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Louis Armstrong reads ‘The Night Before Christmas.’
Recorded on February 26, 1971, in Armstrong’s home, this recording was distributed as a single by the Lorillard Company. Two weeks later he had another heart attack and was in intensive care until May 5, when he insisted on going home. On July 5 he announced he was ready to perform again and requested his band convene for rehearsal. He passed away at 5:30 the next morning, July 6.
'Mankind Was My Business!'
Marley's Ghost, a hand-colored etching by John Leech provided for the original 'A Christmas Carol' published in December 1843
"Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed," cried the phantom, "not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed! Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!"
"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
'You know somethin', sweetheart?'
"You know somethin', sweetheart? Christmas is, well, it's about the best time of the whole year. You walk down the streets, even for weeks before Christmas comes, and there's lights hanging up, green ones, and red ones, sometimes there's snow. And everybody's hustling some place. But they don't hustle around Christmas time like they usually do. Y'know, they're a little more friendlier; they bump into you, they laugh and say 'Pardon me' and 'Merry Christmas.' Especially when it gets real close to Christmas night. Everybody's walkin' home, you can hardly hear a sound. Bells are ringin', kids are singin', snow is comin' down. And boy what a pleasure it is to think that you got some place to go to, and the place that you're going to has somebody in it that you really love...someone you're nuts about. Merry Christmas."
(Ralph Kramden reflecting on the Yuletide, from The Honeymooners' Christmas episode, "'Twas The Night Before Christmas," first aired 1955)
In Praise Of Christmas Songs
When we sing these songs, whether we voice them aloud or whisper them in our hearts, we entwine our souls with the powerful parade of humanity that has walked this planet from the time many of the tunes were first appropriated from the Finnish medieval text, Piae Cantiones, in the 17th Century. "Coventry Carol" molds tragedy into beauty in the wistfulness of its ancient melody and the maternal shelter its lyrics promise, which indeed are the words of mothers singing their babes to sleep, while awaiting the imminent arrival of Herod's soldiers to carry out the King's cruel decree to slay the town's firstborn males. The 20th Century carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is even more stirring when you know it was written by an English cleric whose inspiration for the song came from standing in the field outside Bethlehem in which angels were said to have visited the shepherds tending their flocks by night. "O little one sweet" is built around a captivating chorale harmonization composed by J.S. Bach; "Joy to the World" uses a rich melody composed by Handel; the popular version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" sets lyrics by Charles Wesley to a melody by Felix Mendelssohn; and the haunting "In the bleak midwinter" comes courtesy the composer Gustav Holst (best known for "Planets"), who transformed Christina Rossetti's lament over the end of a love affair into one of the most reverent and transcendently beautiful expositions of the Christmas story. We are indebted to the enterprising and nameless citizens of the 17th Century who responded to the Calvinists' and Puritans' bans of all non-religious texts by salvaging them through door-to-door caroling; these folks' unquenchable spirit ultimately spurred the writing of carols customized to fit a new tradition, including the beloved "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." We are indebted to Queen Victoria's consort Prince Albert, who in the 1840s championed the revival of all Yuletide festivities and traditions, thus inaugurating what is now recognized as the modern Christmas season; concurrently, two English clerics rediscovered the Piae Cantiones, and among the reconfigured tunes emerging from this find was a cheery tale of charity and redemption on a night when "the frost was cruel." Based on the reign of King Vaclav the Good of Bohemia, the message in the song "Good King Wenceslas" presumes an innate goodness in humankind's collective heart that breaches class distinctions in service to the downtrodden among us. Dame Kiri, in spectacular voice, cedes the spotlight frequently, allowing baritone Michael George and the choirs of Coventry and Lichfield Cathedrals, accompanied by the keening, triumphant trumpet solos of Jouko Harjanne and the redoubtable BBC Philharmonic conducted by Robin Stapleton, ample room to make powerful statements in their own right. But in the end this disc is not about Dame Kiri or any of her estimable collaborators. It is, in fact, about us, the men and women, girls and boys, who make of this mortal coil a place called home, and what we wish it could be were the better angels of our nature to rule the day. It's Christmas, a time for believing in things you can't see.
Happy Holidays and peace to all. —David McGee
CHRISTMAS WITH KIRI TE KANAWA
CAROLS FROM COVENTRY CATHEDRAL
Buy it at www.amazon.com
THE YOUNGERS: AMERICAN 'HERITAGE'
By David McGee
In 2008 no other American band took as direct a shot at the effects of the faltering economy on working class America as did The Youngers, the Pennsylvania-born and -based quartet whose compelling second album, Heritage, was produced by John Carter Cash, whose own heritage might have taught him a few things about the concerns of average working Americans. Yet Todd Bartolo, the Youngers' founder and principal songwriter, insists he had no intention of writing overtly political songs when assembling the material for Heritage. Rather, he says quite matter of factly, "I was just writing about what I was seeing going on in America as we toured around. Just what was outside our windshield." Herein, Bartolo discusses what exactly it was he saw outside the windshield.
