Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Twelve Songs Of Christmas Series: #8

 #8 - The Monkees "Riu Chiu" (1967)

Click above to hear "Riu Chiu" 

Every music list needs a wild card, a choice from left field, a long shot, a great unknown, a head-scratcher, one that surprises some and causes others to say “what?”. Maybe it’s so obscure that many will never have heard it, and will either like it or not. That’s the randomness that keeps these lists fresh, that random event like hearing something great on the radio with no advance notice, yet it’s something that sticks with you.

Enter The Monkees - Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, and Peter Tork with their Christmas musical offering from 1967.

This is my indulgence on this list, my attempt to shake it up a bit and feature not only an obscurity but a song which has stuck in my mind for years. I never get tired of watching and hearing it, and prior to seeing this I had never heard the song, and definitely did not associate it with any Christmas music program I had experienced. So it became my own tradition, one which I listen to often every December. And if I just want to hear it, I’ll play it any time of the year.

I’ll admit as a disclaimer in advance, I’m a heavily biased fan of The Monkees. Their music makes me happy, their music was a big influence on me as a musician, and I try to share and promote their music with as many people as possible, especially those who know The Monkees more by reputation than the actual quality of the music they released. Their television show was groundbreaking for its time both technically and thematically, their film “Head” is one of the most unique, bizarre, and most enjoyable films ever made, and overall the legacy will continue as more people reevaluate and revisit their work and base opinions on what they hear and see for themselves.

How do I comment on this, then, without that bias coloring every comment? That would be impossible. Again, consider this entry my personal indulgence in the series.

When considering this performance, I try to put myself back in time, and into the mindset of someone settling in watching the family television set December 25, 1967 as this episode aired on NBC, the fifteenth episode of the second season and the forty seventh episode of the series overall. Called “The Christmas Show”, it was a sweet holiday episode about a kid who lost the Christmas spirit, as played by Butch “Eddie Munster” Patrick. The episode had no music until the final minutes, and the music was not woven into the show in the form of a video interlude which was the show‘s trademark. Imagine the shock and surprise when in those closing minutes the camera cuts to the band seated around a microphone, with Micky Dolenz holding a lit candle and Peter Tork holding incense.

Wait a minute…some viewers and fans must have thought…what is this? Where is the madcap romp, where is the music video featuring quick-cut editing and free-form camera work which we’re used to seeing here? What kind of song is this, they‘re not singing in English?

And the Monkees proceed to sing, a capella, a version of the song  Riu Chiu. Nothing but their voices, no camera or editing gimmicks, no comedy, just the camera staying focused in one position as they sang. It wasn’t a pop song, it wasn’t a “holiday chestnut”, actually it was so far out of the realm of what a band like this would be expected to perform, that it had to be a jolt, it had to be not just a surprise but perhaps even a shock for some viewers.

And that is one reason of several I’m including it here on the Christmas list.

The song itself is a “Villancico”, a form of Latin American song  and poetry which was performed and recited often during the Catholic mass, and was most popular from the 15th to 18th centuries. Specific meter and form was often the characteristic, and as they were recited during holiday church services, they would soon become most associated with Christmas.

The specific villancico “Riu Riu Chiu” had apparently become a Christmas tradition in certain areas of the US up to the 20th century and was often sung as part of a holiday choir or chorus program.

The abridged lyrics were as follows:

The refrain, or chorus which would begin the song as well as answer the verses:
Riu, riu, chiu la guarda ribera
Dios guarde el lobo de nuestra cordera

The first verse:
El lobo rabioso la quiso morder
Mas Dios poderoso la supo defender
Quizole hazer que no pudiesse pecar
Ni aun original esta uirgen no tuuiera

The second verse:
Este uiene a dar a los muertos uida
Y uiene a reparar de todas la cayla
Es la luz del dia aqueste mocuelo
Este es el cordero que San Juan dixera

The title phrase “riu riu chiu” represented a birdcall, some say by a nightingale and others say it was a kingfisher. The verses describe the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

How did this song find its way to the Monkees? The story of how they fired Don Kirshner has been told so many times, it‘s part of rock legend and easily found in any number of sources for those interested. But the result of Kirshner’s dismissal was the hiring of Chip Douglas (who had most recently been a member of The Turtles and arranged ’Happy Together’) to replace him as the band’s producer. According to rock legend, again, Mike Nesmith found him in an LA club and point-blank offered Chip the job. Chip told Mike he had never produced a record, and Mike told him not to worry, he’d teach him everything he needed to know.

Chip Douglas with The Monkees at RCA Studios, 1967

Davy Jones working out a vocal part with Chip Douglas, 1967

And under Chip’s production and keen musical ear, the band would release two albums and several top 5 singles throughout 1967 and into 1968, albums and singles which are now considered pop classics.

From KRLA Beat: Phil Spector with the Modern Folk Quartet and drummer "Fast" Eddie Hoh

Chip Douglas (real name: Douglas Farthing Hatelid) had been a member of the folk revival group the Modern Folk Quartet, who were popular especially in the LA clubs like the Troubadour and their “hootenanny” events, and had relatively good success for a folk group, appearing in one major-studio film. The group’s final recording was produced by Phil Spector, featuring the “Wrecking Crew” backing them, and was eventually used as the theme song for the concert special “The Big TNT Show”. Other members of the band included future legendary rock photographer Henry “Tad” Diltz, future producer and Lovin’ Spoonful member Jerry Yester, and Cyrus Faryar who would produce The Firesign Theater.

On the Modern Folk Quartet’s second album, “Changes”, the group featured an abridged a capella arrangement of “Riu Riu Chiu”, singing only two verses and slightly extending the refrain.

Click above to hear The Modern Folk Quartet's "Riu Chiu" from 1964

This is the version which Chip Douglas would bring to The Monkees, with a nearly identical abridged arrangement, form, and tempo, but omitting the wordless background harmonies during the verses.

In order to understand where this performance appeared in the whirlwind that was the Monkees’ year in 1967, one needs to consider what opinions and expectations were of this group. Their former music producer, Kirshner, had no respect for them as musicians and barely considered them individuals rather than part of his stable of artists, and saw them as disposable if not replaceable anonymous figures who would simply do as Kirshner said and all would be fine. This of course was not only false, but eventually backfired to the point Kirshner was shown the door after the band members went to the show’s producers (i.e. the real power) and demanded that they be given a chance to control and play their own music.

There was still an air of jealousy and resentment around the whole Monkees enterprise, a reputation which was blown out of proportion through various music journalists and commentators, and a reputation which led to five decades of flawed and sometimes false reporting on the history of the band and its legacy. There was supposedly resentment from their fellow musicians, yet each of them was known and performed in and around the LA music scene, and considered many of the so-called “hip” and relevant bands on the scene their friends. There was apparently resentment after Mike Nesmith had publicly revealed the methods Kirshner used to make their hits, which included all but banning the band members from most of the recording process and instead hiring session players to provide the backing tracks. This was standard practice, and the Monkees were not the first and certainly would not be the last to ever release records made under the exact same structure. Yet, they forever got tagged with the inaccurate line “they don‘t play their own instruments”, which segued into the even more inaccurate “they’re not real musicians”, much like I believe Kirshner viewed them prior to his firing.

