn Thousands of Dollars.” In response to their submissions, budding lyricists were typically sent enthusiastic offers to set their poems to music, but for a fee. Promises to promote the resulting recordings were rarely kept, and the recordings themselves were typically thrown together by disinterested session players using stale melodies and half-baked arrangements. In recent years, however, the song poem genre has begun to attract serious attention as part of a growing appreciation for “outsider music,” material created in relative obscurity that often reflects a slice of popular culture that has been largely overlooked. I don’t know that this track merits such serious reconsideration, but it’s probably worth a quick listen around the holidays.

For more information about song poems in general, you might start with a visit to the American Song Poem Music Archive.

On a related note, I recently heard a story on the NPR series This American Life about a jazz musician named Ellery Eskelin, who never met his father, a giant in the song-poem business, but learned about him after his death primarily by listening to his work. Listen HERE.

More tomorrow, if I feel like it. If not, probably the next day.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Gee Whiz ... It's Christmas (Again!), Part 7

I've been sharing some thoughts about the various tracks on my most recent holiday CD Gee Whiz ... It's Christmas (Again!), and we'll continue today with Tracks 26 through 30:

Track 30
Christmas Lost And Found (Part 7), from Davey and Goliath (1960)

Track 29
Hardrock, Coco and Joe, by The Three Little Dwarfs (1955)
This is another tune that’s been on my consideration list for the past several CDs until, this year, it finally seemed to fit. One of these days I’ll write about how I put these compilations together, but for now I’ll simply say that the process is very fluid and unstructured and I often find myself replacing one of my favorite songs with one I don’t like as well because the second result felt better. Of course, there’s no single objective scale by which to measure the various tracks I review. They represent so many different categories. How does one compare this funny little number by the Three Dwarfs to the Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” (Track No. 43 on this year’s CD) or “Christmas 1923” by Future Clouds and Radar (the penultimate track on last year’s CD, listen HERE)? “Hardrock, Coco and Joe” is the scratchy soundtrack to a dated cartoon that can inevitably brighten my mood because of how awful it is, whereas I’m incapable of listening to either of the other two without choking up completely. (Please don’t mention that to anyone, as it’s a little embarrassing.) Anyway, I’m glad the Three Little Dwarfs made it onto this year’s CD, and kudos to Santa for his inspired business decision regarding Joe. According to the song, both Hardrock and Coco have important job duties to perform each Christmas, whereas Joe's original duties are no longer relevant. “Though ol' Santa really has no use for Joe, he keeps him ‘cuz he loves him so.” Sounds like reason enough to me. (For more info on this song, see HERE. To watch the cartoon version and hear alternate versions by Gene Autry and others, see HERE.)  

Track 28
Christmas Lost And Found (Part 6), from Davey and Goliath (1960)

Track 27
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Miss Gloria Parker (1980)
After a quick listen, most folks would probably say that this is a nice, upbeat version of a classic holiday song, which is correct, of course, as far as it goes. What isn’t immediately apparent, or wasn’t to me, anyway, is that it was played not with conventional musical instruments, but with a set of partially filled drinking glasses. It's available on A Toast to Christmas, an album recorded by former radio bandleader Miss Gloria Parker (the “Miss” is used at her insistence).  According to her website,
The versatile virtuoso performs on 28 glasses and fourteen well-loved carols come to life for listening, singing , dancing and giving much joy. This toast to Christmas demonstrates Miss Parker's amazing ability to produce ethereal flute like sounds on crystal glasses.

Miss Gloria Parker
Miss Parker and her “singing glasses” were featured in Woody Allen’s 1984 movie Broadway Danny Rose. She plays the glasses by rubbing their rims after arranging them with various amounts of water so that that each glass emotes a unique flute-like sound. She learned the technique from her grandfather, a Czech native, but this same sort of music has been performed in many lands and was apparently played in this country by none other than Benjamin Franklin.

Miss Parker’s repertoire is not limited to holiday entertainment. In her subtly titled album Corruption Reigns in the Courtroom, she takes on the American legal system, which she believes systematically benefits attorneys and judges at the expense of individual litigants.  As she explains on her website,

Yes, as a plaintiff, Pro Se, in several cases, seeking my rights that were stolen from me by those who had connections and who manipulate the laws, to serve their friends and compatriots. Unfortunately, the black robes that cover their sins on the bench, also gives one who wears it, Carte Blanche to play God. And yet, this is happening to many who go to court placing their trust in their lawyers, and the presiding judge, to seek a just solution to their case, and never to find it.

According to Miss Parker, she recorded this album and wrote the companion paperback to help others who have faced similar discouragement in court. 

I have been endowed with this musical talent and foresight as my vehicle, and after several of my law actions have been manipulated and also massacred at the hands of those addressed as "Your Honor", my songs and my lyrics and experiences, I hope, will help you all who have not had your day of justice, to know you are not alone.

Further information about Miss Parker, her albums and book are available on her website. In the spirit of the holidays, you can hear several more of her songs right now, if you wish, by clicking on one or more of the titles below:

Pro Se Si Si     Justice Has a Price     Toyland

Track 26
Who Is Santa Claus?, by The Santacroce Sisters (c. 1962)
This is another mysterious track about which I know practically nothing. I first heard it on Andy Cirzan’s 2006 holiday mix, and I think it’s been on my list for possible inclusion on one of my CDs for at least the past three years. I haven’t been able to find out anything about the Santacroce Sisters. There’s nothing about them on the internet, either in connection with this song or otherwise. But it's a cute little song, don’t you think?

Stay tuned for more, next time. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Andy Cirzan Plays Santa on Sound Opinions this Saturday

December, as you might imagine, is a pretty awesome month for Christmas music enthusiasts. For one thing, it’s the one month each year when we can safely acknowledge our interest in seasonal music. Playing "Jingle Bells" in May rarely goes over well. It’s also a great time to expand our collections. Not only does December bring new releases from some of the world's biggest entertainers, but literally hundreds of new tracks from struggling and independent artists are made available for little or no cost via the internet. Of course, this is also the season when folks like me circulate their “Christmas comps” – mix tapes of myriad styles and sensibilities. In the few short years I’ve been following holiday music, I’ve already developed a list of favorite collectors whose mixes I especially enjoy, and at or near the top of my list is Andy Cirzan. An executive for one of the country's leading concert promoters, Andy’s been sending his annual mix to friends and business associates for more than 20 years, and his product rarely disappoints.  Happily for us, Andy’s also the featured guest this time each year for a special holiday edition of Sound Opinions, the Chicago Public Radio rock music talk show hosted each weekend by Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot. Andy serves as Sound Opinions’ very own Kris Kringle, playing selections from his latest holiday CD, and discussing his collection and holiday music in general. This is one show I look forward to all year, which is why I wanted to mention it here.  The Sound Opinions Holiday Spectacular airs this Saturday, December 16 on stations across the country and is also available via podcast. Check the Sound Opinions website for details.