Music Box: The (Complete) 12 Days of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas

(I wrote this series of posts last Christmas (2009) and since so many have written me about it and (mostly) loved it, I decided to repost it this year in one, encompassed post. Enjoy…and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!!)

Another year, another Christmas.  My feeling about the holidays always border on mercurial. Mostly, I bask in the beauty of the spirit, but there are those moments in time when I could feel the soul of Ebenezer creep in. Such is human nature, I surmise, but more often than not, I love the spirit that  ’tis the season and find myself bathed in  its emotional pull.

Okay, I’ll admit it.  When it comes to the holiday and holiday music, I’m a big fat sap.

Which, as a logician, and thus a non-believer, puts me in an odd situation.  Some decry or belittle my passion for Christmas and its seasonal tunes – I’m often accused of hypocrisy; “How? You’re an atheist – a non believer!! Blah blah blah!!!” Fair enough (those same town criers say the same because of my love of gospel), but as I alluded earlier, it’s the spirit (yes) but also the ideal of the holiday, and what it should bring out in mankind. It often fails, apparently, but there’s no harm in the yearning. So, I love religious carols too, despite the doctrine. Oh well, it is what it is.

Which brings me here. Because of my unabashed joy of the season, I decided to bring to you these next 2 weeks the 12 Days of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…a fête, if you will, of some of my favorite carols and canticles, religious and secular, holly and jolly, happy and bittersweet.  Now, these selections are not always sung by the most obvious of artists, and not necessarily performed by household names, and a few might or might not be standards, while others have been played to death.

But all hold a special place in my soul – and that is the common denominator.

As a footnote, I will say this – I could easily have written the 20 Days of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas, or even the 30 Days of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas.  There are literally hundreds of other songs I could have posted and the aesthete would have been the same.

Happy holidays to you all, believers and non-believers alike.

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On the 1st Day of (jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey gave to you…Darlene Love singing “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)” live from last year’s David Letterman appearance.  It’s been a tradition for many years – Letterman invites Love on his show to perform this seminal seasonal classic from what is arguably (or inarguably, if you ask me) the greatest Christmas CD of them all,  A CHRISTMAS GIFT TO YOU FROM PHIL SPECTOR.  Forget U2s smarmy version (Bono? Smarmy? Noooo!!), the Love original – or any live performance thereof – are the only readings of this song you’ll ever need to hear.

Her canon is rich with some of the most indelible Rock and Roll classics, and her voice has held up better than most women half her age – the most amazing thing about Love is that year after year she never loses her innate joy in her recitals and you realize that the thrill isn’t only in our listening.  Like the song, Love remains eternal…

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On the 2nd Day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey gave to you…something he, himself, is totally bamboozled by – Mariah Carey’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing/Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)”.

It’s a personal opinion, of course (and for years I was in the minority, though not so much anymore), but there hasn’t been a listenable album in the whole of Mariah Carey’s archives – she morphed from Mrs. Tommy Motolla’s conservatively-clad fembot with a piercing, wheezing voice millions mistook for a prodigious range, to a scantily clad hip-hip earwig, selling her breast implants and porn tics to the masses with nary a memorable hook in earshot (I re-christened her curiously heralded “comeback” THE EMANCIPATION OF MIMI as THE ATTACK OF THE SCREAMING MIMI).

It’s actually no real surprise that the only memorable CD in her catalogue is her wonderful MERRY CHRISTMAS anthology, released back in 1994 while still under the influence of her Svengali husband.  If nothing else, Motolla kept Carey’s public image thwarted of the overt sexual histrionics (not that sexuality is a negative, of course) that would plague her post-divorce output.  MERRY CHRISTMAS is chock full of exhilarating holiday staples and wondrous originals; her composition “All I Want For Christmas Is You” stands tall with the most ineradicable holiday classics and was going to be my (Jeffrey)Christ-mas Day 2 selection.

But the one track I am continually drawn back to – hence its inclusion here – is her interpretation of “Hark!” which is, in a word, magnificent. She doesn’t allow the self-infatuation with her own voice to negate the beauty of the arrangement, instead allowing it to be the vessel for the song’s exquisite simplicity.  The song ends when it should, with no typical Careyisms, no vocal acrobatics, no diversion from the melody to belabor her usual solipsism.  MERRY CHRISTMAS is a treasure trove, and “Hark…” one of its most shimmering pieces.

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On the 3rd Day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey gave to you…Bob Dylan’s “Must Be Santa”! BOB DYLAN?!?! Yep.  Dylan. The bard of ages. The poet laureate of the past 4 decades. Yes. That Dylan.

At first listen, Dylan’s first venture into seasonal music might appear disconcerting, as if you’re not sure his interpretation of hymnals as disparate (for him) as “Little Drummer Boy”, “Oh, Little Town Of Bethlehem” and the ilk is a middle finger-in-cheek to the traditionalists who he had to know he’d piss off for the sheer audacity.  But spelunking the negative reviews online, one has to laugh – it’s as if this is the first time they heard Dylan sing.  Non-Dylan fans have always disparaged his voice; CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART is perfect fodder for them.  For the rest of us who love Dylan, it’s as cozy, comfortable and warm as roasting chestnuts on an open fire with your favorite grandpa…snockered on too much eggnog, but endearing and heartfelt enough.

