As the vinyl revolution continues, it’s no surprise that numerous classic Christmas albums have been reissued in the format, while newer holiday recordings have gotten the 33-1/3 treatment as well. Legacy Recordings, rather than continuing its Classic Christmas Album series in CD form this year, has brought a number of titles to vinyl including new collections from Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, and a Classic Christmas volume dedicated to the big band sound.
Of course, Elvis Presley has been one of the most anthologized holiday artists of all time despite the fact that he only released two Christmas albums in his lifetime. (A third, the posthumous Christmas Duets, arrived in 2008.) Legacy’s new Merry Christmas Baby features 17 tracks pressed on randomly-inserted 120-gram red or green vinyl, culled from both of Elvis’ two original Christmas LPs: 1957’s Elvis’ Christmas Album and 1971’s Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas, as well as a 1966 non-LP single.
The original Elvis’ Christmas Album included eight holiday songs with four gospel selections previously released earlier in 1957 on the Peace in the Valley EP. (Elvis was reissuing and repackaging even from his earliest days, friends!) All eight of the original tunes from Elvis’ Christmas Album are present on Merry Christmas Baby including his controversial “White Christmas” of which composer Irving Berlin famously did not approve; the rock-and-roll classics “Santa Claus is Back in Town” and “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me”; and Elvis’ rendition of “Blue Christmas,” the most immortal of all the country standard’s numerous recordings. As a showcase for the young singer’s warmth, spirit, and often-underrated versatility, Elvis’ Christmas Album remains a cornerstone in his catalogue.
1971’s Wonderful World of Christmas introduced another eleven songs into the Elvis Christmas repertoire, of which eight songs are reprised on this new collection. Though Presley’s voice had deepened and his delivery changed as he settled into the role of superstar Vegas headliner, he still treated the Christmas season with reverence. Highlights on Merry Christmas Baby include the tender “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day” from composer Tony Macaulay (“(Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All,” “Build Me Up Buttercup”), Charles Tobias and Al Frisch’s title track “The Wonderful World of Christmas,” a faithful and intimate “O Come All Ye Faithful” that swells into a gospel showstopper, and one Tin Pan Alley standard he missed the first time around, the buoyant “Winter Wonderland.” For this vinyl compilation, all tracks are heard in Vic Anesini’s exemplary remasters. Naturally, both of Elvis’ original Christmas LPs are essential listening, and dedicated fans are urged to pick up Follow That Dream’s deluxe expansions of both. But as a vinyl Elvis holiday sampler and stocking stuffer (for a very large stocking!), Merry Christmas Baby fits the bill admirably.
Johnny Cash accomplished a great many feats in his life, but The Man in Black never recorded a truly definitive Christmas album. Still, his deep faith and love of the season led him to cut a number of fine seasonal recordings throughout his long career, including 1963’s The Christmas Spirit, 1972’s Christmas: The Johnny Cash Family, 1980’s Classic Christmas, and 1991’s Country Christmas. The first three of those LPs were recorded at Columbia Records, and the first two are excerpted for Legacy’s new There’ll Be Peace in the Valley. As the title indicates, the emphasis on this new compilation isn’t on secular Christmas favorites; they were a small part of his holiday repertoire. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a diverse selection of music and spoken-word on this enjoyable 14-song tour through a Cash family Christmas.
Side One of the LP opens with Cash’s introduction from Christmas: The Johnny Cash Family, establishing the homespun, familial tone of this release (which draws on five songs from that original album). It’s the first but not the only time Cash speaks to the listener here. The title track of 1963’s The Christmas Spirit, included here, finds the artist telling personal stories over a soft “O Little Town of Bethlehem” musical backing, and “Here Was a Man” and “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver” are two more spoken tracks taken from that album.
Christmas is about family, and Cash’s figures prominently on this set. The happily ragtag sing-along “Christmas Time’s A-Comin'” features the Cash family, and June Carter Cash joins her husband on Side Two for a lively and festive “Jingle Bells.” The Carter Family is also heard on “King of Love” (with The Statler Brothers) and the title track. All but “Peace in the Valley” hail from the 1972 platter; Cash’s rendition of that reassuring gospel standard was first released on a 1962 single. Cash’s deep voice is at its most resonant and passionate on such story songs as the sad, heartfelt “Ringing the Bells for Jim.” A Cash Christmas was many things, but it wasn’t a saccharine or sugarcoated one.
