Monday, December 31, 2012

David Wild's Huffington Post Playlists Offer a Little Fun Amidst the Daily News

I've been a rock music fan for as long as I can remember  well, rock, soul, R&B, even disco and country to some extent. I love popular music, and I especially enjoy finding out the kinds of music other people like best. With this as background, allow me to share one of the many simple pleasures I've enjoyed during 2012. Last Christmas, I noticed a playlist of holiday songs on the front page of The Huffington Post by a fellow named David Wild, a television writer and contributing editor at Rolling Stone. It was a great list, and I had some fun poring over the diverse group of selections that were included. Later I learned that David's holiday playlist was but one in a series of event-specific collections he's posted. The man's no one-trick pony when it comes to making playlists. During the past year, he's published playlists in honor of everything from the First Presidential Debate to the TVLand Awards. Today, of course, there's a playlist for New Year's Eve, and, as usual, it's a smart and far-ranging collection of songs – some obvious, some esoteric, but all of them spirited and thought-provoking. The posting of David's playlist is only the first step of the fun, however, for he encourages readers to add suggestions of their own. This launches a lively dialogue with fans of various persuasions nominating their favorites, commenting on the suggestions of others and, frequently, sharing memories about what a particular song means to them. David himself remains actively involved, and he seems to have something nice to say about nearly every reader's contribution. In a world that seems to become more impersonal every day, this little feature offers perfect strangers a chance to connect with others, if only for a moment, by sharing their thoughts about songs and occasions that mean something to them. Thanks, David, for creating a little piece of happiness amidst the daily news.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

This Just In . . . The Latest Holiday Music Charts from Billboard

It's been nearly a month since I've looked at the holiday song charts from Billboard magazine, and since the nation's radio stations are always on the lookout for exciting new material to feature, there's bound to have been an awful lot of movement since then, right? Guess again.  Here are the latest Holiday Airplay and Top Holiday Song charts from Billboard:

There's no need to compare these latest charts with the charts from last month, last year or even five years ago because they've pretty much stayed the same. The only real question is why does Billboard even compile these things at all? It's not as though there isn't lots of good new holiday music out there. I can't even begin to keep up with the volume, but a quick look at Stubby's House of Christmas or Mistletunes, two terrific blogs that focus on new holiday music, establish pretty convincingly that there's no shortage of great new material. I suppose there's something reassuring about hearing the same classic holiday songs year after year, and God knows I'd rather hear Burl Ives and Bing Crosby than anything from Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj. (Can anyone explain to me why either of these two "artists" is appealing on any level whatsoever?) But with the abundance of beautiful, moving, funny, provocative, old and new holiday songs available, why is it that we hear little more than the same dusty relics over and over again during each new holiday season?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Holiday Greetings from Sananda Maitreya

I wrote last year about Sananda Maitreya, the artist formerly known as Terence Trent d'Arby. He's been a favorite of mine since his first album, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent d'Arby, was first released in 1987. He's once again written a special holiday song for his fans this year, and since that group is much smaller than it ought to be, I figure I'd share it here. Check out his website. He's a very talented guy.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Christmas Horror Show for Boxing Day

Imagine hearing your favorite Christmas carols sung by a choir consisting of Johnny "Bowtie" Barstow, William Hung, Tiny Tim, Regis Philbin and Wing, and imagine they're all singing really loud, with a cameo appearance toward the end by Donald Trump (just like in Regis Philbin's version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). Well, I think I've found the cinematic equivalent of that train wreck, and it's called Santa Claus, a 1959 film noir by Mexican director Rene Cardona. Although it was apparently conceived as a children's movie, the plot involves a blood feud between Santa Claus and Satan — hardly the sort of thing I'd want my children watching, thanks. What's more, in a contest to determine which of these two characters is more terrifying, I'm inclined to give a slight edge to this film's version of Santa, who appears positively demonic, especially during the first few minutes. He does become slightly more sympathetic in time (with an emphasis on the pathetic), but only after he's chased up a tree by a small dog and appears almost too infirm to climb in and out of his sleigh. If your taste in films leans toward the bizarre and you've got time to kill on Boxing Day, you might give this film a look. But make sure there are no children around. (Thanks to Listener Mindwrecker on WFMU's Beware of the Blog.)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Here Comes Santa Claus, Part 14 (and Out)

