Early January marks the birthdays of some of my favourite performers. Both Elvis and Bowie were born on 8 January, David Johansen, Jimmy Page and Scott Walker on the 9th, Rod Stewart and Donald Fagan on the 10th, along with a whole stack of others sprinkled through the month such as Sam Cooke, Dolly Parton, Janis Joplin, Mick Taylor, Clarence Carter, Greedy Smith, Michael Hutchence, Johnny O’Keefe, and Doc Neeson.
Which is my way of dragging out one of the Bowie archive photos from my collection. This one dates from the China Girl video shoot in Sydney and is date stamped (12 September 1983) on the back. Bowie, who also shot the music video for Let’s Dance in Australia during the same period, is shown with Geeling Ng; a New Zealand actress, Ng was working as a waitress at one of my favourite hang-outs of the time, Dean’s in Kellett St, Kings Cross, when Bowie first met her.
Bowie and Ng made the China Girl video, romance bloomed (as it did for many of Bowie’s co-stars), and eventually Ng returned to New Zealand where she became something of a media celebrity. Although there’s no photographer credit on this, it was most likely shot by Patrick Jones.
Bowie owned a Sydney apartment close to the Cross, in Elizabeth Bay’s historic Kincoppal building, and would spend several months at a time there. He only sold it after his marriage to Iman in the early 1990s and the realisation that a bachelor pad on the other side of the world was somewhat redundant for a married man.
Jeff Duff, the Australian entertainer, who fronted the jazz-rock band Kush before beginning a long and artistically diverse solo career, had known Bowie in the late 1970s. Duff had relocated to London where he terrified and energised the music scene. His notoriety attracted other artists who were comfortable on the very edge of society’s expectations and Bowie was certainly one of them.
Fast forward to the early 80s and Duff and Bowie became neighbours, with Jeff living next door to Kincoppal. They’d frequently run into each other in the neighbourhood and members of Tin Machine, Bowie’s band at the time (their second album was recorded at EMI’s 301 Studios in 1989), would turn up for Duff’s performances around Sydney.
Given Duff’s eclectic musical tastes, and immense talent, it’s no real surprise that he’s become well known these days for his Bowie tribute shows. He’s even played the Sydney Opera House a few times. He’s also mounted shows dedicated to Lou Reed as well as Scott Walker and the Walker Brothers.
But it’s Bowie that Jeff has become most celebrated for; he even conducted a thematically impressive experiment in mixing the styles of Bowie and Frank Sinatra. There’s some physical similarities between Jeff and Bowie, and his interpretation of the songs are well worth experiencing.
I’m lucky that, owing to Jeff being a friend of a friend, I’ve had a few opportunities to not only see Jeff in concert but spend time with him as well. An erudite gentleman (a description that, sadly, is much under-utilised these days) with an innate elegance, Jeff has a quick wit leavened with a refreshing self-deprecation, a world away from the onanism generally shown by those in showbusiness.
Bowie life and musical career has been extensively charted and dissected, Jeff Duff much less so. His memoir, This Will Explain Everything (Melbourne Book, 2016), is highly recommended and you end up with the realisation that his contribution to music, and Australian culture in general, is most under-appreciated and unrecognised.
You can’t go very far in Memphis without encountering some reminder of Elvis Presley. The Tennessee city was his in so many ways. He went to school there, recorded his world-changing Sun recordings there, lived there throughout his adult life and continues to exert a powerful influence over it more than 40 years after his death. While he spent a lot of time away – in Germany for his late 1950s Army service, in California for much of the 1960s making a string of largely forgettable but hugely popular and profitable films, and touring throughout the United States (but nowhere else) – Elvis, the King of Rock’n’Roll, was Memphis. His home, Graceland, remains the city’s most popular tourist attraction, attracting more than 600,000 visitors a year.
The man who many claim invented rock’n’roll (and certainly presided over the social revolution that rock’n’roll ushered in) may have been Memphis but Memphis, paradoxically, was also far more than Elvis.
