Welcome to the first installment in a special series of holiday-themed Back Tracks in which we’ll explore an artist’s entire seasonal catalogue!
When it comes time each year to create my annual Christmas mix for family and friends, it’s always an uphill battle to not open with Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” From the brassy fanfare to the upbeat chorus, it may be one of the ultimate Christmas anthems. This cherished song from the team of Edward Pola and George Wyle made its debut in 1963 on The Andy Williams Christmas Album. While it remains the most successful song penned by Pola and was arguably eclipsed for Wyle only by the theme to “Gilligan’s Island” (!), “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” became a theme for Andy Williams, perhaps second only to “Moon River.” (As a team, Pola and Wyle delivered other tailor-made songs to Williams, such as the tribute to his daughter, "Noelle.") The Andy Williams Christmas Album also established the popular singer as one of the holiday genre’s foremost interpreters, and millions of television viewers welcomed the sweater-clad vocalist and his family into their homes every year when his Christmas specials became an annual tradition in the 1960s.
We kick off a special holiday series of Back Tracks with the Christmas music of Wall Lake, Iowa’s favorite son and a true voice of the American songbook, Andy Williams. Hit the jump and we’ll begin in 1963!
The Andy Williams Christmas Album (Columbia, 1963)
It’s highly unlikely that Andy Williams knew the release of The Andy Williams Christmas Album would forever change his image. A previous Christmas-themed single recorded in 1955 (see The Williams Brothers Christmas Album, below, for more information) didn’t sell. Yet this LP, with its bold red cover, stately typeface and tuxedo-clad image of the singer, became a perennial favorite upon its 1963 release. It’s not hard to see why, as Williams and his producer/arranger Robert Mersey expertly selected its twelve tracks. The album was divided into a secular side and a religious side, with the former leading off with Williams’ rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” This was the track chosen by Columbia to be the LP’s promo single, but any of the songs on Side One would have sufficed. Williams’ fruitful association with the legendary MGM arranger and nightclub vocalist Kay Thompson yielded two tracks, a medley of Thompson’s “The Holiday Season” with Berlin’s “Happy Holiday,” and a swinging, original take on a familiar song in the form of “Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells.” Another unique treat was “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with new lyrics entitled “A Song and a Christmas Tree.” Yet, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was destined to be the song for which this album is most remembered. Williams’ definitive reading remains a radio staple today (despite other popular versions by artists such as Johnny Mathis, Garth Brooks and Harry Connick, Jr.) and experienced a resurgence in popularity in the UK when a re-orchestrated version was used for a Marks and Spencer holiday advertisement (you can hear it on Sony BMG single 88697 20745 2) in 2007. Side Two finds Williams in gentle, reflective mode, allowing listeners to experience the warmth of his voice at its richest when he performs “O Holy Night,” “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night,” among others. Nearly 50 years later, The Andy Williams Christmas Album remains in print from Legacy in a remastered release with no bonus material.
Merry Christmas (Columbia, 1965)
It would have been a near-impossible feat to top The Andy Williams Christmas Album, but Williams at least matched it with 1965’s Merry Christmas. With a green cover to complement the original LP’s red one, Merry Christmas lacks an original as iconic as “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” but makes up for it with another array of imaginatively-arranged, impeccably-sung Christmas standards from both the religious and secular songbooks. Best of all is his version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” which helped establish the Sound of Music song as a seasonal favorite. Williams’ arrangement is moody and even ominous, but miraculously effective in conveying the song’s rich imagery without irony. “Winter Wonderland,” “Let It Snow!” and “Sleigh Ride” (with its staggering key changes!) are all heard in renditions making the most of returning producer Robert Mersey’s full orchestra and chorus. Williams’ voice is at its resonant best on Side Two, again reserved for religious songs like “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “Some Children See Him” and a majestic “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Its flow is interrupted only by an otherwise-fine “Silver Bells.” The lone unfamiliar tune here is “Christmas Holiday” (“This year we shall know a wonderful Christmas...”) which is irresistible and melodically adventurous as heard in a big Bob Florence arrangement. While this song didn’t catch on the way “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” did, Merry Christmas as a whole remains a timeless collaboration between Williams, at his vocal peak, and Mersey, with his keen ear for creating musical backgrounds that never date. It is still in print today on CD from Legacy in remastered form with no additional material.