1967 however did find the band with a handful of top 5 singles, a major hit TV show, two #1 albums on the charts and a third reaching top 5, successful tours including a successful British jaunt which found them spending time with The Beatles, two Emmy awards, and many other trappings of fame which made them among the most popular musicians and actors of the year, especially among the teenage audience.

Jimi Hendrix, Mike, and Peter on tour, July 1967

At the close of the year 1967, what were the expectations for what they would offer their audience and fans as a special Christmas performance? I’d suggest if Kirshner were still calling the musical shots, he’d have them either perform some silly, inane musical comedy number like “I’m Getting Nuttin For Christmas” or some throwaway novelty tune he’d commission one of his songwriting staff to write “for the boys to sing on TV”. Or, perhaps they would have dressed up in costume and performed a classic like “Silver Bells” while riding in a sleigh, like a teenage version of Bob and Dolores Hope’s holiday theme song, looking perhaps totally out of place and out of their element.

The number one single in the US for the entire month of December 1967

But Kirshner, thankfully, was no longer involved. And the band, with Chip Douglas, was in control of their music. Their most recent single “Daydream Believer” was number one on the Billboard singles chart for the entire month of December 1967, the most popular song in the country as the Christmas episode was set to air.

So what would the band do? Would they do a cover of a Christmas standard, but done in their current sound as heard on the album “Headquarters”, or their recent hit singles “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Daydream Believer“? Guitar-driven, electric country-folk-rock with splashes of keyboard and catchy vocals, most often from Micky Dolenz who had one of the best voices in pop music at the time?

None of the above, in fact nothing even close or remotely predictable was featured. The performance which aired that Christmas night in 1967 was as surprising as it is shocking as it is unexpected, and ultimately all of that context combined with the performance itself created a sublime and even stunning visual and aural television moment from a source you wouldn‘t have expected, whether in 1967 or the present day.

Yes, it’s basically the Modern Folk Quartet’s version as arranged by Chip Douglas, with subtle variation. But it also stands as a confident and self-assured statement, where the context again plays a part in the performance itself. The band performs this acapella, filmed live, with nothing to hide behind. They feature a relatively obscure piece of music, with a religious theme, sung in a language other than English, several hundred years old rather than a song with all the trappings of a modern pop song, as many bands and artists would have chosen in that same situation.

And that is another part of why it’s on the list. This performance was risky, and as they risked confusing if not alienating some of their fans who tuned in expecting traditional light holiday fare (or musical comedy) from their favorite group. Yet they took that risk, on their own terms, and delivered an unexpected classic.

Micky Dolenz had one of the most unique and accessible voices in 1960’s pop music. Not only could he sing, but he could sing with a certain emotion and connection to the listeners that marked the most successful pop artists. He was a consummate musician with that voice, and the hit records he sang with the Monkees still hold up as classics.

On the verses of “Riu Chiu”, Micky shines in a brilliantly understated way. He’s not showing off, but rather delivering the lyrics in a confident yet reverent style. Notice as he sings the verse, soloing on his own with no backing, which was a diversion from the MFQ’s version, Peter Tork looks over at him and smiles. Wherever that smile came from, it looks to an observer like a musician watching his fellow bandmate in full flight, loving every note and enjoying the moment.

I had not known the song prior to seeing this, and as a second-generation Monkees fan from the 1980’s who first saw them as MTV ran the episodes back-to-back, received the Arista greatest hits album as a Christmas gift, and would tape the songs off my TV as I watched them on Nickelodeon and WOR channel 9 from New York in syndicated reruns, at first I had no idea what the song was and wasn’t even sure about what I had just heard and seen. For one, the Christmas episode was not often shown during the syndicated reruns of the series. The song itself was only released when it appeared on a rarities compilation CD called “Missing Links vol. 2”. And the song had never been part of a Christmas music program or service I had seen. So it was new to my ears.

But I never forgot watching it on television, both the visual and the audio stuck with me. I’m guessing many viewers in 1967, the first generation audience, felt much the same way.

Note too that the “official” studio version of the song from Missing Links was not what was shown on television. The version on the compilations was a studio version recorded in August 1967 and featured Micky, Peter, Mike, and Chip Douglas but not Davy Jones. As performed on television, Chip was not featured and you get the four band members themselves, where you can clearly hear Davy’s middle voice in the live blend.

All of that meant if you didn’t have a copy of the Christmas episode from 1967, for years you did not have access to the performance. Such a radical, foreign concept in terms of 2013 to not have instant access to search and find something on demand, isn’t it?

Enjoy this short but compelling performance. If it’s new to your eyes and ears, maybe it will be a surprise or a shock. If you like it, love it, or think it’s below-average or worse, at least you have experienced it. And if you experience it now with some of the context which surrounded it in 1967, I hope it takes on a meaning and a significance not just as a musical performance but also as a statement coming from a band who was more often underestimated than they were given the credit as musicians which they probably deserved in retrospect.

And perhaps enjoying this performance will become a part of your own yearly Christmas and holiday music tradition as well.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Twelve Songs Of Christmas Series: #9

#9 - The Drifters "White Christmas" (1954)

click above to hear The Drifters "White Christmas"

Visualize, customize, personalize, revise; fabricate, recalibrate, renovate, create. This is the essence of the hot rod culture in America. It can be traced to a number of eras in history, with the automobile in general it was seen in thousands of Model T owners finding ways to rework the Tin Lizzie Model T and its engine to suit their needs in everything from running farm equipment to driving for sport. In post-war America, however, the pursuit became an obsession for tens of thousands, from GI’s returning from the war to teenagers to mechanics and race drivers.

What they created could stand as one of the finest examples of American folk art to come out of the 20th Century. What they created in some cases also led to advances in automotive design, engineering, and construction, not only in the racing field but also for everyday drivers. But the focus of those who exploded the hobby after the war was changing the rules, going faster, and creating not only a personal statement through their creations but one whose form and function were filtered through a vision and a goal to go further, faster, and make it unique in the process.

Many of them relied on what they had learned working around engines, machines, and sheet metal, whether it came from their roles in the military, training as a mechanic, or a self-taught version of the above. They’d get together for meets, to talk shop, and to race each other. They’d buy whatever magazines and papers were available, where they’d get ideas and inspiration from whatever the other guys were doing. They’d visit local garages who might let them come in after hours to do some work, they’d collect parts and scrap metal and begin reshaping them to fit their vision, and at various times in the process they’d gather and meet and trade tips, stories, and compare notes on what worked and what didn’t pan out in their attempts.

It was competition as much as sharing knowledge. You had to know your craft before attempting to create something you had envisioned. If you weren’t good with engines, you’d find someone willing to teach you, maybe get a part-time job pumping gas or cleaning up at a garage and try to learn from the mechanics in between everything else. If you were lacking in the skills to use lead to reshape part of your car’s exterior, maybe you’d find an old-timer who would let you sit and watch as he worked, and maybe even give you the lead to try for yourself. If you went to the track and saw a driver consistently faster with his car than anyone else, you could try to ask what made it different, or if that driver held those trade secrets close to the vest, maybe you’d catch a friend of his at the right time and pry some insider info from them.