The list of singers and musicians who were born in or near or eventually called Memphis home, even if they were later more widely associated with other cities, is astoundingly long. W.C. Handy, regarded as the Father of the Blues, was born in nearby Florence, Alabama (close to what is erroneously known to music fans as the Muscle Shoals area), and played the bars and clubs of Beale Street in the early years of the 20th century; later, such local exponents of the blues, rhythm and blues and soul included William Bell, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, B.B. King, Little Jimmy King, Memphis Slim, Little Milton, Charlie Musselwhite, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Junior Wells, Isaac Hayes, David Porter, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Arthur Lee, and Maurice White. And just to ensure that Memphis isn’t entirely mired in nostalgia, there’s Justin Timberlake.
Is there something in the water (aside from the Mississippi that laps its muddy shores) that brought so much talent to gather in one place? Nobody knows although there are certainly numerous theories. One thing is certain: over several decades, Memphis was the place where a perfect creative storm played out in recording studios and live music venues, the reverberations of which encircled the world.
There aren’t too many people with greater insight into Memphis’ musical legacy than Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell. He grew up in Royal Studios, which his father, Willie Mitchell, operated as well as serving as Vice President of Hi Records; at the height of its R&B fame in late 1960s and 70s, Hi was best known as the home of Al Green (who had sales in excess of 20 million copies).
He was his father’s son; he combined his inherited talents with a fascination for testing boundaries. Long years of watching and listening, instructed by Willie and everybody who passed through the studio, paid off spectacularly. His first paid session was at the age of 16 as a keyboard player on Al Green’s recording of “As Long As We’re Together”; providentially, it won a Grammy.
Boo started managing Royal Studios in 2000 and became Chief Engineer in 2004. Now considered one of the oldest continually operating music studios in the world, Royal recorded the likes of Green, Anne Peebles, Ike and Tina Turner and Bobby Blue Bland during its R&B and soul heyday, then attracted artists such as Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Tom Jones, Robert Cray, John Mayer, Snoop Dog and Keb Mo.
Much of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special album was recorded at Royal (earning Boo a Grammy for his engineering duties), especially the Bruno Mars’ single, Uptown Funk. It was the first #1 out of Royal since Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and the first #1 out of Memphis since Disco Duck. And the first ever Record Of The Year Grammy out of Memphis.
Boo carefully considers the factors that brought Memphis to its creative convergence.
“Memphis has a very interesting history,” he says carefully. “It’s always been different, non-conformist. What makes us unique is that we don’t really care what other people think or what the trends are. Historically, we’ve always danced to the beat of our own drum. There’s something about the city, an energy here that inspires creativity and individuality. It comes out in the music.
“Memphis is one of those places you have to visit to understand. You can read about it, you can talk about it, but you won’t really get it until you come here. We still have a realness and a grittiness. I think that’s what draws people here to make records.”
What Boo Mitchell (and his brother, Archie, who is also involved with Royal) experienced growing up and how it influenced their eventual career path, is something of a microcosm of what Memphis is all about. There is a tradition of creativity and musical appreciation, and a reverence for that tradition, that passes down through the generations.
Royal was one of the success stories of Memphis and that goes just as much for Stax. Founded in 1957 under the name of Satellite Records, the company took over an old movie theatre in South Memphis in 1960; one of its early recordings, “Cause I Love You”, by Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla, became a hit. Soon afterwards, Satellite became Stax.
With distribution through Atlantic Records, Stax (along with sister label, Volt, and subsidiaries Enterprise, Hip, Chalice and Gospel Truth) showcased Memphis soul and R&B to the world. Although Stax’s prime barely lasted two decades, it recorded and released a massive amount of product with such lasting names as Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Issac Hayes, Sam & Dave, and William Bell.
Although the movie theatre that became Stax recording studio and corporate headquarters was demolished in 1989, following the collapse of the company, within a decade it was recreated as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which opened in 2003. It profiles Stax artists as well as other giants of soul, R&B and blues.