Even for Dylan’s worshippers, initially hearing the CD was uneasy. As a carol lover, I couldn’t imagine hearing Dylan’s aged croak (which of course is superlative within his own work) singing some of my favorite holiday tunes. But then something happened. I listened to it again. Then again.  And I realized that there wasn’t a smidgen of cheekiness, not a dash of a smirk, nor a soupcon of irony.  Here was a man who appeared passionate about this latest endeavor – whether it’s the yearning of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” or the jocular “Christmas Island”, I can’t recall the last time his reading of others’ work were sung with such honesty, wit and melancholia juxtaposed with shameless joviality. CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART is not for everyone. Some will hate it, and it’s definitely not the tool to convert a non-practicing Dylanite. You can consider it a sorta 30-year happy conclusion to his artistically sterile “born-again Christian” albums SLOW TRAIN COMING, SAVED and the dreadful SHOT OF LOVE .

Also, kudos to Dylan for his charity - all proceeds from the sale of the CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART go to the Feeding America foundation to end hunger.  So, Merry Christmas, indeed…

I admit I’ve never heard “Must Be Santa” before Dylan’s cover, but already it’s becoming one of my favorite seasonal jams, my life-long antipathy for Polka notwithstanding.  Watching the frenzied, exuberant nonsensical video, which could be an unknowing homage to Albert Finney’s “Thank You Very Much” from the musical “Scrooge”, only enhances the sonic pleasures of the track.

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On the 4th Day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey gave to you… “Carol of the Bells”!

One of my fondest memories of High School was our annual winter concert. As the lead tenor in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School Chorus, in Brooklyn NY, the most exciting night of my winter was our annual seasonal concert.  Led by the glorious Dr. Andrea Morris, the head of the music department and our fearless choral leader, we were quite…well, mediocre. There was little interest in performing live for most of the miscreants of the class, but the few of us who thrived live bandied together and made sure that it felt like it was the night of all of our lives. And it was.

One of the songs we sang was Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych’s “Shchedryk”, which was later adapted to English as “Carol Of The Bells”. Or as some people know it, “Hark how the bells, sweet silver bells…”

It’s an exhilarating emotion to sing a cappella, but due to the limits of the actual vocal finesse of the majority of our choral members, who couldn’t differentiate harmony from melody, Dr. Morris wisely decided to accompany us on piano for most of the numbers, including the wondrous “Carol…”, to masquerade any musical infidelity we (they) might have proposed.

Just to remind you, this was 1985 and school shows were rarely, if ever, videotaped for prosperity. Part of me would be awestruck to be able to relive such momentous heartprints of our youths, to watch part of the very thing that helped mold us into the grown-ups so many of us still strive to be.  So, sadly, there is no 1984-1985 F.D.R. Chorus recording.

There have been popular readings of this (most notably by the overblown, pretentious Manheim Steamroller, not to be confused with the equally atrophying Trans-Siberian Orchestra, or the soul-free, droning Celtic Women) but my favorite by far is by the successful, enchanting a cappella group called Straight No Chaser.  Weaving in and out of the intricate melody are their voices in majestic harmony, simultaneously lilting and haunting, powerful and prodigious. No other interpretation is more sweepingly simplistic.

Here’s a live performance, recorded by an audience member, from a concert from a few weeks ago:

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On the 5th Day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey gave to you…FIVE…TORI…VIDS!!!!  (In case you didn’t get it, that should be sung out like Day 5 of the original “12 Days Of Christmas“. I’m telling you, Christmastime brings out the sap in me!)

I can hear the distant wails of the my fanatical Tori-lovin’ friends from afar, who have pointlessly attempted and failed to convert my early Amos detachment, howling at the moon in disbelief.

You see, I’m not one of those who bow at the altar of Amos.  After a stunning solo debut, LITTLE EARTHQUAKES (the genesis of the often accused Kate Bush artifice she can’t seem to live down), followed by the unjustified critical drubbing of the CRUCIFY EP (which consisted of startling, gorgeous takes on the Stones’ “Angie”, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and a heart-rendering reading of Zeppelin’s “Thank You”; ironically, her next semi-solid album came a decade later with the 2001 release of another covers assemblage, STRANGE LITTLE GIRLS CD), Tori proceeded to release one cockamamie, nonsensical piece of mooncalf pie after another, each one more ridiculously esoteric then the last.  The empress had no clothes. You can’t convince the cavalcade of Toriphiles of this, though, as they will fight you to the edge of Venus for their Queen.  Me? I can’t relate to the gobbledygook of her pen.

But leave it to the kooky Queen of Cornflakes to release her only wholly listenable collection since LITTLE EARTHQUAKES as a holiday album! On the elegantly titled MIDWINTER GRACES, Tori reworks seasonal standards by incorporating her own baroque touches, harkening back musically to the sweep of her earlier work, and singing solidly for the first time in as many years. Also, she authored some pretty gorgeous yuletide pieces of her own, including the poignant “Snow Angel”, the pagan Yule “Winter’s Carol”, and the delightfully accessible “A Silent Night With You”, one of the most luxurious original holiday songs in years and one, I’ll bet, that will be covered innumerable times.  It’s a new seasonal classic, and it’s the one I wanted to feature for its splendor:

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The collection as a whole is such an ethereal piece of work  that I wanted to post 4 other tracks and decided on fan-made vids I found on YouTube (“4″ others because of that whole quirky “FIVE TORI VIDS!!” refrain at the start of this post. Did I already mention that Christmastime brings out the sap in me?). These vids showcase how far a fan will go to visualize a Tori Amos work.  Marrying image to song could be tricky and more-often-than-not rarely work (just watch the bulk of professionally made music videos to see what I mean) but a few of these are enchanting to watch, even at their most artlessness.

“What Child, Nowell”

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“Winter’s Carol” (Visually, merely a still of her album cover. Sonically, one of the most divine tracks on the CD)

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“Snow Angel” (Like a video version of a beloved snow globe…)

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“A Silent Night With You” (I’m cheating here, I know, because I’m repeating myself.  This is not really a “4th other” song from the album.  But, it’s my favorite on the collection, and it’s also my favorite fan-made vid. I didn’t post this above because I didn’t want to distract from the actual song, but now that you’ve heard it, this is a magical amalgamation of Amos’ ballad with clips of Tim Burton’s marvelous “The Nightmare Before Christmas”…

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Clichés are cliché for a reason – because they’re borne of truth, and believe this cliché - MIDWINTER GRACES is a must-have collection that you will replay every holiday for years to come.

Somewhere, Scott Batchelor is smiling.

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On the 6th Day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey gave to you… “Where Are You Christmas” by (gads!) Faith Hill.

Now, I realize I just might be losing any musical credibility and trust I’ve gained over the years; I mean, I expect and accept the snickering, but I stand my ground with this one. Who could have imagined that the grimy, dank big-budget Jim Carey version of Dr. Seuss’ eternal HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS would beget a modern Christmas treasure, sung by likes of the bland, Country- politan Faith Hill no less?

Well, that’s exactly what schlock-meister composer James Horner gave us, because what ordinarily serves as an irritant in a standard epic blockbuster (say, “My Heart Will Go On” nearly sinking the great TITANIC) is the norm in a Christmas song – schmaltzy, tingling feelings, swelled with copious emotion is the benchmark of most holiday tunes, and on that point Horner delivers here tenfold.  Hill’s natural flair for over-emoting to masquerade a competent-yet-flimsy voice (even here she’s wobbly on the lows and strains on the crescendos) was a good 2nd choice performer (Co-writer Mariah Carey’s version never appeared anywhere, because of some legalities with her ex-husband, and while her 1994 holiday collection is a miraculous anomaly – read about it HERE - I’m not sure the post-divorced Carey, seeped in her Hip Hop harlot insurrection, would have done “Where Are You Christmas” any favors – I can’t imagine it with porn-lite breathiness. So, thanks Tommy Motolla!)

The most magical thing about “Where Are You Christmas” is its universality.  It doesn’t belong to Hill; I can imagine a great vocalist doing wonders with the sentimentality of the lyric, the mush of the arrangement, the overt histrionics of the bridge, just as I can envision a neophyte understanding its poignancy.  It’s what Christmas songs are made for.  And “Where Are You Christmas” is what Christmas songs are made of.

Faith Hill’s original theme from the film…

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On the 7th Day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey gave to you…“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” by the Pointer Sisters, one of the most joyous versions of the song.

And what a wonderful song it is to capture the holiday week and the buoyancy after New York’s first big snowfall…outside my window, kids are playing, snow plows are rumbling, dogs are scrambling. Some folks are grumbling and others are whining about the weather, as if the fact that it’s December never entered their stream of consciousness mumblings.

I’d say it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but it hasn’t snowed in NY on Christmas in years.  But it definitely feels like an old-fashioned kind, the Christmases that they wrote about in songs, though rarely seen here in New York nowadays.

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is a grand ol’ tune, of course, and everyone young and old can sing the hook.  Overplayed and over-covered by hundreds of performers, sure, but still a staple for any Christmas collection. My favorite renditions, though, are those not performed in the more traditional, original arrangement, but the funkier, more soulful approach that adds more to the fundamental bliss of the lyrics.  The Pointer Sisters version, from the first – and still best – volume of the A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS series of charity releases benefiting the Special Olympics, is possibly the most jubilant of versions and probably my favorite.

Their arrangement is pretty much a cover version of the Crystals reading from the classic A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU FROM PHIL SPECTOR (look for a special posting about this soon), the greatest Christmas CD of all time.  Other artists reinterpreting the Crystals classic include the awesome Jackson 5 cover from their classic THE JACKSON 5 CHRISTMAS ALBUM, and the great Bruce Springsteen live track so often played during the holidays.

