This Week’s Theme: Happy Holidays
Part two of this four-part, holiday-themed Faux Show series is focused on songs that aren’t part of the holiday canon, but are full of holiday spirit. Unlike last week’s show, this week’s songs are clearly identifiable as holiday music. As usual, they cover a variety of styles, decades, and artists. Some of these are songs that everyone knows, while others are not well-known but fit the theme perfectly.
In order to make this four-show series of holiday music, Ms. Faux and I attempted to break down songs into different categories. Those choices are often subjective, so one could easily argue that some of this week’s songs should have been included in week four’s show of traditional holiday songs (coming soon). Based on our criteria, we had to draw a line somewhere between traditional and non-traditional holiday music. As a whole, this week’s selection of songs presents music that isn’t part of the traditional canon, such as “Jingle Bells” or “Deck the Halls,” but could be part of that canon in the future. The obvious canonical holiday songs are often hymns or carols from over one hundred years ago. However, there are many songs composed in the 20th century which are now part of the canon, such as “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)”, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Many traditional songs that are not hymns or Christmas carols but are already part of the canon, such as “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” could be defined as songs for children, while others, like “The Christmas Song” were definitely written for an adult audience. But no matter the intended audience, there is one shared feature of these modern-day traditional songs – they are easy to sing.
Carols and hymns are meant to be sung together, in worship or in times of gathering or celebration, and these songs are like that, too. In addition, their popularity has led to them becoming part of our shared cultural heritage. Whether through oral tradition, stories of myths and traditions, or some holiday pop culture nonsense, songs become part of the canon when they are so finely intertwined with the holidays that you can’t remove them from the season. When Mel Torme wrote “The Christmas Song,” there was no way to know that it would become the standard that it is today. Johnny Marks’ “Rudolph” could have just as easily been ignored and lived a life in exile with forgotten songs such as “Santa Claus Came in the Spring” and “Christmas in Jail.” However, the pop music gods deemed those songs to be classics. It appears that songs such as “All I Want For Christmas is You,” “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” and “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” are all going to become part of the canon as well, and some would argue that they already are.
Whether or not you agree that this week’s songs are still on the non-traditional side of the holiday canon line, there is no arguing that they are clearly songs that are meant to be enjoyed during the holidays. Hopefully, you can enjoy this week’s show while baking up your first batch of cookies, decorating the tree, or just getting into the holiday spirit.
Welcome to Radio Faux Show number forty.
First things first – click a link to start listening and then come back to read about this week’s songs.
Not quite “The Christmas Song,” but close
The pinnacle of 20th century holiday music composition is “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire).” Originally titled “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You),” this song was composed by Mel Torme and Robert Wells in 1945, is known by kids from one to ninety-two, and is the standard against which all other holiday compositions are measured. Unlike songs such as “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “Frosty The Snowman,” “The Christmas Song” was composed as a jazz vocal composition to be performed by artists for an adult audience. It is impossible to define the qualities of a song that make it as successful as this one, but one clear aspect is that it presents a seriousness of the holiday spirit in a way that rings true for most people during this time of year.
There are many other holiday compositions that are contemporaries of “The Christmas Song,” and some of them are now part of any serious artist’s holiday repertoire.
“I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” was composed in 1937 by Irving Berlin. Although the song was composed for a non-holiday film and was not meant to be a holiday song, it has become a standard for any jazz vocalist who performs holiday music. Billie Holiday’s is the definitive version.
“The Christmas Waltz” was composed for Frank Sinatra in 1954 by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne. Sinatra recorded several versions of the song, and it has been recorded by hundreds of artists over the last sixty plus years. The Carpenters version is from their 1978 A Christmas Portrait album.
The main predecessor to rock and roll was the big band swing, R&B, and jump blues music of the ’40s and early ’50s, and some of the best holiday music was composed during this time.
Leon Rene (AKA Jimmy Thomas) was an influential R&B composer, and he wrote two of the best holiday songs of the era. He composed “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” in 1947, a song originally released by Mabel Scott. It was an R&B hit for Scott and was covered three years later by Patti Page. Although Page’s version was not a hit, the B-side of that single was “Tennessee Waltz,” the song that became Page’s trademark and a #1 hit. Lionel Hampton’s version is from 1950. Rene also composed “Dig That Crazy Santa Claus,” a song first recorded by Oscar McLollie and His Honey Jumpers in 1954. The song was immediately recorded for white audiences by Ralph Marterie’s orchestra, and both versions are fantastic.
“Merry Christmas Baby” was composed in 1947 by Johnny Moore for his band Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers. At the time, the band was one of the most popular R&B acts on the west coast and this was a huge hit. The Three Blazers included Moore on guitar, Eddie Williams on bass, Oscar Moore (Johnny’s brother) on guitar, and Charles Brown on piano. This group of musicians were connected to holiday music in many ways. Johnny Moore was the guitarist for the Nat Cole Trio, the group formed by Nat King Cole (one of the most beloved holiday artists of all time). Charles Brown enjoyed a popular career with his own band and recorded many great holiday compositions, including his own version of “Merry Christmas Baby,” his own composition “Please Come Home For Christmas,” and Ms. Faux’s favorite, “Bringing In a Brand New Year.”