The Stax Museum isn’t the only celebration of the city’s musical heritage; the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the Blues Hall of Fame are all worthy of visits. But there’s really only one ground zero when it comes to discussing the music that changed the world and the role that Memphis played in this.
And that’s Sun Studios, just east of the downtown area. It’s small and usually crowded and often chaotic but its importance to modern music is in inverse proportion to its size. And the story of Sun Studios, and its most famous recording artist, reveals a lot of about Memphis as a society and why rock’n’roll became such a seismic revolution.
This story goes back to 1950 when a radio station recording engineer by the name of Sam Phillips established the Memphis Recording Service. Phillips, like W.C. Handy, was born in Florence, Alabama, and was a sound engineer for a Memphis radio station when he decided his future lay in uncovering and recording new talent.
In the midst of the segregated South, long before the civil rights movement began to change the lives of the black community, early gains were made via the music industry. Sam Phillips started recording African-American artists such as Howling Wolf, Little Milton and Rufus Thomas, but his agenda was as simple as it was initially elusive – to find a white artist who could reinterpret black music for a whole new audience.
In August 1953, a quietly spoken and painfully shy 18-year-old high school student by the name of Elvis Presley came to the studio to record a two-sided acetate as a tribute to his mother (paying $US3.98 plus tax for the privilege). With a high keening voice, faltering with nervousness, and hindered by a taste for simpering ballads, Phillips was nonetheless intrigued by the boy’s potential and made a mental note to get him back at a later date to further explore his potential.
That took quite some time; Phillips called him back in June 1954 to try him out on a song he thought had a chance in the charts. The recording session didn’t yield the results he wanted; over the next few hours, he had Elvis sing just about anything he could recall but nothing special evolved.
Still, there was something there. Phillips just didn’t know what. On 4 July, he called in a second opinion from musician Scotty Moore, who was less than impressed but Phillips forged ahead anyway. On the evening of 5 July 1954, Phillips gathered Elvis, Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on stand-up bass and had them run through an almost endless series of songs in the Sun studios.
Hour after hour, little transpired except frustration. Late that night (or in the early hours following midnight, depending on who later told the story), Elvis dropped the ballads he’d been addicted to and started fooling around with a song that had been a hit for an African-American blues artist, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup almost a decade before.
Crudup’s 1946 original of “That’s All Night (Mama)” kicked up the pace of the traditional Delta blues; Elvis, most likely almost hallucinating with fatigue, took that as a template and mixed in some rockabilly for his own white interpretation of black rhythm and blues. Phillips froze at the console; it was exactly what he’d been waiting for. The genie had wrestled its way out of the bottle.
Rock’n’roll was born. Elvis’ world was changed forever, just as music (and the world in which it existed) forever changed. Until that time, black music was as segregated from white music (and its respective audiences) as society was in general. The barriers came crashing down; and while the changes weren’t as rapid as is generally believed in hindsight, the changes did occur.
Elvis led the revolution for just a few short years. He set the world on fire with his performing style (honed through a stage fright that manifested in his trademark leg shaking although it was mis-interpreted as sexualised gyrations by critics of the older generation) but his influence lasted just five Sun Records singles over the next 15 months before RCA takes over Elvis’ recording contract and four years of live performances. A new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, took over his career in March 1956. Elvis was conscripted into the Army in March 1958. He returned from service in Germany two years later and effectively spent the next 13 years making 31 largely forgettable movies.
That he rebuilt his career as a performer in the late 1960s says much of his innate talent and the dedication of his fans. And even after his death, at the of 42, in 1977, those fans – and new generations to come – kept his celebrity alive.
Graceland is one of the best-known tourist attractions in the United States. In early 2017, a $US45 million state-of-the-art entertainment and museum complex, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, opened. It showcases a staggering range of archival Elvis material, from cars and motorcycles to stage costumes, and includes restaurants, numerous merchandise stores and a theatre continuously screening Elvis movies and concert footage.
