Friday, December 4, 2009

Christmas Discs You Should be Spinning, Pt. 1

A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records
(retitled on CD as A Christmas Gift for you from Phil Spector)
Originally released on November 22, 1963 (a date otherwise infamous for the JFK assassination), this album was not a success.

However, its renown has grown over the years, and is now considered to be one of the best Christmas-themed albums of the rock/pop era.
I think it stands as the last milestone of American pop prior to the Beatles invasion, which would hit two months later. It's also a sad reminder of what Phil Spector accomplished before becoming a fright-wigged nutball.

The album was really one of the first to apply pop arrangements to holiday standards. It opens with a swinging version of White Christmas by Darlene Love, who often sang uncredited lead for other groups in the Philles stable (that's her singing lead on The Crystals' "He's a Rebel"). Here, she's given star billing, and deservedly so. She even manages to insert the original rarely-heard first verse as a spoken bridge midway through the song.

Next up is the better-known star, Ronnie Spector leading The Ronettes in a wall-of-sound version of "Frosty the Snowman". Ronnie's gravelly kewpie-doll voice floats above the percussion in an arrangement reminiscent of "Be My Baby".

Speaking of reminiscent, the next song "The Bells of St. Mary's" opens with a swipe of the bassline from "And Then He Kissed Me". This is one of two songs fronted by the only male singer here -- Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans --and apparently ended up being their last recordings.

The Crystals come in with "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" which opens with an odd spoken-word intro where lead singer LaLa Brooks is telling Jimmy (her boyfriend? little brother? son?) that she has been to the Milky Way and stopped off at the North Pole to talk to Santa, who shows her around and shares his plans with her (who IS she anyway?). She then chastises Jimmy to write his letter "because he's getting ready his reindeers and his sleigh". All this backed by a tinkling lullaby...and then they crank into a rocking chorus. Here's where things really get moving, with sax solos, bells, drums, xylophones, and whatever else they could cram into the studio.

This sets the tone of the next seven songs, which form the heart of the album. "Sleigh Ride" by the Ronettes tends to get the most airplay -- with its infectious "ring-aling-aling-ading-dong-ding" backups, clip-clop percussion, and horseneigh bookends. This is followed by "Marshmallow World" (Love), "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" (Ronettes, backed by castanets!), "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (sung as a girl-group lament by The Crystals, as if Rudolph is some misunderstood boy they want to date), "Winter Wonderland" (Love), and "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" (Crystals).

All of this leads to the only original song on the LP, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love, in full gospel-belter mode (an unknown teenage Cher is supposed to be in there somewhere singing backup). This song takes what could have essentially been a novelty album and elevates it to classic status. I first heard the song as the opening title to Gremlins in 1984, searched out the soundtrack (it ain't there) and then finally found this album (the 70s remixed version with a different cover) in a cutout bin. (I do NOT own the original LP, in case anyone is looking for Christmas present ideas)

Although covered by dozens of acts since (U2 and Mariah Carey most famously -- Hanson, not so much), no one sings like Darlene Love, who has been singing it live every year since 1986 on the Christmas episode of The Late Show with David Letterman.

It's all denoument after Love blows the roof off. Bob B. Soxx returns with "Here Comes Santa Claus" and producer Phil Spector gives the final postscript Christmas message (remember when those used to be on TV?) backed by an instrumental "Silent Night".

The CD has been out-of-print for several years (with premium prices on eBay), but it has been re-released this year (

Do yourself a favor and go buy it before it goes out of print again.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Nie blog, Joe! Holiday relevant and brilliant pop-culture insight!