Real Gone Music is this year’s source for classic Christmas reissues – including two from our own Second Disc Records imprint! Here, we’re taking a look at three more titles from the label’s Christmas feast!
At first glance, The Soulful Strings might appear to be just another of those ubiquitous sixties instrumental studio outfits, delivering MOR versions of the day’s popular hits. Yet, a closer look at Cadet Records’ Soulful Strings – and most of its brethren, truth be told – reveals some of the best musicians of the day, moonlighting from their more famous assignments but giving the same high level of performance. Such is the case with 1968’s The Magic of Christmas, recently given its CD debut by Real Gone (RGM-0402). Produced and arranged by Cadet’s Richard Evans (whose credits ranged from Ramsey Lewis to Marlena Shaw) and recorded in the label’s homebase of Chicago, The Magic of Christmas is a funky yet festive soul stew of inventive takes on familiar holiday classics.
In addition to the titular strings, of course, The Magic of Christmas features a host of Chess/Cadet luminaries including guitarist Phil Upchurch, vibraphonist Bobby Christian, organist Odell Brown and bassist Cleveland Eaton. Lenard Druss’ hypnotic flute is used prominently, while Dorothy Ashby’s harp adds an ethereal air. Magic was Soulful Strings Album No. 3, following Paint It Black and Groovin’ with the Soulful Strings. Though the songs are mostly conventional choices ranging from the traditional to the then-relatively recent, Evans’ treatment of them frequently isn’t, which accounts for why this lost classic has aged so well.
Unexpected flourishes characterize The Magic of Christmas, whether the Eastern influence and hypnotic jazz interplay of “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” (featuring an impressive turn from Ron Steele’s sitar) or the brash, funky overhaul of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” with Cleveland Eaton improvising on cello. “Sleigh Ride” is another standout. The strings are out front, as usual, stating the melody as woodwinds, vibes and driving percussion all swirl around them. The Charles Brown hit “Merry Christmas Baby” is a bluesy slow burn, highlighted by Ashby’s harp and Upchurch’s guitar. “Deck the Halls” gets a solemn, stately rendering in contrast to the smoking groove laid down for “Jingle Bells.” Mel Tormé and Robert Wells’ “The Christmas Song” finds the strings supporting Christian’s gentle vibes on one of the most straightforward tracks on the album which nonetheless still finds room for a lightly swinging solo. Christian shines brightly, too, on “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.” Gene Sculatti provides the informative liner notes in the foldout booklet contained in this release, newly and nicely remastered by Mike Milchner at SonicVision and designed with a fine replica Cadet label on the disc by Claire Morales.
Vocalist John Gary made his RCA Victor debut in 1963 with the appropriately-titled LP Catch a Rising Star. The rising star would go on to release over 20 albums for the label, but one of the earliest remained one of his most beloved: The John Gary Christmas Album, also from 1963 (RGM-0394). The young singer was ushered into RCA’s studio at Webster Hall with producer Andy Wiswell (a cast recording specialist), the background singers of The Norman Luboff Choir, and an orchestra led by renowned arranger-conductor Peter Matz (who in the same year arranged Barbra Streisand’s Grammy-winning debut at Columbia) for this eleven-track collection of holiday perennials and lesser-known tunes, including a Gary original.
The mood is sweetly romantic throughout The John Gary Christmas Album, with the singer’s smooth vocals comfortably blending with Matz’s lush orchestrations and the choir’s full-bodied presence. Uptempo songs are largely eschewed, but Gary’s easygoing, warm and laid-back style is tailor-made for relaxed interpretations of standards like “White Christmas,” “The Christmas Song” or “Winter Wonderland,” all of which are presented in lovely, gently appealing fashion. Traditional, spiritual tunes are also very much a part of Christmas Album including two lengthy, tenderly-sung medleys showcasing Gary’s great range. The oft-recorded plea for peace, “Do You Hear What I Hear,” is sung with admirable restraint and control, with Matz backing Gary with luscious strings, brass accents and the power of the Luboff Choir. Gary had a personal connection to “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” which translates to his heartfelt performance. The song’s author, Robert MacGimsey, was a mentor and champion of Gary’s. The song was written in the style of an African-American slave’s spiritual, and Gary honors the songwriter’s intentions for its dialect in a respectful manner.
Tunesmith Robert Arthur, whose other credits include songs for Steve Lawrence, Sammy Davis Jr., and The Fontane Sisters, supplied Gary with the pretty “Little Snow Girl,” while Gary himself teamed with composer Sammy Fain (“Secret Love,” “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing”) as lyricist for the bucolic ballad “Wintertime and Christmas Time” which affirms both faith and the Christmas spirit. Gary’s bittersweet “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is equally affecting, with one of Matz’s strongest arrangements for the Luboff Choir.
Real Gone’s reissue restores for the first time on CD the original album cover artwork as part of John Sellards’ classy design. Gary’s widow, Lee, offers personal reflections on Gary, the man and musician, in her new liner notes. Sean Brennan at Battery Studios has beautifully remastered this richly-sung Christmas classic perfect for quiet evenings with loved ones spent by the fire, hot cocoa in hand.
Real Gone has also continued its Four Seasons mono reissue series with the first-time-on-CD reissue of the mono version of 1963’s Vee-Jay release The 4 Seasons Greetings (RGM-0399). This classic from Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito arrives in the usual format for this series, housed in a mini-LP replica jacket with protective inner sleeve, Japanese-style OBI and original artwork – the first time that the 1963 title and art have been used in the compact disc era for an authorized release.
Produced by Bob Crewe with vocal arrangements by Massi and orchestral charts by Sid Bass and Charlie Calello, Greetings was designed with Side One featuring traditional, religious Christmas carols (including four medleys) and Side Two with the Jersey boys’ pop sound. The first side’s classics are all sung reverently and gracefully with Valli deploying his soaring falsetto to match the lush, grand orchestrations with nary a whiff of doo-wop or rock-and-roll. It was a risky move of Crewe to put the less commercial tracks on Side One; often, an artist would stack the holiday LP with the secular songs up front, and the spiritual tracks on the second side. But Crewe clearly had faith in the power and beauty of the group’s unmistakable harmonies to acquire them an even wider, adult audience with Side One’s shimmering standards.
The Seasons cut loose on the second side, however. This side opened with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” still one of the best and most-rocking Christmas recordings of the era. It melds the group’s doo-wop-honed vocals with their street-corner swagger, breathing new life into this old standard in less than two hand-clapping, foot-stomping minutes. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” which like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” still gets airplay each Christmas, is just as good as it brings the Seasons’ signature sound to the Tommie Connor classic. The Bob Crewe/Sid Bass original “Christmas Tears” is a throwback ballad exploring the familiar theme of loneliness and longing at Christmastime; the only other original song, Bass’ “Jungle Bells,” is a rather goofy adaptation of (you guessed it…) “Jingle Bells,” complete with animal sounds. The rendition of “The Christmas Song” places the group’s harmonies in a nightclub setting, with tinkling cocktail piano behind Frankie as the club crooner, and the attractive reading of “White Christmas” is equally straightforward, faithful, and enjoyable. This mono edition of The 4 Seasons Greetings has, like other titles in this series, been impeccably remastered from tape by the longtime Seasons guru, remastering engineer Bill Inglot.
All three of the above titles are available now at the links below!
The Soulful Strings, The Magic of Christmas: Amazon U.S. / Amazon Canada
John Gary, The John Gary Christmas Album: Amazon U.S. / Amazon Canada
The 4 Seasons, The 4 Seasons’ Greetings: Amazon U.S. / Amazon Canada