To tour Graceland is to appreciate just how global the Elvis phenomenon is. Visitors from every country in the world came to Memphis to get their Elvis fix. And they find it in just about every corner of the city.
At the Peabody Hotel, the grand dame of Memphis hotels, Hal Lansky is another who enjoys taking the time to enthuse to visitors his own special music stories. Hal’s father, Bernard, and his uncle, Guy, founded the Lansky Bros. menswear store on Beale Street in 1946. At that time Beale Street was the centre of black culture with cafes, restaurants, juke joints, pawn stores, clubs, pool halls and theatres. Gospel, blues and jazz music played continuously.
Lansky Bros. specialised in stylish men’s clothing, attracting a core clientele who appreciated the high-quality fabrics and rainbow-hued colours. In the early 1950s, Bernard noticed a young man gazing longingly at the front window displays and drew him inside.
He introduced himself as Elvis Presley and stated his intention of being a singer. He wanted to dress as well as other Lansky clients but didn’t have the money. As Hal tells the story, most likely for the millionth time, his father had some supernatural premonition that this shy young man was about the change the world and staked him his first outfits. In return, Elvis, wherever he performed and whenever he was asked (or even if he wasn’t) credited Lanskys with his wardrobe. Elvis never forgot the generosity of Lansky Bros. He’d often buy the shop out, dropping in for midnight shopping sessions, or influencing other performers to try them. Over time, Lanskys also outfitted B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Rufus Thomas and James Brown.
When Hal was a child, he’d often spend Saturday mornings riding horses at Graceland or accompany his father dropping off new outfits to Elvis. Hal fondly remembers Elvis as never less than welcoming.
“I’m proud that we’re helping to keep Elvis’ legacy alive,” Hal says. “He was our goodwill ambassador. Elvis never forgot what my father did for him.”
In one of the four Lansky Bros. stores at the Peabody hangs a pink leather fur-trimmed coat that Elvis dropped in for repairs (he’d ripped the back vent as he was getting out of a car) just before his death and never picked up. And Elvis was buried in a white suit, light blue shirt and white tie – all from Lansky Bros.
In 2014, Lansky Bros. returned to the original building founded by Bernard and Guy; it shares space with the Hard Rock Café. It’s from outside this building that I climb into a 1955 Plymouth Belvedere being driven by local singer/songwriter Eva Brewer of the Rockabilly Rides tour company for a 90 minute Red Hot & Blue tour, taking in Elvis sites throughout Memphis.
Included is Humes High School, which Elvis attended, the Overton Park Shell, the outdoor performance space where Elvis gave his first public performance on 30 July 1954, the Lauderdale Courts, the public housing development where Elvis lived with his parents at the time he recorded with Sun Records, and even the dealership where Elvis purchased his Cadillacs (for himself occasionally but more often for family, friends and even complete strangers; its estimated, for example, that during his lifetime Elvis gave away more than 275 luxury cars, worth well over $US3 million).
(In a typical Memphisian stroke of serendipity, one of the principals of Rockabilly Rides, Brad Birkedahl, played Scotty Moore in the Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic, Walk The Line.)
However long a visitor spends in Memphis, eventually it all gets back to Elvis.
Many thanks to Memphis Tourism for their assistance in experiencing Memphis and compiling this article.
Further suggested reading:
Guralnick, Peter: Last Train To Memphis” The Rise Of Elvis Presley (Little Brown & Company, 1994)
Guralnick, Peter: Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown & Company, 1999)
Guralnick, Peter: Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll (Little, Brown & Company, 2015)
Williamson, Joel: Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford University Press, 2015).
Lansky Brothers: Clothier To The King (Beckon Books, 2010)
Amongst my many interests, I’m a collector of what I’ve come to call weird Christmas music. Each December, I put together a CD compilation for my friends of the treasures I’ve found, the strangest of the strange plus some favourites that the season wouldn’t quite be the same without. I started in 2002 and I still keep coming across notable tracks although I have to dredge through a lot of crap to uncover the truly sparkling gems.
