Friday, December 23, 2005

Friday Random 10: Here Comes Santa Claus

'Tis the season for an all-Christmas edition of the Friday Random 10. Fasten your sleigh bells.

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"/Kenny Burrell/Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas. From the swingingest Christmas album ever. Burrell mixes up traditional Christmas tunes with just enough improvisation to make them seem fresh even now--which is quite an accomplishment considering the album was recorded in 1966.

"Here Comes Santa Claus"/Elvis Presley/Time-Life Treasury of Christmas. Originally recorded by Gene Autry in 1947, this song is nothing less than an attempt to bridge the gap between religious and secular Christmas celebrations: "Santa knows we're all God's children/That makes everything right." Bill O'Reilly, are you listening?

"This Christmas"/Donny Hathaway/Jingle Bell Rock. Maybe the most beloved R&B holiday original to emerge since the 1950s, this first appeared, as best I can tell, in 1971. This one suffers more than most from overexposure, as it's been anthologized everywhere.

"Some Children See Him"/James Taylor/A Christmas Album. As a concept, James Taylor doing Christmas songs seems like a good one. After all, in 2002, he recorded a superlative version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" on his October Road album. So last year, he released an entire Christmas album as a promotion for Hallmark--but it was a wasted opportunity. It didn't include "Have Yourself . . .," or much else that's memorable.

"O Come All Ye Faithful"/Martha's Trouble/Christmas Lights (EP).
Tip of the Santa hat to Paste magazine for pointing me to this, a brand-new recording for 2005. Martha's Trouble is a husband-and-wife folk duo, and once you get used to the sound of Jen Slocumb's voice (some call it "vulnerable," I call it "thin"), this version of the old hymn is hauntingly beautiful.

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"/Brenda Lee/Jingle Bell Rock. First appearing in 1960, this song has been covered by almost everybody: Jessica Simpson, Amy Grant, LeAnn Rimes, Hanson, and even Cyndi Lauper. Lee's original is one of a handful of rock 'n' roll classics you can't imagine the season without.

"Sleigh Ride"/Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops/Time-Life Treasury of Christmas Volume 2. There are two essential instrumental versions of this tune, the 1948 original by Leroy Anderson's orchestra, which I always think of as the "wall of sound" version, and this one (recorded 1959), which has a somewhat lighter feeling. Either one will do you fine--either one stomps every vocal version, except the one by the Ronettes.

"Christmas Blues"/Willie Nelson/Pretty Paper. This album is as close to a living, breathing, organic whole as any Christmas album is likely to be, and "Christmas Blues," even though it's an original instrumental and not a holiday standard, fits perfectly. It captures a complicated emotion most of us rarely experience outside of Christmas Day--how it feels, in a time of celebration, to be mindful of the passage of time and to remember loved ones we've lost.

"The Little Drummer Boy"/Liona Boyd/A Guitar for Christmas. Here's one from another irreplaceable Christmas album at my house. Boyd, a Canadian classical guitarist who's had a long and distinguished career, originally released this album in 1983. She's probably as famous, in Canada at least, for having carried on a secret, eight-year affair with Pierre Trudeau while he was prime minister. (Hey, if you want trivia, we've got it.)

"Christmas Is Coming"/Vince Guaraldi Trio/A Charlie Brown Christmas. If I could keep only one of my many Christmas CDs, there's no doubt that this would be the one. "Christmas Is Coming" is the song Charlie Brown hears as he arrives at school to direct the Christmas play, and, next to "Linus and Lucy," it's the hardest-swinging tune on the soundtrack.

Recommended Listening: I have been meaning to mention this for a couple of weeks and keep forgetting--the rarest and most interesting of all Beatles' memorabilia are the Christmas recordings they made each year for members of their international fan club. You can read about them, see the cover art, and hear them--an interesting experience indeed--here.

And now, on with the holiday. This blog will be on hiatus until sometime next week. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night/day/weekend/whatever.


At 5:45 PM, Blogger Willie said...

"Little Drummer Boy" duet with David Bowie and Bing Crosby. On paper, it's an unlikely pairing. In reality, a great Christmas song.

One of the more surreal moments in pop music history took place Sept. 11, 1977, when the leading American pop star of the first half of the Twentieth Century met and performed with one of the more innovative rock 'n' rollers of the last half of the Century. Bing was in London on a concert tour and to tape his yearly TV Christmas special. It was Bing's idea that he should have as a guest on his TV show a young star. Someone suggested David Bowie. Bing had never heard of Bowie, but his kids had, and so an invitation was sent to the rock star. Bowie, as it turned out, was a secret fan of Der Bingle and jumped at the chance to perform with him.
Bing's idea was that he and Bowie would perform "The Little Drummer Boy" as a duet. Bowie felt the song did not showcase his voice very well, so the writers added "Peace on Earth," which suited Bowie's voice quite well. The two musical spokesmen of different generations met for the first time on the morning of the taping, rehearsed for an hour and finished their duet in only three takes. Bing was impressed with Bowie, and gave him his phone number at the end of the taping. Bing told an interviewer four days later that he considered Bowie "a clean cut kid and a real fine asset to the show. He sings well, has a great voice and reads lines well. He could be a good actor if he wanted."

Bing died a month later, and the public did not see their performance until after his death. The duet generated much interest, and was excerpted to become a perennial TV music video, a best-selling 45-rpm single and, eventually, a computer CD-ROM. Some viewed the joint performance of Bing and Bowie as a symbol of the end of the intergenerational wars of the 1960s and '70s. In 1999, TV Guide chose the duet as one of the 25 best musical television moments of the century.


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