Well, here it is Christmas Eve again, and boys and girls of all ages good and not-so-good alike are already climbing into their beds and trying to go to sleep. As appealing a notion as that may be, there will be no sleep here until the chief annual mission of this blog has been completed in full – namely, providing some background on the individual tracks that appear on this year's annual holiday mix. This year’s mix is called Here Comes Santa Claus, it runs for just under 80 minutes and consists of 38 tracks. We've only got two more to go, and since this is a big night, I need to be quick about it. Everybody ready? On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner, On Blitzen . . . 

Track 38
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Caleb and the Caroling Caravan (2011)
Caleb Groh (left) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (right)
The closing song for this year’s CD is one of my very favorite Christmas songs, for it captures what I consider one of the most powerful and enduring messages of the season – faith and hope that amidst any temporary sadness and despair, the Lord’s grace shall bring peace and solace. The lyrics to this song were written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the depths of the American Civil War. Longfellow was despondent, and barely able to get out of bed each morning. His wife had died in a terrible home fire in 1861, and shortly before the Christmas season of 1863 he learned that his son had been seriously wounded in the Army of the Potomac.  Sitting down at his desk on Christmas Day with the bells of the nearby churches in Harvard Square ringing in the background, Longfellow wrote these lines: 

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep.
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!"

Longfellow's poem was first published in a children's magazine in 1865 under the title "Christmas Bells," and it became quite popular. It was first set to music in 1872 by British organist and composer John Baptiste Calkin in a version that remains the standard today. This version was recorded by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, among others. A second version was later written by Johnny Marks, who's best known for composing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Marks' version has been recorded by such artists as Frank Sinatra, Sarah McLachlan, Harry Belafonte, Bing Crosby and The Carpenters. Both the Calkin and Marks versions omit the third, fourth and fifth verses of Longfellow's original poem.

The version I chose to end this year's CD is by Caleb and the Caroling Caravan, an indie group created by Boston indie folk artist Caleb Groh, who's also recorded under the name Happiest Lion. Caleb and the Caroling Caravan has released two albums to date, both of which consist entirely of holiday music. The first is a self-titled album that was released in 2009, and the second, titled Volume 2, was released the following year. Both are available on iTunes or amazon. I like this group's version of the song because of its thoughtful, almost melancholy tone, which strikes me as especially appropriate in light of Longfellow's powerful lyrics.
However dark the skies sometimes appear, and however far justice and right may occasionally appear, I have come to believe that right will ultimately prevail. In the end, the train of human history follows a righteous track. Such is the power of the holiday season that against such overwhelming despair, Longfellow could find the ringing church bells a message of hope and optimism. May those who suffer find the same this season, and may the coming new year bring solace and comfort to one and all.

Track 37
The Christmas Gift, by Andy Griffith (2004)
I've always enjoyed The Andy Griffith Show. It’s one of those “comfort shows” that seem to make people feel better after some bad news or a rough day. I realize that it’s an unrealistic picture of American life, and that, like most television fare, it glosses over hundreds of vexing social issues, but sometimes we need to see something that’s simple, homespun and better than the cold reality around us. Andy Griffith had a long and very successful career in film, television, stand-up comedy and music, but to me he'll always be fair-minded and thoughtful Sheriff Andy Taylor. As an attorney, I couldn't bear to watch Griffith's later TV series, Matlock, which took incredible liberties with the rules of evidence and criminal procedure for dramatic effect. It's also difficult to watch Griffith in the classic film "A Face in the Crowd," for although his acting was superb, the character he played was so much darker than Andy Taylor that I almost felt betrayed. And while Griffith took pains to assert that he was a very different man than Sheriff Taylor, that's how I'll always think of him – well, that and the courageous private citizen who recorded ads in favor of President Obama's election in 2008 and the President's health care reforms in 2010, commercials that alienated large portions of his Southern fan base at the time. This particular track is taken from Griffith's 2004 album The Christmas Guest: Songs and Stories of Christmas. I was torn between including this track on my CD this year and using an excerpt from the one holiday episode of The Andy Griffith Show. This track is a little corny, I suppose, but it's an important and inspirational message from an important and inspirational man.

