Thursday, December 07, 2006

Five Golden R(ecord)ings

Because I can't leave well enough alone, and because I like to listen to myself write, here are my five top Christmas Albums. I freely admit that some of these selections are distinctly nostalgic, I contend that each of them can also stand on their musicality. Here they are, ordered by issue date:

George Feyer-Echoes of Christmas
George Feyer is the Wally Pipp of cocktail pianists. A Hungarian World War II refugee, his skills and nearly limitless repertoire landed him a regular gig at the Cafe Carlisle in New York throughout the 1950's and '60's. The hotel was so enamoured of him that they decorated the cafe in a style reminiscent of Budapest. In 1968, he decided to take a couple of weeks off for a vacation. The Cafe hired a promising young pianist and singer to fill in for him while he was gone. That fill-in was Bobby Short, and Feyer never played the Carlisle again.

Feyer recorded a number of albums on the VOX label in the 1950's, all with the 'Echoes of' theme. Although somewhat charming, they didn't capture the feeling of an evening at the Carlisle, where Feyer would play to--and with--the audience, joking and talking much the same way Victor Borge did with a classsical piano.

All of the 'Echoes of' records were essentially two cuts, because Feyer's style was to never stop playing; rather, he'd just improv his way from one song to the next, with his drummer and bass player along for the ride. I'm guessing that the recording sessions for these albums were pretty simple: roll the tape, and Feyer would play for eighteen or so minutes, pause briefly between songs and continue on for another eighteen or so. Forty-five minutes later, everyone was at the bar.

Echoes of Christmas is no different. It's two eighteen-and-a-half minute cuts of music, Christmas carols and standards, woven together. (If your media software doesn't insert a pause in between songs, you won't even know when the first cut ends and the second begins.) Even though it is very much a swinging, '50's style of music, you can nevertheless hear a very distinctive Hungarian style to his playing that, in my mind, harkens straight back to Franz Lizt, especially in the 'overture' part of the first cut. This was the album played by my Dad whenever my folks had a christmas 'cocktail' party, and it's the perfect music for drinking a cosmo while flirting on the divan. I don't think it's on CD, but I did find a site that offers a free download, and it sounds exactly like I remember it--right down to the slightly overdriven high notes.

Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians-Now Is the Caroling Season
Although Feyer's music is the ultimate cocktail hour music, the ultimate cocktail owes much of its existence to Fred Waring. Trained as an architect and engineer, Fred used his musical success to propel himself into the home appliance business. Yes, the Waring blender is the brainchild of Fred Waring.* By the time this album came out, his blender company had been in business for more than twenty years.

Waring blended voices as well as his machine blended food. This is the world's best glee club at the top of its game. It was the number-one selling Christmas album in both 1956 and 1957. Gorgeous harmonies, sometimes playful, other times respectful, it's a wonderful choral work, and it is available on CD--and still in Full-Dimensional Stereo.

Vince Guaraldi Trio-A Charlie Brown Christmas
Fate was a big player in Vince Guaraldi's life. Guaraldi was just another working musician in San Francisco, trying to make a living, when he went into the studios to cut an album inspired by the movie Black Orpheus. He put out a single from that album, called "Samba de Orpheus," that was widely ignored by radio stations everywhere.

Until one DJ turned the record over. The song on the 'B' side of the single was a surprise hit, and made a decent-sized splash on radio stations around the country.

A documentary film producer by the name of Lee Mendelson, who was working on a documentary of a popular cartoonist, was trying to find just the right sound for a part of the film where the comic strip would be animated. As he was crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, Guaraldi's song came on the radio. The name of the song was 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind.' The cartoonist was Charles Shultz. Mendelson hired Guaraldi, who wrote 'Linus and Lucy.' The documentary film didn't go anywhere, but the cartoon part inspired Mendelson to do a half-hour cartoon special, to be aired on CBS. The broadasters aired the special with some misgivings. They thought the theme of the special, called 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' was too adult for children.

Also, they thought the music sucked.

The soundtrack to this show is everything that the animation wasn't--mainly, smooth and sophisticated--but it somehow works. And it works just as well--it's just as evocative--without the supporting animation. The soundtrack is available online--or just stop off at your nearest Starbucks.

Mannheim Steamroller-A Fresh Aire Christmas
Although he has no kitchen appliances to his name, Chip Davis is an inventor of sorts as well. In 1976, he and William Fries invented a cowboy trucker named C.W.McCall, who rode the citizen's band radio craze to the top of the music charts with a song called Convoy.

But the year before, Davis, a composer and record producer, fused classical music with electronic rock, and invented a band called Mannheim Steamroller (which was, at the time, just him and his keyboards), and invented a record label (American Gramophone) to put out his records. His album, entitled Fresh Aire, was a hit. A big enough hit that Davis had to actually put a band together for the name, and they put out three more albums before 1988, when he released A Fresh Aire Christmas.

I think there's now four Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums, plus another group, called the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, that does a similar thing, and both groups tour nonstop through November and December. It's turned into quite an industry.

I like the original electrorchestrock album the best. Yep, I electrorchestrock it old-skool. I won't go into to much detail because I doubt that any of you have NOT heard this album.

And finally:

Barenaked Ladies-Barenaked for the Holidays

Did you know that when Steven Page and Ed Robertson first got together to perform, they planned on being a comedy act? Not surprising, for anyone who has ever seen one of their concerts, or listened to some of their songs. I'm glad they decided to do music with some comedy mixed in, instead of vice-versa.

I love this album, and I'm pissed that I can't find my copy. If I can't find it by the weekend, I'll download it from their site. Ten bucks is cheaper than a CD anyway, and the boys get something like half of it directly into their pockets (as opposed to the twenty-five cents per they get from their old label). Hell, I may even get their Hanukah CD as well.

Well, that's what's gonna be playing on the ol' victrola when we unwrap presents Christmas morning. What will you be listening to?


*Although he didn't technically invent it, Fred Waring did supply the patent-holder with the capital needed to develop the blender, and when things weren't working out, he fired the inventor, and worked the bugs out himself.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

be still my heart...

vince guaraldi AND the barenakeds?

my zit and i are smiling.

11:51 PM  
Blogger Dear Lovey Heart said...

manaheim steamroller no christmas is without at my house mmm!

3:41 AM  
Blogger Heidi the Hick said...

Okay, this post is so good you might actually convince me to go take a listen. And that's saying something.

-Charlie Brown Christmas. Yes.

-electorchestrock. You do rock.

-convoy. Holy jumpin I used to love that, but when I was a kid I wasn't aware of those cheesy strings in the background.

-full dimension stereo. sigh...

I have great mental images of parents who look like Brad and Angelina (without the tats) chuckling and holding elegant glasses while the small future pirate hid under the coffee table...

2:49 PM  
Blogger Heidi the Hick said...

oh and also, you pretty much can't grow up in Ontario without knowing about the Barenaked Ladies. Their our story.

None of the Christmas albums Jethro has worked on made it to your list and with very good reason. The things that poor guy has had to do to pay the bills, I'm telling ya.

2:51 PM  
Blogger United We Lay said...

John Denver and the Muppets! It's my favorite album and I listen to it almost exclusively at Christmas. I'm not a huge fan of traditional Christmas music.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Balloon Pirate said...

I have that as well. I also have a bootleg copy of their original Muppet Christmas special. It would have been my sixth choice.


"No, Miss Piggy--FIGGY Pudding. Made with figs!"


"And bacon."



10:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can't beat the 12 Days of Christmas with John Denver and the Muppets.

2:16 AM  
Blogger Åsa said...

What a great post! I start singing “Dashing through the snow…” in November every year. I LOVE Christmas-music! I had to download and burn to CD the George Feyer before I finished reading the post actually. You described it so nice!

I played the Bing Crosby’s Christmas album so much that my boyfriend at the time “misplaced it”… Had to buy it again actually. My parents where probably happy when I moved out so they didn’t have to listen to it quite as much. That’s my all time fave. I also bought the Home Alone2 album because of “Somewhere in my memory”, sang by Bette Midler. So that album is also in my CD player.

What I miss from my US years is all the good and fun Christmas music the different radio stations played. WAAF in Shrewsbury, MA played a song with Cheek and Chong (that is so miss-spelled, but I hope you know who I mean). It’s the funniest song I’ve ever heard and to this day I have still not found it again. They are basically talking the whole time. Trying to figure out who Santa is.”big fat guy with white beard, all dressed in red” “yeah – I played with that dude!” “no man. Not him!” “he put some magic dust on the reindeers” and so on.

Ho ho ho!

4:20 PM  

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