As Bob Stanley writes in his liner notes to the new collection Songs for a London Winter, “Christmas has always been a special time in Saint Etienne’s world. We’ve release singles, EPs, covered Cliff Richard songs, played at the Palladium, thrown a few parties and sunk a few whisky macs. We love it. But this is the first time we’ve had the opportunity to put together a Christmas compilation of other people’s songs.” Songs for a London Winter, on Stanley’s Croydon Municipal imprint of Cherry Red, features 24 recordings drawn from the 1950s and early 1960s. Every track is of British origin. “An American Christmas feels warm, with a golden brandy glow,” Stanley explains. “What do we have? Scrooge. Well, that’s a little harsh, but there’s certainly something more make-do-and-mend about a London Christmas.” On Songs for a London Winter, you’ll find jazz, rock and roll, instrumental pop, and novelty songs, and most excitingly, very few of these songs constitute typical fare for holiday compilations.
There are plenty of mood-setting instrumentals here, particularly from pianists. The “singalong piano” of Zack Laurence propels a jaunty (and punningly-titled) “Snowman’s Land,” while Joe “Mr. Piano” Henderson offers his own “Swingin’ Sleigh Ride.” Not to be outdone, Tony Osborne, His Piano and Orchestra bask in some “Winter Starlight” and Russ Conway drives a shimmering “Snow Coach.”
The “Heavenly Trumpet” of Kenny Baker conjures up “Winter Ice.” Bandleader Johnny Keating’s “We Three Kings” is a raucously uptempo instrumental take on the traditional song. Saxophonist Johnny Dankworth is heard on the smoky yet seasonal “Winter Wail,” while his wife Cleo Laine is also represented with her jazz-flavored vocal on the Shakespeare adaptation, “Blow Blou Thou Winter Wind.” The familiar lead guitar of Vic Flick enlivens “Get Lost Jack Frost,” a “When the Saints Go Marching In”-inspired melody from soon-to-be-film legend John Barry and his Seven. The Ted Heath orchestra’s “Swinging Shepherd Blues” – first recorded in the U.S. by its composer Moe Koffman on flute – recasts the tune for soprano sax and clarinet to fine effect.
The vocal tracks, encompassing both straightforward pop tunes and novelty records, are equally enjoyable. Brother and sister duo Derek and Elaine (Thompson)’s sweet “It’s Christmas” and Lyn Cornell’s “Xmas Stocking” both bask in the nostalgic glow of a simpler time; The Beverley Sisters attain an ethereal sound on “Little Donkey.” Rock-and-rollers got into the holiday spirit, too. Adam Faith has the novelty-esque “Lonely Pup” (complete with children’s choir) while Billy Fury channels Elvis crossed with Gene Pitney on the melodramatic “My Christmas Prayer.” Composer-lyricist and Rolling Stones pal Lionel Bart went from rock and roll to Broadway with musicals including the international smash hit Oliver!; Songs from a London Winter features his charming and bouncy “Give Us a Kiss for Christmas.” Broadcaster, songwriter and musician Wally Whyton’s “Christmas Land” is another slice of low-key, enjoyable period pop.
There's more after the jump, including the complete track listing with discography, and order links!
A few familiar tunes pepper Songs for a London Winter, most in lesser-known renditions: The King Brothers’ tight-harmony treatment of “Winter Wonderland” (B-side of their recording of “Wake Up Little Susie,” of all things!), The Embassy Singers’ dreamy “I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus,” Dickie Valentine’s “Christmas Island” and Alma Cogan’s take on the future Bob Dylan favorite “Must Be Santa” among them. (Cogan recorded “Santa” in 1960, the same year as Mitch Miller’s first American recording and another U.K. cover from the young Tommy Steele.)
For a happily alternative look at Christmas music of the past, Songs for a London Winter (released pursuant to current U.K. public domain laws) is a pleasure from start to finish. The color booklet features not only Bob Stanley’s entertaining notes but images of a number of the 45s presented in the collection; we’ve filled in the discographical annotation below which is missing in the actual booklet. These 24 tracks not only should make spirits bright, but should certainly prove that a London Christmas has much more to offer than just Scrooge!
- Christmas Time in London Town – Nina and Frederik (Columbia DB 4735, 1961)
- Snowman’s Land – Zack Laurence (Parlophone R 4843, 1961)
- Winter Wonderland – King Brothers (Parlophone R 4367, 1957)
- It’s Christmas – Elaine and Derek (Parlophone R 4845, 1961)
- Winter Wail – Johnny Dankworth (Columbia DB 4751, 1961)
- Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind – Cleo Laine (Columbia EP SEG 7938, 1959)
- We Three Kings – Johnny Keating and His Z Men (Piccadilly 7N 45071, 1962)
- Swingin’ Sleigh Ride – Joe “Mr. Piano’ Henderson (Pye 7N 15309, 1959)
- Christmas Calypso – Tricia Marks (Parlophone R 4847, 1961)
- Christmas Island – Dickie Valentine (Decca F 10798, 1956)
- Lonely Pup – Adam Faith (Parlophone R 4708, 1960)
- Winter Starlight – Tony Osborne (HMV POP 671, 1959)
- Must Be Santa – Alma Cogan (HMV POP 815, 1960)
- Get Lost, Jack Frost – The John Barry Seven (Columbia DB 4554, 1960)
- Sounds Like Winter – The Echoes (Fontana 267254, 1962)
- Xmas Stocking – Lyn Cornell (Decca F 11301, 1960)
- My Christmas Prayer – Billy Fury (Decca F 11189, 1959)
- Blue Ice – Kenny Baker (Palette PG 9012, 1961)
- Little Donkey – Beverley Sisters (Decca F 11172, 1959)
- Snow Coach – Russ Conway (Columbia DB 4368, 1959)
- I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus – Embassy Singers (Embassy EP 1098, 1963)
- Swinging Shepherd Blues – Ted Heath (Decca F 11000, 1958)
- Give Us a Kiss for Christmas – Lionel Bart (Decca F 11405, 1961)
- Christmas Land – Wally Whyton (Piccadilly 7N 35089, 1962)