That's the end of our main story for this year, and I hope it's been useful to have some additional information about the tracks on this year's CD. Please be sure to check out my holiday music blog at www.marksholidaymixcds.net for more, and note that this year's release will likely be available only through New Year's Day. We'll feature a few more blog posts before this blog begins its long winter's nap, so check back from time to time here, too.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Peter's Home Again for Christmas . . . Or Is He?

My 2010 holiday mix Winter Wonderland included a clip from an iconic holiday TV commercial for Folgers Coffee in which a college student arrives home early for winter vacation and wakes up the family by brewing a pot of Folgers. The folks at Funny or Die have put together the following alternate version of that story, which emphasizes the importance of paying attention:

NORAD Ready to Track Santa's Trip

Here's one piece of the military budget that ought to be protected: NORAD will once again be using its resources tomorrow to track Santa Claus as he makes his trek around the world for Christmas Eve. Although they've dumped Google Earth in favor of Bing Maps this time around, the same minds that protect our skies from enemy missiles say they're ready to give us up-to-the-minute reports on Santa's annual mission of peace. How did NORAD get started in the Santa tracking business? According to the Mental Floss website, it started on Christmas Eve 1955, when the famous red phone at NORAD started to ring. The commander on duty, U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup was taken aback, as the red phone meant trouble and only a handful of strategic officials had the top-secret number. When Shoup answered the line, however, it wasn't the President or even the Pentagon, but rather a young child, who asked to speak with Santa. It seems a Chicago newspaper ad for a local department store's "Call Santa Direct" promotion listed the wrong number and by pure chance was directing callers to NORAD's red phone. The calls to Santa continued through the night, which required Shoup to press several officers into duty as Santa's helpers. Turns out the Santa duty was popular with those who took the calls, which led Shoup and several others to come up with the idea of tracking Santa's sleigh each year. For more information, visit the NORAD Tracks Santa website.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Darlene Love's Latest Late Show Magic

From last night's Late Show with David Letterman:

By my reckoning, that's Darlene's 26th live performance of the song on Letterman's broadcast (Late Night and Late Show combined), and she's sounding just as good as ever!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Here Comes Santa Claus, Part 13

We're now in the home stretch of my look at the 38 tracks on my latest holiday mix CD, Here Comes Santa Claus. We've already covered the first 33 tracks, and today we look at Tracks 34-36, each of which celebrates the life of a popular entertainer who passed away during 2012. That will leave just two final tracks to consider after today's post, and I'm looking to tackle them over the next several days – assuming our luck holds out and the world survives the predicted Mayan apocalypse.

Track 36
Happy New Year from Dick Clark (2000)
Dick Clark in Times Square on New Year's Eve

When radio and television personality Dick Clark died this past April at the age of 82, he left behind a rich legacy of cultural achievement. But during the holiday season, the contribution that stands out most is New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, the program Clark created and hosted for nearly 40 years. This track is made up of two parts – an excerpt from an interview in which Clark discusses the launch of the program in 1972, and an excerpt from his New Year’s Eve countdown from Times Square on December 31, 1999. ABC is scheduled to air a tribute to Clark on December 31 this year, and its New Year’s show will be called “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest.” But it won’t be quite the same without him.

