It’s time to cozy up to that Lay-Z-Boy of yours, folks, and turn up the volume on your favorite listening device. All right, now, settle in … Put your arm around your honey and take a sip of some of that holiday cheer … Oh, yeah … Are you comfy yet ..? Good! Why, you can hear the fireplace crackling, while the music sweeps over you in a wave of luscious sound — the sound of Christmas.
Oh, and I know you’re going to love this part! It’s one you and I have been looking forward to all year long: the annual playlist of holiday Christmas songs and carols by your favorite artists and instrumentalists. And there are hundreds, nay, thousands of these recorded selections. The trick is to narrow the choices down to a precious few.
I’ve taken the drudgery out of this assignment by doing the heavy lifting for you. In other words, I separated the musical wheat from the proverbial chaff. How’s that for an early Christmas present? Well, then, what are you waiting for? Go on and put those feet up. While you’re at it, throw another yule log onto that fire. Because ready or not, here we go!
1. “The Christmas Song” (Nat “King” Cole)
The first track on our imaginary download of seasonal classics is quite possibly the most recognizable piece of holiday music around: the wonderfully nostalgic “The Christmas Song” — universally known by its first line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” — performed by the incomparable Nat “King” Cole as only he could perform it.
Other singers have covered this mirthful tune from time immemorial, but only Cole could do it justice. Such a feel for the words (by fellow musician and singer Mel Tormé), such elegance, such class, such style … Ah, I could go on and on about this magical cut. Cole must have had the most soothing baritone voice in pop-music history. No other singer, male or female, has affected me in the way he does with this number, which I’m certain you’ll agree with for yourself. Nat was equally venerated in Brazil and Latin America as well.
He left us much too early in life, but what a treasured legacy he left behind, this being the finest example of his art. I can think of no better way to begin this survey than with him. To paraphrase a quote from Yogi Berra, “It ain’t Christmas till Nat ‘King’ Cole sings.” Ain’t it the truth?
2. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (Andy Williams)
This sweetly sentimental number was first published back in 1865. It, too, has been recorded by just about everyone who is anyone in the music business, but my favorite version was done in the early 1960s by the late, great Andy Williams.
Years ago, in primetime TV Land, Christmas just wouldn’t have been Christmas without an appearance from this laid-back vocalist. Williams has often been inaccurately pegged as a baritone, but he’s nothing of the kind. Robert Goulet and Gordon MacRae were baritones, while Andy was more of a robust type of tenor with a tranquil, mellifluous tone, an extended and easy top range, and a smooth-as-silk delivery.
He personified sincerity to my mind, which was why he proved so popular with young and old alike. Williams’ sensitive take on “O Little Town of Bethlehem” hits just the right note of tenderness and awe. His “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is another popular tune from one of America’s premier singing stars, one we will sorely miss in this milieu.
3. “Silent Night” (Barbra Streisand)
Another popular favorite is the perennial “Silent Night,” or “Stille Nacht” in the original German. Yes, this song originated in Austria and was composed in the early years of the 1800s. Lately, it’s had a tremendous resurgence as the song that brought two opposing armies together for a few nights of peaceful calm and camaraderie (rightly so) back in the war-torn Western front of the First World War.
There must be umpteen recordings of this one number alone, but the all-time best seller has got to be Barbra Streisand’s stunning edition from her 1967 A Christmas Album. Barbra’s remarkable singing voice was captured in its glorious prime. That unbelievable pianissimo high note she hits at the words “Sleep in heavenly peace” literally takes one’s breath away.
The other tracks are on a par with this one (“I Wonder as I Wander” proved especially affecting), but never has “Silent Night” been so beautifully handled by any singer before or after Barbra’s take on the matter. You’ll want to replay this one over and over again, I assure you.
4. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (John Denver and The Muppets)
Now here’s a novelty item for you: bespectacled folksinger and popular soft-rock artist John Denver singing the lengthy “The Twelve Days of Christmas” carol with the inimitable Muppet bunch.
Included in this illustrious assortment of furry television friends are the always-dependable Kermit the Frog, the pitch-shy Miss Piggy, forgetful Fozzie Bear (who continuously flubs his lines), the Great Gonzo, piano accompanist Rowlf the Dog, Kermit’s nephew Robin, and those grumpy old geezers Statler and Waldorf.
The Muppets prove their acting chops (and their “singing” ones as well) in this all-together rollicking addition to our musical foray. It’s cute and lovable; a charming bit of fun and frolic from the above named team of characters, voiced by Muppet creator Jim Henson and master puppeteer-turned-movie director Frank Oz. The top-hatted Mr. Denver takes it all in stride in typically winsome fashion. Miss Piggy’s hilarious interpolations of “Five gold rings” are the highlight.