But it’s the Pointer Sisters, and A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS as a whole, that’s put into heavy rotation at my home every holiday.

The Pointer Sisters peformed the song live on the Johnny Carson show to promote the album~


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On the 8th Day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey gave to you…Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “The Power Of Love”.

Yeah, I’m cheating here, I know, because when the song was released on FGTHs debut WELCOME TO THE PLEASUREDOME album back in 1984, I’m not sure the birth of Jesus Christ was on the minds of the same songwriters whose first hit single from the album was the world-wide #1 (banned in the U.K.) gay sex anthem “Relax” (the anti-war “Two Tribes” was their second consecutive #1).

But, make no mistake, “The Power Of Love” is one of the great love songs of the 80s, and it became one of the great Christmas songs of all-time almost by fiat.  Master video pioneers Godley & Creme (whose classic “Cry” video immortalized the morphing technique later popularized by Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White”) shortened the original album track by two minutes, added a nativity theme to commemorate its December #1 status, and a Christmas classic was born.

The staggering sweep and scope of the song itself lends well to the ideal of the holiday, although lyrically, it’s a head-scratcher to juxtapose (but in the world of music video, how often is the text paralleled to the visual?)

Lead singer Holly Johnson’s opening lines of the song were cut from the video, yet are kept within the song (the hauntingly beautiful imagery of “I’ll protect you from the hooded claw, keep the vampires from your door…”). At times broad-voiced and nasal, his odd vibrato mixed with an unwavering passionate yearning – he propels the ballad into classic territory on aesthete alone.  His delivery is chill-inducing.

I can’t imagine that Frankie Goes To Hollywood ever resented “The Power of Love” becoming synonymous with Christmastime; while it was their third #1 smash in as many releases, it could have lived and died at that, to be scattered amongst the thousands of #1s throughout history as a fond memory (also, I’m not sure who else besides me elevate this to ‘classic love song’ status).  But, thanks to Godley & Creme, this near-perfect masterpiece is an annual seasonal staple.

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On the 9th Day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey gave to you… A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU FROM PHIL SPECTOR!

Greater minds, critics and philosophers have waxed philosophic about this monumental holiday masterpiece far more judiciously and with more wisdom than I ever could attempt, that anything I can possibly write would be an infinitesimal contribution. But, what I can and will say – before I let you sit back and let the music envelope your very soul – is that on a personal, intrinsic level, no holiday collection ever released has brought me such innate elation for so many years.  From the very first notes of Darlene Love’s “White Christmas” to the last refrain of “Silent Night”, this is a most fantastic brew of classic Rock and Soul voices, Spector’s legendary Wall of Sound and the spirit of the holidays.  30 years after first listen, it continues to warm my very soul.

A few fans uploaded all the tracks as various viral videos on YouTube but who knows how long they’ll last before the YouTube Nazis yank them for their own megalomaniac needs. In fact, the last cut on the album, “Silent Night” performed by Spector’s artists, is non-existent in any form.  But, even minus that track, it’s an exhilarating listen.  So, without any more pontificating, here is (most of) A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU.

 

Tk 1 Darlene Love – White Christmas
Tk 2 The Ronettes – Frosty The Snowman
Tk 3 Bob B. Sox & The Blue Jeans – The Bells of St. Marys
Tk 4 The Crystals – Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

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Tk 5 The Ronettes – Sleigh Ride

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Tk 6 Darlene Love – Marshmallow World

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Tk 7 Ronettes – I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

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Tk 8 The Crystals – Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer

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Tk 9 Darlene Love – Winter Wonderland
Tk 10 The Crystals – Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers
Tk 11 Darlene Love – Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
Tk 12 Bob B. Sox & The Blue Jeans – Here Comes Santa Claus

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On the 10th Day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey gave to you…“Oh, Holy Night” by…well, just about anyone, really.

From the most classic voices in history (Mahalia Jackson, Donna Summer, Luciano Pavarotti) to the artists I adore, to those I ordinarily can’t stomach (Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey), rare is the version of “Oh, Holy Night” that I don’t succumb to (not to get my Scrooge on, but putrid recordings that do come to mind – say, Jessica Simpson’s, Il Divo’s, Danny Gokey’s, Celtic Women’s – are not the norm, but rather musical anomalies better left to the art of sign language).

The song is, in my opinion, not only the most beautiful carol of them all, but one of the greatest melodies ever written, hence one of histories greatest songs. And, lest I am accused of hypocrisy again, I’ll reiterate what I wrote in my 1st Day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas post:

…some decry or belittle my passion for Christmas and its seasonal tunes – I’m often accused of hypocrisy; “How? You’re an atheist – a non believer!! Blah blah blah!!!” Fair enough (those same town criers say the same because of my love of gospel), but as I alluded earlier, it’s the spirit (yes) but also the ideal of the holiday, and what it should bring out in mankind. It often fails, apparently, but there’s no harm in the yearning. So, I love religious carols too, despite the doctrine.

