In this blog's "Advent Meditation" series, we have been highlighting some lesser known Christmas CDs. In this post, however, we intend to dig back into the (metaphorical) record bin and pull out some great classic Christmas albums.
The fifties were known as an era for great smooth voices. There was the smug Frank Sinatra, the tipsy-sounding Dean Martin, Perry Como, and dozens of other "crooners." Perhaps the best smooth male singer of the fifties, though, was the velvet-voiced Bing Crosby. Bing's voice is amazing, even (or especially) after sixty years. Hearing Bing's smooth baritone is a pleasant surprise in a musical world which is so highly influenced by Elvis, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan. And yes, I am a fan of Elvis, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan, but vocally, none of them (except perhaps Elvis) could hold a candle to Bing.
Bing's signature Christmas album is White Christmas. On it, he performs a wide variety of Christmas songs, ranging from Hawaiian ("Mele Kalikimaka"), to Irish ("Christmas in Killarney"). Unlike many crooner albums, which seem to drown in a sea of syrup, Bing masters the art of mixing the sweet with the hot, as the old school jazz cats would say. His recording of "Jingle Bells" with the Andrew's Sisters is a swing masterpiece, with great musicianship from the players and singer's alike. And no one could sing ballads like Bing. Besides the title cut, there is his reverent treatment of the hymn "Faith of Our Fathers", his sweeping "Silent Night", and "Adeste Fideles", which the Latin-illiterate know as "O' Come All Ye Faithful." Bing, being a purist, sings the song in both Latin and English. The album is an essential part of anyone's collection.
There is also an excellent budget CD floating around called Bing and Friends Christmas. Half of the songs are by Bing, the other half are by artists contemporary with him. This CD is excellent because it contains Bing recordings that are rather hard to find. Bing sings three duets with the amazing Ella Fitzgerald on this CD. Interestingly, their version of "Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer" has extra verses detailing what happened to Rudolph after he became famous, and tell of his riding in fancy cars and smoking big cigars. Imagine trying to play that on contemporary radio. Also on the collection are the silky voiced Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, whose "I-eat-gravel-for-breakfast" voice is almost a polar opposite of Bing and Nat's, the everpresent Frank Sinatra doing a greasy rendition of "The Christmas Song", and Vera Lynn, who gives us "The Little Boy That Santa Forgot." She obviously didn't get the memo about "tis the season to be jolly."
Bing Crosby also performed and recorded some country songs along with his more pop efforts, saying that he was the "biggest hillbilly of them all."
On the flip side of the coin, you have the Santa-esque Burl Ives. In his time Burl Ives was a pre-Dylan folksinger. However, he is probably best known now for his Christmas hit "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas", and the album of the same name. Burl's voice is very warm and joyful, and he sounds like he could be your uncle. On this album, he combines his folk singing with a more pop style. However, he keeps a folk sound on songs like "Christmas is a Birthday" and "The Christmas Child." Whenever I listen to Burl Ives, it is like he is in the room, telling me a story personally. Burl's and Bing's standout Christmas albums should be in everyone's collection.
Currently Listening: "Christmastime is Here", Vince Guaraldi Trio. "Silent Night", The Temptations. "Sing Me to Sleep", Fran Healy featuring Neko Case.