Holiday Gift Guide Review: A Real Gone Christmas With Andy Williams, Patti Page and The New Christy Minstrels
When Andy Williams passed away on September 25, 2012 at the age of 84, the loss was keenly felt by anyone who had ever played the “red album” and the “green album” during the holiday season. The Andy Williams Christmas Album (1963) and Merry Christmas (1965) were the best-selling Columbia LPs that led Williams to embody the title of “Mr. Christmas.” His rich, warm and resonant tenor was ideally suited to holiday music of both the secular and spiritual traditions, and his association with the holiday lasted for his entire life, through albums, television appearances and stage performances. Real Gone has just delivered the ultimate celebration of Williams’ Christmas perennials with the 2-CD set The Complete Christmas Recordings (RGM-0197).
This collection includes the entirety of those two aforementioned albums plus 1974’s long out-of-print Christmas Present LP and a clutch of five rare bonus tracks (two of which are making their first ever appearance here). The Andy Williams Christmas Album (the “red album”), produced and arranged by Robert Mersey, was divided into a secular side and a religious side, but the treatments of the songs were surprisingly adventurous. On the former side, Williams’ association with the legendary arranger and nightclub singer Kay Thompson led to the inclusion of her own version of “Jingle Bells” plus a swingin’ medley of Thompson’s “The Holiday Season” with Irving Berlin’s “Happy Holiday.” The familiar “Twelve Days of Christmas” was also turned on its ear as “A Song and a Christmas Tree.” On the latter side, Williams’ pure, crystalline tone was at its most pristine on “Silent Night” and “The First Noel.” But The Andy Williams Christmas Album’s most lasting contribution to pop culture was the introduction of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” the Edward Pola/George Wyle song that may still today be the single most exuberant track ever to celebrate the holiday season. It also became a theme song for Williams perhaps second only to Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River.”
Naturally, a follow-up album was planned. 1965’s Merry Christmas followed the template of its predecessor, with Williams and Mersey applying their combined talents to another group of songs from across the holiday spectrum. The same “Side One – Tin Pan Alley, Side Two – Church” format was also adhered to, except Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ “Silver Bells” crept onto the second side! No matter, though. “Silver Bells” was just one of the beautifully-sung songs here. A moody arrangement of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” made for one of the song’s finest recordings; the exciting treatment of “Sleigh Ride” featured Williams deftly navigating a staggering number of key changes. Williams and arranger Bob Florence (subbing for Mersey on just one track) made magic from “Christmas Holiday,” Craig Smith’s otherwise-unknown seasonal tune with an adventurous melody and jubilant lyrics. Christmas Album and Merry Christmas are included in their entirety here, but both albums have been wholly resequenced for this compilation.
Following Merry Christmas, Williams didn’t return to the holiday songbook at Columbia until 1975. That was the year he issued Christmas Present, the most atypical of his three Christmas sets for the label. It also may be Williams’ most personal. The opening title track, a pleasant slice of mid-seventies MOR, cedes to a frequently-solemn, ravishingly-sung collection of hymns and spiritual music including “Joy to the World,” “What Child is This?,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and both the Schubert and Gounod settings of “Ave Maria.” Williams’ voice never sounded more natural or more direct in its power, even if the joyous, celebratory feel of the previous two albums was altogether absent. Christmas Present is a passionate set worth a second look, and Real Gone’s Complete Christmas Recordings marks its return to CD after roughly two decades. It’s presented in its original running order.
After the jump: more on Andy, plus Patti Page and The New Christy Minstrels!
Five bonus tracks all make welcome appearances: two sides of Williams’ rare 1955 Cadence single “Christmas is a Feeling in Your Heart” b/w “The Wind, The Sand and the Star” his 1968 Columbia single version of “Ave Maria,” and previously unissued versions of “White Christmas” in Spanish and Italian. For a complete overview of Williams’ holiday music, three more studio LPs are still essential. 1970’s Barnaby release The Williams Brothers Christmas Album (with Andy joined by siblings Dick, Don and Bob) has only been reissued on CD in a resequenced budget edition in 2001 and later as an exclusive item for sale from Williams’ Moon River Theater in Branson, Missouri. Williams also captured the spirit of the season on two later albums, the 1990 Curb release I Still Believe in Santa Claus and the 1995 Unison Music release We Need a Little Christmas.