So, it’s not the lyrical content of “Oh, Holy Night”, but its rapturous melody, and more importantly, the ideal of its dogma. It’s a beautiful thing to believe in such fairytales, and if it makes one human being a more contented soul, then who am I to negate its effect/affect?

It also unearths a wave of emotional stimuli from the core of my very soul.  I was honored to perform the song back in 1984 during my High School’s annual winter concert (I wrote a little about that same night HERE).  When the solos were being issued weeks earlier, a lesser voice attempted to acquire it, but Dr. Morris wouldn’t even entertain that notion.  She knew it was my favorite song, yes, but more importantly, and for the better of the show, she knew – steadfastly and adamantly – that not a single body in the entire school would be able to resonate on this canticle as I would…she knew my voice better than even I understood and there wasn’t a scintilla of a second thought in her decision that I would sing this solo.

So, come showtime, with the chorus as my own personal backup choir, I took to the stage…in my Harley Davidson MC boots, my Rock ‘N Roll hair, my 80s pornstache, and dressed as a nearly-clean shaven Santa (I had, at this point, removed the fake white beard), I stood before the packed auditorium and sang out to the masses.  And it was magical…my voice, like a clarion, singing in the night as my classmates wept, and the audience roared to a thunderous standing ovation, and as I glanced over to a teary-eyed Dr. Morris I knew then that it was, undoubtedly, a highlight of my High School “career”.  (Update – As my brother Sean reminded me, the powers that be made me change “Christ” to “He”, as in “Oh night, when HE was born..” I had forgotten that bit of history.  Thanks, Sean!)

I don’t write these words as a man putting his ego to pen, or as a braggart seeped in self-aggrandizement.  I write these words merely as an emblem of a simpler time…and of the influence that the song had in my life.

I was recently bestowed a gift from a friend and a genuine celebrity.  Back in October, my friend Jim Cantiello, for an MTV News piece, was interviewing David Archuleta of “American Idol” fame. Jim asked David to go caroling throughout the company to a few people who were fans, and one of those visits was to me.  When Jim arrived at my office, David asked which song would I like him to sing and without hesitation I told him that I’ve been listening to his recent holiday release and his version of “Oh Holy Night” so it would be an honor for him to sing that to me. Well, words can’t describe the emotionality of the moment – here was this young man, so humble and authentic, with a voice that rang through my mind like an angel on earth, singing “Oh, Holy Night” to a mere mortal like me, in my dark little cavern of MTV.  In a word, celestial! (You can watch Jim and David’s MTV Carol extravaganza HERE)

Feast your ears on these various incarnations of this most heavenly hymn.  Believer or non-believer, atheist or a theist, sinner or saint, “Oh, Holy Night” is undeniable.

Patti LaBelle’s transcendent 1990 Johnny Carson performance

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Mahalia Jackson’s definitive version

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The Queen with the Fifth Beatle

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The incomparable Donna Summer from Solid Gold’s Christmas Special

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On the 11th Day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey gave to you…Stevie Nicks’ version of “Silent Night”…

“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through Stevie’s house, not a Gypsy was stirring…”

Stevie’s haunting reading of “Silent Night” was recorded for the A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS charity album in 1987, the first (and the best) in the long line of Christmas albums benefiting the Special Olympics produced by long-time Stevie fan, producer and now chairman of Interscope records, Jimmy Iovine.

AVSC consists of some wonderful holiday tracks (including Eurythmics’ enchanting “Winter Wonderland”, the Pointer Sisters’ jovial “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (featured as my 7th Day Of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas), Bruce Springsteen’s fantastic “Merry Christmas, Baby” and Run-DMC’s classic “Christmas In Hollis”, accompanied by an even better VIDEO), and needless to say to anyone who knows me – at all - the Stevie Nicks reading of “Silent Night” is amongst my very favorite Christmas recordings.

Below is a video I put together called “Silent Night Suite”. It begins with an excerpt of an old MTV special about the making of the album (which includes an interview with Stevie and Iovine), and then the full Iovine interview where that  footage was taken from.  To, of course, the sterling live version.

With two-maybe-three hit wonder Robbie Nevil lending his vocal, this version of “Silent Night” was performed on the “A Very Special Christmas” concert TV special that aired on CBS in 1987.  Hosted by FAME actress Nia Peeples, it featured some of the album’s artists performing their tracks. The show closed with “Silent Night”. When Stevie sings with her long-time backup singers Lori Perry-Nicks and Sharon Celani, the result is always stunningly ethereal, and here is no exception…blending with Robbie’s call-and-response, this live version is actually more exquisite than the recorded version, and sweeps you away into another dimension.

Open your eyes, and you see a Rock ‘N Roll queen sing in celebration. Close your eyes and you are encompassed by the beauty of the song, the luxurious harmony, and the spirit of the holidays.

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On the 12th (and FINAL) Day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey wishes you a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!! HAPPY KWANZAA!!! FELIZ NAVIDAD!!!!  HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!!!  Whatever your religious or non-religious affiliations, whichever your spiritual or secular proclivities…it is a time of love and retrospect and soul-searching.

And, on this 12th day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas, I give to you my favorite non-traditional Christmas song of them all, a surreal, haunting meeting of two great singers from two disparate generations singing about something so universal.

And what better memo for mankind during the holidays – especially while living in these hellish economic days – than the basic message of “Little Drummer Boy”? Consumerism has ruled – thus nearly ruined – the holidays for eons, and everyone’s inherent knee-jerk obligation is to spend money to exhibit their devotion for their loved ones…charging credit cards, racking up bills, emptying wallets, the worry that it’s never enough, or the fear that begets guilt that the receiver won’t like it. It’s maddening, really.  Life shouldn’t be that hard-pressed.

But one needn’t spelunk their dwindling pockets to showcase their declarations. All one really needs to show how they feel about those they love is to play their own drum.

And “Peace On Earth” is a glorious counterpoint…

Peace on Earth, can it be
Years from now, perhaps we’ll see
See the day of glory
See the day, when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again

Every child must be made aware
Every child must be made to care
Care enough for his fellow man
To give all the love that he can

Peace on Earth, can it be

I pray my wish will come true
For my child and your child too
He’ll see the day of glory
See the day when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again

Perchance life can’t be simplified in such idealistic terms, I know. Perhaps “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” speaks the words of a naive person who wishes to see the world thrive in peace, and love to rule humanity.  Perhaps.

Sadly, it isn’t love that makes the world go round – it is money, greed, hatred, intolerance.

But sometimes the simplest of expressions are words to live by…and hope is a dream we can’t afford to lose.

Peace? Love? Perhaps, one day…

Perhaps.  One day…


Music Box: On The 12th (and FINAL) Day Of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey wishes you a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!! HAPPY KWANZAA!!! FELIZ NAVIDAD!!!!  HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!!!  Whatever your religious or non-religious affiliations, whichever your spiritual or secular proclivities…it is a time of love and retrospect and soul-searching.

On this 12th day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas, I give to you my favorite non-traditional Christmas song of them all, a surreal, haunting meeting of two great singers from two disparate generations singing about something so universal.

And what better memo for mankind during the holidays – especially while living in these hellish economic days – than the basic message of “Little Drummer Boy”? Consumerism has ruled – thus nearly ruined – the holidays for eons, and everyone’s inherent knee-jerk obligation is to spend money to exhibit their devotion for their loved ones…charging credit cards, racking up bills, emptying wallets, the worry that it’s never enough, or the fear that begets guilt that the receiver won’t like it. It’s maddening, really.  Life shouldn’t be that hard-pressed.

But one needn’t spelunk their dwindling pockets to showcase their declarations. All one really needs to show how they feel about those they love is to play their own drum.

And “Peace On Earth” is a glorious counterpoint…

Peace on Earth, can it be
Years from now, perhaps we’ll see
See the day of glory
See the day, when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again

Every child must be made aware
Every child must be made to care
Care enough for his fellow man
To give all the love that he can

Peace on Earth, can it be

I pray my wish will come true
For my child and your child too
He’ll see the day of glory
See the day when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again

Perchance life can’t be simplified in such idealistic terms, I know. Perhaps “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” speaks the words of a naive person who wishes to see the world thrive in peace, and love to rule humanity.  Perhaps.

Sadly, it isn’t love that makes the world go round – it is money, greed, hatred, intolerance.

But sometimes the simplest of expressions are words to live by…and hope is a dream we can’t afford to lose.

Peace? Love? Perhaps, one day…

Perhaps.  One day…

On The 11th Day Of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

 

…Jeffrey gave to you…Stevie Nicks’ version of “Silent Night”…

 

“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through Stevie’s house, not a Gypsy was stirring…”

Stevie’s haunting reading of “Silent Night” was recorded for the A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS charity album in 1987, the first (and the best) in the long line of Christmas albums benefiting the Special Olympics produced by long-time Stevie fan, producer and now chairman of Interscope records, Jimmy Iovine.

AVSC consists of some wonderful holiday tracks (including Eurythmics’ enchanting “Winter Wonderland”, the Pointer Sisters’ jovial “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (featured as my 7th Day Of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas), Bruce Springsteen’s fantastic “Merry Christmas, Baby” and Run-DMC’s classic “Christmas In Hollis”, accompanied by an even better VIDEO), and needless to say to anyone who knows me – at all - the Stevie Nicks reading of “Silent Night” is amongst my very favorite Christmas recordings.

Below is a video I put together called “Silent Night Suite”. It begins with an excerpt of an old MTV special about the making of the album (which includes an interview with Stevie and Iovine), and then the full Iovine interview where that  footage was taken from.  To, of course, the sterling live version.

With two-maybe-three hit wonder Robbie Nevil lending his vocal, this version of “Silent Night” was performed on the “A Very Special Christmas” concert TV special that aired on CBS in 1987.  Hosted by FAME actress Nia Peeples, it featured some of the album’s artists performing their tracks. The show closed with “Silent Night”. When Stevie sings with her long-time backup singers Lori Perry-Nicks and Sharon Celani, the result is always stunningly ethereal, and here is no exception…blending with Robbie’s call-and-response, this live version is actually more exquisite than the recorded version, and sweeps you away into another dimension.

Open your eyes, and you see a Rock ‘N Roll queen sing in celebration. Close your eyes and you are encompassed by the beauty of the song, the luxurious harmony, and the spirit of the holidays.

 

 

 

 

Music Box: On The 10th Day Of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

Me, rockin’ the 80s pornstache, dressed as Santa, dazzlin’ the audience with OH, HOLY NIGHT

…Jeffrey gave to you…“Oh, Holy Night” by…well, just about anyone, really.

From the most classic voices in history (Mahalia Jackson, Donna Summer, Luciano Pavarotti) to the artists I adore, to those I ordinarily can’t stomach (Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey), rare is the version of “Oh, Holy Night” that I don’t succumb to (not to get my Scrooge on, but putrid recordings that do come to mind – say, Jessica Simpson’s, Il Divo’s, Danny Gokey’s, Celtic Women’s – are not the norm, but rather musical anomalies better left to the art of sign language).

The song is, in my opinion, not only the most beautiful carol of them all, but one of the greatest melodies ever written, hence one of histories greatest songs. And, lest I am accused of hypocrisy again, I’ll reiterate what I wrote in my 1st Day of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas post:

…some decry or belittle my passion for Christmas and its seasonal tunes – I’m often accused of hypocrisy; “How? You’re an atheist – a non believer!! Blah blah blah!!!” Fair enough (those same town criers say the same because of my love of gospel), but as I alluded earlier, it’s the spirit (yes) but also the ideal of the holiday, and what it should bring out in mankind. It often fails, apparently, but there’s no harm in the yearning. So, I love religious carols too, despite the doctrine.

So, it’s not the lyrical content of “Oh, Holy Night”, but its rapturous melody, and more importantly, the ideal of its dogma. It’s a beautiful thing to believe in such fairytales, and if it makes one human being a more contented soul, then who am I to negate its effect/affect?

It also unearths a wave of emotional stimuli from the core of my very soul.  I was honored to perform the song back in 1984 during my High School’s annual winter concert (I wrote a little about that same night HERE).  When the solos were being issued weeks earlier, a lesser voice attempted to acquire it, but Dr. Morris wouldn’t even entertain that notion.  She knew it was my favorite song, yes, but more importantly, and for the better of the show, she knew – steadfastly and adamantly – that not a single body in the entire school would be able to resonate on this canticle as I would…she knew my voice better than even I understood and there wasn’t a scintilla of a second thought in her decision that I would sing this solo.

So, come showtime, with the chorus as my own personal backup choir, I took to the stage…in my Harley Davidson MC boots, my Rock ‘N Roll hair, my 80s pornstache, and dressed as a nearly-clean shaven Santa (I had, at this point, removed the fake white beard), I stood before the packed auditorium and sang out to the masses.  And it was magical…my voice, like a clarion, singing in the night as my classmates wept, and the audience roared to a thunderous standing ovation, and as I glanced over to a teary-eyed Dr. Morris I knew then that it was, undoubtedly, a highlight of my High School “career”.  (Update – As my brother Sean reminded me, the powers that be made me change “Christ” to “He”, as in “Oh night, when HE was born..” I had forgotten that bit of history.  Thanks, Sean!)

I don’t write these words as a man putting his ego to pen, or as a braggart seeped in self-aggrandizement.  I write these words merely as an emblem of a simpler time…and of the influence that the song had in my life.

I was recently bestowed a gift from a friend and a genuine celebrity.  Back in October, my friend Jim Cantiello, for an MTV News piece, was interviewing David Archuleta of “American Idol” fame. Jim asked David to go caroling throughout the company to a few people who were fans, and one of those visits was to me.  When Jim arrived at my office, David asked which song would I like him to sing and without hesitation I told him that I’ve been listening to his recent holiday release and his version of “Oh Holy Night” so it would be an honor for him to sing that to me. Well, words can’t describe the emotionality of the moment – here was this young man, so humble and authentic, with a voice that rang through my mind like an angel on earth, singing “Oh, Holy Night” to a mere mortal like me, in my dark little cavern of MTV.  In a word, celestial! (You can watch Jim and David’s MTV Carol extravaganza HERE)

Feast your ears on these various incarnations of this most heavenly hymn.  Believer or non-believer, atheist or a theist, sinner or saint, “Oh, Holy Night” is undeniable.

Patti LaBelle’s transcendent 1990 Johnny Carson performance

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Mahalia Jackson’s definitive version

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The Queen with the Fifth Beatle

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The incomparable Donna Summer from Solid Gold’s Christmas Special

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Music Box: On The 9th Day Of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

The Greatest Holiday Album Of Them All

…Jeffrey gave to you… A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU FROM PHIL SPECTOR!

Greater minds, critics and philosophers have waxed philosophic about this monumental holiday masterpiece far more judiciously and with more wisdom than I ever could attempt, that anything I can possibly write would be an infinitesimal contribution. But, what I can and will say – before I let you sit back and let the music envelope your very soul – is that on a personal, intrinsic level, no holiday collection ever released has brought me such innate elation for so many years.  From the very first notes of Darlene Love’s “White Christmas” to the last refrain of “Silent Night”, this is a most fantastic brew of classic Rock and Soul voices, Spector’s legendary Wall of Sound and the spirit of the holidays.  30 years after first listen, it continues to warm my very soul.

A few fans uploaded all the tracks as various viral videos on YouTube but who knows how long they’ll last before the YouTube Nazis yank them for their own megalomaniac needs. In fact, the last cut on the album, “Silent Night” performed by Spector’s artists, is non-existent in any form.  But, even minus that track, it’s an exhilarating listen.  So, without any more pontificating, here is (most of) A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU.

 

Tk 1 Darlene Love – White Christmas
Tk 2 The Ronettes – Frosty The Snowman
Tk 3 Bob B. Sox & The Blue Jeans – The Bells of St. Marys
Tk 4 The Crystals – Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

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Tk 5 The Ronettes – Sleigh Ride

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Tk 6 Darlene Love – Marshmallow World

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Tk 7 Ronettes – I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

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Tk 8 The Crystals – Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer

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Tk 9 Darlene Love – Winter Wonderland
Tk 10 The Crystals – Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers
Tk 11 Darlene Love – Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
Tk 12 Bob B. Sox & The Blue Jeans – Here Comes Santa Claus

Music Box: On The 8th Day Of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

…Jeffrey gave to you…Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “The Power Of Love”.

Yeah, I’m cheating here, I know, because when the song was released on FGTHs debut WELCOME TO THE PLEASUREDOME album back in 1984, I’m not sure the birth of Jesus Christ was on the minds of the same songwriters whose first hit single from the album was the world-wide #1 (banned in the U.K.) gay sex anthem “Relax” (the anti-war “Two Tribes” was their second consecutive #1).

But, make no mistake, “The Power Of Love” is one of the great love songs of the 80s, and it became one of the great Christmas songs of all-time almost by fiat.  Master video pioneers Godley & Creme (whose classic “Cry” video immortalized the morphing technique later popularized by Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White”) shortened the original album track by two minutes, added a nativity theme to commemorate its December #1 status, and a Christmas classic was born.

The staggering sweep and scope of the song itself lends well to the ideal of the holiday, although lyrically, it’s a head-scratcher to juxtapose (but in the world of music video, how often is the text paralleled to the visual?)

Lead singer Holly Johnson’s opening lines of the song were cut from the video, yet are kept within the song (the hauntingly beautiful imagery of “I’ll protect you from the hooded claw, keep the vampires from your door…”). At times broad-voiced and nasal, his odd vibrato mixed with an unwavering passionate yearning – he propels the ballad into classic territory on aesthete alone.  His delivery is chill-inducing.

I can’t imagine that Frankie Goes To Hollywood ever resented “The Power of Love” becoming synonymous with Christmastime; while it was their third #1 smash in as many releases, it could have lived and died at that, to be scattered amongst the thousands of #1s throughout history as a fond memory (also, I’m not sure who else besides me elevate this to ‘classic love song’ status).  But, thanks to Godley & Creme, this near-perfect masterpiece is an annual seasonal staple.

Music Box: On The 7th Day Of (Jeffrey)Christ-mas…

The Pointer Sisters recorded “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” for the A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS charity album

…Jeffrey gave to you…“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” by the Pointer Sisters, one of the most joyous versions of the song.

 And what a wonderful song it is to capture the holiday week and the buoyancy after New York’s first big snowfall…outside my window, kids are playing, snow plows are rumbling, dogs are scrambling. Some folks are grumbling and others are whining about the weather, as if the fact that it’s December never entered their stream of consciousness mumblings.

I’d say it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but it hasn’t snowed in NY on Christmas in years.  But it definitely feels like an old-fashioned kind, the Christmases that they wrote about in songs, though rarely seen here in New York nowadays.

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is a grand ol’ tune, of course, and everyone young and old can sing the hook.  Overplayed and over-covered by hundreds of performers, sure, but still a staple for any Christmas collection. My favorite renditions, though, are those not performed in the more traditional, original arrangement, but the funkier, more soulful approach that adds more to the fundamental bliss of the lyrics.  The Pointer Sisters version, from the first – and still best – volume of the A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS series of charity releases benefiting the Special Olympics, is possibly the most jubilant of versions and probably my favorite.

Their arrangement is pretty much a cover version of the Crystals reading from the classic A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU FROM PHIL SPECTOR (look for a special posting about this soon), the greatest Christmas CD of all time.  Other artists reinterpreting the Crystals classic include the awesome Jackson 5 cover from their classic THE JACKSON 5 CHRISTMAS ALBUM, and the great Bruce Springsteen live track so often played during the holidays.

But it’s the Pointer Sisters, and A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS as a whole, that’s put into heavy rotation at my home every holiday.

 

The Pointer Sisters peformed the song live on the Johnny Carson show to promote the album~