A few fun renditions of the classic poem. First a reading by Louis Armstrong (famously his last recording), followed by Wynton Marsalis’ interpretation from Crescent City Christmas Card. The last two are performed by Ed ‘Kookie’ Byrnes and Sesame Street‘s Norman Calloway.
Last winter our family watched The Star Wars Holiday Special, a 1978 program which lives up to its reputation as basically the worst thing that ever happened anywhere ever.
It’s truly remarkably that they kept making Star Wars movies after the holiday special disaster, but an even more extraordinary fact is that only two years later they returned to the holiday theme with Christmas in the Stars.
RSO Records also released the Empire Strikes Back soundtrack by John Williams and the London Philharmonic Orchestra as well as a great story album of the film (subtitled “The Adventures of Luke Skywalker” and narrated masterfully by Malachi Throne). The label’s unprecedented success in the seventies was due in large part to brilliant crossover marketing between film and popular music — notably with a string of hits from Grease and Saturday Night Fever. Still, when compared the millions RSO invested and lost in the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film, a Star Wars Christmas album was a wise investment.
The album reportedly sold out its initial pressing of 150,000 copies, although its hard to find anything endearing about it besides the painting on the cover by legendary Star Wars production artist Ralph McQuarrie. It is, we suppose, less terrible than the holiday special, but something about a lecture on the meaning of Christmas from Anthony Daniels just doesn’t sit well. Apparently the single “What Can You Get a Wookie for Christmas (When He Already Has a Comb?)” enjoyed airplay, but we suspect this was largely on the Dr. Demento Show.
Christmas in the Stars does carry two special distinctions for record collectors. First, it was one of the earliest digitally recorded and mixed records after those amazing albums made here in Minneapolis at Sound 80. We think the Flim and the BBs album and the SPCO recordings are much better than Christmas in the Stars.
And second, the song “R2D2 We Wish You A Merry Christmas” (credited on the single to The Star Wars Intergalactic Droid Choir and Chorale) is the recorded debut of Jon Bon Jovi. At seventeen, he was working as a custodian at the Power Station, a legendary New York recording studio run by his cousin, Tony Bongiovi. Whether or not this is canon — and whether or not Bon Jovi could make an appearance in a future Star Wars sequel — is now up to the people at Disney.
Sometimes we feel silly listening to a favorite album in the summertime when a Christmas tune comes on somewhere in the middle. Often, the tunes are so memorable they’re an enjoyable listen any time of year, like the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” which first appeared as a single during the holiday season of 1987 and was added to their third album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God.
The album is our favorite of theirs, so naturally we’re going to play it every time a copy passes through the shop regardless of the time of year. And folks enjoy “Fairytale of New York” every time. It’s so popular the song is said to be the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century in the UK, having reached their top twenty chart every year since 2005.
Like several songs on the album, “Fairytale of New York” tells the story of Irish immigrants. In this case a couple whose lives have fallen apart following addiction, unemployment and poverty. Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer wrote the song, originally to be a duet between MacGowan and bassist Cait O’Riordan. When the band began recording If I Should Fall From Grace With God with top-tier producer Steve Lillywhite, Kirsty MacColl, his wife, was brought in to record the part.
Why do people love “Fairytale of New York” so much? We suspect one reason is that beneath the couple’s harsh barbs, there’s an underlying affection. While some lyrics have long been questionably appropriate for airplay (Notably “You’re a slut on junk” and “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot”) there’s a deep sentimentality to MacGowan and MacColl’s delivery.
John Hartford credited his musical career to the Grand Ole Opry, his earliest musical influence heard on the family radio growing up in St. Louis. The program had made its national debut on NBC when he was just two years old. The other influence in his music was outside but not far away — the Mississippi River, where he would watch the steamboats as a boy and work on board one when he was a teenager.
Steamboats and the great rivers of America became a lifelong passion for Hartford, who enjoyed breakthrough success when Glen Campbell’s recording of his song “Gentle on my Mind” became one of the biggest hits of all time in 1967. Hartford recorded and performed prolifically until he passed away on the Fourth of July in 2001, but he also made time to pilot riverboats and share their stories and history.
He once said that “music got in the way” of his career as a riverboat pilot, but still got his license in the 1970s and was often a guest pilot on the legendary Julia Belle Swain riverboat.
And so it is no surprise that the only Christmas tune to be found in his catalog of thirty or so albums would be set not in the North Pole or beside the tree or hearth, but on the lower Mississippi.
This wonderfully bizarre double disc collects forty-nine songs that were originally issued on Sun Ra’s Saturn Records label over more than thirty years — they are incredibly rare records, most would cost you hundreds if you could even find a copy for sale. They are also surprisingly varied, a weird window into Sun Ra’s genius and creativity.
Saturn Records was remarkable — Sun Ra was producing and releasing his own records years before other independent artists. He was also an early innovator on electronic instruments and a free jazz pioneer. Still, many of his records are an acquired taste — avant garde jazz is not for everyone, even if it’s awesome.
Half of The Singles is goofy doo wop and rhythm & blues, and half is spacy jazz jams. Many are by singers or groups that Sun Ra and some incarnation of his Arkestra are backing. They are also in solid supersonic jazz form on fan favorites like “Love in Outer Space.” The songs are surprising, fun and sometimes misguided pop. Nothing reaches the wild extremes of classic Arkestra recordings, let alone their solid swinging-ness, but it is fun to listen to a collection of insanely rare records by a jazz genius.
And there’s two silly Christmas songs, originally issued as a 45 by the Qualities on the Saturn label in 1956. Sun Ra plays the harmonium and leads an unidentified backing band.