YMA SUMAC: FAREWELL, CHOSEN MAIDEN
by Billy Altman
I know it's something of a cliché to note someone's passing by saying that "there'll never be another [fill in the name]." But hearing the news of a once-famous singer's death on November 1 at age 86 in Los Angeles, I think we have one of those instances where you can safely say it: "There'll never be another Yma Sumac." Just ask the B-52's, or Yoko Ono, or Cyndi Lauper, or any of the many who over the years have been inspired and influenced by the music and image of the ever-mysterious "Nightingale Of The Andes."
AND I AM ALONE UPON THIS LAND
An Appreciation of Boots, Buckles & Spurs: 50 Songs Celebrate 50 Years of Cowboy Tradition
By David McGee
Take this trip one disc at a time, in order, and you'll find it says a lot about how life has changed for cowboys over the past half-century—and how the cowboy's highway mainstay, country music, has changed too. Instructive, illuminating, indispensable—now that's a good box set for you.
DVD REVIEW: JOHNNY CASH'S AMERICA
A moving, and different, take on Johnny Cash's life and legacy in Johnny Cash's America, a DVD/CD combo package that does much more than celebrate Cash's life and legacy—it actually deepens our understanding of the Man in Black. No small feat, that, but one accomplished in grand style here.
A Cavalcade Of Christmas Music Through The Ages
THE YULETIDE REPORT FROM THE CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD
By David McGee
Bing Crosby popularized secular Christmas music, and then some, with his 1942 (later re-recorded in 1947 in the version most often heard today) recording of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," but it was Frank Sinatra who made an art form of both secular and sacred Yuletide music. Herein, a consideration of the Chairman of the Board's Christmas outpouring, a magnificent legacy on which producers Axel Stordahl, Gordon Jenkins, Nelson Riddle and Don Costa left their marks as well.
THE MYTHIC WEIGHT OF PHIL SPECTOR'S CHRISTMAS GIFT
By Billy Altman
Few holiday albums carry the mythic weight of 1963's A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, wherein Spector sought to put his personal stamp on Christmas music by "treating" a batch of well-worn Yuletide classics to his signature "Wall of Sound" production style. Here's what happened next, when tragic history intruded on the young producer-titan's dream project.
JO! JO! JO! AND A MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL...
By David McGee
In recent years most of Jo Stafford's holiday recordings have been returned to print on two CDs, both beautiful and heartfelt. The earliest recordings, collected on Happy Holidays: I Love the Winter Weather, are from her 1955 and 1956 album, Ski Trails and Happy Holidays. The second album in her holiday oeuvre, The Joyful Season: The Voices of Jo Stafford, returns to market her somewhat experimental 1964 long player The Joyful Season, expanded with two excellent bonus tracks and two rich, moving Christmas medleys recorded with Gordon MacRae, both previously unreleased. Suffice it to say, no collection of holiday music can be taken seriously absent her contributions.
THE CHRISTMAS SONG, LIKE NO OTHER CHRISTMAS SONG
By David McGee
Christmas is illegal without Nat King Cole, right? Surely it would violate the laws of this land for a season to pass without the reassuring tones of the man with the smoky grey voice blessing us with a comforting "Merry Christmas...to you," his annual benediction reaffirming warm tidings of home, family and seasonal traditions, unsullied by cynicism, untouched by post-modern angst. No, Christmas is impossible to imagine without Nat King Cole gliding coolly through the classic sentiments penned by Robert Wells, set to music by Mel Torme, beautifully orchestrated by Charles Grean and Nat's favorite arranger Pete Rugulo, with Ralph Carmichael conducting, and further enhanced by Nat's own succinct, tasty piano solo. "The Christmas Song" is, pure and simple, "The Christmas Song," like no other Christmas song.
THE KING KEEPS CHRISTMAS WELL
By David McGee
If not monumental, on a Sinatra scale, which it isn't, Elvis Presley's Christmas oeuvre is nonetheless ingratiating and durable, showing respect for the sacred nature of the seasonal celebrations even as it acknowledges both the festive feelings and the unsettled issues magnified in people's lives at this time of year. Reports are that the King wasn't enthusiastic going into his sessions for these songs, but the evidence on record suggests a deep emotional involvement in the material.
SOLACE AND LAUGHTER IN A VALLEY OF TEARS
By David McGee
Originally released at the end of a tumultuous 1968, Atlantic's Soul Christmas collection, featuring southern soul greats such as Otis Redding, William Bell, Carla Thomas, Clarence Carter, Booker T. & the MG's, and others, came along with a message of love, conciliation and reconciliation, delivered with conviction, warmth, inclusiveness and a dollop of humor. It was recorded by black and white musicians in studios in New York and Nashville, but mostly in Memphis, not far from the Lorraine Motel where the Rev. King lost his life. Soul Christmas abounded in hope without ignoring reality, offered solace and laughter in a valley of tears. It still does; you just have to work a little harder to get there.
