Christmas One More Time III: The Story Behind The Songs.
1. I Bought You A Plastic Star (To Go With Your Aluminum Tree), Michael Franks.
Boy, can Michael Franks write songs and lyrics. There is an arch, wry, ironic twist to his music that just has no equal. I first discovered Franks in the late 70s, when I heard his “Sleeping Gypsy” album, one of the finest adaptations of the Brazilian/Bossa Nova musical trend ever. If “Bwana, He No Home” doesn’t get you going, you’ve obviously got a tube connected to your body. Franks does not have the best voice in the business—he’s the king of overdubs—but he is certainly one of the best melody and lyric writers around, filling songs with clever references and hip phrases. And….key to his work….always recording with some of the best jazz artists, ever. Any man smart enough to know his limitations is smart enough to exceed them magnificently, and this is what Michael Franks has done over his career. The song included here, “I Bought You A Plastic Star (To Go With Your Aluminum Tree”) is Franks at his best, nailing the season to the wall with line after ironic line. He gets it and you will too.
2. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow. Dean Martin
Oh Dino, how do we miss thee. Dean Martin, one of the original members of Hollywood’s mid-fifties to mid-70s “Rat Pack”( the group included Humphrey Bogart, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and, of course, Frank Sinatra) had a smooth, easy manner both in his singing and his attitude toward life. He was deceptively good as a singer—a versatile, distinctive voice that could handle any type of music—but all too often this virtuosity was pushed into the scenery by the image of Dino, the party animal, Rat Pack veteran, and booze hound. He was more complicated than that, despite the alcohol-soaked persona he presented on the “Dean Martin Show”, a top-rated one hour variety show that Dean fronted. Dino Crocetti (Dean Martin) was solidly Italian, speaking ONLY Italian until he was five years old. Despite the fame of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin is the only performer who was a star in four forms of media: live performance, film, recordings, and television. Martin was a gifted comic, who teamed with Jerry Lewis to create the famous and all-conquering Martin & Lewis comedy team. Although the team split 10 years to the day after they first started, Lewis said that Dean Martin was “one of the great comic actors of all time”. Martin’s work ethic belied his friendly drunk image—he recorded more than 32 studio albums, 3 live albums, 1 EP and 83 singles and produced 20 compilation albums (Source: Wikipedia) and did more than fifty films. Hardly a lightweight as a recording artist, it was Dean Martin who knocked the hottest group of the century—the Beatles—out of first place on the charts when his “Everybody Loves Somebody” pushed their “Hard Day’s Night” into second position.. His version of “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow” is big and lush and powerful, one of the very best renditions of a Christmas classic. Play it as a bit of a memorial to Dino: Dean Martin died on Christmas morning, 1995
3. The Christmas Song (Holiday Mix). Christine Aguilera.
Part of the fun of making up the Christmas playlist is finding the right pacing for the music and putting down familiar songs done by artists you wouldn’t expect. The Christmas Song, done here by Christina Aguilera–most recently of “The Voice”fame– is a holiday staple (but I have yet to put the original version by the man who wrote it, Mel “the Velvet Fog” Torme on a Christmas playlist). Aguilera, who has a four octave vocal range, was destined for stardom, starting out in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as an entrant in talent contests. She was so dominant, her talent so transcendent, that one contestent said that “competing against her was like letting the lion into the sheep pen”. Aguilera takes Torme’s Christmas Song down a path that Mel would never have imagined; her version is fast, ferociously upbeat, and powerful, a wonderful remake of a Christmas classic. It will make you drive faster (if you first hear it in your car) and is totally, completely, a classic of a different type.
4. Driving Home For Christmas. Billy Mathis.
The first time I heard this song I was, literally, driving home for Christmas. It was Christmas, 2004, and snow was falling as I drove up to the lake house for Christmas. The kids were all coming in for Christmas day and, amazingly, it was snowing on Christmas Eve in Texas. I loved this song at first hearing but went for several years before I could track down the artist who did the version that knocked me back. Originally written by singer/songwriter Chris Rhea (perhaps most famous for “Road To Hell”), Mathis does a wonderfully upbeat version of a song that will take it’s place as a classic among the “traveling for Christmas” songs. (“I’ll be home for Christmas” is the current class leader). Enjoy the orchestrated opening with some deft piano phrasing and strings followed by the cut-in of Mathis’s soulful voice. This is a new Christmas classic.
5. Baby, It’s Cold Outside. Rod Stewart & Dolly Parton
This song combines an unexpected duo of musical royalty: Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton. An unlike combination? Yes. A very sharp rendition of a classic Christmas song best done by a female and male singer? Absolutely. Anyone who loves seduction by snowflake or unpredictable weather is going to just go nuts over this one. This song has been done by everyone from Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Shore, and Louis Armstrong. The best points of this version are the counterpoints, the “stay/I must go” segments that make this one Christmas Duet classic. Rod Stewart has modified his game plane as the years have passed (his standards albums are among his best selling albums of all-time) but he remains a massive draw and his unique voice is one of the most distinguished in rock. If you want to hear the “Rooster” in full bloom, get a copy of Faces version of “Street Fighting Man” (Ron Wood, the lead guitarist of Faces has been a member of the Rolling Stones for years now and he absolutely rips the lead guitar up) and you will hear tire-slashing rock&roll at its absolute, let’s- cause -some- trouble, best. For the Holidays, however, something a little gentler is in order: Rod and Delicious Puddin (Dolly Parton).