Track 35
I’ll Be Home for Christmas, by Donna Summer (1994)
Donna Summer
It’s not for nothing that the late Donna Summer was known as the “Queen of Disco.” While her career had its roots in gospel and musical theater and she ultimately explored a variety of different genres, she was one of the first recording artists to achieve commercial success with electronic dance music and she remains the only artist in history to top the Billboard album charts with three consecutive double album releases – the disco classics Live and More (1978), Bad Girls (1979) and On the Radio (1980). During the period from 1978-80, she had nine Top 5 singles, four of which (“MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” and “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)”) made it all the way to #1. Summer died this past May at the age of 63, and her death brought tributes from a wide range of people within and outside of the music industry. This track is from her 1994 album Christmas Spirit, which includes a variety of traditional and popular holiday songs. (My original track list and the list inside this year’s CD list the date of this track as 2005, but that is incorrect. Although "Christmas Spirit" was reissued in 2005 as part of Universal’s 20th Century Masters line under the title "The Best of Donna Summer: The Christmas Collection," it was originally released in 1994.) The song was written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent and originally recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943. It’s written from the point of view of an American serviceman writing home from overseas during World War II, and has subsequently been recorded by scores of other artists.

If you'd like to appreciate Donna Summer's version of the song that much more, listen to this alternate version that will make you wish the world was ending tonight:  I'll Be Home for Christmas (Mayan Apocalypse Version).

Track 34
George Plays Santa, from the Cast of “The Jeffersons,” featuring Sherman Hemsley (1981)
Hemsley (left) and Sean Garrett McFrazier
 in "All I Want for Christmas"
Best known for his portrayal of dry cleaning magnate George Jefferson in the long-running CBS sitcom The Jeffersons, Sherman Hemsley passed away this past July at the age of 74. An intensely private man, Hemsley rarely gave interviews or spoke about his experiences. However, in 2003, he confided in a rare interview for the Archive of American Television that playing George Jefferson was difficult for him. I’ve only seen a limited number of reruns from the show myself, but I get the sense that Hemsley is closer in temperament to the George Jefferson who appears in the 1981 episode “All I Want for Christmas” than the brash and cocky character he typically portrayed in the series. This track was taken from that episode, in which George Jefferson reluctantly agrees to play Santa for a group of orphans at the Help Center where his wife Weezie volunteers. One of the children, Mark, wants nothing to do with Santa, as he’s never received the one thing he’s asked for from Santa in the past – a family of his own. Unsure of how to respond, George notices that many of the younger orphans look up to Mark and depend on him for guidance and support. Isn’t that what a family’s really all about, asks George? The entire episode appears below, in two parts:

The Jeffersons was on the air for 11 years, which makes it one of the longest-running non-animated sitcoms in television history. Hemsley later starred in the NBC sitcom Amen, which ran for five seasons from 1986-91. It's worth noting that one of the three Christmas episodes that series produced, "The Twelve Songs of Christmas," includes a performance of Mary's Boy Child, a Christmas carol written in 1956 by one of the show's stars, Jester Hairston. The full episode is available on YouTube in three parts:

Sherman Hemsley brought a lot of laughter into this world, and the characters he created helped emphasize a variety of lessons about how to treat others and value what's most important. He'll be missed.

Catch Darlene Love Tonight on the Late Show

Tonight's the night Darlene Love is scheduled to make her annual visit to CBS's Late Show with David Letterman to perform her holiday classic Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). Letterman first heard Love perform the song when she was appearing with band leader Paul Shaffer in a play called Leader of the Pack, and he liked it so much that he's invited Love to perform the song on his show (then NBC's Late Night) – not just once, but every year for the past 27 years! (Tonight will be her 26th live performance, as a writers' strike in 2007 required the airing of a rerun that year.) Darlene typically appears toward the end of the broadcast, but you'll want to catch the rest of the show, too, because Jay Thomas will also be on hand for his annual quarterback competition with the host and to tell one of funniest stories I've ever heard on broadcast TV. For those who want more, Darlene's back on stage tomorrow night for her annual holiday show in Newark, New Jersey, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

KOST's Morning Team Takes Listeners Behind the Holiday Classics

I don't listen to much morning drive-time radio these days, but I recently learned that KOST-FM here in Los Angeles pretty much plays nothing but holiday music for much of the month of December. Now, their taste in Christmas tunes isn't terribly original, but if your taste runs toward the plain vanilla kind of fare, there's plenty of Mariah Carey, Bing Crosby and Wham! The KOST morning show also runs a daily feature called "Behind the Song," which offers some interesting background info on some of the most popular holiday tunes they feature. (That's a big part of what we do here, although I don't see KOST discussing Johnny "Bowtie" Barstow.) You can check out the stories behind several of the biggies by pressing on the links below, or check out the station's website for more. (You may need to reload each of these clips after you open them initially. I have no idea why.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Here Comes Santa Claus, Part 12