Real Gone’s Complete Columbia collection, produced and compiled by John Alexander and Gordon Anderson with Sony’s Henry Towns, boasts fine new liner notes from Alexander and crisply remastered sound. The music of Andy Williams was – and is – The Sound of Christmas. This new release warrants a place of honor on any holiday music shelf.
When the former Clara Ann Fowler of Tulsa, Oklahoma passed away on the first day of 2013 at the age of 85, American music lost one of its treasures. As Patti Page, Fowler charted some 110 singles, 25 of which hit the Billboard Top 10. Page’s “Tennessee Waltz” spent 13 weeks at No.1 beginning in 1950 and remains one of the era’s best-selling songs. A versatile vocalist with a pretty, crystalline tone perfectly suited for Christmas music, Page was a songwriter’s dream as she put the demands of the music first in the best tradition of the “girl singer.” Real Gone Music has just reissued Page’s 1955 Mercury long-player Christmas with Patti Page in a deluxe expanded CD (RGM-0200) that’s a perfect companion to the label’s two other essential Page releases of 2013: The Complete Columbia Singles 1962-1970 and From Nashville to L.A.: Lost Columbia Masters 1963-1969.
Though she was signed to Mercury in 1947 as the label’s premier female vocalist, it took four years and the massive success of “The Tennessee Waltz” for Page to be granted her wish to record a Christmas album. Christmas with Patti Page was initially released in three formats in 1951: a 10-inch EP with eight songs, and 78 and 45 RPM sets with three records in each. (“The Christmas Song” and “Christmas Bells” were left off the latter.) In 1953, Page recorded another handful of holiday tunes, and in 1955, Christmas with Patti Page was reissued as a 12-inch, 33-1/3 RPM LP with four of these additional songs. Real Gone’s CD reissue expands on that expansion, adding six bonus tracks (four of which are previously unissued).
Christmas with Patti Page blends big-band rousers, ornately-arranged ballads with chorus, and even children’s songs to create a true perennial. Joe Reisman’s arrangements of “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” proved that Page could swing, while a more reverent approach was taken on the songs arranged by Ralph Hermann with a mixed chorus. Hermann gave a lush, stately feel to “Silent Night” and “The First Noel” as well as “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song.” (Page got in on the ground floor of many future standards; Tim Akers’ new liner notes inform us that she was only the sixth artist to record “White Christmas” and the third to record “The Christmas Song.”)
Page’s intricate, overdubbed harmony vocals were a trademark, and they’re at their finest on Kermit Goell and Marty Brown’s “Christmas Choir.” Lesser-known gems like “Christmas Choir” and “Christmas Bells” – another treat, on which Page liltingly sings over a jazzy melody and punchy orchestra – make Christmas a particularly delightful collection.
Page’s 1953 recordings, added in 1955 to the original eight-song album, were more squarely aimed at children. David Plattner, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore’s “I Wanna Go Skating with Willie” (“But will Willie ask for a date?”) isn’t quite a Christmas song, but its high spirits and bouncy, sing-along quality keep it a good fit. Another children’s song, “Where Did My Snowman Go?,” was written by Geoffrey Venis, Steve Mann and Freddie Poser, and features Patti joined by a kids’ choir. The 12-song LP version of the album ended with “The Mama Doll Song.” Nat Simon and George Tobias’ somewhat treacly toy tie-in was nonetheless sung with conviction by Patti, and reached No. 20 on the Billboard chart.
Real Gone has added six bonus tracks, including the 1950 single “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus,” which was completely overlooked in favor of its B-side: “The Tennessee Waltz.” (“Boogie Woogie” was the only bonus track on the previous 1995 CD reissue.) The 1959 single “Little Donkey” was Page’s final Christmas recording for Mercury; she supplies three-part harmony and gracefully sings with a light country sound on the Belford Hendricks arrangement. Three rare vocals and a spot from Page’s radio show round out the CD, including her fine rendition of the Perry Como/Robert Goulet chestnut “Home for the Holidays” written by Al Stillman and Robert Allen.
