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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2003/12/29
by Mike Gruenberg

Phil Spector Christmas Album

After a long hot summer, most of us look forward to the cooler temperatures that come with the Fall season. Although for many of us this time of year represents a return to school, which may or may not be the most exciting aspect of the season, September nevertheless represents a new beginning. To me, I have always looked forward to this time of year because I know that my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving is not that far away.
The reason I find Thanksgiving so appealing is that it is a "no pressure" holiday. Well, almost no pressure. You don’t have to exchange gifts, which eliminates my most dreaded activity that is shopping at the mall. You get to eat great food. If you’re a football fan, you usually get to see some exciting games. You get to see family and friends, which may explain the partial pressure, but all in all it’s a pretty good time for all the participants.
At every family gathering there is your preverbal Aunt Harriet. She’s the one who firmly plants a kiss on you while at the same time pinches your cheeks. That wouldn’t be so bad, but the worst part is her inability to understand that her cooking/baking skills have seriously eroded over the years. Quite frankly, those skills were not too good to begin with, but in those days, Aunt Harriet’s now dearly departed husband, Morty was able to pitch in and cook part of the meal, which constituted the food that everyone ate willingly.
This year, Aunt Harriet due to old age has confined her activities to bringing her Chocolate Surprise Cake to the festivities. It sure looks good, but you cannot judge a book by its cover! After a festive meal, her cake really does not look that bad. The frosting looks great and wouldn’t that cake taste good with a cold glass of milk or freshly brewed coffee? You ask yourself, "how bad could it be?" Common sense dictates that we learn our lessons from history. If history has taught you anything about her cake, it is that it’s aftertaste will be with you for many weeks. It has also taught you that once you take a bite and realize your error, she will undoubtedly sit next to you and watch you finish the whole thing under her supervision.
You are torn between your loyalty and respect for your Aunt Harriet and your inability to withstand your stomach being pumped out at the local hospital. Sentimentality wins out over common sense and you take the first bite. The rest is history as you lamely try to excuse yourself from the table ignoring the eagle eye of your Aunt Harriet. How difficult it is to try to extricate whatever morsels of food have unwittingly fallen into your mouth as you promise yourself never to eat anything prepared by this well intentioned, but inept person ever again.
For me, once Thanksgiving is over the rest of the year couldn’t pass quick enough. I don’t like to shop, I don’t like holiday music and I don’t like crowds. Inevitably, all those wonderful sights and sounds are rolled up into one uncomfortable ball as I trudge though the mall each year in the quest to find gifts for the family and friends. In trying to understand my dislike for the aforementioned activities, I realized that I like to give gifts, so shopping for those gifts shouldn’t be a problem. Looking for gifts either by myself or with my wife is also a fairly nice activity so that also shouldn’t be a problem. Crowds can be avoided by shopping at times when the stores are least crowded so that too should be overcome with a minimum degree of difficulty. That leaves the final problem that I cannot control.
I don’t mind hearing "Jingle Bell Rock" once or even twice. I occasionally like "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" by Bruce Springsteen. I can tolerate "Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree" by Brenda Lee in moderation. However, the assault on my senses to hear these tunes over and over and over again in my car on countless stations, in the mall, in the parking lot, in the rest room, in my doctors’ office really is a bit much for me. Much like Aunt Harriet’s’ cake, the first bite as the first listening is fine until you realize that you have to eat the rest of the cake and that you have two more months after Thanksgiving to hear these insipid tunes.
But wait, there is hope! In 1963, legendary music producer Phil Spector assembled his many groups at Gold Star Recording Studios in LA and produced the quintessential holiday album entitled "A Christmas Gift for You" on the Philles label. Among the groups represented on this album were, "The Crystals," "The Ronettes," and "Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans." Spector backed up his groups with the best session musicians. Among the players in the band were people like Leon Russell, Tommy Tedesco, Hal Blaine and Sonny Bono
To me the most important singer on this album was Darlene Love, whose voice has been heard on hit records for the last forty years. More recently, you can see her playing the role of Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon movies.
The first cut of the album on Side 1 is Darlene’s rendition of the Irving Berlin classic, "White Christmas." You cannot get tired of hearing her sing this tune. Equally as excellent to Darlene as a singer is Ronnie from the "Ronettes". The group sings "Frosty the Snowman" in true Phil Spector "Wall of Sound" fashion. Of course, two true highlights of this album are Ronnie’s rendition of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "Sleighride" which both would be a joy to hear over and over in any mall. Hearing it would probably put me in a better mood to shop.
I would be remiss not to mention the contributions of "The Crystals". The arrangement that appears on Spector’s album of "Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town" is the version that Springsteen copied for his record many years later. Another tune sung by "The Crystals" is "Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer" and it still sounds great.

Phil Spector, along with legendary songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich wrote "Christmas" for this album with Darlene Love as the lead singer for the assembled multitude of singers and musicians. You cannot sit still or not tap or your feet to this tune. To me, this song is rock n’ roll history at it’s best. On the final track of the album, Phil and the artists perform "Silent Night." Phil speaks and may be a bit over mellow dramatic on this cut as he thanks everyone on the record and thanks the record buying public for their support, but it’s true Phil type of stuff. I cannot think of any other record producer who would have the guts or the ability to actually situate themselves on the album and make it work.
If you can find the original album released in December 1963 on the Philles label, then you have a true collectible item. In 1972, Apple Records, largely as a result of Phil working on "Let It Be" for "The Beatles" re-released the Christmas album. In 1974, Warner Brothers Records launched a new label for Phil and the Christmas album was re-re-released. In 1975, Phil Spector International was established and yes, you know what was re-re-re-released. However, for this version a true stereo mix was evident. In actuality, the beauty of Phil Spector recordings are the mono versions and although stereo is the choice in most recordings, I submit that Phil’s productions sound best in mono. Whatever version you are able to buy will be most satisfying.
I normally spend a few hours writing my "In My Life" column for Jambands. This particular writing exercise took a bit longer because I listened to my mono version on an LP import on Chrysalis Records of the Phil Spector Christmas album more than once which proves that holiday music can be a fulfilling experience.
I would like to wish all the people at Jambands and all the people who read our columns and reviews a happy and healthy holiday season.

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