The Williams Brothers Christmas Album (Barnaby, 1970 – reissued Definitive, 2001)
When its founder Archie Bleyer decided to sell his Cadence Records in 1964, he had an unlikely buyer: none other than Andy Williams, an early Cadence recording star before he decamped for major Columbia Records. Williams had approached Bleyer about buying back his masters; Bleyer cannily responded that he would sell them only if Williams bought the entire catalogue. So Williams duly complied, and initially licensed the material to Columbia. In 1970, he formed Barnaby Records to manage the former Cadence holdings and record other artists, too, including his wife Claudine Longet. (Williams, however, continued recording for Columbia.) While at Barnaby, Longet recorded some wonderful and even offbeat soft-pop. And it was for Barnaby that in 1971, Williams reteamed with his siblings Dick, Don and Bob (with whom he once headlined as The Wiliams Brothers) for The Williams Brothers Christmas Album (Barnaby Z-30095). Conducted and orchestrated by Al Capps and produced by Andy himself, the seven-track album had as its centerpiece a mammoth seventeen-track medley – with vocal arrangements by Earl Brown, the composer of “If I Can Dream” – bookended with “Caroling, Caroling” and encompassing a number of spirituals and favorites. The first side, vocally arranged by Dick Williams, revisited the group’s jazzy, finger-snapping Kay Thompson version of “The Holiday Season,” along with Thompson’s “Jingle Bells” and a number of other familiar songs including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Christmas Song,” all imbued with those harmonies that only brothers could create. Columbia Special Products later reissued this LP as C-10105, cutting some tracks either entirely or partially (shortening the medley in the process) and adding Andy solo tracks. In 2001, Definitive Records reissued this long-lost LP on CD under the title Holiday Magic with Andy Williams and the Williams Brothers (Definitive 60039). This disc reordered the songs and added a live Andy solo version of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and the super-rare “Christmas is a Feeling in Your Heart,” a 1955 Cadence single from his very first session for the label. Holiday Magic unfortunately isn’t presented in stellar sound quality, and the release features no annotation whatsoever, but it is still recommended for the rarity of its terrific material, at least until a proper reissue of The Williams Brothers Christmas Album comes along.
Christmas Present (Columbia, 1975 – reissued Columbia, 1990)
This long out-of-print (on both LP and CD) release is perhaps the most atypical of Williams’ holiday releases, and also possibly the artist’s most personal. Other than the MOR pop of the title song, the album is a reverent collection of hymns, all performed tenderly and earnestly by Williams, and arranged by Ernie Freeman. Among them are both the Schubert and Gounoud settings of “Ave Maria,” “Joy to the World,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and “The Lord’s Prayer.” This album may be the best showcase for the simple purity of Williams’ voice; his clear tone never sounded more pristine. As a vocalist, Williams was of the highest order because rarely took liberties with the melody or tried to hard to impress; his sound was apparently effortless and always natural. This made him an ideal interpreter of both romantic balladry and traditional pop. Christmas Present briefly appeared on CD circa 1990, but quickly disappeared. It’s ripe for rediscovery as it’s always lingered in the shadows of the artist’s two earlier, more commercial Columbia Christmas LPs.
I Still Believe in Santa Claus (Curb, 1990)
Andy Williams took a long hiatus from recording Christmas songs but returned with a new collection some fifteen years after Christmas Present on this 10-track set recorded for the Curb label. Williams sounds particularly laid-back but remains in relatively strong voice, even if the tone isn’t as supple as it once was. The orchestra has been downsized from the Columbia days, but the singer sounds undeterred. He finally gets around to Cahn and Van Heusen’s “The Christmas Waltz,” and also offers a lively “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and a charming “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Among the more unexpected selections are a medley of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Toyland,” and an appealing cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over).”
The New Andy Williams Christmas Album (LaserLight, 1994)
Long after his television program and the annual Christmas specials had concluded, Andy Williams continued celebrating the season. In 1983, he hosted NBC-TV’s Christmas in Washington, where then-President Ronald Reagan declared his voice “a national treasure;” the following year, Williams began taking his Christmas show on the road. In 1991, after years of touring, he relocated to the burgeoning town of Branson, Missouri and opened the Moon River Theatre, where he still performs today. The New Andy Williams Christmas Album captures an evening of Williams doing his holiday thing, and the warmth is palpable. The familiar Robert Mersey arrangements are recreated, and this album offers a fine souvenir of this point in Williams’ career. Since the initial 1994 release, The New Andy Williams Christmas Album has shown up on various budget labels under different titles including The Christmas Concert with Andy Williams.