Page reprised a number of songs for her recently-reissued 1965 Columbia album of the same name including “Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Christmas Bells” and “Pretty Snowflakes,” but the original Mercury LP is hard to top, especially in this upgraded presentation. Mike Milchner has nicely remastered, and the thick booklet is packed with notes and photographs in tribute to the late, great Patti Page.
Real Gone’s Merry Christmas! The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings 1963-1966 (RGM-0198) combines The New Christy Minstrels’ two holiday albums from 1963 and 1966 with five rare bonus tracks to create a definitive holiday compendium for Randy Sparks’ folk group. The group was a mainstay of the Columbia roster throughout the 1960s, recording numerous albums each year and spreading folk music to the masses in a welcoming, homespun style that was close to Percy Faith or Ray Conniff but still youthful and relevant.
Among the 10-strong line-up for 1963’s Merry Christmas! was future “Eve of Destruction” singer Barry McGuire and future Association member Larry Ramos; both men shine on the Christies’ rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” (Gene Clark, later of The Byrds, is pictured on the cover of the LP, but doesn’t appear on the album. He joined the band after the departure of Doug Brookins, but Brookins is heard on the record.) The smoothly-sung, acoustic set is very much in the group’s traditional folk vein, with impeccable harmonies enhancing gentle songs with a spiritual leaning. The wistful and warm “Christmas Wishes,” written by Sparks and Art Podell, arranged by Podell and sung by Sparks, may be the best track on the LP, but the up-tempo moments also make an impression. “Sing Hosanna, Hallelujah” (based on “Greenland Whale Fisheries”) and “Beautiful City” (based on “Twelve Gates to the City”) are in pure revivalist style, and even the secular “Sing Along with Santa” has the same foot-stomping hootenanny feel. “It’ll Be a Merry Christmas” updates “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” while the haunting “Tell Me,” recounting the story of Jesus’ birth, is appropriately solemn. Sparks and Grace Gogerty’s “Parson Brown (Our Christmas Dinner)” blends music and spoken word into a miniature drama.
Three years later, the New Christy Minstrels recorded another Christmas album for Columbia, Christmas with the Christies – except the Christies weren’t same Christies as in 1963. Randy Sparks had departed and sold his rights to the group, and musical director Mike Settle and producer Sid Garris were aware of the seismic shifts in pop-rock music. Christmas with the Christies was recorded during the same period that yielded New Kick!, an LP on which the new line-up of the group covered Paul Simon, The Beatles and Bob Dylan. The times, they were a-changin’. Arranger Bob Alcivar, who would go on to work with The 5th Dimension and Tom Waits, among others, was brought in to spruce up the group’s charts. The talented Alcivar created a sound very different from that of the earnest and reflective Merry Christmas, but still recognizably The New Christy Minstrels.
The nine-person line-up in ’66 recorded what could fairly be called a folk-pop album, with the material leaning towards the latter. Familiar titles like “Sleigh Ride” (in a cheery and inventive vocal arrangement), “White Christmas,” and “Silver Bells” all cropped up in perky and impeccably-sung versions, along with a showtune from a recent Broadway musical. Columbia had released the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Jerry Herman’s Mame, and the Christies made “We Need a Little Christmas” their own in Alcivar’s bright orchestration. A banjo hints towards the acoustic folk sound, but the horns and bells point toward a bolder – though still far from radical – new direction. Nowhere was this more in evident than on the opening “Do You Hear What I Hear” – oddly yet memorably adorned with bongos! Robert Gurian and Jimmy Krondes’ “Christmas Card” is a typically lush ballad that was the album’s bid for a future standard, and Alcivar’s “Silent Night” is both majestic and stirring.
Five fine bonus tracks have been added, though they’ve been oddly sequenced within the bodies of the two albums. Though placing them as an appendix would have been preferable, they’re all worthwhile additions – two tracks from rare Columbia compilations and three outtakes from Christmas with the Christies. Producer Tom Pickles provides truly copious notes for this comprehensive package. No remastering engineer is credited, but sound is crisp throughout. As Christmas is often a time to look back to simpler days, The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings fits that nostalgic bill like a glove.