Less than one week to go until Christmas, and we’ve been looking at the tracks on my latest holiday compilation, Here Comes Santa Claus. There are 38 tracks altogether and I’ve provided at least a little background on the first 31 so far, which leaves seven more to consider. Six of the remaining seven tracks were included in remembrance of entertainers who left the stage for good this year, starting with Andy Williams and Phyllis Diller.

Track 33
My Christmas Stocking, by Phyllis Diller (1982)
When comedienne Phyllis Diller died on August 22 at the age of 95, she was hailed as a comedy pioneer. As her longtime agent Fred Wostbrock explained, “She was the first lady of stand-up comedy. She paved the way for everybody. And she conquered television, movies, Broadway, record albums, nightclubs, books, and radio. She did it all.” I can remember watching Phyllis Diller on television with my mother as a small boy and thinking she was some sort of clown – literally. With her blonde fright wig, extra-long fake cigarette holder and crazy outfits, she couldn’t help but make you smile. I also remember my mother explaining that she dressed like she did to make fun of herself, and that it was important not to take yourself too seriously. This short track is something I pulled from Bob Hope’s 1982 Christmas special. Hope was Diller’s biggest supporter, and he frequently asked her to join him on his USO tours and television appearances. This is one woman who never took herself too seriously, and, according to her son, she died peacefully in her own bed with a smile on her lips. Not too shabby.


Track 32
It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, by Andy Williams (1970)
Decorating the Christmas tree was always a big deal in our house when I was growing up – not simply for its own sake, but because that was usually when we first brought out the Christmas records each season. I’d guess we had somewhere around 25 or 30 Christmas albums, and among the first to get played very year was The Andy Williams Christmas Album, which was released in 1963 and featured this original tune. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t promoted much at all when the album was first released, and it was passed over in favor of "White Christmas" as the album's first single. Over time, however, the song not only emerged as the most popular track on the album, but it became one of Williams’ signature songs. Nearly 50 years after its initial release, the song continues to appear on almost every holiday playlist – in fact, it’s the #7 song on the current Billboard holiday music chart. This particular version was taken from one of Williams’ many television specials. You can hear a clip of his biggest hit, “Moon River,” as the intro and outro to this tune. Although Williams’ career spanned six decades, it was during the 1960s and ‘70s that he achieved his greatest success, both as a popular recording artist and television performer. Indeed, he came to symbolize the mainstream version of 1960s hip culture in this country. He was a supporter and good friend of Senator Robert F. Kennedy before Kennedy was killed, and later accompanied Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, to a good number of Washington social functions. In his later years, however, he became a staunch conservative, and even went so far as to call President Obama a “communist” during the 2008 presidential campaign. But when I learned of Williams’ death this Fall, I didn’t think too much about that. The first thing I thought of was how good it was to hear him sing this song each year as we strung the lights on my family’s tree.

Schoolchildren today probably associate this song with something a little less festive:

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Here Comes Santa Claus, Part 11

Some thoughts on Tracks 29-31 of my latest holiday mix, Here Comes Santa Claus:

Track 31
WOR Children’s Christmas Fund Promo Spot, by E.G. Marshall (c. 1975)
E.G. Marshall
This track consists of a fundraising appeal for the WOR Children’s Christmas Fund, recorded by the late E.G. Marshall, who hosted the popular CBS Radio Mystery Theater from 1974-82. For more than 40 years, the WOR Children’s Christmas Fund purchased and distributed thousands of holiday presents to children in New York area hospitals and institutions. It was started in 1948 by Edythe Meserand, one of the first women to hold significant positions of authority in this country’s broadcasting industry. It seems she was working late one night with a colleague when the pair decided to get something from their favorite restaurant. Although the kitchen was closed, the chef agreed to cook them dinner if they’d drive him to Bellevue Hospital afterward so he could drop off some candy for the patients in the abused children’s ward. Meserand accompanied the chef inside, and she was so moved by what she saw that she persuaded WOR’s management to raise money on the air and provide gifts to the children in such institutions. She remained the driving force behind the project from its inception until shortly before her death in 1997, attracting talent like E.G. Marshall to assist with fundraising, as here. I wrote about Marshall’s work on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater last year, at which time I provided links to two entertaining Christmas-themed versions of his show. Here they are again:

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, 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!)

