This morning I want to revisit a few of the secular pop songs that seize on Christmas in one way or another for their own artistic purposes. Last year I added three more selections to the lineup. I’d like to stick with it again this year. These are my selections in chronological order of release along with my notes on them.
In the video below Johnny and Edgar Winter perform the Charles Brown number “Please Come Home For Christmas” (1966). It was originally issued as a single b/w “Santa Don’t Pass Me By” by Jimmy Donley on the Meaux Sound Memories label (the Donley recording is also accessible on YouTube, but pass it by). As I access it on Napster, the Winter brothers’ recording is included on Johnny’s album Livin’ in the Blues, a compilation that must predate the fame he achieved with his first work on Columbia in 1969. The Winters brothers’ version of “Please Come Home For Christmas” portends a deeply soulful celebration of the holiday.
Elvis brought his love of the blues to his performance of Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby.” Brown had worked up the song as a member of Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers in 1947. Elvis’s version originally appeared in 1971 as a holiday single (edited down to 3:15) and in its full five-minute plus glory on Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas. I first heard it on the revelatory 1983 album Elvis Blue (on blue vinyl). It’s a slightly profane Christmas, but a wonderful world, indeed. Elvis’s shout out to “James” is to guitarist James Burton. The work of David Briggs on piano is also noteworthy. For more, see “Merry Christmas Baby” on Elvis Today.
Just to let you know where she’s going, Joni Mitchell opens “River” with “Jingle Bells” transposed to to a minor key. The song captures a feeling of desolation that belies the joy of the holiday in a way that many of us have felt around this time of the year. The song tacitly contrasts its own expression of sorrow with the seasonal “songs of joy and peace.” Originally appearing as track 8 on Joni’s aptly named album Blue (1971), the song has nevertheless become an improbable Christmas classic in its own right, with hundreds of covers.
Leon Russell recorded “Slipping Into Christmas” as a single b/w “Christmas in Chicago” (1972). It never made it to an album. I don’t know why. By my lights, this is a grabber.
We know now that Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” (1980) was plucked from Fogelberg’s own life. Fogelberg’s old girlfriend waited until Fogelberg’s death to talk publicly about their chance reunion. The year was 1975. The scene was a convenience store in Peoria. The day was Christmas Eve. The snow was falling. Sam Anderson sings the song’s praises in this 2016 New York Times Magazine column. One more note: That’s the late Michael Brecker on the poignant sax solo at the end of the song.
Mel Torme and Bob Wells wrote “The Christmas Song” in 1945 on a sultry day in southern California. Wells had written the first verse. Torme found it on the piano after he let himself in to Wells’s San Fernando Valley home for a songwriting session. When Wells turned up in tennis shorts and shirt (still looking hot, as Torme tells it), Torme asked him about “the little poem.” Wells told him, “It was so damn hot today, I thought I’d write something to cool myself off. All I could think of was Christmas and cold weather.” Forty-five minutes later they had produced the classic Christmas song. They promptly offered it to Nat “King” Cole; Cole fell in love with it on first listen. Because of his busy schedule, however, Cole didn’t get around to recording it until 1946.
That’s the story as we have all heard it. Telling this story in his memoir It Wasn’t All Velvet, however, Torme adds “a humorous footnote.” Cole had recorded the last line of the bridge as “To see if reindeers really know how to fly.” After the first pressings of Cole’s recording had turned the song into a hit, Torme and Wells pointed out Cole’s error to him: “Nat, a true gentleman and a dogged perfectionist, stewed over this mistake, and at the end of another recording session of his, with the same-size orchestra at hand, he rerecorded our song, properly singing ‘reindeer'” (in the version we all know).
Now that is an inspirational story in more ways than one, yet the song has become such a cliche that I wondered whether it might be possible to listen to it with pleasure again. I think the answer is yes, as Paul McCartney demonstrated with a little help from his friends (including John Pizzarelli) in the video below. This recording derives from the 2012 various artists’ collection Holidays Rule.
“If We Make It Through December” initially appeared as the single from Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present (1973) and then, a few months later, on Merle’s album of the same name. Combining desperation with guarded optimism, like so many of Merle’s songs, it too seems plucked from life: “Wanted Christmas to be right for daddy’s girls.” Suzy Bogguss included the song on her disc Lucky (2014), devoted entirely to songs by Haggard. I love Suzy’s version of the song on the disc and as performed live in the video below; it pierces to the heart.
Best wishes for a Merry Christmas to all our readers celebrating on Wednesday.