Back in 2004, the Sydney Morning Herald ran my article about weird Christmas music. It was cut quite dramatically and PC’ed. Here is the full version, edited and updated. Enjoy.
Santa’s Dirty Secret: The Strange Tale of Weird Xmas Music
It’s fair to say that there’s never been much for Australians in Christmas music. Most of us wouldn’t know what a chestnut looked like, let alone seen one roasting on an open fire. And when was the last time we went dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh?
Which is why our rebel hearts cry out for a suitable soundtrack for the times. Christmas music that tells it like it is. More National Lampoon Christmas Vacation than It’s A Wonderful Life. There’s ain’t no angels at Christmas, George Bailey, and if you jump off that bridge, there’ll be no second helpings of pudding, either.
Flip through the racks of Christmas CDs, or endure shopping centre musak and it’s all Michael Bolton, Mariah Carey and Kenny G. Yet there’s a whole nether world of Christmas music out there, charting a darker place, sardonic and questioning, playful yet with the traitorous kiss of a razor blade. A true post-9/11 take on the world and the way we look at it.
Ditch Sarah Brightman and Barbara Streisand and listen instead to Tom Waits, Spinal Tap, AC/DC, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Booker T and The MGs, Spike Jones and His City Slickers, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Tiny Tim, The Partridge Family and The Ronettes. There’s something for everybody. Biting satire and loving homage. Jazz, swing, country, R&B, punk, comedy, novelty, pop and blues. There’s gay Christmas songs, Jewish Christmas songs (OK, Hannukah, then) even songs for people who really want this Christmas to be their last.
Uncovering a great weird Christmas song is like finding a redback nestling in Nanna’s fruit cake. It’s truly the gift that keeps on giving.
When Tommy Dorsey recorded “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” in 1934, the snowy sluice-gates of popular, commercially-driven Xmas music opened wide. In 1947 the Singing Cowboy and star of radio and silver screen, Gene Autry, wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus”, inspired by the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade. It was a hit but not as big as the one he had just two years later.
“Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” has been spinning around record players so long he’s generally assumed to be a traditional member of the North Pole community. Yet Rudolph was invented by a Chicago copywriter, Robert May, for the Montgomery Ward chain of department stores.
It started as a Christmas story given out to the store’s customers in 1939 until May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks (who would later pen “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, an enormous hit for Brenda Lee, and “A Holly Jolly Christmas”), immortalised the rosy appendage in song.
Gene Autry’s 1949 version sold 2.5 million copies before the year was out and total sales now hover around the 30 million-mark.
In 1948, Spike Jones and His City Slickers weighed in with “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”. Jones’ trademark was to cleverly deconstruct the wildly popular Big Band craze, hacking away its sophisticated allure and subverting it with complete chaos. There weren’t many sound effects, including gunshots and blood-curdling screams, that couldn’t be incorporated into a Spike Jones song. Think the Goons crossed with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre meet Glenn Miller.
By the 1940s, the greatest of all Christmas songs (and even weird Christmas music fans will admit to it) was well and truly established. In May 1942, cardiganed crooner Bing Crosby recorded a number of new songs written by Irving Berlin for the movie Holiday Inn. One of these was “White Christmas”. It became an instant classic. So much so, that the record’s original master was worn out by 1947 and had to be re-recorded. It is this, the second version, that people know today.
The curious Xmas completist should check out the two-CD Bing Crosby: The Voice of Christmas – The Complete Decca Christmas Songbook (MCA 1998), which has four versions of “White Christmas” – the 1942 “A” take discarded due to a slight fluff Crosby made near the end of the recording, the released second 1942 “B” take, the 1947 re-recording, and a 1954 version with Peggy Lee and Danny Kaye.