SUFFUSED WITH BEAUTY
By David McGee
Nancy Lamott and beauty were on intimate terms. It radiated from her warm personality, resonated in her tender vocals, and suffused the recordings she made before succumbing to cancer in 1995 at age 43. Disc jockey Jonathan Schwartz, described elsewhere in this issue as a friend of and authority on Frank Sinatra, declared Lamott the finest cabaret singer since the Chairman of the Board, praise well earned by Lamott and thoughtfully dispensed by Schwartz. Like Sinatra, Lamott sought out literate songs with a folksy quality-the settings may have been urbane, but the feelings were universal. The Great American Songbook has rarely had such an effective advocate as Nancy Lamott. Her lone Christmas album, Just In Time for Christmas, is a crash course in all that was remarkable about this gifted artist.
A SOUL EVER MORE GRATEFUL FOR WHAT IT KNOWS OF LOVE
By David McGee
The interesting fact about B.B. King's first Christmas album is how the sum of the parts adds up to something greater than what went down in Maurice, Louisiana's Dockside Studios in June 2001. Taken individually, the performances on the album are warm and ingratiating enough, appropriate to the season, some treated in a lighthearted manner, a couple of blues getting down into the depths of feeling; but when it's all over, a spell lingers. There's something special about the imprint B.B. puts on these songs—the conviction in his voice, the personality he projects throughout, Lucille's sunny tone—and when that's coupled to his road band's high spirited accompaniment the end result is a model Yuletide blues album that sneaks up on a listener.
CHRISTMAS IN ANTIQUITY, EXQUISITELY RENDERED
By David McGee
The Baltimore Consort's Bright Day Star and the Anonymous 4's Wolcum Yule celebrate Christmas in music ranging from the Renaissance to early 20th Century Appalachia. These two albums are gems for all seasons.
AJ: RIGHT AT HOME FOR CHRISTMAS
By David McGee
Two very different approaches to Christmas music are defined in Alan Jackson's Yuletide long players. Honky Tonk Christmas, released in 1993, came near the beginning of Jackson's hit-filled career, and it emphasizes his reverence not only for the season but for the style of country music he prefers and has made his trademark when other artists of his generation and younger are recycling '80s arena rock riffs. Let It Be Christmas, from 2002, is from an artist at the top of his game, assured enough to broaden out his basic band with orchestra, strings and a large background chorus, adopting a soft, dreamy pop ambience in stark contrast to the stripped down approach of its holiday predecessor.
AND A SWINGING CHRISTMAS TO YOU, TOO
By David McGee
Ella Fitzgerald’s 1960 holiday treat, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, is unquestionably a testimony to a great singer's unerring way with a song, but her music director, Frank DeVol, made sure to fashion a backdrop that engaged the high art of the voice with inspired work by gifted musicians and supporting vocalists. It's a combination, and an album, that can't be beat.
The Cavalcade Continues with:
ENYA, And Winter Came
TONY BENNETT, Snowfall
DEANA CARTER, Father Christmas
KENNY CHESNEY, All I Want For Christmas Is a Real Good Tan
A CHRISTMAS CELTIC SOJOURN LIVE
CHARLIE DANIELS, A Merry Christmas To All
ARETHA FRANKLIN, Joy To The World
MERLE HAGGARD, A Christmas Present
ETTA JAMES, 12 Songs of Christmas
TOBY KEITH, A Classic Christmas
BRENDA LEE, The Best of Brenda Lee: The Christmas Collection
PATTY LOVELESS, Bluegrass & White Snow
DEAN MARTIN, Christmas With Dino
KATHY MATTEA, Joy For Christmas Day
REBA MCENTIRE, The Best of Reba: The Christmas Collection
JANE MONHEIT, The Season
NEWGRANGE, A Christmas Heritage
JOE NICHOLS, A Traditional Christmas
FERNANDO ORTEGA, Christmas Song
PATTI PAGE, Sweet Sounds of Christmas
BRAD PAISLEY, A Brad Paisley Christmas
BRIAN SETZER ORCHESTRA, Dig That Crazy Christmas
SHEDAISY, Brand New Year
MINDY SMITH, My Holiday
JAMES TAYLOR, James Taylor At Christmas
PAM TILLIS, Just In Time For Christmas
THE VENTURES, The Ventures' Christmas Album
WYNONNA, A Classic Christmas
TRISHA YEARWOOD, The Sweetest Gift
CHRISTMAS COOKIES (Various Artists)
CHRISTMAS ON THE MOUNTAIN (Various Artists)
O CHRISTMAS TREE (Various Artists)
SHIMMY DOWN THE CHIMNEY (Various Artists)
WONDERLAND: COOL DECEMBER (Various Artists)
WONDERLAND: UNDER THE MISTLETOE (Various Artists)
WONDERLAND: YULESVILLE (Various Artists)