In 1950, Irving Taylor, Dudley Brooks, and Hal Stanley composed one of the greatest holiday songs. “(Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag” has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the last twenty years after it was included in the first Brian Setzer holiday album. The original version by Kay Starr is perfect.
Rock and Roll (The ’50s and beyond)
The popularity of rock and roll in the ’50s created a new format for holiday music. After two decades of big bands ruling the holiday music scene, rock and roll brought in a new batch of songwriters to add to the holiday mix. Some of the best known holiday songs are from this era.
“Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me” was written for and recorded by Elvis Presley in 1957. It was originally released on what is arguably the greatest holiday single/EP ever recorded – a four-song EP containing Elvis’ versions of this song, “Santa Claus is Back in Town”, “Blue Christmas”, and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
“Jingle Bell Rock” was first recorded by Bobby Helms in 1957 and is one of the most successful holiday singles of all time. The song is obviously an ode to “Rock Around the Clock” and Bill Haley & His Comets recorded the song themselves in 1968. Haley’s version was supposed to be released as a single, but this never happened and it was lost until being discovered in 1998.
“Run Rudolph Run” was written by Johnny Marks and originally recorded by Chuck Berry in 1958. It is one of those great holiday songs that sounds like any other song by the artist. Marks also wrote “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “Silver and Gold.” Brenda Lee’s version of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” was recorded in 1958, has sold over twenty-five million copies, and is currently the fourth most downloaded holiday single of all time.
“Please Come Home For Christmas” was composed by Charles Brown in 1960 and has since become about as beloved a holiday song as any from this period. It has been recorded by hundreds of artists, including this version by The Uniques that is very true to the original.
“Little Saint Nick” was written in 1963 by Beach Boys Brian Wilson and Mike Love. It is one of those great holiday songs that sounds like any other song by the artist.
The most successful holiday song by a Beatle is John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over) from 1971. Ms. Faux’s favorite holiday song by a Beatle is Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” from 1979. George Harrison’s “Ding Dong, Ding Dong” was released in 1974 on his album Dark Horse, and although it isn’t as obviously a holiday song it works very well as an ode to the end of the year. The only Beatle to release an entire album of holiday music is Ringo Starr with his 1999 album I Wanna Be Santa Claus.
Motown, Phil Spector, and More
Most of my favorite new holiday songs of the last sixty years are soul and R&B compositions. You can still find new compilations of holiday songs by record labels, but the days of those compilations being hit records are long gone. That wasn’t the case in the ’60s, and holiday albums such as the classic Phil Spector compilation and entire albums by individual Motown artists were seasonal best-sellers. Most of the music on those albums were new arrangements of traditional songs, but occasionally a new classic was created.
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” was written in 1963 for Darlene Love. It was originally released on the Phil Spector album A Christmas Gift For You and is Love’s signature song.
“Purple Snowflakes” is the only classic holiday song recorded by the legendary Marvin Gaye. Recorded in 1965, it was re-recorded as a song titled “Pretty Little Baby,” and the original holiday version was not released until 1992. Over the last thirty years, it has become a modern-day favorite for any soul artist who records a holiday album.
“What Christmas Means To Me” has become a soul holiday standard since Stevie Wonder recorded his version for his classic 1967 album Someday at Christmas. The title track from that album has also become a soul holiday standard and has been recorded by hundreds of artists, including The Jackson 5 for their 1970 Christmas Album.
Donny Hathaway was one of the most talented soul composers of his era and is still often ignored in lists of the greatest soul artists. He composed “This Christmas” in 1970, and although it was largely ignored for decades it has now become one of the most performed holiday songs of all time. In the world of R&B, it has become the soul counterpart to “White Christmas.”
New Classics from the ’80s and ’90s
One of the most unique and unexpected holiday albums has to the 1981 compilation put out by ZE Records, A Christmas Record. The ZE label was a New York label that released new wave, no wave, and alt-disco music in the late ’70s/early ’80s. Their artists included the dark new wave band Suicide, the no-wave band James White and the Blacks, and eclectic pop group Was Not Was. Most importantly, their artists included The Waitresses, whose song “Christmas Wrapping” has grown over the last forty years into one of the most popular modern holiday songs.
The last artist to release a holiday album while at the peak of their popularity was Mariah Carey in 1994. Her fourth album, Merry Christmas, was a bold choice to record, but it was a huge success and the single “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is now the most successful holiday song recorded in the last thirty years.