Bing Crosby, strange as it may seem, is the patron saint of weird Christmas music. This has as much to do with “White Christmas” as it does with his duet on “Little Drummer Boy” with David Bowie in 1977. So if “White Christmas” in all its schmaltzy glory is hip, what’s the cut-off point?
A sense of fun is the deciding factor. And irony. It’s safe to assume that Dean Martin is cool but Neil Diamond is not. Dean’s irony may be martini-enhanced but it’s fair to say that Neil Diamond considers irony to be something that happens to his satin shirts. The Carpenters and Nat King Cole, although skating dangerously close to an ice-thin saccharine crust, are nonetheless cool and thus reside on that outer edge of the weird music spectrum.
It’s when Christmas music enters the Twilight Zone that things really get interesting. It becomes the perfect antidote for those who consider Christmas music to be aural wallpaper, agreeable background static to the frantic Yuletide season.
Many of the best are novelty songs such as the 1953 hit for 10-year-old Gayla Peevey, “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas”. A child star in her native Oklahoma City, Peevey’s song inadvertently became a case of life imitating art. After blitzing the nation, a publicity coup saw Peevey presented with her very own baby hippopotamus, which she promptly donated to the Oklahoma City Zoo. Named Matilda, the mammoth mammal led her own famed existence until 1998 when she was due to be transferred to Disney World in Florida. In a sad twist to the Xmas tale, the Matilda died en route.
By the 1950s, Christmas turntables were swinging with such classics as Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby”, Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock”, and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” from pint-sized package Brenda Lee.
Over the years, there’s been some great novelty Christmas songs. Comedian Martin Mull lent the Big Red Guy some street cred with “Santafly”, a take on 70s blaxploitation movies, while Weird Al Yankovich tells what happens when the pressure gets too much in “The Night Santa Went Crazy”.
In 1999, The Little Stinkers, fronted by seven-year-old Mary Beltrami, fanned the winds of Xmas with “I Farted On Santa’s Lap”. Fashion tips also get a look-in with Canadian satirist Nancy White telling us “It’s So Chic To Be Pregnant At Christmas”.
The king of novelty Christmas songs must be Bob Rivers, a Seattle radio DJ with a series of parody CDs. In deconstructing popular songs, he comes up with such Pythoneseque tracks as “Chipmunks Roasting On An Open Fire”, “Wreck The Malls”, “I Came Upon A Roadkill Deer”, and “It’s The Most Fattening Time Of The Year”. Rivers also contributed a parody AC/DC Christmas song, “Hell’s Bells”.
But who needs a parody when you have the real thing? AC/DC released their own, “Mistress For Christmas”, in 1990. The roll call of rock’s tinsel-tonsiled hard men include The Damned, The Ramones (with the festive “Merry Christmas – I Don’t Want To Fight”), Blink 182, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Slade, and even Spinal Tap. Most are individual tracks available only on compilations although an exception is the entertaining A Twisted Christmas from heavy metal cross-dressers, Twisted Sister.
Lou Reed’s “Xmas In February” gets a mention not only for almost being a Christmas song but as one of the very few that deal with Vietnam (along with Johnny & Jon’s 1966 curiosity “Christmas In Viet Nam”, and “There Won’t Be Any Snow (Christmas In The Jungle)” by Derrick Roberts).
Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” is a Xmas song in title only but is worthy of inclusion nonetheless. Waits, however, waited for a truly Gothic moment to enter the Xmas annuls with the darkly roiling, thumping excesses of “Christmas Sucks”.
And for those who think “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas” can’t be weird, try Henry Rollins and his muscular steamroller of a version.
Television shows and celebrities are well represented with Xmas selections from The Waltons, Ren & Stimpy, South Park, Jerry Springer and a truly great album from The Partridge Family.
Mae West’s Mae in December (1980) is so obscure it appears in very few of the film star’s discographies but it’s a great album with such choice cuts as “Put The Loot In The Boot, Santa”.
