Rhino Christmas - An Old Fashioned Christmas

Monday, December 23, 2013
Rhino Christmas - An Old Fashioned Christmas

We've got one more soundtrack for these December days; if there's a Rhino antecedent for this playlist, it might be the direct-marketed release HOME FOR CHRISTMAS. While that 2-CD set features many of the songs here, it cuts a wider swath through holiday music than the following, which focuses on the most traditional, time-honored classics, with an emphasis on vocal pop. This is the holidays at your parents' (or even grandparents') house – an old-fashioned Christmas.

As there's no business like snow business, let's start with the most time-honored of all seasonal standards, Bing Crosby's “White Christmas.” Written by legendary songsmith Irving Berlin, the recording is cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling single of all time. Included in the film Holiday Inn, “White Christmas” won a Best Song Oscar and lent its name to another Crosby film in 1954. Leroy Anderson's 1952 track “Sleigh Ride” is among the most popular instrumental hits of the season (lyrics were later written for the piece). “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” was penned by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne during a July heatwave, and was introduced by vocalist Vaughn Monroe in 1945. “Winter Wonderland” is a bit older, dating back to the mid-1930s; Johnny Mathis memorably covered it for his 1958 Merry Christmas album.

Let's get out of the snow for a bit with Perry Como. Mr. C. first recorded “(There's No Place Like) Home For The Holidays” in 1954, and then redid it in 1959, and the performer's easy-going voice remains the one most closely associated with the song. Nat “King” Cole also took a couple of cracks at a seasonal composition - “The Christmas Song,” written-by jazz great Mel Torme. Cole's 1946 recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, while his orchestrated 1961 take is probably the most recognizable version of the oft-covered classic. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” has been covered a few times itself, though the original was done by Judy Garland in the M-G-M. musical Meet Me In St. Louis.

“Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” first lit up the night as a coloring book published by the Montgomery Ward department store chain. Johnny Marks turned the tale of the reindeer who led Santa through the fog into a song, which Gene Autry then turned into a million-selling single (one of the movies' most successful “singing cowboys,” Autry had penned his own holiday classic a couple of years earlier, "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)," inspired by his appearance in the Hollywood Christmas Parade). In 1964, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer got his own Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated TV special, and Marks wrote several additional songs for it, including “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” which was performed by the program's narrator, Burl Ives. Animators Rankin & Bass also built a holiday TV special around “The Little Drummer Boy,” though the recording we have here is by The Harry Simeone Chorale, whose 1958 version is considered definitive.

Among the most popular yuletide traditions is caroling, and “The Twelve Days Of Christmas” was tailor-made for curbside renditions. If the list of partridges in pear trees, golden rings and other holiday gifts taxes the memory, it was supposed to; when the song was first published in England in the late-18th century, it was designed as a game in which players had to remember all the verses sung before them or forfeit a small prize. Popular choral group Fred Waring & The Pennsylvanians do the honors here. Peter, Paul and Mary are accompanied by the New York Choral Society on this live recording of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” from their A Holiday Celebration album. Another venerable Christmas carol is “O Come, All Ye Faithful” - or in the Latin, “Adeste Fidelis,” which was the title Bing Crosby used on his top-selling Merry Christmas album.

Pop vocalists don't get any more iconic than Frank Sinatra, and The Chairman of the Board cut his share of holiday recordings, including the 1964 Reprise album 12 Songs Of Christmas. “An Old Fashioned Christmas” was penned by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, and Fred Waring and his orchestra provide instrumental support. Recording for Reprise about a year later, Sammy Davis Jr. cut “Christmas Time All Over The World,” which with its greetings in different languages is reminiscent of Disney's “It's A Small World.” To complete the Rat Pack trifecta, we turn to Dean Martin, whose “The Christmas Blues” predates Frank and Sammy's songs by about a decade.

Keeping that after-hours vibe going is Charles Brown with “Merry Christmas Baby.” When Brown (as featured vocalist for Johnny Moore's Three Blazers) first sang the song in 1947, he launched a standard that would be covered by the likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and B.B. King. Gospel performers have plenty to sing about at Christmas, and Mahalia Jackson is the undisputed queen of gospel; listen to her version of the sacred song “Silent Night” and you'll know why. For another holiday hymn interpreted by a master, check out John Fahey's performance of “Joy To The World.” It was released on the acoustic guitarist's The New Possibility Christmas album (later reissued on Rhino).

We enter jazzier territory with Tony Bennett and “Silver Bells.” This recording from the singer's recent A Swingin' Christmas collection features backing by the Count Basie Big Band. Vocal jazz is also the province of The Manhattan Transfer, whose An Acapella Christmas was released on Rhino in 2006. Among the seasonal favorites sung by the quartet is “Christmas Time Is Here,” originally penned by jazz keyboardist Vince Guaraldi for the A Charlie Brown Christmas animated TV special. Inner Voices were another foursome who cut an acapella holiday release for Rhino, though “The Angels Sang” boasts New Age as well as jazz touches. New Age hitmaker Enya released one of the most successful Christmas albums of recent years with 2008's multi-platinum And Winter Came..., an album of predominantly original songs including “The Spirit Of Christmas Past.”

Natalie Cole followed in her father's footsteps with a holiday album, the 1994 Elektra collection Holly & Ivy; her version of “The First Noel” would surely have made Nat proud. The very first Christmas is also the inspiration for the song “Away In A Manger,” interpreted here by Linda Ronstadt on her Elektra album A Merry Little Christmas. “Who Comes This Night” was co-written by jazz great Dave Grusin for James Taylor's popular A Christmas Album in 2004. Josh Groban struck holiday gold with his Noel collection, which features “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” and sold more than 3 million copies to become the top-selling U.S. album of 2007. Michael Bublé's 2011 Christmas collection was nearly as successful and includes a fine take on “It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.”

We'll wrap up our old-fashioned Christmas with the traditional season-ending sounds of “Auld Lang Syne.” For decades, bandleader Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians rang in the New Year with this old Scottish song (with lyrics by poet Robert Burns). Happy holidays to all, and best wishes for the year to come!

− John Hagelston