Naturally, spirituality plays a big part on this collection, as it did in Cash’s life. “Matthew 24 (Is Knocking at the Door),” taken from the 2006 Personal File: Bootleg Vol. 1 collection, isn’t a Christmas song but rather an acoustic gospel track ruminating on the Gospel of Matthew concerning Jesus’ return. The gentle reading of “Silent Night,” from 1963, is adorned with a sweet Nashville Sound-style treatment with prominent choir. The sweet, half-sung, half-spoken 1972 track “Merry Christmas, Mary” is dedicated to Jesus’ mother.
There’ll Be Peace in the Valley doesn’t make for a casual listen with its blend of stories and songs, but it is a compelling collection for those looking for a faith-based Christmas LP as only Johnny Cash could deliver with his passion and natural storytelling gifts. Maria Triana has prepared the fine-sounding master, and this LP has been pressed on standard black vinyl. The jacket, designed in the style of a 1960s Columbia record, adds to the nostalgic feeling Peace in the Valley will likely conjure around the holiday season. For those seeking a more “traditional” song-based Cash Christmas, Legacy’s Classic Christmas Album volume is still available on compact disc.
Speaking of nostalgic feelings, Legacy has a third vinyl release that’s sure to leave you in a sentimental mood. The Classic Big Band Christmas Album is chockablock with classic sounds of the season. This new compendium has quite a bit of music for an LP, with eighteen tracks (nine on each side) dating between 1932 and 1951 from some of the, well, biggest big bands of them all. Benny Goodman, Sammy Kaye, Glenn Miller, Kay Kyser, and Les Brown are just some of the leaders represented on this singin’ n’ swingin’ anthology culled from the archives of Columbia, Brunswick, Victor, OKeh, RCA Victor, and Bluebird.
Goodman, the King of Swing, gets this set off to a buoyant start with a brassy “(I Love The) Winter Weather,” featuring vocals by “girl singer” Peggy Lee. Glenn Miller, with whom Goodman shared the stage at a famous 1939 Carnegie Hall concert, proves his mettle as well with a loose, Latin-style “Jingle Bells” sung by Tex Beneke, Ernie Caceres and The Modernaires. One of the loveliest cuts on this set comes from another young girl singer who would go onto make major waves: Doris Day, beautifully rendering Mel Tormé and Robert Wells’ “The Christmas Song” with Les Brown’s band circa 1946, just a couple of months after Nat “King” Cole had introduced it with his trio.
Some lesser-known gems get an airing here, as well. The orchestra of trumpeter Charlie Spivak led vocalist Jimmy Saunders in the 1944 ode to a “Wonderful Winter,” ideal for slow dancing. Isham Jones and His Orchestra’s “It’s Winter Again,” from 1932, is a bright, romantic paean, while Eddy Duchin’s “(Don’t Wait Till) The Night Before Christmas” is a bouncy admonition to children to be good all year round. However, the 1938 tune didn’t have the longevity of, say, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” That song can be heard in the 1951 recording by swing-and-sway bandleader Sammy Kaye; like Kaye’s other track here, “Winter Wonderland,” it shows off Kaye’s sense of musical humor. (You can hear both tracks on CD via Real Gone Music’s new reissue of Kaye’s I Want to Wish You a Merry Christmas, featuring liner notes by yours truly!) Equally and enjoyably loopy is Kay Kyser’s 1939 “Hello, Mr. Kringle,” featuring comedian-musician Merwyn Bogue, a.k.a. Ish Kabibble, and Spike Jones’ zany, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink “All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth).”
Marjorie Hughes is delicious on Frankie Carle’s “Little Jack Frost Get Lost,” though a more famous song with an opposite sentiment is here as well. Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s perennial “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” is heard here in one of its earliest recordings, bandleader Woody Herman’s smooth and confident 1945 version. (Vaughn Monroe introduced the song also in 1945.) Like “Let It Snow,” Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” isn’t strictly a Christmas song, though it’s been adopted into the repertoire over the years. It’s presented here in the spirited and saucy 1937 version by Mr. and Mrs. Swing, Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey. Berlin’s timeless “White Christmas” is here, too, in Harry James’ 1946 recording with his soulful trumpet and Marion Morgan’s sweet vocal.
The Classic Big Band Christmas Album concludes, appropriately enough, with a couple of New Year’s songs: Charlie Spivak and His Orchestra’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” and Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra’s “Auld Lang Syne.” All eighteen tracks on this breezy and brassy collection have been newly remastered by Mike Piacentini at Sony’s Battery Studios, and indeed, the overall fidelity is quite wonderful with many songs sounding far fresher than their actual vintage. As this set proves, though, the music of the big band era only gets better with age.
All three titles from Legacy Recordings are available at the links below!