Another swag of weird but worthy Christmas outings include “Homo Christmas” by 1990s gay San Francisco punk band, Pansy Division, drag queen RuPaul’s Ho Ho Ho album and Merry MeX-Mas from El Vez, the renowned Mexican Elvis Presley impersonator.
Tiny Tim’s Christmas Album, an important inclusion in any collection, was recorded in Sydney in 1993 under the guidance of Martin Sharp. Australian band Girl Monster (fronted by Campbelltown-born and now US-based alt country songstress, Anne McCue) recorded “Dead By Christmas”, one of the very few seasonal songs that stress the ultimate in self-determination.
Dread Zeppelin, a reggae band fronted by a 130-kilogram Elvis impersonator and best known for its individualistic interpretation of Led Zeppelin songs, released The First No-Elvis in 1994.
Big-band, swing and lounge music provide some brassy Xmas distractions with special mention going to the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue, 60s space-age bachelor pad purveyor Esquivel, and Canadian crooner Jaymz Bee & The Royal Jelly Orchestra.
There’s so much great R&B and soul that it’s almost impossible to catalogue. My faves include the evocatively-titled “Back Door Santa” from Clarence Carter, and The Harmony Grits, comprising members of the original Drifters, who in 1959 recorded a bouncy interpretation of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. And 14-year-old Frankie Lymon, reaching way beyond the top shelf where the presents are hidden for the high notes on “It’s Christmas Time Again”, which dates from around 1957.
The grand-daddy of all R&B festivities is Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (1963) with The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Darlene Love battling to be heard above Spector’s trademark Wall of Sound. The album has been reissued so many times and in so many forms, it’s one of the easiest to find (the 1988 CD release inexplicably includes a couple of turgid Elvis Presley tracks).
The Big Red Guy’s transportation dilemmas was an underlying theme of many country songs including Alan Jackson’s duet with Alvin and The Chipmunks on “Santa’s Gonna Come In A Pickup Truck”, The Tractors’ “Santa Claus Is Comin’ (In A Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train)”, Toby Keith’s “Hot Rod Sleigh” and Buck Owens’ “Santa’s Gonna Come In A Stagecoach”. Joe Diffie, however, preferred a country-fried reinvention of another legend with “Leroy, The Redneck Reindeer”.
The Twilight Zone Award for weird Xmas music goes to songwriter Red Sovine. His 1978 mistletoe missive, “Faith In Santa”, otherwise known as “Billy’s Christmas Wish”, tells of a street Santa who meets a sad and sickly little boy with a story that distends even country music’s already flexible definition of tragedy. Just as listeners think the song can’t get any more heart-rending, the final twist is beyond description and extremely creepy. Keep the Kleenex handy and a bucket even closer.
Like much of the Xmas season, disappointments abound. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ Christmas album from 1962 has only two cuts that even come close to the group’s successful formula of soaring falsettos high enough to make dogs’ ears bleed. The Three Stooges recorded a number of seasonal songs very late in their careers and it tells, the boys sounding so tired they seem to nap between choruses
Albums by Fats Domino, Liberace, Elvis Presley, The Monkees, Cyndi Lauper, Melanie, and Jackie Wilson sadly gather in the why-bother category. More often than not, Christmas albums by some of the 60s biggest rhythm and blues acts, including Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, fall into this trap and the label most guilty of such infringements is Motown, whose releases are generally so earnestly devout, so busy over-stuffing the Christ into Christmas they bleed the joy from joyous. One happy exception is The Jackson 5 Christmas Album from 1970, an infectiously boppy celebration of the season.
My own Christmas wish? Certainly not a new release from the Jingle Cats, whose 1994 album Here Comes Santa Claws was enough to threaten goodwill to all our four-legged friends. No, each year I beg Santa for a Leonard Cohen Christmas album.
Like so many people on Christmas morning, I know I’ll end up disappointed. But conjure the possibilities, if you will. Pass the razor, please. I’ll have an egg nog and a hot bath.