Album of the Week

(Re)Posted 01/12/2017

 

 

Most of the recordings in this compilation are from the 1940s and 1950s. I was born in 1950 and they are largely the "pre-Spector" Christmas songs I grew up with. All successful Christmas songs have been covered over and over again through the years and I have selected the versions that sounded most familiar to me, from my English childhood, not necessarily the original versions. Having said that, almost all the recordings here are American, with just two by British artists. I have avoided including any of the many popular recordings based on traditional Christmas carols, which are better left to the choir of Kings College in my opinion. Christian sentiments appear in a few songs, but this collection is overwhelmingly secular.

  1. It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas by Bing Crosby was recorded in 1951. The song was written by Meredith Willson that same year. Bing went head-to-head with Perry Como on this one and Perry won, scoring the bigger hit. In more recent years the song has been associated with Johnny Mathis after his version was included in the 1992 film Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
     
  2. Sleigh Ride was recorded by The Boston Pops Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Fiedler no less than four times, in 1949, 1959, 1970, and 1972 (Arthur Fiedler was the conductor of the The Boston Pops for almost half a century). It is not entirely clear which of those versions this is. Sleigh Ride was written by Leroy Anderson in 1948 and the composer himself recorded a version of the music in 1950 with his own orchestra, but the piece is most associated, as are most of Anderson's works, with The Boston Pops. Indeed, The Boston Pops went on to record it several times more under John Williams and Keith Lockhart. Lyrics were written by Mitchell Parish in 1950, first recorded by The Andrews Sisters that year and since covered by a multitude of artists. But, for me, the instrumental version is the most evocative. It is the only instrumental track on this album.
     
  3. Winter Wonderland by The Andrews Sisters is from 1946. It was originally the B-side of their almost forgotten Christmas Island (although it was a big hit at the time). The harmonious sisters are supported on this recording by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians Orchestra, who had the original hit with this song in the 1930s and who are also represented in their own right later in this compilation. Winter Wonderland was written in 1934 by Felix Bernard (music) and Richard B. Smith (lyrics).
     
  4. It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year by Andy Williams was released in 1963, the same year it was written by by Edward Pola and George Wyle. However, it was only released as an album track in that year - single releases came later when it became popular thanks to repeated exposure on his TV shows. It is now one of the top Christmas songs based on airplay but, personally, it is my least favourite in this compilation (but I know that many people love it).
     
  5. Let it Snow! by Dean Martin is from 1959. It was written (as Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!) in 1945 by Sammy Cahn (lyrics) and Jule Styne (music), becoming a #1 hit for Vaughn Monroe in that year. But it is Dean Martin's version that has become the most well-known and popular through the ages. It has been covered by numerous artists on Christmas-themed albums although the song itself makes no mention of Christmas.
     
  6. Christmas Alphabet by Dickie Valentine is the first of two British recordings in this collection, albeit of an American song. It was written by Buddy Kaye and Jules Loman and was first released in 1954 by The McGuire Sisters in the USA. Dicky Valentine's version was put out in the UK the following year, 1955, and it became a number one hit in the UK singles chart.
     
  7. I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus by The Beverley Sisters is the second British recording, and this time of a song by a British songwriter (Tommie Connor) but, again, it is a cover of a recording first released in the USA. That original recording was by a 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd which reached number 1 on the US singles chart in 1952, and number 3 in the UK Charts when issued there in 1953. A less successful version was also released in 1952 by Spike Jones, also using a child's voice (George Rock). Although the song is written from a child's perspective, I find both these child-voiced recordings grating and hard to listen to. I far prefer this harmonious version which was also released in 1953 and, although it didn't do quite as well as Jimmy Boyd at the time (reaching number 6 in the chart), it has better stood the test of time, I think. More importantly, it is the version I remember. Note: The spoken introduction that appeared on the original recording has been removed from the track presented here.
     
  8. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer by Gene Autry was the first number 1 song of the 1950s, reaching that spot at Christmas 1949. It also holds the distinction of being the only chart-topping hit to fall completely off the chart from number 1! It was written by Johnny Marks. There have been many other recordings of the song of course (I especially remember Burl Ives' version from the 1960s) but the Gene Autry version remains the standard.
     
  9. Frosty the Snowman by Guy Lombardo and The Royal Canadians is from 1950. It is a cover of another Gene Autry record of that year. By this time it was becoming traditional for Gene Autry to release a Christmas record. But this year he had competition from Nat King Cole with the same song which held both of them off the top spot. Guy Lombardo's version is just an album track, but I prefer it to both Gene Autry's and Nat King Cole's versions (and anyway, Gene Autry is already over-represented on this album - who would have believed that a cowboy could become, briefly, the king of Christmas!). The song was written by Walter "Jack" Rollins and Steve Nelson. And if you're a child of the sixties, it's really Guy Lombardo and not The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band!
     