In 1987, the first of the A Very Special Christmas benefit compilations was being produced and Run-DMC agreed to be one of the artists. Their song, “Christmas in Hollis,” was put together quickly, like many great songs often are. Jam Master Jay went into a room and flipped through a selection of holiday recordings to sample while Run wrote the lyrics that he has stated to be the best that he ever wrote. Jam Master came out with a perfect sample of Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” and the song went on to be one of the band’s most popular. The video was directed by two NYU students, Michael Holman and Mark Richardson, and went on to win Rolling Stone’s Video of the Year Award, beating out Martin Scorsese’s video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”
There were several other holiday classics recorded in the ’80s, but these two are the most popular.
Vince Guaraldi and Charlie Brown
Vince Guaraldi composed several songs for the original Charlie Brown Christmas television special that are now holiday standards. “Christmas Time is Here” is the most covered and one of the most beautiful holiday songs ever written. Diana Krall’s version is simply gorgeous. “Linus and Lucy” and “Skating” are holiday jazz standards as well.
Country artists have been producing holiday records since the beginning of country and western music. We didn’t include many in this week’s show, but we did select two songs featuring the Bakersfield Sound. The album Christmas With Buck Owens & His Buckaroos was released in 1965 during the heyday of the Bakersfield Sound era of country music and is my favorite country holiday album, with songs including “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy” and “Blue Christmas Lights.” The album Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present by Merle Haggard & The Strangers was released in 1973, and the single “If We Make It Through December” spent four weeks at #1 on the country charts, was a crossover Top 40 hit, and was the 2nd biggest country hit of 1974.
One of our favorites and why we didn’t include it
“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” is a beloved holiday song and one of our favorites. We originally included the song, but after some research we decided to remove it. The song was composed by Frank Loesser in 1947. It has since become a holiday standard, although this always angered Loesser. He wrote the song as a non-holiday song about someone expressing the depth of their love by suggesting that this is a long-term romance that will last through the rest of the year (a sentiment that makes much more sense if sung early in the year). For this reason, we’ve decided to remove it from our holiday lists moving forward, although we won’t complain if we hear it playing in the grocery store over the next month.
Some Fun Holiday Stuff
Vulfpeck are a Faux household favorite, and they also enjoy the holiday spirit.
If everyone learned how to live their lives like Joe Pera then maybe this holiday season would not include the violence, anger, and hatred that has become so common in the world.
Artist of the Week: All of Them
Any artist who records holiday music is the artist of the week.
3 Chunks of Funk
The Staple Singers “Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas”: This is a great piece of funk by one of the era’s best.
Rufus Thomas “I’ll Be Your Santa Baby”: This song was recorded a few years after the band’s prime, and after Chaka Khan had left to go solo, but is arguably the best holiday funk song ever recorded.
Vulfpeck “Christmas in L.A.”: This song is from the band’s 2015 debut Thrill of the Arts.
Thanks for listening (and reading)!
|1||Sam Sweetsinger Bell||Happy Birthday Jesus|
|2||John Legend||Merry Merry Christmas|
|3||Kay Starr||(Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag|
|4||Stevie Wonder||What Christmas Means To Me|
|5||The Staple Singers||Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas|
|6||Rufus Thomas Jr.||I’ll Be Your Santa Baby|
|7||Vulfpeck||Christmas in L.A.|
|8||Jackson 5||Someday At Christmas|
|9||Donny Hathaway||This Christmas|
|10||Darlene Love||Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)|
|11||Mariah Carey||All I Want For Christmas Is You|
|12||The Uniques||Please Come Home For Christmas|
|13||Diana Krall||Christmas Time Is Here|
|14||The Carpenters||Christmas Waltz|
|15||The Band||Christmas Must Be Tonight|
|16||Ron Sexsmith||Maybe This Christmas|
|17||The Smithereens||Christmas Morning|
|18||The Waitresses||Christmas Wrapping|
|19||Run-DMC||Christmas in Hollis|
|20||Hank Ballard||Santa Claus Is Coming|
|21||Chuck Berry||Run Rudolph Run|
|22||The Beach Boys||Little Saint Nick|
|23||Elvis Presley||Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me|
|24||Bill Haley & His Comets||Jingle Bell Rock|
|25||Brenda Lee||Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree|
|26||Oscar McLollie and His Honey Jumpers||Dig That Crazy Santa Claus|
|27||Lionel Hampton Orchestra||Boogie Woogie Santa Claus|
|28||June Christy||The Merriest|
|29||Toots & The Maytals||Christmas Feeling Ska|
|30||Bob Dylan||It Must Be Santa|
|31||Buck Owens & His Buckaroos||Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy|
|32||Merle Haggard||Santa Claus and Popcorn|
|33||Paul McCartney||Wonderful Christmastime|
|34||George Harrison||Ding Dong, Ding Dong|
|35||Otis Redding||Merry Christmas Baby|
|36||Marvin Gaye||Purple Snowflakes|
|37||Vince Guaraldi Trio||Linus and Lucy|
|38||Jason Foureman & Stephen Anderson||Through and Through|
|39||Billie Holiday||I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm|
|40||Charles Brown||Bringing In A Brand New Year|
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