I can’t help but think of that old adage whenever I think of Perry Como. The singer was one in a line of great crooners, many of them Italian-Americans. Frank Sinatra, dean of them all and forever the Chairman of the Board, was well-known for his swagger. Tony Bennett is still renowned for the jazz chops he brings as an interpretive vocalist. Perry Como, though, is perhaps best-known for his quiet gentility. Days after his death in 2001, conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr. began a column with “Perry Como died in his sleep, and one comments, ‘How else?’” Buckley didn’t intend this in a mean-spirited way, merely as an acute observation. (Later in the essay, he details an act of Como’s great generosity, and accurately points out his “rich and mellifluous” voice.) In his liner notes to Collector’s Choice’s new Complete Christmas Collection (CCM 2165), Richard Carpenter recounts the old Bob Hope line about Como being “walking Nembutal,” referring to the barbiturate often used as a sleep aid. There are many more jokes in that vein. Yet it’s precisely that smooth, calming and paternal voice that made Como such an ideal candidate to record holiday music. The Complete Christmas Collection is a fitting tribute to the man whose Christmas songs, all recorded for the RCA Victor label between 1946 and 1982, remain an integral part of The Great American Songbook.
Collector’s Choice has released wonderful titles in its Complete series, including releases by Jan and Dean, Jay and The Americans, and Gary Lewis and The Playboys. The Como entry is the label’s first foray into a full Christmas overview, and there couldn’t have been a better choice. (As for future choices, may I nominate Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis next?)
The Complete Christmas Collection is chronologically presented over three discs, beginning with the artist’s first holiday-themed record, the 1946 set of 78s entitled Perry Como Sings Merry Christmas Music. These 78s (which could also be purchased individually) spawned the Top Ten single “Winter Wonderland,” and were reissued the following year with “O Little Town of Bethlehem” replaced with “White Christmas,” which also became a hit (No. 23) single. As a result, “O Little Town” was unavailable in any format – until now. There are many such rarities making CD debuts on this set. (It should be noted that Como recorded many spiritual or holiday-related songs over the years, some of which have been included on previous “Christmas” compilations. Only actual Christmas masters have been included on this set, not songs peripheral to the holiday. That means no “My Favorite Things” or even “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”) Another debut on Disc One is “The First Christmas” as recorded in 1950, with narration by Como and a number of carols included. (This selection was re-recorded in 1959, and that version is naturally also included here.) Another landmark recording on the first disc is Como’s original 1951 performance of “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas.” While Bing Crosby’s Decca cover, released very shortly after Como’s, may today be the more familiar track, Como was the first recipient of Meredith Willson’s now-standard song, and scored a hit with it. Disc One also includes the entirety of 1953’s Around the Christmas Tree, and it’s wonderful to finally be able to hear these albums in their original configurations on CD.
Disc Two finds two versions of another bona fide Como standard, Robert Allen and Al Stillman’s “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays.” Como originally recorded the song in 1954, and later tackled it again in stereo in 1959 in a new arrangement for his long-player Season’s Greetings from Perry Como. Robert Goulet, Barry Manilow and The Carpenters would be among those to later record it.
The singer took a break from seasonal recording between 1959 and 1967, where Disc Three picks up. This disc begins with a 1967 single with Ray Stevens’ “Christmas Bells” b/w “Love is a Christmas Rose,” written by Earl Shuman and Leon Carr, and then presents 1968’s The Perry Como Christmas Album, arranged by Como’s longtime associate Nick Perito. It’s fascinating to compare the three performances of “Ave Maria,” each recorded roughly a decade after the last, from 1949, 1959 and 1968. (Other songs make multiple appearances over the discs, including “White Christmas” and “O Holy Night,” and if Como’s persona didn’t change much over the years, his increasing mastery of the recording studio is evident. Three of the eleven songs on the 1968 album were remakes, in total.) This album was actually recorded twice, once in July 1968 and again the next month, as Como was unhappy with the results; only the original “Ave Maria” made the cut. Outtake “Some Children See Him,” from the August sessions to Christmas Album, makes its first ever appearance here. The 1968 album, with Como backed by orchestra and an all-female choir, is presented in its original mix, although remixes of some tracks have appeared on various Como collections over the years. Como’s voice is somewhat buried on these original mixes, but compilation co-producer Richard Carpenter asserts that the four-track session masters could not be found for all of the chosen takes to create remixes for this project, and so it was decided to use the original mix for the entire LP. The third and final disc ends with two latter-day tracks. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s all-too-unknown “Christmas Dream” (from the film The Odessa File) was the singer’s final charting single. In 1982 he returned with “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Forever,” composed by Perito, which would become his final Christmas recording.
It’s no surprise to Carpenters fans that Richard Carpenter is a musician of the highest order. However, I was indeed surprised at just how wonderful his liner notes here are. Carpenter’s essay is alternately technical (vividly describing both Como’s vocal technique and recording methodology) and personal, sharing memories of the Carpenters’ appearance on Como’s 1974 Christmas television special. Richard and Karen owed a debt to Como, recording songs associated with him for their own Christmas set, now an acknowledged classic of the genre. Throughout, Carpenter is entertaining and frank (a fan of monaural sound, he’s not!), and the perfect guide to these recordings. Has he ever considered annotating his own recordings in such a detailed and eloquent manner? After concluding the seven-page essay, I was left wanting more. The booklet is lovingly illustrated with reproductions of the original artwork for many of the releases contained.
Under the supervision of producers Carpenter, Jim Pierson, Didier C. Deutsch and Gordon Anderson, Maria Triana has handled the mastering, and as even Carpenter admits, the mono tracks, many derived from 78 rpm lacquers, have never sounded better or more crisp than they do here.
I’ve often thought that Como is less well-known to young people today than many of his contemporaries because of the sheer lack of irony in his music. Yet as the recordings on these three discs demonstrate, his technique was timeless, and he respected the song above all else, which explains why he popularized so many Christmas songs still covered today. It’s appropriate that Como’s final Christmas song was “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Forever.” Thanks to this compilation, the perpetually relaxed crooner’s holiday songs can indeed be heard forever, and in one well-compiled place after years of scattershot releases. May Collector’s Choice make an annual tradition of such Christmas anthologies.