  10. Santa Claus is Coming to Town by Frank Sinatra is a 1948 recording of a 1934 song by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie. When it was first sung on Eddie Cantor's radio show in November 1934 it became an instant hit with 100,000 orders for copies of the sheet music and more than 30,000 records by banjoist Harry Reser and his band sold within 24 hours. The song was also recorded by Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra and Bing Crosby with The Andrews Sisters before Sinatra got to it in 1948.
     
  11. Here Comes Santa Claus by Gene Autry is his first Christmas hit from 1947. The words were written by Autry himself and set to music by Oakley Haldeman. Although first released in 1947, this is probably a re-recording from 1953. A multitude of other artists have covered the song through the years.
     
  12. Jingle Bells by The Ray Conniff Singers is from the 1959 album Christmas with Conniff. It was essential that this compilation include a version of Jingle Bells but which one to choose? - there have been thousands! This version is jolly, complete and doesn't use kids' voices (to which it has already been established that I am allergic). Many people think that Jingle Bells is a traditional song but it was actually written by an American, James Lord Pierpont (uncle of the financier John Pierpont Morgan), and published under the title One Horse Open Sleigh in 1857. It was not originally intended to have any connection to Christmas, and the lyrics were considered to be quite "racy" for the time.
     
  13. Holly Jolly Christmas by Burl Ives is from 1965. He first recorded it for the TV Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1964 but re-recorded it the following year for his album Have a Holly Jolly Christmas. The song was written by Johnny Marks in 1962 and first appeared as the title song of the Quinto Sisters' first album in 1964. But Burl Ives made it famous.
     
  14. Do You Hear What I Hear by Bing Crosby was written by Noël Regney (words) and Gloria Shayne Baker (music) in October 1962 as a plea for peace during the Cuban missile crisis. The song was originally recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale, the group which had also popularized The Little Drummer Boy (see next track). Their version went on to sell more than a quarter of a million copies during the 1962 Christmas season. The song has since been covered by hundreds of artists and has sold tens of millions of copies. But it is the version by Bing Crosby, released in 1963, that has proven to be the most enduring.
     
  15. The Little Drummer Boy by Harry Simeone Chorale was released in 1958. The song was written as Carol of the Drum by the American classical music composer and teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941. She annotated it as a "Czech carol freely transcribed", but apparently the Czech carol referenced has never been identified. The song was recorded several times without attracting much notice until Harry Simeone rearranged it with his friend Henry Onorati and retitled it The Little Drummer Boy. Simeone and Onorati claimed joint authorship credits with Davis. This version was an enormous seasonal success, generating sales Christmas after Christmas. Over 220 cover versions are known.
     
  16. Mary's Boy Child by Harry Belafonte is from 1956. Belafonte was very popular in the UK, and was most famous at this time for popularising calypso music. Most Brits of the 1950s probably had no idea that he is, in fact, an African American born in New York. Mary's Boy Child was the first single to sell over one million copies in the UK alone. It was written by Jester Hairston, originally for Schumann's Hollywood Choir. Belafonte heard the song being performed by the choir and sought permission to record it. Since then there have been many cover versions recorded by other artists, most notably by Boney M in 1978 which brought enormous success to the song once again.
     
  17. When A Child Is Born by Johnny Mathis is somewhat later than most of the songs in this collection being released in 1976. However, it seems to fit right in. The melody, originally called Soleado, was written by the Italian composer Ciro Dammicco (alias Zacar) in 1974. The English lyrics were written later by Fred Jay. The song became Johnny Mathis' sole number one in the UK Singles Chart, spending three weeks at the top in December 1976.
     
  18. Christmas Song by Nat King Cole is the number one most performed Christmas song. Commonly subtitled Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, it was written in 1945 by Bob Wells (lyrics) and Mel Tormé (music). Although Tormé himself was a well known performer, the song quickly became most associated with Nat King Cole. He recorded it 4 times, in 1946 (twice), 1953 and 1961. This is the 1961 recording, which is the one now universally played.
     
  19. White Christmas by Bing Crosby is the best-selling single of all time, with estimated sales in excess of 100 million copies worldwide. The song was written by Irving Berlin in 1940 and first performed on a radio show on Christmas Day 1941 by Bing Crosby. Originally part of the soundtrack to Crosby's 1942 film Holiday Inn where it was sung as a duet, it was recorded as a solo record also in 1942 (reportedly in 18 minutes). He re-recorded it in 1947 after the 1942 master became damaged due to frequent use. This is the version most often heard today and is the version included here. Every effort was made to make the re-recording sound as close to the original as possible and, like the original, features the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers.
     
  20. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by Frank Sinatra is originally from the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis, with music written by Hugh Martin and sung by Judy Garland. It was recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1950, 1957 and 1963, gradually eclipsing the Judy Garland version as the most popular and familiar version. This is the 1957 recording.
     

Most of the background information here has been gleaned from the amazing Wikipedia, where nothing is too trivial to warrant an article! Many thanks to all the contributors. This page uses the HTML5/Flash javascript audio library by Anthony Kolber, gratefully acknowledged.