[Ed. note: It doesn't feel much like Christmas in my heart this year, but some traditions you just can't let go of, can you? If the National Enquirer, or Us, or The Worldly World News, or whatever the heck that supermarket tabloid had on its cover is correct, this might be the last "Holiday Ode" post that will post while Phil Spector is alive. Supposedly, he's only got six weeks to live. Doesn't matter, maybe some people can't separate the talent and legacy from the person who inhabits it, but I can. So Merry Christmas, Phil - you're still a musical hero of mine, and you changed the way pop music commemorated the season.]
That’s right, cats and chicks of all ages, it’s that time of year again. I know the guy’s still sitting in a prison cell, whacked out, burned out, and for all intents and purposes checked out of society and the rock n’ roll world he was once such an iconic part of. But heck, it is the Christmas season and I know it’s not REALLY Christmas until I slap into my CD player the best damned rock n’ roll Christmas record of all time. Which is (for those of you cats and chicks who may not be hip to these kinds of grooves), Phil Spector’s magnificent “A Christmas Gift For You”.
I know what you’re thinking – that’s just The Great White Shank spoutin’ his “yeah-i-know-he’s-in-jail-for-murder-but-believe-me-Phil-Spector-really-was-a-genius” bull$hit, but in this case you need to give me a break. ‘Cause it’s not just me, it’s a whole range of critics across the media spectrum, from Rolling Stone (who rated it #142 in its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time), to bloggers like Hip Christmas and BlogCritics. BC’s praise of the album and its greatness is especially spot-on:
A Christmas Gift For You contains thirteen performances, all captured during that incredible early sixties period when Spector was producing these amazing records. You already know all of the songs, as they have all become tried and true radio staples at Christmas time over the years. Song for song, the wall of sound production — with all of its bells, whistles, and strings — captures all the magic and wonder of Christmas like very little music I can think of. When you hear these songs, it’s like being instantly transported to a kinder, simpler time. It really does feel like Christmas.
In addition to the Ronettes and Crystals classics already mentioned, the standouts here include Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and a version of “White Christmas” so gorgeous you’ll be checking your window for snowflakes. On Bob B. Soxx And The Blue Jeans’ “The Bells of Saint Mary,” the bells and the castanets ring gloriously amid a swirl of gospel-charged backing vocals.
So the thing is, Phil Spector’s recent legal troubles aside, this record just doesn’t sound any different to me. For my money, it’s still the single greatest Christmas record ever made. And tougher sell that it may be these days, it will definitely be on my CD player when the guys and I get together for some Christmas cheer next weekend.
For me, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without it.
The album, considered by many to be Spector’s finest piece of collective work (The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”, The Righteous Brothers’ “(You’ve Lost That) Lovin’ Feelin’”, and, of course, Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” being singular achievements), had a bumpy ride on the road to becoming a much-loved and respected holiday pop classic. Originally recorded during the summer and fall of 1963, it was understandably overlooked in those tragic weeks following the assassination of JFK and then virtually forgotten. It was only until its re-introduction to the public on the Beatles’ Apple Records label in 1971 – at the urging of John Lennon and George Harrison (both of whom utilized Spector on their first post-Beatles’ solo albums following his work on Let It Be) – that the album got radio play and finally earned its long-deserved place in pop music history.
So what exactly is it about A Christmas Gift For You that makes it both a holiday pop classic and a piece of work sufficient enough to warrant recognition among rock’s all-time greatest works? David Sprague, in his Amazon.com review, puts it simply: “[Spector's] “wall-of-sound” technique is perfectly suited to the music of the season, as he proves with layer upon layer of piano, sleigh bells, buoyant percussion, and, of course, those legendary Spectorsound harmonies.”
True enough, but it’s only after you buy it and crank it up VERY loud that you start to appreciate not just the massive sound Spector lovingly and painstakingly crafted, but the way his session players and musical artists make the most out of the material given them. Here, Spector’s artists The Crystals, The Ronettes, Darlene Love, and Bobby Sheen are simply vocal instruments in the overall mix, working within the material and the arrangements, not overpowering them. Listen closely, and you begin to see how the subtleties within each arrangement illustrate Spector’s respect for both the material and the genre that brought him such fame and respect in his day:
* On “White Christmas”, Darlene Love’s lead is beautifully understated (something virtually unheard of in this post-Whitney armageddon of Britneys and Christinas who sound like wailing alleycats in heat). And listen to how the pianos, basses, and saxes (alto and tenor) underscore the rhythm, and how beautifully they finish the song’s fade-out. Magical.
* On “Frosty The Snowman”, Ronnie Spector takes a harmless children’s tune and turns it into a holiday pop masterpiece. Her earnest vocal is the showpiece here – think ‘Frosty’ meets ‘Be My Baby’, with enough warmth and sweetness to turn ‘the Frostster’ into a puddle of lukewarm H2O. Loved hearing it in that iconic scene in GoodFellas where Jimmy goes nuts with everyone buying expensive stuff after the Lufthansa heist.
* On “The The Bells of St. Mary’s“, Bobby Sheen’s lead is sweet and soulful out in front of a driving rhythm highlighted by chimes and Hal Blaine‘s amazing drumwork on the fade-out. Oh, and that’s Darlene Love doing the “yeah, yeah”‘s towards the end.
* The Crystals’ version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” rejuvenated the classic so much so that the artists as varied as the Jackson 5 (ugh!) and Bruce Springsteen, among others, felt it necessary to pay it homage with their own versions. Listen for how the bells tinkle out Brahms’s Lullaby behind La La Brooks’ spoken intro – talk about attention to detail!
* On “Sleigh Ride” The Ronettes give a big fat wet kiss to Leroy Anderson’s classic arrangement; their now-classic “ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding” back-up is pure icing on this sweet holiday confection.
* “Marshmallow World” is a fun piece – dig the opening piano with an absolute ton of echo on it. And listen to how the saxes underscore the piano/guitar rhythm – you’re talkin’ Wall of Sound here, baby! The mix has always sounded a little muddy to me, but I think that’s just the sheer number of musicians playing at the same time – Phil always did his mixing live while the entire ensemble was playing. Darlene Love’s vocal is energetic and playful, a great performance.
* “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. You don’t get the #2 slot on my Top 10 Christmas list for nothing. Simply put, there is nothing wanting in this recording – the performances are top-notch throughout. Ronnie Spector’s lead is both devilish and sexy, and the arrangement rocks. Listen for the piano fills and the sleighbells workin’ behind the saxes. It almost sounds as if Ronnie is slurring her s’s here (‘kishing’ Santa Claus); I think she’s doing it deliberately so I fall in love with her voice all over again every year at this time.
* On “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer”, listen for the guitar riff (Tommy Tedesco? Barney Kessel?) that frames the song throughout, a style similar to what Brian Wilson would later employ on The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” a couple of years later. There’s also a piano (and guitar?) doing something funky from the instrumental break onward, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is.
* “Winter Wonderland” is a faithful and fun rendition. Listen for those trademark shimmering strings featured throughout – they sound kinda funky to me – and how drummer Hal Blaine absolutely beats the daylights out of his toms on every fill. Darlene Love’s vocal is both soulful and fun. A magnificent arrangement.
* “Parade of The Wooden Soldiers”. OK, listen to how the strings behind The Crystals’ rollicking performance absolutely shimmer like glistening snow, especially behind the trumpet solo in the middle. No one – and I mean NO ONE – could make Christmas pop music like Phil Spector. (If you doubt me, just listen to John & Yoko’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”) Again, Hal Blaine’s drum fills on the fade-out are pretty intense.
* “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”. Arguably the showpiece of the album. If you want a true holiday audio feast, come inside Mr. Spector’s kitchen where everything – including the kitchen sink – has been tossed in here. Shimmering strings and double acoustic bass (how does he get that sound?) create the necessary tension, then horns introduce a TOTALLY PUMPED and unleashed Darlene Love vocal that leaves nothing – and I do mean NOTHING – in the tank. The grand build-up to close the song is classic Spector: layers and layers of guitar, piano, strings, and percussion back the call-and-answer vocals between Love and the backup singers (a seventeen-year-old Cher‘s voice can be clearly heard) until the tension is finally released in a tidal wave of vocal calisthenics, soaring strings, drum fills, and piano arpeggios. Simply put, one of the great pop vocal performances of all time.
* “Here Comes Santa Claus” is anticlimactic following Love’s tour de force, but it’s to Bobby Sheen’s credit that his straight, if understated, reading becomes the showpiece on this song. The trumpet solo in the middle has a ringing, jazzy touch to it which compliments Sheen’s soulful vocal.
What truly makes A Christmas Gift For You such a remarkable achievement is the success Spector achieved in fusing together what was then a radical way of interpreting familiar holiday songs without, as he would write in the album’s liner notes, “losing for a second the feeling of Christmas and without destroying or invading the sensitivity and the beauty that surrounds all of the great Christmas music.” More than anything else, Spector respected the music he was trying to interpret as his own. In the end, this is what makes this work an enduring classic for the ages.Geez.