Personal Christmas Collection (Columbia/Legacy, 1994)
Producer Didier C. Deutsch compiled this terrific Williams Christmas primer in 1994 for Sony’s Legacy label. It draws from all three of Williams’ Columbia Christmas LPs, and touches on all the high points, offering six songs from The Andy Williams Christmas Album, five from Merry Christmas and four from Christmas Present. Naturally, it encompasses all facets of the singer’s holiday catalogue, and quickly establishes a nostalgic tone for Christmases past.
We Need a Little Christmas (Unison Music, 1995)
Andy Williams returned to a Nashville studio in 1995 to record this low-key, lite-jazz Christmas album. These new settings (some with drum machines, natch) add little to the many old favorites re-recorded here, including “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Williams’ voice isn’t quite as clarion as before, and if he hasn’t lost his holiday spirit, these versions sound nowhere near as fresh as the originals. One highlight is the title song, penned by Jerry Herman for the 1966 musical Mame. It’s only surprising that it took Williams this long to record it, as Mame’s cast album was recorded by his longtime home, Columbia, who encouraged covers of many of its songs at the time.
Live Christmas Treasures (Neon Tonic/Concord, 2001)
This 2001 release lives up to its title as it really does contain a number of treasures! Culled from The Andy Williams Show, its 15 tracks range from the ubiquitous (“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” again) to the obscure (the tuneful “You Meet the Nicest People (Everywhere Around Christmastime)” and “The Skater’s Waltz”). A couple of songs aren’t specific to the holiday (Andy’s early classic “The Village of St. Bernadette” and “Moonlight in Vermont”) but all are of a comfortable piece, and Williams is, of course, in great voice throughout. By the time he wraps up with his traditional closer, “May Each Day,” you’ll feel as if you’ve spent some quality time with an old friend, and isn’t that one of the best parts of the Christmas season?
If you’re looking for the perfect soundtrack to the season, start with Andy Williams’ first two Columbia Christmas LPs, and go from there; you’ll be rewarded with a varied array of holiday standards sung by one of the last pure pop voices in American music. With his Christmas albums having been continuously in print for over 40 years now, it’s time for Legacy to show Andy Williams some catalogue love. In addition to a reissue of Christmas Present, perhaps some unreleased material remains in the Columbia vaults from Williams’ 1960s heyday which could be unearthed? Very few Christmas albums are deserving of the full Legacy Edition treatment, but doesn’t a combined-and-expanded Andy Williams Christmas Album/Merry Christmas sound tantalizing? Time to raise that glass of egg nog!
Rich Dudas says
Excellent reading -- although you forgot an excellent compilation called "Merry Christmas" that came out prior to "Personal Christmas Collection". Since then Sony has issued a number of budget compilations of Andy's Christmas music,
Joe Marchese says
Thanks, Rich! I actually considered including the MERRY CHRISTMAS compilation; I was actually listening to it while writing!
I ultimately excluded it for its limited availability, the fact that it was replaced in the catalogue by the similar "Personal Christmas Collection," and because it offers little that's unique. That said, it is indeed a much better choice than those countless budget compilations you mention; including them all would have been an even more gargantuan task! Thanks for writing, and of course for holding us to the highest standards.
Rich Dudas says
I look forward to more Christmas Back Tracks installments !!!
How about featuring Ray Conniff? Glan Campbell? Kenny Rogers? (I could go on and on!)
Joe Marchese says
Love the suggestions, Rich! Watch this space...
Rich Dudas says
Joe - How can I contact you via private e-mail?
Eric Anderson says
A couple years ago, I purchased from his gift shop (in Branson?) online a cd of the original Williams bros. Christmas album on Barnaby in fantastic sound.
Christopher Wall says
According to Billboard's New Album Releases in the November 14, 1970 issue, "The Williams Brothers Christmas Album" was released in 1970 not 1971.
Joe Marchese says
Thanks, Christopher. There's been some confusion as to the actual release date of the album (i.e. late 1970 is sometimes referred to as "Winter 1971") so I'm glad you could clear that up, likely definitively.
Frank Jellison says
The Williams Brothers Christmas Album is a little known classic. I found a very clean copy of the original album in a store in Modesto CA years ago and converted it to digital when I bought my first CD burner. I also bought the CD when it was released. It is in mono but to my old ears still sounds fine. This along with the Singers Unlimited Christmas are the best vocal group Christmas albums