Track 30
My Favourite Time of Year, by The Florin Street Band (2010)
Leigh Haggerwood
This is probably my favorite song on this year’s CD, which is just the sort of reaction London-based composer Leigh Haggerwood had in mind when he first started work on this ambitious recording project. Haggerwood loves Christmas songs, and he had become increasingly concerned about the lack of quality holiday music being produced in the English-speaking world. He’s far from alone in that opinion, of course, but Haggerwood took things to the next level by resolving to create a heart-warming new song that would capture the old-fashioned spirit of Christmas. He took his idea – and eventually this song – to the major British record labels, but none of them was interested in supporting the project, so he put things together on his own. He gathered together all of his many musical friends and called the resulting group The Florin Street Band, and by November of 2010, they not only had a fine-sounding record but a beautiful video, too:


For the full story, be sure to check out the group’s terrific website, where you’ll find some real old-fashioned Christmas magic.

Track 29
The First Noel, by Johnny “Bowtie” Barstow (2004)

When I hear ‘Over The Rainbow,’ I think of Judy Garland. When I hear ‘Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend,’ I think of Marilyn Monroe. And in the future, when I hear ‘The First Noel,’ I shall think of Bowtie. He has made it his own – and that goes for anything he sings.”
Sir Richard Rodney Bennett
Every now and then an artist emerges whose vision is so unique that it creates an entirely new musical paradigm. Stretching the realm of technique by introducing harmonic or rhythmic contexts far removed from the norm, they’re often unappreciated in their time, but the passage of years can ultimately bring recognition for their genius. Ornette Coleman was one such artist. Now we have singer Johnny "Bowtie" Barstow.
John Kelman, allaboutjazz.com

When keyboardist Larry Goldings discovered Johnny “Bowtie” Barstow performing at an open mic night in a New York City bar in the early 1990s, he knew he’d found something special. Over the course of the next two years, Goldings recorded Bowtie’s treatment of a variety of holiday songs and other standards in his home studio. The result was a 24-song album titled A Bowtie Christmas and More. I’ve featured Bowtie on nearly all of my holiday CDs – in fact, no other artist has appeared more frequently in my mixes. Fortunately, there are still a couple of holiday numbers of his that I haven't used yet, so we’ve all got something to look forward to. What is it that makes Bowtie’s style so memorable? Jazz journalist John Kelman explains the secret as follows:

Some musicians spend years on technique, working hard to hone accepted skills like pitch and time. Barstow dispenses with such limitations. His interpretive sense is so unorthodox that once you hear his renditions of classic Christmas tunes including "Joy to the World," "The First Noel," and the tongue-in-cheek "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," you’ll never see them the same way again.

Here’s a promotional piece for Bowtie’s only album to date. Let’s hope we see another before too long.



Monday, December 17, 2012

Merry Xmas from Miles Davis and Bob Dorough

If my favorite Christmas song is Darlene Love's Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)and it is – then my second favorite is probably Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern), by Miles Davis and Bob Dorough. It's been described elsewhere as "a Christmas song for those who hate Christmas," but I can't agree with that description. I think it merely captures the holiday from another and no less legitimate perspective. Lord knows it voices some very real concerns:

Merry Christmas
I hope you have a white one, but for me it's blue,
Blue Christmas, that's the way you see it when you're feeling blue
Blue Xmas, when you're blue at Christmastime
you see right through,
All the waste, all the sham, all the haste
and plain old bad taste

