december 2011

Phil Spector (standing) in the studio in the 1960s with his favorite engineer, Larry Levine, who died in May 2010, at age 80

The Mythic Weight Of Phil Spector's Christmas Gift

By Billy Altman

Released: 1963; reissued on CD, 1990
ABKCO Records

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-an approach that in just two short years had helped the young record company owner/operator rise to the top of the pop music mountain as he became (in the famous words of Tom Wolfe) America's "First Tycoon of Teen."

1963 had been a spectacular year for 22-year-old Spector and his small roster of artists-the Crystals, the Ronettes, Darlene Love, and "combo" group Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. Spector liked to boast that his marketplace acumen was so sharp that he wouldn't release any record unless and until he was positive it was a hit, and he actually had the numbers to back it up. Between January and September, each and every one of the 10 singles released by Philles had made the Billboard Top 100 charts, with eight making the Top 40, six the Top 30, and three (the Crystals' "Da Doo Run Run" and "Then He Kissed Me" and the Ronettes' debut "By My Baby") reaching the Top 10.

From A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, Darlene Love performs ‘Marshmallow World,’ written in 1949 by Carl Sigman and Peter DeRose.

Suffice it to say, then, that when Spector decided to cap off the year by taking his four acts and going into L.A.'s Gold Star Studios along with engineer Larry Levine, arranger Jack Nitzsche, and his "Wrecking Crew" army of regular session players (including drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, keyboardist Leon Russell and percussionist [yes] Sonny Bono) to record the likes of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman," "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and "White Christmas," expectations for the resulting album were understandably high. Especially since Spector's extreme makeovers of the songs sported all sorts of musical nods to his own hits: the Ronettes' "Frosty the Snowman" referenced the "bum bum-bum" drum hook of "Be My Baby;" the Crystals' "Rudolph" quoted from the arrangement to "Then He Kissed Me;" etc.

‘The Bells of St. Mary’s,’ by Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, from A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector

On these songs, as well as on virtually all the others on the collection, Spector's auteur-like approach made it sound like he wanted to "conquer" Christmas music as much as celebrate it. From track to track, there are what seem to multiple sets of sleigh bells, castanets and glockenspiels all merrily ringing, knocking or clanging away over, under and around the thick swirl of strings, horns, keyboards, guitars, bass and drums. And there's much to admire: "The Bells of St. Mary's," sung by Bob B. Soxxer Bobby Sheen, rises to a gloriously melodramatic fever pitch; the Ronettes' "Sleigh Ride," complete with the sounds of horse hooves, neighs and a horn arrangement swiped from Martha and the Vandellas' "Heat Wave," is a flatout hoot; and the lone original, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," co-authored by Spector with the hit Brill Building duo Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, gives Darlene Love a much-deserved place in the spotlight. And then there's the production's piece-de-resistance: La La Brooks and the Crystals' over-the-top version of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," in which a careful listener can hear what will a decade later be the foundation for Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band's sound on "Born To Run"-a fact underscored by Springsteen's inclusion of the song in his holiday set list for many years.

The Ronettes, ‘Sleigh Ride,’ from A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector

That Phil Spector himself believed his Christmas album was going to be a career-defining event could certainly be inferred from the album-ending final track where, with orchestra and angelic choir rising behind him performing "Silent Night," he steps out from behind the control room to thank everyone involved in "my endeavor to bring something new and different to the music of Christmas and to the record industry which is so much a part of my life."

‘Hello, this is Phil Spector’: the producer’s closing comments to listeners as ‘Silent Night’ plays in the background. A week before the release of A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, President John. F. Kennedy was assassinated. What Spector thought would be a crowning achievement went largely unheard and unacknowledged that Christmas.

A not so funny thing happened to Phil Spector, though, on his way to musical world domination. The week before Thanksgiving, just as A Christmas Gift To You was being shipped for release, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, leading to perhaps the most subdued and solemn holiday season in all of American history. To most people, it was deemed unpatriotic and sacrilegious to celebrate Christmas too heartily that year, and the music in people's homes and on the radio reflected that. What Spector thought would be a crowning achievement (and just in time for his 23rd birthday in late December) went largely unheard and unacknowledged that Christmas--and when the calendar turned to 1964, four moptop kids from Liverpool called the Beatles showed up to breathe new life and spirit into pop music and pop culture. Soon, the handwriting was on the wall of sound for Spector, who wouldn't claim any more Top 20 hits until 1965, when the Righteous Brothers helped him recover some of his glory for a short while. By 1966, though, and the relative commercial failure of his self-professed masterpiece, Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep Mountain High," Spector was shutting the door on Philles Records. His days as the tastemaking "Tycoon of Teen" were over--and we all know where the story twists and turns from there. As for the tipping point, though, one need not look, nor listen, any further than A Christmas Gift To You.

A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024