All told, it added up to what some called the “car culture” or the “hot rod culture”, the stuff songs were written about and movies featured.

How do we take something which was perfectly fine in both form and function as sold commercially, and make it our own? How do we make it go faster, make it look better, make it in the image of our creative imagination? One of the first steps after visualizing the concept was to streamline the existing design, and remove anything deemed unnecessary or strictly ornamental in the name of reducing any extra weight which would reduce speed. And removing those ornaments would also allow someone to replace them with designs of their own, everything from wheel designs to body shapes to the gear-shift knob. You would not only rework the existing car, but you would *own* the design too.

It is within a similar spirit and coincidentally in the same era that a song like “White Christmas” gets the hot rod treatment by the group The Drifters in 1954.

And hearing that record, with the context and backstory and all other external and internal factors at work, it stands to me as one of the most uniquely American records ever made, even beyond its obvious status as a Christmas favorite. And contained in the recording is one of the finest musical clarion-call moments to ever be recorded, a defining vocal and musical statement that stands alongside Louis Armstrong’s introductory trumpet call from “West End Blues”, Charlie Parker’s legendary solo break on “Night In Tunisia”, Elvis’ unaccompanied “Well since my baby left me…” on “Heartbreak Hotel”, and even Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” and what that meant to guitarists in 1978. Those short musical statements rewrote the rules, and announced to everyone that something new was happening, something different, and that the bar had just been set higher for the competition.

The story of “White Christmas” has been told and reported often. However, some interesting trivia and new discoveries have surfaced or do not get mentioned as often. The recording by Bing Crosby is still credited by many as the best selling single recording of all time, and the song itself factoring in all cover versions that have been released has sold over 100 million copies.

Irving Berlin at the piano

The songwriter was, as so many already know, Irving Berlin. In 1940 Berlin was contracted to write songs featuring each of the holidays for a film to be called “Holiday Inn”. Reports say that the normally self-assured and confident Berlin - known to exclaim “I’ve just written the best song ever!” after finishing a song - was concerned he would not be able to capture the essence of a holiday which he did not celebrate. He relied on his observations and memories of how he saw people celebrating Christmas, from the imagery and visuals like sleigh bells and snow  to the actual trees being decorated. That lack of confidence continued up to the point where he played the song for Bing Crosby, who was going to be in the film. Bing heard the song and assured Berlin that it would be just fine for the project.

Bing Crosby singing into an RCA 44 ribbon microphone

The song was premiered on one of Bing’s radio broadcasts from December 25, 1941, just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. A recording of that broadcast was long thought to have been lost or destroyed, however a recording someone had made from their radio did surface, and is now owned by Crosby’s estate. A short clip of that rare recording was broadcast on CBS during a Charles Osgood report on the song , December 25 2011, on “CBS This Morning”. I do not believe a full version has ever been released officially.

Poster for "Holiday Inn", 1942

The original, formal recording session connected to the film took place in May 1942, and the film was released that August. Originally released as part of a series of 78rpm records from the film’s soundtrack, the song eventually took on a life of it’s own and became a massive hit, if not one of the signature songs of the era and a part of American popular culture and holiday tradition.

The original Decca 78rpm

As happens sometimes with the truly legendary songs that become more than a piece of music and become instead a part of popular culture and shared experience, the song “White Christmas” and Bing Crosby’s recording of it would have a meaning attached to it by both historical events and simple timing which I doubt anyone involved in the writing or recording of it had envisioned, or imagined. As World War Two continued throughout 1942, there was a real feeling that played out for tens of millions of American families, and their family members who were called to war. For them, far from home and not knowing what the future would bring, the simple phrase “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” was their collective reality. They could not be home, they may never again get home, so the sentiment in the song where Christmas as they knew it was only possible in their dreams was powerful. And the last line, “May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white…” can take on so many meanings, from someone not being home yet wishing others the best during the holidays, to those family members wishing for the best for their loved ones not present, to the simple wish for everyone that the ideal holiday be a reality in whatever way is possible.

The power of a song like this hits home for me personally, because once I was old enough to really comprehend what I was hearing, especially after I turned eighteen, I remember every year the week before Christmas my dad would tell me about that week in 1943. In his senior year of high school, after just turning 18 that October, he got orders to report for his basic training (‘boot camp’ in the Navy) and board a train on December 23, 1943. He said there were grown men and also kids his own age around him on that train openly weeping at the thought of not being home for Christmas that year, and not knowing when the next Christmas would be that they would be home again to celebrate Christmas “just like the ones we used to know”.

Imagine that song, with those lyrics, in that context, and it becomes emotionally devastating, at the same time explaining how the song became what it did.

Recording technology becomes part of the backstory as the song continued to grow in popularity, even after the war. Recordings were done at that time “direct to disc”, which meant whatever was played in the studio would be recorded direct to a disc that was cut on a lathe in the studio. The “master” was often a metal disc, or some form of a disc where the grooves would be cut into a coating on the metal disc. Over time, and repeated plays, the disc itself would deteriorate, and the grooves would be ground down to the point where the sound quality would suffer each time it was played. Also, the discs themselves were fragile, and had to be handled very carefully to avoid scratching, cracking, or other damage.

Enter Bing Crosby, “White Christmas”, and magnetic tape. This is a part of the story which is rich in irony as well as great fodder for trivia…

Bing Crosby was one of the most popular figures in America in the 1940’s. He would do regular radio broadcasts, besides his records and film appearances. As such, he was also a very wealthy man. In the wake of Germany’s surrender in 1945, the US had all kinds of specialists and experts sent to Germany to analyze and study various technologies which the German military had been developing, sometimes reverse-engineering a machine or a device in order to learn what made it work, and copy it if necessary.

Among those was an American officer named Richard Ranger who was part of the Army’s “Signal Corps”, the group who handled communications. This officer was also an electronics and audio engineer who had seen and worked on magnetic tape recorders which had been confiscated, along with three actual tape recorders called the “Magnetophon“ which was in production in Germany during the war and had been brought to the US. This was new, and potentially revolutionary technology in the field of audio recording, as some of the magnetic tape machines were capable of things the various experimental labs in the US had not yet developed. That officer would soon have the plans and the designs, and would return to the US eventually searching for financial backing to use the designs in manufacturing high-quality recording equipment.

Bing Crosby with some of the tape recording technology he funded

One of those approached was Bing Crosby. Bing liked the idea of being able to record onto tape rather than disc, mainly so he didn’t need to travel coast-to-coast to do his regular radio shows. Rather, he would be able to record a full program onto the magnetic tape reel, and that tape not being near as fragile yet offering better fidelity than the acetate discs or transcription discs which were still the industry standard, he could stay home and simply send the tapes out as necessary. So Bing invested in the technology, that technology eventually went to companies like Rangertone and Ampex and through Ampex to pioneers like Les Paul, and modern recording (up to the digital era) was born, along with Ranger himself becoming a key figure in developing the way film could be synchronized with audio tape.

Unfortunately in 1942 there was no magnetic tape in use when “White Christmas” was recorded. It was cut directly to a metal master disc. Every time a new release was ordered due to demand and popularity, that metal master would be used and each time would degrade in quality that much more.

The record was so popular, and demand only seemed to increase by each year, that by 1947 the master was deemed unusable.

What many listeners do not realize is that the “old” or “original” recording by Bing Crosby that is played endlessly on radio stations and on television is not the original. Bing actually went into the studio again in 1947 and attempted to duplicate as close as they possibly could the original 1942 master. he called the same orchestra, under the direction of John Scott Trotter, and rerecorded “White Christmas”. This is the version most hear every year, as the original 1942 recording was barely if ever reissued or heard until recently. If you listen close enough, you’ll note the intros are slightly different:
Click above to hear the original 1942 Bing Crosby recording

Click above to hear The Ravens' 1948 cover version

With that kind of universal success, the cover versions by other artists was an inevitable consequence. There were dozens of them even in the 1940’s, but one to note specifically was done by an R&B vocal combo called The Ravens. The Ravens were modeled after the styles of the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, and were very popular on the R&B charts as well as live performances up to the rock and roll and Doo-wop era. Their bass singer, named Ricky Ricks, was usually the featured lead which was and still is rare for a vocal harmony group, and they also had a high tenor named Maithe Marshall. Ricks and Marshall would often trade leads on verses, creating a unique contrast and part of the band’s sonic “hook”. They recorded their cover version of “White Christmas” in fall 1948, and that version charted in the top 10 on the R&B charts that year.

Fast forward to February 1954. An R&B vocal group “The Drifters”, recording for Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun on Atlantic (which is still primarily an R&B label) is in the studio recording, and one of the songs is “White Christmas”. Their inspiration for this new arrangement was the cover by The Ravens. Featuring a lead bass voice handling the first verses, then a high tenor on the next, and ending with a burst of “Jingle Bells” at the close, you can hear that direct influence in form and sequence.

However, what the Drifters did with White Christmas is among the greatest musical versions of the hot-rod ethic as has ever been recorded.

The story of The Drifters is important to the history, but in light of the fact that the group in its history has had over 60 members, and is fraught with enough personnel changes, firings, legal actions, and historical confusion that I’d recommend anyone interested in their history seek out one of many volumes dedicated to the group. If the twists and turns and confusions can be summed up here, I’d mention the group was inducted into the Hall Of Fame, but had to be inducted twice to include the membership changes under which the name “The Drifters” had hit records in the 1950’s.

The early version was built around the tenor voice of Clyde McPhatter. Clyde was, simply put, one of the most influential voices in R&B and Rock and Roll. His unique style and phrasing, not to mention his high-tenor sound, was an influence on nearly everyone who sang rock and roll or doo-wop in the 50’s and beyond, perhaps more notably Elvis whose style would resemble Clyde’s and whose records like “Money Honey” he would cover. Along with Clyde, the Drifters’ bass singer was Bill Pinckney, who started in the group as a tenor but was moved to bass after a personnel shift. The other voices were Andrew and Gerhart Thrasher in the middle.

In that version of the group, they had the same formula for covering White Christmas as they had heard on The Ravens’ version from 1948. Pinckney singing bass could take the first verses, then McPhatter would take over on the next, and they’d end by quoting Jingle Bells in harmony, in free-time.

But what they created became more than a cover, more than a cover OF a cover if we take it that far. It became a unique statement, an individualized and personalized musical statement where they reworked, reshaped, streamlined, and customized an already legendary recording which was already as perfect as it could be in the 1942 Bing Crosby recording, and they streamlined it to make it their own.

In other words, they owned it on that recording.

The Ravens’ version is more a product of the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers formula, with guitar backing and harmonies which are jazzy without being pure jazz. The Ravens’ singers do expand the melody, adding notes above and below Berlin’s original phrases, but even then those singers remain relatively close to the key of the song. The groove is more jazz, not much of a backbeat, in fact it does sometimes break the rhythm entirely to accommodate a vocal phrase or two.

Compare that to the Drifters‘ record. Scrapping the celeste and chime-y instrumental intro, they start right on Pinckney’s descending wordless bass to kick it off. Subtle organ, piano. guitar, bass, and brushes set the rhythm section groove as the middle voices anchor the harmony. Pinckney’s bass melody stays closer to Bing Crosby’s original than the Ravens, and comes nowhere close to the down and up bass vocal gymnastics which the Ravens were known for. He plays it relatively straight, adding just enough variation and new inflections to make people notice.

Then Clyde McPhatter steps up to the microphone.

The way he phrases, the notes he chooses, the way he breathes and ends those phrases…it’s a tour-de-force of vocal technique, control, and all the elements of rhythm and attitude which made the best R&B music timeless and so influential.

It needs to be heard.

All I can point out apart from what everyone can hear on that record is his second verse. He has just seemingly exploded his voice in volume and intensity on the word “snow”, ending the last phrase with a flurry of vibrato and near-screaming volume that threatens to send the track into distortion. You think the song is at it’s peak, and he’ll stay in “shout voice” on the next phrase…

But instead, he delivers one of the finest vocal phrases in popular music history, in an understated yet fully in-control way, as he glides down the reworked melody, repeating rather than sustaining the word “I”, and revising it to include a pitch bend which he didn’t even do on the first verse. “I” becomes “ah-yiii-yi-yi”, and it’s as glorious a reworking of a melody as you’ll hear. Put into the context of 1954, of the near-reverence and popularity of the original Bing Crosby record, of the whole thing whatever that may be…it’s a singer showing his technique, showing his skills and his authority, and understating it for even greater effect.

It’s simply a perfect part on a terrific cover of an already-perfect song and recording that is the most popular song in history, according to some.

Yet they found a unique way to personalize it, in other words, “hot rod” the existing vehicle.

And if you listen close, really close, to that Clyde McPhatter second-verse vocal phrase on the simple word “I”, it sounds like he’s smiling so much he can’t help but let out a bit of a laugh as he ends his phrase on “dreaming“.

Maybe he knew he had just sung a line that people would be talking about and copying 60 years later.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Twelve Songs Of Christmas Series: #10

  #10 - The Ventures "Sleigh Ride" (1965)

click above to hear "Sleigh Ride"

Guitarists are a unique clan, even among their fellow musicians. I know, I’m one of them. We’re wired differently, maybe we see and hear things differently and act accordingly. Evidence of this can be seen in the jokes that have circulated among the musician community, those jokes like “How do you make a guitarist stop playing?…Give him sheet music to read.”, and “How many guitarists does it take to change a light bulb?…Two: One to change it and another to say Steve Vai (or Eddie Van Halen or Yngwie Malmsteen etc…) can do it faster.”

When guitarists listen to music, it’s the difference between a regular person watching a magician do his or her act, and a fellow magician in the audience at that same magic show. The regular folks will watch and enjoy the “magic”, while the other magician may watch and observe with a keen eye, analyzing and dissecting the magic being performed and attempting to figure out what techniques and methods are going into those tricks, and how to learn, adapt, and transform them into things they can use in their own repertoire.

The guitarist hears a recording, or a performance, always with an ear dedicated to that pursuit. Those times when a guitarist hears a fellow guitarist do something special, something unique, something different…something special enough to strike our ears and make us look up from whatever we’re doing…we are not content to just sit back and enjoy it, as much as that is important in the process of listening to music. No, instead we have to set out to analyze, dissect, and learn how it was done. The first opportunity we have to get to a guitar, we’ll jump into the process of figuring out the “magic” so we can learn and then use for ourselves (in other words ‘steal’) whatever that was which made us notice something special or unique in a series of hundreds of musical notes.

The Ventures’ version of “Sleigh Ride” has several of those moments, those little phrases or techniques that caused me, and I’m sure thousands of other guitarists, to not only notice them and enjoy them, but also immediately want to know just what that sound was and how they performed it.

Besides being a terrific cover of a well-known song, a unique cover representative of a bygone era in pop music when the instrumental was as popular and as relevant as any vocal or group recording competing for sales, airplay, and chart position, The Ventures’ “Sleigh Ride” is pure joy to hear and experience. It’s the kind of holiday record which you hear and can’t help but smile, tap your foot or nod your head along with the beat, and just feel good in general as you’re listening.

Leroy Anderson

The song “Sleigh Ride” is actually not a Christmas song, rather it was composed by Leroy Anderson (started in 1946, finished in ‘48) during a July heat wave, where he imagined someone gliding through the snow in winter. There was an orchestral version recorded and released in 1949 by The Boston Pops under the baton of Arthur Fiedler, a friend of Anderson. The familiar lyrics were added a year later.

Leroy Anderson was born and raised in the Cambridge and Boston area, studying at Harvard and the New England Conservatory among others. Besides being a studied composer and musician, he was a brilliant linguist too, fluent in nine languages. This led to him working in counterintelligence in the Army during World War Two, stationed at The Pentagon and in Iceland among other locales, as a translator and analyst. He continued to compose music during his time in the army, and was actually recalled to active duty again during the Korean War.

Anderson was considered a “light classical” composer, in the less-challenging musical style which various Pops orchestras and “easy listening” stations would feature: Sophisticated enough to be considered something other than pop, yet accessible enough for non-classical audiences. I consider him more of a popular composer: His compositions became so well-known, so much a part of the popular culture, that they transcend a genre or label. Sleigh Ride, The Syncopated Clock…even if listeners do not know the works by title, they recognize the music from the thousands of times it has been heard in various formats.

Leroy Anderson’s affiliation with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops dates back to the 1930’s, where he and Fiedler crossed paths in the Boston music scene as Leroy wrote, led bands, conducted, and performed in the area. It was Fiedler who encouraged him to write and compose original material, which Fiedler would often perform with the Pops.

That is the short version of how the song became forever associated with the Boston Pops’ annual Christmas programs, and remains to this day a great tradition as well as a signature song and performance for the Pops and their loyal audiences. Both the instrumental and lyrical versions became perennial Christmas favorites, even though, again, the song is not about Christmas at all! But the mood is set so perfectly in the music, it is a natural fit for the holiday season.

The Ventures' classic mid-60's lineup, with their Mosrite guitars

Enter The Ventures. This was a group of  guys from the Pacific Northwest who were playing and gigging around Tacoma, Washington in the late 1950’s. In 1960 they cut a record called “Walk, Don’t Run”, an instrumental based on a Chet Atkins recording of the song, and it became a hit. They would soon move to Los Angeles, to be in the center of the music scene, where they would find a new drummer named Mel Taylor, with a heavy sound, solid beat, and experience working as a house drummer in Hollywood clubs. This was the classic lineup of the 1960’s Ventures which saw them eventually become the top selling instrumental group of all time, with sales well over 100 million copies worldwide.

Beyond sales and popularity, they were pioneers of sorts in the studio. They would try out all kinds of then-new effects for their guitars and in the studio, everything from fuzz pedals to backwards tape and primitive versions of the Talk Box and vocoder. They were actually more of an album-based band than a “singles” band, although they had hit singles as well. Their albums are considered by some to be precursors to the “concept album” in rock music, which exploded and was soon done to death by the 1970’s. All songs centered around a specific theme, and were sequenced in specific ways to enhance that theme.

They were also perhaps the first band to receive a full endorsement from an instrument manufacturer to sell a line of guitars and basses marketed as the “Ventures Model”, sold by the Mosrite company. So great was their popularity among budding guitarists, not only was a single model introduced, but a full line of instruments each bearing the band’s name and logo. The Mosrite Ventures model instruments found a new audience in the 1970’s when punk and new wave guitarists like Johnny Ramone played them on stage, and their popularity as an underground favorite continues today.

The Ventures are literally superstars in Japan, selling over 40 million records so far. As popular as their music was in America, they are so highly regarded and so loved in Japan that the Japanese emperor himself in 2010 awarded them a prestigious medal “The Order of the Rising Sun”, and hundreds of Ventures cover bands and tribute shows perform regularly throughout Japan. The band’s sound inspired a Japanese phrase “teke-teke”, which is still used to describe their guitar style and sound.

The classic Ventures lineup heard on “Sleigh Ride” was Nokie Edwards on lead guitar, Don Wilson on rhythm guitar, Mel Taylor on drums, and Bob Bogle (the original lead guitarist in Tacoma) on bass. The group in the mid-60’s was recording at one of the finest studio facilities in Los Angeles, if not the entire country, at United in Hollywood. United/Western, under the ownership of Bill Putnam’s Universal Audio (UA) company, was one of the most successful and best-equipped (and most well-staffed) recording facilities, a reputation it still holds today among enthusiasts and musicians. The Ventures had access to the finest equipment, and master engineers like Jim Lockert, Eddie Brackett, and various others who in any given week might record Sinatra, Dean Martin, The Beach Boys, Jan And Dean, and a radio jingle for Goodyear Tires, all with an expert touch and the highest level of engineering skill and instinct.

The Ventures themselves, apart from perhaps Mel Taylor, were not schooled musicians. They were not “readers”, nor were they musical chameleons who could go from session to session and adapt, on demand, to whatever music was in front of them, though they were a great self-contained band with a unique sound and the technical skills to pull it off. But they were in the middle of the classic era for studio musicians, in Los Angeles this was “The Wrecking Crew”. They could contract the finest pop players in Hollywood to enhance and augment their sound, with little rehearsal or “breaking in”, pro musicians who could also if necessary sound exactly like the group they were enhancing…more on that later.

