All of the Other Reindeer
Last week I wrote about "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "The Little Drummer Boy" and suggested that all versions except the original hit recordings should be avoided. But there's another song that's just the opposite--nearly every cover version of it is better than the original. I am referring to Gene Autry's 1949 hit, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Autry was famous for playing a singing cowboy in movies--and he must have been one hell of an actor, because he's an awful singer, honking out the story of Rudolph in a rural twang that belies the fact that he was one of the richest actors in Hollywood. But because it's hard to imagine the holiday season without the song, here are five better versions of "Rudolph":
The one by Burl Ives from the TV special. You watch the show for an hour and you know this song is coming, and when it does, the feeling of release is exquisite. You realize that, yeah, Rudolph needed backstory.
The one by the Temptations. Almost all of Motown's major artists made Christmas records in the late 60s and early 70s. They're kinda streaky--even the best of them, the ones by Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, have a couple of cringe-inducing tunes. The Temptations Christmas Card was the first Christmas album I ever bought, and "Rudolph" is probably its highlight.
The one by Mannheim Steamroller. The Steamroller's Christmas albums are staggeringly popular, albeit schizophrenic: carols are reworked into elegant Elizabethan tableaux, lush candlelight ballads, and amped-up halftime show numbers. Their version of "Rudolph," from 1995's Christmas in the Aire, is charmingly modernized. Your grandmother would hate it, but you'll think it's just fine.
The one by the Crystals. From 1963's legendary A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector. Gains charm points because the girls insist on referring to more than one reindeer as "reindeers."
The one by Chuck Berry. Actually, this is a ringer. Berry's song is "Run Rudolph Run," a rock classic that's been anthologized endlessly and covered by everybody. Contains one of the all-time great throwaway lines: "Run run Rudolph/Randolph ain't too far behind." What?
While it was Autry who had the major hit in '49, Rudolph the character had been around for 10 years by then, as an advertising icon for Montgomery Ward. But it was songwriter Johnny Marks who immortalized the character in song, and Autry's recording became not just a Christmas perennial, but one of the top-selling recotds of all time. Neverthless, feh. If you know of any other worthwhile "Rudolphs," I trust you'll let me know.
Revisionist History: I'd like to revise my universal condemnation of "The Little Drummer Boy" a bit to say all other vocal versions save Harry Simeone's should be avoided. Avoid vocals because it's impossible to avoid sounding like an idiot singing "rum-pa-pum-pum," unless you are Bing Crosby, so his version of the song with David Bowie is thereby acceptable (even if Bowie does sound like an idiot singing "rum-pa-pum-pum"). Seek out the following instrumentals, which I have heard since my original post: One is by Daryl Stueurmer, erstwhile Phil Collins and Genesis guitarist, whose version (on the 1988 anthology A GRP Christmas Collection) cuts loose from the familiar melody into a great improvised guitar solo. The other is by another guitarist, Kenny Burrell, whose 1966 album Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas is about as cool as Christmas music can get, and whose version of "The Little Drummer Boy" from that album actually swings.