5. Christmas Must Be Tonight. Daryl Hall & John Oates.
I shamelessly admit that I love the music of Daryl Hall & John Oates. They have been great since their first hit (“Sara Smile”); with 34 songs in the Billboard Top 100, 7 Platinum Records and 6 Gold Records, they can deliver. And they love Ferraris and skiing, two things very close to my heart. Hall and Oates started in Philadelphia (they were in school at Temple) and were a couple of studio rats during the days when the “Philly sound” (i.e. The O.J.s, etc.) was rising to prominence. The duo hit their stride when they settled into and developed their “blue-eyed soul” sound, a musical signature marked by hummable melodies, great leads and choruses, and outstanding play by their touring band, which contained some of the best musicians of their era. There are a lot of Hall & Oates “greatest hits” albums to pick from, but if you want to hear the power of their music at its absolute peak, find a copy of “Hall & Oates, Live At The Appollo Theater”; this is their live masterpiece, as it puts the two white guys from Philly right into the center of soul music’s DNA in an appearance at the famed Apollo Theater in the Harlem section of New York City. For this Christmas One More Time playlist, the selection is a Hall & Oates cover of a Robbie Robertson Tune, “Christmas Must Be Tonight”. Their version is powerful, upbeat, and destined to be a classic. It’s semi-new and bet you’ve never heard it. You will play it often.
6. Please Come Home For Christmas. The Eagles.
What an appropriate selection for a Christmas One More Time playlist. A beautifully rendered version of “Please Come Home for Christmas” by the Eagles. Don Henley’s vocal is plaintive, sincere, powerful; the backing by the Eagles chorus is stupendous. There are several renderings of “Please Come Home For Christmas”, but this one is both extremely spare and timeless. There is pain in this rendition of the song and Joe Walsh’s guitar solo is a classic. Walsh has never received the acclaim due to him for the edge that he put on The Eagles music, but one listen to the finely drawn solo he contributes to this tune will give you some insight into just how great a guitarist Joe Walsh is. Don’t’ forget: Walsh created both the immortal opening bars of “Hotel California” and “Life In the Fast Lane.” This is an American classic, performed by one of the great bands of our era.
7. Last Christmas. Ashley Tisdale.
Six months ago I wouldn’t know Ashley Tisdale if she ran into me with a car. And then I uncovered this cover. For this year’s Christmas CD, Ashley techs up Wham’s classic Christmas song, “Last Christmas”—a song that pushed George Michael into single superstardom stratosphere. One of the funny things about “Last Christmas” is how it always reminds me of Hugh Grant’s movie, “About A Boy”. In the movie, Grant was a British lout who lived off the royalties of one song, a Christmas ditty, written by his father. Tisdale’s version is richly overlaid with counterpoints and “sweetenings” (the producer’s term for sound bits designed to enhance a song). Good stuff. Bet you turn the volume up on this one.
8. Rocking Around The Christmas Tree. Toby Keith.
At one time, Toby Keith was most familiar at Casa Euphoria for being the spokesman for Ford trucks in Texas. Until I found this one. Holy Freaking Cow! Keith takes a song that has been over-played during the holidays for years (the original by Brenda Lee) and sets it straight. This is new country music at it’s best: powerful, direct, thumping! Keith rips this one apart and even Brenda Lee would have to agree that this is a much better version for the 21st Century. The guitars, fiddles, piano solo, and tight rhythm section mixed in with top-flight Nashville production make this one a new classic.
9. Jesus Is Just Alright With Me. The Byrds.
Ooooooooooooh. This is so perfect, so right, so unexpected for a Christmas playlist and then so dead on you wonder why no one ever put the two together. Start with a brilliant band, The Byrds, who skipped through musical genres like they were mud puddles on a small country road. You may remember The Byrds for their covers of Bob Dylan’s songs (he loved them) or for Roger McGuinn’s soaring 12 string guitar solos (“Eight Miles High” remains one of the great rock songs of all time) or their classic album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, the record that merged rock and country and created “country rock”, making possible such groups as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and The Eagles, and individual artists like John David Souther and Jackson Brown. The concept behind the Christmas playlist is simple: you know the season, you know the music, now let’s break down those pre-conceptions and expose you to some music and some juxtapositions that you might not normally put together. “Jesus is Just Alright” is just such a juxtaposition, a time-jumper of Biblical proportions that fits, perfectly, in this season if you think deeply about it. And fits perfectly, even if you don’t.
10. Children Go Where I Send Thee. Daryl Hall & John Oates.
Oh boy, is this one a find. Perfect to the point of pain, it’s a powerful rendition by Hall & Oates of a traditional gospel song. And when you hear it, especially with Hall’s soaring vocals, you wonder to yourself why more Christmas albums and collections don’t pay attention to the tradition and pacing of Gospel Music. This is powerful music, questioning, involving, big, and focused. That it took a couple of “blue eyed soul” musicians to get it so right is a bit of an indictment on what we are allowed to hear on “over the air” radio. But…..we found it. The perfect bookend to Michael Franks and a wonderful ode to the season. Hall & Oates do Gospel. It’s all good!
Christmas One More Time III: The Story Behind The Songs.