5. “Jingle Bells” (Frank Sinatra)
How can you resist an opening line that starts off with the swingin’, big-band sound of “I love those J-I-N-G-L-E bells – BONG!” Man, does that bring back faded memories of the 1950s, when Ole Blue Eyes ruled the pop-music charts.
Backed by the Ralph Brewster Singers, this bouncy holiday treat, arranged by Gordon Jenkins (one of Sinatra’s best, the two others being Nelson Riddle and Billy May), is an undisputed classic. It’s part of the album A Jolly Christmas, which includes such terrific seasonal fare as “Mistletoe and Holly,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “The First Noel,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
As was the case with Nat “King” Cole, there’s no one around these days (with the exception of Tony Bennett, still going strong at 86 — see the recent review of his trip to Rio: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/he-left-his-heart-in-rio-de-janeiro-tony-bennett-in-brazil-an-appreciation-of-his-artistry-by-guest-contributor-claudio-botelho/) who can even approach the matchless singing style embodied by the Chairman of the Board. He was especially adept at creating a mood, which he succeeds in capturing with the lively “Jingle Bells.” Ring-a-ding-ding!
6. “White Christmas” (Bing Crosby)
And speaking of moods, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when this holiday record was played, particularly during the bleakest (and snowiest) days of World War II. No soldier or G.I. serving overseas would ever forget the melancholy feelings of longing and pride in his country with this supremely nostalgic rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” as sung by Der Bingle and Company.
The original 78-rpm record was cut in mid-1942 or so, and went on to top the “Your Hit Parade” charts for the remainder of that year and beyond. It’s undoubtedly the biggest selling Christmas record ever made. The version that’s played today, so I’m told, is a 1947 re-recording, but with the same session artists (the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and Ken Darby Singers) as the original.
Bing Crosby was a model singer, a radio crooner who developed a devoted following and influenced an entire generation of vocalists, including a talented young artist named Farnésio Dutra e Silva – better known to fellow Brazilians by his American-sounding moniker, Dick Farney.
7. “O Holy Night” (Perry Como)
On the opposite end of the vocal spectrum, Pennsylvania-born Pierino Ronald “Perry” Como, who began his career as a barber in his hometown of Canonsburg, was another of those easygoing song stylists to have emerged from America’s grueling Depression and war years.
A byproduct of the big band era, Como performed in just about every medium, including the infant television industry almost from its birth. He had a long-running hit TV show while also hosting a variety of programs throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s; he also had a fairly successful recording career with RCA Victor. Como’s later clean-cut, sweater-spouting visage was honed during this period.
Audiences the world over would continue to enjoy his countless Christmas and Easter specials, which aired from the early 1960s well into the mid-1980s. Perry would often conclude his Easter programs with Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” but for his annual Christmas show the climax would be “O Holy Night,” accompanied by a heavenly boys’ choir and delivered in the subtlest of even-tempered tones imaginable. Como belonged to the same category of singers that begat the likes of Vic Damone, Al Martino and Jerry Vale, to name a few.
8. “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” (Burl Ives)
Jewish songwriter Johnny Marks, who gave the world such Yuletide wonders as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” did it again with this jaunty little title. And itinerant ballad singer, author, raconteur, and television, theater and movie personality Burl Ives (“Big Daddy” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and an Oscar-winner for his role as Rufus in The Big Country) recorded it in 1965.
Ives was affectionately known as the Wayfaring Stranger, becoming active in the folk field for a number of years thereafter — even teaming up with fellow artists Pete Seeger, Will Geer and Woody Guthrie. He was blacklisted for a time, due to his admitted involvement in several Communist Party gatherings. He appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which sullied his reputation somewhat.
Later on, his smiling bearded image became synonymous with the Snowman who narrates the Rankin-Bass stop-motion feature Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Ives’ claim to fame was a pleasingly mellow, reedy tenor voice of near-operatic proportions, along with a massive, hulking form which made him a formidable figure both on and off the screen.
9. “Adeste Fideles” (Luciano Pavarotti)
We go from the near-operatic to the tenorial splendors of the sensational Luciano Pavarotti, recorded live, in 1978, at Montréal’s Notre Dame Cathedral. The Fat Man outdid himself, if I do say so myself, in this magnificent concert of Christmas classics, given in one of the Canadian city’s most beautiful churches (I will personally vouch for that statement, having once visited the very same church).
The program consists of such standards as “O Holy Night,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” “Agnus Dei,” “Silent Night,” and César Franck’s “Panis Angelicus.” Luciano is joined by a symphony orchestra, led by Paul-Franz Decker, the Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal Boys Choir, and the Disciples de Massenet Mixed Chorus, for a solid hour of old favorites.
While Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah concludes the program, the high point comes early on with Signor Pavarotti’s delightful rendering of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” sung in Latin and known the world over as “Adeste Fideles.” The tenor succeeds in demonstrating why he was one of the most charismatic and capable crossover artists around — his aborted movie career notwithstanding.
10. “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” (Gloria Estefan)
For a welcome change of pace, lend an ear, and give a close listen to, this hearty blend of salsa meets jazzy big band, in Cuban-American sensation Gloria Estefan’s rousing version of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” You can’t help but join in with the Miami Sound Machine crowd, as Gloria and her band-mates take off in this strictly Latin flavored outing, produced by the legendary Phil Ramone.
The cut is from Estefan’s 1993 album, Christmas Through Your Eyes, which features the usual holiday suspects (“Silver Bells,” “The Christmas Song,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “Silent Night”), along with the title track (an original composition by Gloria herself, with Diane Warren) and a few unexpected surprises, including Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” and José Barros “Arbolito de Navidad” (“Little Christmas Tree”). But the real toe-tapper is definitely “Let It Snow,” which lets out all the stops, and then some — check out that syncopated horn riff — a must-have for any record fan’s collection.
11. “The Christmas Waltz” (Karen Carpenter)
While you’re at it, add this one to our growing list of tried-and-true Christmas classics. Another Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne specialty number — this time, written for Frank Sinatra — the song’s been chronicled by a multitude of performers (starting with Ole Blue Eyes), all of whom laid down fairly respectable, if not exactly notable, accounts.
But it took the warm, chestnut roasted alto voice of Karen Carpenter (whose recording of “Merry Christmas, Darling” is another worthy candidate to search for) and her piano-playing brother Richard to bring this catchy air to vibrato-less life.
The line, “And this song of mine, in three-quarter time, wishes you and yours the same thing too,” perfectly encapsulates the sentiments of the holiday season; and lets listeners know the reason Karen was so beloved by so many. She epitomized this brand of earthy, get-to-the-heart-of-the-matter vocalizing without blasting one’s eardrums. Certainly, singing of this low-key nature is very much out of style. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying her crowd-pleasing work on this cut.
12. “Sleigh Ride” (Johnny Mathis)
Much like the artists cited above, it seems that Johnny Mathis has forever skirted the upper limits of popularity with the paying public. However, whenever pop music is mentioned around the water cooler, before you know it his name invariably comes up as the one and only exponent of the lost art of singing Christmas songs. How right they are!
Along with Tony Bennett, there’s no one today who has done more to ensure the durability of the popular song canon than the ageless Mr. Mathis. Amazingly, after a 60+-year career Johnny continues to pack them in wherever he goes. His mercurial tenor voice, though hardly the same now as it was in his sterling youth, is still at it, with frequent show-stopping tours all over the globe.
A sure sign of his continuing relevancy is Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” which started out as a light classical piece with sound effects popularized by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. The tongue-twisting lyrics were added later, and voila: an instant Christmas classic took form. What Mathis brought to his version is an infectious brio, a lighthearted sense of fun, and sheer, unabashed enjoyment of the times. Not only that, but his phrasing was well-nigh perfect. Johnny’s stretching out of the line, “We’re riding in a wonderland of snow,” is so full of warmth and good cheer you can’t help but smile along with him. So this is Christmas!
13. “Christmastime is Here” (Vince Guaraldi Trio) and “Pachelbel’s Canon” (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)
The last two numbers are basically instrumentals (with some added vocal lines, of course), and they’re both viable as annual holiday favorites.
First up is West Coast cool-jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s lovely number “Christmastime is Here,” first heard on the CBS-TV network in the primetime Peanuts special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, in December 1965. The first of many such programs, this one holds a special place in people’s hearts as a scrupulously honest representation of how kids feel about the commercialization of the season (see my list of holiday movies for more on this subject: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/deck-the-hawrs-with-bars-of-hawry-fara-rara-ra-rara-ra-ra-the-all-time-best-selling-christmas-movies-ever/). Guaraldi composed the minimalist score (very much in the Bill Evans mode). The original soundtrack album that resulted from his efforts is still a sought-after collector’s item.
And finally, there’s the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s stadium-rattling, children’s-choir accompanied arrangement of Johann Pachelbel’s ubiquitous “Canon,” which is guaranteed to end any Christmas Vigil on a high note. In case you were wondering, none of the orchestra members are from Siberia. Try hearing this one on a first-rate surround-sound system (the low bass is ground-shaking, to say the least).
That’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed this song-filled excursion of holiday classics. All that’s left to say is … HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes