By Jack Sharkey, December 12, 2016
The final chapter of Phil Spector’s life is not a pleasant one, and beyond the jokes, quite a sad one. But it’s that time of year again when we try to look at the world through a lens that softens the bitter edges and makes the whole world teem with the joy and promise of a recording studio in LA in 1963. Maybe it’s okay to take a step back once in a while and revel in the good rather than constantly immersing in the bad, if only for the thirty-four minutes it takes to listen to this record. This is the great magic of music – it’s a respite from the world, or a reminder of it, it’s our choice. In the case of A Christmas Gift For You, I’ll choose to immerse myself in a world that probably never existed in real life, but I think we’d all be much better off if it had.
Prior to 1963 there was a smattering of Christmas music – Rudolph, White Christmas, chestnuts on an open fire, but the release of Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You was a landmark event in pop music history. All of those seasonal songs you either love or hate are the result of this album – pop stars and serious musicians have been trying to capture the magic of this record for fifty-three years. Most of the time that’s a good thing (KEF Blog December 11, 2013) or a bad thing (KEF Blog December 10, 2015).
- • Released: November 22, 1963
- • Length: 34:12
- • Produced by Phil Spector
- • Arranged by Jack Nitzsche
- • Recorded at Gold Star, Hollywood, CA
- • Engineer Larry Levine
- • Chart Positions: Billboard Christmas Album Sales #6 (1972), #142 of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
In this section I usually list the musicians and studio personnel who worked on the album, but the list of musicians and vocalists is simply too long to list here. It’s important for music history buffs to know that the studio musicians were from the Wrecking Crew – a group of LA studio musicians who played on pretty much every popular song recorded in Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s. This is also a fine example of Spector’s Wall of Sound production technique that included multiples of all the basic rhythmic instruments resulting in a massive (and super radio friendly) sound.
For this one, I pulled out the vinyl copy I purchased back in 1981 and I will congratulate myself on the near-complete lack of pops and scratches. Of course, this is a record that gets maybe two to three plays a year, but nevertheless. I had an original 1963 copy given to me by my parents a few years after its original release that I destroyed because I was a little kid, but I kind of wish I had the original now - they're rare and in good condition can fetch $500.
This record was released on November 22, 1963 – the day President Kennedy was assassinated, and it’s likely that timing played a role in the album’s initial utter flop. It languished on pop radio for a few years, here and there, but for the most part it was ignored. My take is that this was part of the pre-Beatles backlash of anything pop-culture that happened after Kennedy was killed.
In 1972, Apple Records re-released it and due in part to Baby Boomer nostalgia it became a holiday classic, with its popularity growing every year thereafter. There have been several re-issues, all pretty much in the stereo re-mastering of the original. In 1987, Spector re-mastered it back to the original mono and it was released on CD. I have that version and it is far better than the 1981 stereo re-issue I’m listening to today.
White Christmas (2:55): From the opening piano riff to the easy and uncluttered shuffle of the rhythm section, the Irving Berlin classic becomes a Darlene Love radio staple. Quiz your friends and find out just how many finger snaps are recorded in this track, and if you ever find out, let me know.
Frosty the Snowman (2:19): Roni Spector’s pronunciation of Frosty makes this mall parking lot raver all the more fun. Tease your kids with it so they’ll pass the tradition down. Hal Blaine’s forceful drumming is on full display with that big Gold Star studio drum sound we heard on so many other tracks from back in the day.
The Bells of St. Mary (2:58): Bob B. Soxx (probably not his given name) and his backing Blue Jeans take a middling movie tune and make it a ghostly Christmas treat, especially on the chorus and turn-around. When they sing “the bells shall ring out” you are convinced they will.
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (3:26): The Crystals are on deck next with their take on the 1930s kiddie classic. The spoken intro is downright cool in spite of how cheesy it could be all these years later. At a blistering 160 beats per minute with a raving saxophone in the Middle 8, you ain’t getting the kids to sleep early with this one. But then again, so what?
Sleigh Ride (3:04): As a six year old in 1966 when I got this record as a birthday gift from my parents I was completely shocked and amazed when my father, a professional musician, did the horse clip-clops on these horse clip-clop-making woodblocks he had with his other percussion stuff. The fact that a real human being could actually make the sound I heard on the record player was mind-blowing and life altering. This anecdote has nothing to do with reviewing the song, and I thank you all for indulging me.
Marshmallow World (2:25): Darlene Love makes getting wet feet from snow in your boots, freezing hands, and a numb face sound downright awesome. I might have had the wrong friends because I never had fun in the snow the way Darlene has fun in the snow. The production is a little muddy and the vocal track is a little noisy, but I defy you not to have a smile on your face as you listen.
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (2:40): Okay, the kiss is a little creepy, but the galloping rhythm complete with castanets erases any shudders it might have given you. Roni Spector’s voice is beautifully recorded and a sheer joy to listen to.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (2:33): I never liked the television special because frankly, mean-spirited reindeer and a Santa who only likes reindeer kids when they can do something for him kind of ruins my holiday spirit, but this Crystals track makes me feel a little better. Listen to the strings in the Middle 8 (left channel on the stereo mix) for a very cool phasing affect that was probably done by the musicians themselves and not the recording engineer.
Winter Wonderland (2:28): The vocals are a little shouty on this track but the arrangement does some cool things especially in the intro, so just take the whole package together and enjoy.
Parade of the Wooden Soldiers (2:57): An ambitious arrangement of another movie song, this one may be one of the most fun tracks on the whole set. When we reach the section where the soldiers are actually marching, the syncopation and counter-medleys are really fun to listen to, in spite of their simplicity – that is the essence of a great arrangement.
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (2:49): This is it. This is the song that anchors the set, and thanks to Paul Schaffer and David Letterman in the 1980s, who made a tradition of having Darlene Love sing her signature hit every December, this is the song that probably is the most evocative of the modern holiday season to almost everyone who listened to the radio before Mariah Carey began to tell us what she wants for Christmas. Every. Year.
Here Comes Santa Claus (2:06): Just like he did with Bells of St. Mary, Bob B. Soxx’s soulful rendition turns a simple kiddie song into a prayer for all of us.
Silent Night (2:08): The spoken ending to the album is very early 60s so it doesn’t translate well to the modern era, but in its day, this is how artists communicated to their fans (when they weren’t on the Ed Sullivan Show). You’re going to get up and take the needle off the record anyway, so just go slow and let it play out.
“Because Christmas is so international it is certainly in keeping that these youngsters should record their Christmas gift to you, for this album is produced solely with you in mind. It comes with the sincere wish that you understand and appreciate this endeavor into something new and different." – Phil Spector, 1963 (From the original album liner notes).
Imagine an artist talking to his or her audience like that today?
A Christmas Gift For You is best listened to:
- • Loudly, while decorating, baking, wrapping, or fighting to untangle the )#@&$^)^ lights
- • With as many kids as you can stand to have around at one time
- • You don’t need to be in any kind of seasonal spirit as the needle drops, but you will be by the time you turn the record over
- • Mulled wine, hot chocolate or, well, surprisingly enough, egg nog