By this time in 1965, the group had been working with producer Joe Saraceno, a key figure in the history of surf music as well as one of the top producers of instrumental music in the 60’s. Joe was behind a series of national hit records, all instrumentals, which at the time were released under a variety of band names but in reality were various session players from the “Wrecking Crew” playing as that band in the studio. Among these hits and “imaginary” bands were the Marketts with “Outer Limits”, The Routers with “Let’s Go”, and the T-Bones with their take on an Alka Seltzer jingle called “No Matter What Shape (Your Stomach’s In)”…each of them familiar hits which have been used as theme songs, jingles, and background music for years. Prior to that he worked on “Underwater” by the Frogmen, the record which gave Beach Boy Brian Wilson the hook to his own “Do It Again” years later, and Saraceno in his capacity working in A&R at Candix Records in the early 60’s had actually gotten the Beach Boys released on the Candix label with their first original song “Surfin’”. The Beach Boys prior to that were named the Pendletones, and Saraceno along with Russ Regan changed their name on the label without telling them, to make them more marketable.

In the fall of 1965 they hit on a great idea for a concept album: A Christmas album, but with each Christmas song melded together with an intro from and the basic groove lifted off of one of their previous hits or signature instrumentals. This is how “Sleigh Ride” starts with the intro taken directly from “Walk Don’t Run”, which by 1965 had actually charted twice, one from the Tacoma days and another as a remake called “Walk Don’t Run 64”.

The session information for “Sleigh Ride” is fortunately available in the form of the original AFM (Local 47)  contract sheet. On September 28, 1965, the core group and five session musicians recorded “Sleigh Ride”, “Jingle Bells”, “Rudolph” and “Frosty The Snowman” at United Recorders, the session running from 1 to 4 in the afternoon. Drummer Mel Taylor is listed as contractor. The additional players listed were Orville “Red” Rhodes on guitar, Julius Wechter, Frank DeVito and Eddie Brackett Jr. on percussion, and Evelyn Freeman-Roberts on keyboards.

(A side note: That same week the real Ventures were recording the Christmas songs, a group consisting of Wrecking Crew musicians were simultaneously recording a Ventures guitar instructional album, in the same studios. There was a series of these instructional guitar albums released in the 60’s, and were successful for what they were, but it’s ironic to have both the real Ventures and their session-musician counterparts recording at the same time in the same place, September 1965.)

Julius Wechter in the studio

Frank DeVito

Red Rhodes in his repair shop

Julius Wechter was among the “first call” studio percussionists and mallet players in LA who would later find success leading his group “The Baja Marimba Band”, an offshoot of Herb Alpert’s “Tijuana Brass”, on whose records he also played. Red Rhodes was a legendary pedal steel guitarist who also did repair and modification work on the instruments and amps of his fellow LA musicians, which included building customized effects units which the Ventures among others used on their recordings. Frank DeVito was among the best first-call drummers in LA, alongside Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, and has worked with everyone from Sinatra to Elvis and is on dozens of legendary recordings.

Session keyboardist and bandleader Evelyn Freeman Roberts

The most unusual credit, yet one of the most valuable “secret weapons” for the Ventures in the studio and a groundbreaking musician in her own right was Evelyn Freeman Roberts. Many of those classic organ parts on Ventures records were played by Evelyn. When she played the Sleigh Ride sessions, she was a few years shy of 50, while most of the artists she was backing were in their 20’s or younger. The sister of the brilliant musician and arranger/producer Ernie Freeman - who worked with so many but his records with Sinatra are perhaps most well-known - Evelyn herself was a skilled musician who actually led dance bands at a time when this was a very rare job for a female musician. Even in her younger years, playing with her brother in the family band, she was an expert sight-reader who would leave the classical world and enter the dance and pop fields. She would also cut several singles under her own name in the 50’s and 60’s, and her reading ability and musicianship made her a natural for session work.

One of the unsung heroes of the LA musician scene, contributing some great parts but remaining in the background: Evelyn Freeman Roberts.

The record starts with a familiar drum intro from Mel Taylor, starting with a snare fill and establishing that signature loud, stomping beat. It’s the intro from “Walk Don’t Run” - the rhythm section of Bogle and Wilson then join in with the familiar descending chords, and Nokie Edwards fires up the lead guitar melody, joined by the exuberant percussion section with sleigh bells, shaker, and glockenspiel, anchored by some subtle chords on the keyboard. It’s “Sleigh Ride”, Ventures-style, and like Phil Spector and others had done with their rock-pop leaning versions, they omit Anderson’s bridge (‘There’s a Christmas party at the home of Farmer Gray…’). Instead, they cycle through the main changes much like Spector, only adding another drum break and restatement of the intro before taking it out on a very surf-like high C-chord, bent with the tremolo bar.

But that lead guitar by Nokie…amazing. He throws nearly every technique and trick he has up his sleeve into that part. He goes from clean picking…all enhanced by the *perfect* blend of Fender-style spring reverb…to tremolo bar dips and returns, to muted picking, to double-stop punctuations, to major 7th tremolo bar dives, to raking the strings over a chord in a form of what would develop as “sweep picking”, to sustaining an arpeggio over that great ambiguous chord of Anderson’s, played on the 10th and 12th fret, only to return without missing a beat to his 3rd fret to start up the melody…

Whew. Breathtaking guitar playing, for 1965, on a “pop” record. The first time I heard and noticed the guitar part, I was literally stunned by those tremolo-bar dips, what would later be called “dive bombs”. He took the lowest note of the melody, on his low E-string, and slammed the bar so far down as to make the string completely slack. With the reverb, it created such a non-musical, atonal, yet perfect effect, and for this kind of record it was the most punk sounding guitar statement I had heard apart from Scotty Moore on “Hound Dog”. I *had* to learn how he did that, and did it without missing a beat. Same for those rakes or sweep-picking arpeggios on the minor 7ths…I knew those from the modern guys like Frank Gambale and Yngwie, and before that the country swing pickers like Chet Atkins and Harold Bradley and various jazzers…and in 2013 it’s a technique that’s all but ubiquitous and often overused in metal and hardcore…but to hear this nascent form of it on “Sleigh Ride”, of all songs? Incredible.

So for all of the folks listening to “Sleigh Ride” by The Ventures, and tapping their foot, nodding their head, movin’ and groovin’ to one of the all-time great amped-up rocked-out Christmas recordings, remember the guitar players out there who hear it and get the immediate urge to reach for the closest guitar available to play along with what just blew their mind for the first or the 500th time…

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Twelve Songs Of Christmas Series: Song #11

#11 - The Harry Simeone Chorale "The Little Drummer Boy" (1958)

Click above to hear "The Little Drummer Boy"

Timeless. Definitive. Classic. Traditional. How does a song or a recording of a song attain the status where those descriptive terms are appropriate? There are many factors, many reasons, but what takes a song from a composition to a recording to a tradition enjoyed by generations to follow after the initial release or premiere? There is no right answer, rather it becomes a combination of factors that ultimately determine those pieces of music that are in fact timeless.

One of those recordings is The Little Drummer Boy, as recorded by The Harry Simeone Chorale and released in 1958.

It’s amazing to listen and think the recording dates to 1958, and the song itself from 1941. It sounds for all the world like a traditional chorale which had been sung for several hundred years.

Where did it originate, how did it develop, what was changed or revised to create the definitive recording of the song itself?

Katherine Kennicott Davis

The song was composed in 1941 by a composer and music teacher named Katherine Kennicott Davis. Having studied music and composition at Wellesley, she also studied at the New England Conservatory among others, winning various awards and prizes for composition. She would go on to teach music at various academies and private schools for girls, including one in Philadelphia. As she taught and continued to compose, she saw a lack of chorale and choir pieces composed not only for girls but also for untrained singers, and she began to write and arrange her own compositions to fill that void. She would eventually write six hundred compositions, among those a piece called “Carol Of The Drum”, and all of the profits she saw from her catalog of music would be donated to Wellesley’s music department, a trust which continues to fund music education to this day.

“Carol Of The Drum” was based on a Czech carol, the specific music on which it was based has never been positively identified, however the Czech “Rocking Carol” as collected and published in 1928 is the best guess according to sources. The lyrics, according to Davis, came to her as she was nodding off to sleep, and all but wrote themselves. The song was published in 1941.

"Carol Of The Drum" by The Trapp Family Singers sheet music

The first recording to introduce the song to the public’s attention was released in the mid-50’s by “The Trapp Family Singers”, who were indeed the von Trapp family, subjects of “The Sound Of Music”. It enjoyed some success and some attention, and inspired at least one subsequent cover version a few years later, but again nothing on a large scale of popularity.

Harry Simeone

Enter Harry Simeone. Harry was an arranger and conductor who had worked with Fred Waring, among others. As he was contracted to record a Christmas album, his friend Harry Onorati who had worked on the arrangement for the Jack Halloran version recommended the song “Carol Of The Drum”, and Simeone rearranged it even further, taking cues from the von Trapp’s version as well as the Onorati arrangement by the Jack Halloran Singers. Adding several elements and reworking or revising others, he recorded the new arrangement with the group he had assembled and called “The Harry Simeone Chorale”, eventually releasing the song and album on Dot Records in 1958.

And it became a perennial classic, a timeless classic.

What made Harry Simeone’s version stand out? For one, the song itself is brilliant in its simplicity. Just as Katherine K. Davis had identified and tried to fill the need for songs appropriate for untrained singers, as well as female groups, the song has little harmony and an easy to sing melody…which also creates a song and melody which those listening can easily remember, if not sing along after just a few listens.  It is wholly in the tradition of folk music, and the folk process in general, as well as some of the more traditional Christmas carols which were designed to be easier to perform and sing, as well as less challenging and more memorable for the audience, encouraging them in fact to participate and sing along.

The recording and arrangement done by Simeone is again brilliant in its simplicity, yet Someone (and Onorati) managed to add a few touches which transformed the song from the earlier versions. If we consider the Trapp Family‘s version, they obviously are a smaller vocal group, but are basically following the same melody and lyrics. The female voices carry the lead, while the male bass voices carry the drum-like rhythmic pulse, based on parade-like snare drum rhythms. However, the male voices singing the “drum” parts do not stray from the tonic bass note, in fact for most if not all of the recording they stay on a pedal tone of sorts, delivering a monotone, single-note rhythm which pulses underneath. The rhythms they sing are also more simple, and less layered, than subsequent versions.

Simeone‘s recording, on the other hand, added a melodic element to those bass voices, as well as offering more complex and layered rhythm figures as the song develops, closer to a full orchestral percussion section. They are transformed from emulating a snare drum into a full drum section, with bass, snare, and the key addition: Tympani-like voices. With those strong melodic elements in the bass voices, they act as both the rhythmic foundation acting as the “percussion” as well as providing a strong and memorable melodic counterpoint to the main melody.

The first sound you hear on the record is the bass voices providing the drum beat. Eschewing what many arrangers would think of when charting a song about a drummer, there is no actual percussion on the record. Except, that is, for a well placed triangle, chiming accents on beats three and four after each vocal phrase is sung by the high voices. It punctuates each phrase, as well as adding an almost reverent chime or bell-like effect to the performance. Again, an addition brilliant in its simplicity, and a simple triangle part which speaks with more power than a full line of actual drums in this context.

The record was first issued in mono, then given a stereo mix. I’d recommend listening to the stereo mix, not only is it the most familiar at this point, but there is a certain power to the separation of the voices which the stereo enhances. Listen on a system capable of reproducing bass frequencies well, and by all means turn it up loud enough to hear the “rumble” created solely by a vocal group. Technically, for not only 1958 standards but also modern bass expectations, the song sounds massive - and thus we may find some of the power of the recording itself, why many if not most consider the Simeone version the definitive recording and arrangement of the song. The advancing recording and mixing technologies of the late 1950’s made it possible to add that element - not only the sound itself but the way it is captured and reproduced - to create a classic.

The power and success of any recording needs to start with the song itself. Everything on top of the song is window dressing, ultimately, no matter how much a certain element of the process enhances it. With “The Little Drummer Boy”, a.k.a. “Carol Of The Drum”, Davis succeeded in creating a song simple enough to be performed by choirs both trained and amateur, with a lyrical theme that is universal and compelling.

The story is of a musician, a boy with a drum, wanting to offer a gift surrounded by others offering lavish gifts but himself not able to give anything as lavish or expensive, saying “I am a poor boy too“. But his gift is of music, of his talent as a musician, saying essentially I have no gifts to give but I’ll play for you, not only will I play but I’ll play my best on this drum. I’ll give something of myself, not in the form of a material gift but in the form of music and sharing my talent and gift.

When placed in a certain context, hearing those lyrics, those sentiments, surrounded by a powerful yet sparse and simple musical arrangement…it’s enough to make some of us sentimental types well up or choke up just a bit…and it’s a beautiful sentiment found in a beautiful song.

How fitting, how almost perfect is it that the royalties and profits earned in part from this song have been donated not only by Davis’ estate but also by Simeone’s estate to fund music education, through scholarships and grants valued at millions of dollars?


Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Twelve Songs Of Christmas Series: Song #12

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love...no, it's not that kind of scene. Please enjoy a series of twelve essays, reviews, and musical musings on twelve classic and semi-classic Christmas songs, courtesy of Classic Studio Sessions! This is not a "Best Of" list, nor do the numbers signify a ranking of any kind. Rather, these songs seem to stand out above the rest every year, and strike an emotional chord with me in some way...or at least enough to inspire a few pages of commentary. All comments, questions, and seasonal well-wishers are both welcome and encouraged. Please enjoy the first entry in the series, and "follow" the blog for future entries.

#12 - Burl Ives: "Have A Holly Jolly Christmas" (1965)

  (click the link above to hear 'Have A Holly Jolly Christmas')

There are records which we hear so many times without noticing certain key elements until perhaps the 37th or 49th or even 100th listen. There are also musical or sonic elements of those records where the question becomes “What makes that one stand out?”, or in musician terms, “What’s the hook?” that draws you in every time and makes it a classic. In the case of “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas”, the 1965 version by Burl Ives, I’m including it here on the strength of a single 12-string acoustic guitar part which I failed to notice, really notice, for years, as well as the way some skillful Nashville country pop production techniques and a group of legendary musicians transformed a song from a television soundtrack with all the appropriate orchestral accompaniment into a hit single which has become a Christmas classic.

How many songs can claim their introduction into popular culture as delivered by an animated, singing, banjo-strumming snowman named Sam? I doubt there are many who have not seen the Rankin-Bass classic “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” at least once. Burl Ives, the folk singer, of course played the part of Sam, and also served as the visual inspiration for the character’s animation. A perfect fit, perfect casting. What’s not as widely known was that the character “Yukon Cornelius” was originally written to sing a few of Sam The Snowman’s songs, including “Holly Jolly Christmas”. Again the decision to have Ives and his narrator snowman character instead sing the song was one of those production decisions which transformed what could have been a throwaway soundtrack song into a standout classic. Can you imagine Yukon Cornelius singing it instead of Burl Ives?

The Rudolph special premiered on television in 1964, and Burl Ives would revisit and rerecord this song in time for Christmas 1965, recording an album’s worth of songs during studio sessions in February 1964 and May 1965. In what seems to have been an attempt to cash in on the popularity of both the special itself and the song his character became known for (along with ‘Silver And Gold’), this full-length Burl Ives Christmas album was built around “Holly Jolly Christmas” as the lead single and album title, and released on Decca/MCA in October 1965.

The song was written by Johnny Marks, who as a songwriter can also claim on his songwriting resume classics such as “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer“, “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree”, and “Run Rudolph Run”. Marks’ brother in law, Robert May, wrote the original poem which created the character Rudolph.

Songwriter Johnny Marks with Burl Ives, Rudolph, and Sam The Snowman

The producer of the album was Milt Gabler, a veteran producer with successful hits and bonafide classics in several genres, among them Billie Holiday’s landmark recording “Strange Fruit” in 1939 and “Fine And Mellow”, Bill Haley and the Comets‘ “Rock Around The Clock” and “Thirteen Women”, and popular hits ranging from Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home” to the Andrews Sisters’ “Rum N Coca Cola”, Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry”, and many more. Going from an independent label to a major like Decca, a bit of trivia here, he handed over his indie label Commodore to comedian Billy Crystal’s father, Jack. Side note: Billy Crystal in recent years released a compilation of Gabler’s classic recordings called “The Milt Gabler Story”, well worth checking out.

Producer Milt Gabler (center) with Billie Holiday

The album credits list Owen Bradley as having directed the orchestra and chorus, but in modern terms we might consider Bradley more of the actual hands-on producer than Gabler’s role would have been in 1965. Owen Bradley was one of the most legendary figures in Nashville and country music history, from the 1950’s onward. Recording most of his sessions in a military surplus Quonset hut, then later replacing the hut with a barn which became known as “Bradley’s Barn” in Nashville studio lore, Owen was as much responsible for the sounds of crossover country in the 50’s and 60’s as anyone else. His group of studio musicians at that time were Nashville’s version of the Wrecking Crew or the Funk Brothers, and had an instantly identifiable sound which created hit records for everyone from Elvis to Brenda Lee to Patsy Cline to…well, name any other country act of that era who hit the pop music charts and chances are one or more of Bradley’s crew is on that record. These musicians included brother Harold Bradley, Grady Martin, Bob Moore, Floyd Cramer, Hank Garland, Boots Randolph, Buddy Harman, Pig Robbins…etc. Like the other studio crews, Wrecking and otherwise, these musicians cranked out hits like a well-oiled machine.

Owen Bradley with the console from his legendary Quonset Hut studio in Nashville

Onto “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas”, the record. The actual session information, personnel listings, and other details are impossible to find. I cannot say with any authority who is playing on that record, where it was recorded, or anything more about those sessions which produced it…other than it has many if not all of the trademarks of a mid-60’s, Nashville-based, Owen Bradley production. In other words, it has the “Nashville Sound”. And short of someone finding and sharing the actual session information, that’s what I‘m content to assume is the case. (All corrections welcome)

So how did they turn a Rankin-Bass soundtrack song into a Christmas radio classic? Listen to the groove, the overall sound, and the foundation being created by those musicians. It sounds and feels like a hit “Nashville Sound” record, everything from the vocal chorus’ wordless interjections treated with heavy reverb, to the light country swing in the drums, to the rhythm guitar accenting beats two and four with the snare, to the vibrato-ed guitar strumming the chords, leading up to the piano’s solo fills in between the bridge phrases. And, of course, Burl Ives’ smooth and folksy voice singing lyrics that are a universal invitation to enjoy Christmas, riding atop and driving the heavily reverb-ed studio band and chorus.

But what stands out for me, apart from the interesting backstory surrounding some of the people involved, is that amazing 12-string acoustic guitar. I’d really, really like to know who played that guitar. Was it Harold Bradley, Grady Martin, or another famous or semi-famous Nashville studio picker? I have no idea.

What I do know, without hesitation, is that it is one of the most unique and best-played acoustic 12-string guitar leads I’ve ever heard. The part can be described as a guitar solo that lasts the entire record. Apart from some obviously written parts, it sounds for all the world like they just let the guy rip on the session, and add whatever he felt like playing in between the written phrases. It’s terrific country guitar playing, not a single bad note in the entire lot, not a single fluffed or muffled mistake, not a single stray noise or out of place phrase on the entire guitar track, and incorporating everything from string bends (on a 12-string no less…), to unusual melodic phrases and octave runs more often heard in jazz.

And how about the part itself…it’s an advanced guitar part, played flawlessly by an obvious studio professional who could not only play technically but also play with feeling and groove, and playing phrases which never crowd or distract from the lyrics, yet manage to stand out. And using the classic Nashville studio effects, they slammed the part with extra reverb and a terrific tape delay for even more punch. In short, it‘s a brilliant part, flawlessly executed and expertly recorded..

And to think, for years, I either ignored, overlooked, or simply did not pay attention to what has become one of my favorite guitar parts on any record. It’s a crucial part of making that record jump out of the speakers, and a terrific sonic “hook” which takes it from soundtrack to radio hit to perennial Christmas favorite. Apart from the feel-good lyrics, and Burl’s broken-in yet warm voice, that guitar nails it.

The next time you hear it played, wherever that may be, take a moment to listen…really listen…to the parts of that record like the 12-string guitar, and you may hear some of the magic that put a smile on my face when I first noticed that guitar on a record I had heard dozens of times if not more.

Have a Holly Jolly Christmas this year, indeed…with 12-string guitar, of course.

Stay tuned for song #11...

Friday, August 5, 2011

Musician's Hall of Fame Video

Sadly the Musicians' Hall of Fame in Nashville is closed and looking for somewhere to re-open right now, but all that great recording studio memorabilia is not completely lost, because they've been putting up some great videos featuring some of the great studio musicians. Here's a clip about Lyle Ritz and the bass he played on numerous hits. Be sure to check out the Hall of Fame's channel on YouTube for much more.