Sidewalk Santy Clauses are much, much, much too thin
They're wearing fancy rented costumes, false beards and big fat phony grins
And nearly everybody's standing round holding out their empty hand or tin cup
Gimme gimme gimme gimme, gimme gimme gimme
Fill my stocking up
All the way up
It's a time when the greedy give a dime to the needy
Blue Christmas, all the paper, tinsel and the fal-de-ral
Blue Xmas, people trading gifts that matter not at all
What I call
Bitter gall.......Fal-de-ral

Lots of hungry, homeless children in your own backyards
While you're very, very busy addressing
Twenty zillion Christmas cards
Now, Yuletide is the season to receive and oh, to give and ahh, to share
But all you December do-gooders rush around and rant and rave and loudly blare
Merry Christmas

I hope yours is a bright one, but for me it bleeds.
Dorough wrote the song in 1962 at Davis' request. It seems Davis was under some pressure from his record label to contribute a Christmas tune to a compilation album it was putting together called Jingle Bell Jazz. Davis, unsure of what to contribute, is said to have remarked to Dorough, "What the f*** am I supposed to play for them? White Christmas?" Dorough solved the problem by writing this downbeat number, which, while rarely played on mainstream radio today, is quintissential Miles Davis. Mitchell Kezin's upcoming film Jingle Bell Rocks features an interview with Dorough, who's still very active today at the age of 89. Younger folks will probably recognize Dorough's voice from the old Schoolhouse Rock series, as he contributed a sizeable number of songs during his tenure with the the show from 1973-85.

Tomorrow:  Three more tracks from Here Comes Santa Claus, including one from the great Johnny "Bowtie" Barstow.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Darlene Love Returns to Letterman's Late Show this Friday, December 21

Traditions mean a lot during the holiday season, and one of my favorite holiday traditions is watching Darlene Love sing my favorite Christmas song, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), on the final Late Show before Christmas each year. This year, the final pre-Christmas Late Show will be this Friday, December 21, and Darlene's scheduled to return for the 26th year to do the honors. The song Darlene sings each year was first released on Phil Spector's 1963 classic A Christmas Gift for You, which means that Darlene's been singing it for 49 years – and somehow she just sounds better each year. In a separate Late Show tradition, actor Jay Thomas will return that same night to compete with Dave in the ritual quarterback challenge and to share one of the funniest stories ever involving the Lone Ranger's ride with two completely unqualified chaperones. If you haven't seen either of these features before, you'd do well to check them out. If you have, you'll want to stay up late or set your DVR for sure.

Here's Darlene's version of the song from last year's broadcast:

And here's a clip that captures Darlene's recent induction into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, including the induction presentation by Bette Middler:

I'll be watching on Friday. Hope you can enjoy it, too!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Jackets and Ties No Longer Required

Here's some festive wardrobe advice for the couch potato crowd:

Here Comes Santa Claus, Part 10

Here’s some background on several more tracks from my latest holiday compilation, Here Comes Santa Claus:

Track 28
Holiday Greeting from Mark Wahlberg (c. 2010)
"Marky Mark" Wahlberg
This one’s another celebrity greeting – probably the shortest one I’ve used to date as the whole thing lasts no more than five seconds. As I noted in an earlier posting, there are lots of these recorded greetings floating around, and they serve a number of purposes on a compilation like this. I opted to go with a Mark Wahlberg greeting as a nod in the direction of two wonderful friends of the female persuasion, both of whom think this guy’s pretty terrific. Being from Boston, I know a thing or two about Mark Wahlberg. He’s a talented actor and film producer, of course, who formerly went by the name “Marky Mark” back when he was a rapper and underwear model. He’s the younger brother of Donnie Wahlberg, who was a member of New Kids on the Block, a Boston-based boy band that was popular in the 1980s. Before he hit it big himself, Mark was known more for his lengthy criminal record, which included a number of violent hate crimes against African American children and two elderly Vietnamese men. Happily, he seems to have changed his way of thinking about people with different backgrounds. Moreover, the sort of unthinking prejudice and hatred he formerly espoused is no longer accepted or overlooked in the increasingly diverse neighborhoods of Boston where he and I grew up. In a world where most of us are quick to point out all of the troubling developments around us, that’s a positive change that needs to be recognized.

