Various Artists | A Christmas Gift for You (November 1963)
Christmas / Rhythm and Blues – 34:12
“Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . .means a little bit more!”
And so this is Christmas, admittedly two weeks late. Perhaps it would be best to consider this an early present for the next one (only 350 sleeps!). Regardless of the limited time when this album can actually be played, it has to be said that Christmas songs have a tendency towards the slightly cheesy. True, there is the odd classic which goes beyond this, but there is something about a festive tune which needs to be a little bit jaunty and even ridiculous. We are in a silly party mood and don’t want too many songs to spoil the mood.
It feels a little hard coming to this album, considering it is the brainchild of producer Phil Spector, a troubled man who is currently serving time in prison for murder. There had been stories throughout the years of Spector’s difficult nature, to put it mildly; among the accusations was one by The Ramones that they only recorded their version of Baby, I Love You for him because he pulled a gun on them. But I will try to remove my thoughts on the man from this and instead focus on the music itself, put together by some of the great performers at the time. After all, it is Christmas…
A Christmas Gift for You brought together a number of artists who had been produced by Spector to record a number of festive songs, focusing more on the secular rather than tradition carols. The Ronettes, Bob B Soxx and The Blue Jeans, The Crystals and Darlene Love all took part in the recording of familiar favourites, backed by Spector’s famous Wall of Sound. The production technique resulted in instruments being combined – a new idea when it came to recording modern music. The result is a fuller sound; rather than the piano playing one part before the trumpet playing the next, for example, they are played simultaneously. Without getting into too many details of the pros and cons, it is fair to say that it had its equal split of high profile supporters (Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys was one) and those who hated it (Paul McCartney fought endlessly to par down the recording on The Beatles’ final album, Let It Be).
The album opens with a jolly beat that takes us into Darlene Love’s version of White Christmas. After endless listens of Bing Crosby’s version, this is a joy. It makes the Crosby take on it sound sombre; this sets the standard for the rest of the album – one of celebration. It is as cheesy as you’d expect (Love talking in the middle of the track about wanting to leave LA is as ridiculous as it sounds). But it works, setting up the listener for what to expect from the album. The Ronettes’ Frosty the Snowman (sung with a strong New York twang by Veronica Bennett) is equally fun, rivaling the more famous recording by the likes of Nat King Cole (and this time without the backing of what sounded like Alvin and the Chipmonks which mars Cole’s take somewhat).
It is fair to say that the album skips from classic take to classic take of some already brilliantly-written songs. The Bells of St Mary, as performed by Bob B Soxx, is a great cry of delight and elation. Some of the numbers have had a major influence on later takes; the arrangement for The Crystals’ Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town was later used as the basis for Bruce Springsteen’s version, while U2 were suitably impressed by Love’s take of Baby (Please Come Home) – the only original song on an album of covers – that they decided to do their own version of it. The final spoken word ending by Spector, over the top of the entire recording cast singing Silent Night at the end of the album, wishing listeners a merry Christmas, must surely have influenced Simon and Garfunkel’s later in the 1960s as well.
Incredibly this album was recorded during a hot summer in LA, but none of this comes through in the music. There is a real feelgood factor to A Christmas Gift for You which helps to give it a real sense of Christmas spirit. It captures the joys of waking on Christmas morning and coming down to find your presents under the tree. Perhaps less surprisingly was its lack of success when it was first released; not because the album doesn’t warrant it but because of the timing of its release – JFK was assassinated the day after it came out and Spector took the decision to withdraw it from sale as a mark of respect. Fortunately, as time has marched on and the album has been reissued, it has found a new audience – and, it has to be said, a much-deserved one. It is a shame that this record can only be played for a few weeks each year; it is truly a life-affirming joy from start to finish. Be a rebel and put this on in the middle of July. It’s definitely worth it.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to A Christmas Gift for You here:
Next time: Live at the Harlem Square Club by Sam Cooke