Track 27
St. Nick Is Alright, by The Smalltown Poets (2011)
Track 27 is a pretty little tune by the Atlanta-based Christian rock group called The Smalltown Poets. Released in 1997, their self-titled debut album was nominated for a Grammy Award as Best Gospel Rock album, and their next three albums were also well received. The band went on hiatus in 2004, but reunited in 2011 to record their first Christmas album, Smalltown Poets Christmas, on which “St. Nick Is Alright” appears. It’s an upbeat tune that’s fun to sing along with, and it seems to give the Christian rock seal of approval to a key non-religious component of Christmas – namely, Santa Claus. I’m not sure whether this reunion will lead to further albums, but Smalltown Poets Christmas is a fine piece of work and worth reuniting for. Funny how the holidays tend to bring people together.

Track 26
Seasin’s Greetinks from Popeye the Sailor Man (1933)
I don’t know whether kids today know who Popeye is, but this mighty sailor was certainly a favorite when I was growing up. With his ditzy and almost emaciated girlfriend Olive Oyl by his side and that nasty villain Brutus usually in hot pursuit, Popeye helped at least two or three generations of American children feel good about eating their spinach and doing what’s right. This little clip is from the animated short by the same name, which you can enjoy below:

Track 25
Christmas Gift Ideas from The Norelco Santa (c. 1965)
The Christmas holiday season is the busiest and most lucrative time of year for manufacturing and retail businesses, and most rely on advertising to maximize their share of the seasonal market. People often complain about how early the holiday ad season begins as well as the sheer volume of holiday ads, but a number of Christmas commercials on radio and television have achieved the status of cultural touchstones and the best of them can conjure up some powerful memories of Christmases gone by. The Norelco Santa campaign for Norelco’s line of personal shavers was extremely successful during the 1960s and ‘70s. Norelco is the American brand name for electric shavers and other personal care products made by the Consumer Lifestyle division of the Philips corporation. (Norelco stands for "North American Philips [electrical] Company.")  Here’s the full version of the commercial from which I extracted Track 25:

The campaign was retired many years ago, but just last year, Norelco turned again to the Norelco Santa, albeit in a somewhat spruced-up format:


We’ve now looked at 28 of the 38 tracks on this year’s compilation, and we’ll continue with comments on the ten remaining tracks between now and December 25. How many days is that? Click on our old friend (below) to find out:

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Last Christmas, Gangnam Style

WARNING:  The following video is not for the faint of heart.

Painful as this is, it was probably inevitable – one of my least favorite holiday songs ever, Wham's "Last Christmas" has been reworked "Gangnam style."

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Help Support Jingle Bell Rocks, The Movie

Filmmaker and admitted Christmas music fanatic Mitchell Kezin has spent a good portion of the past few years working on his latest project, a film called Jingle Bell Rocks. It is, in his words, "a trippy, cinematic sleigh ride into the strange and sublime universe of alternative and underground Christmas music." Mitchell's been a Christmas music enthusiast ever since he discovered a copy of the all-but-forgotten Miles Davis classic Blue Xmas in the cut-out bin of a nearby used records store. That led him on a search for similarly off-beat and overlooked seasonal songs, and the more he discovered, the more curious he became about the meaning and background of each individual track. Jingle Bell Rocks aims to look behind the curtain at the collectors, critics, artists and producers of this very special type of music. It features interviews with a wide range of players, including Andy Cirzan, John Waters, Dr. Demento, Clarence Carter and more. The following preview helps give you a better idea of what the film is all about: 

As you might imagine, making such a film is not only an ambitious undertaking, but a costly one as well. Kezin is nearly done with filming, but he needs additional seed money to finish the production and pay the fees associated with using many of the key tracks. If you're in a position to consider providing even a small amount of financial support, please check out the filmmaker's fundraising campaign appeal. It's not every day you get a chance to get a piece of a major motion picture and help spread the holiday spirit at the same time!