Ahh, Christmas music. As a former retail employee, one might think it would be a scourge to my ears. The truth is, I love it, because I am hopelessly sentimental and addicted to nostalgia: both defining features of holiday music.
The other day I put on an Ella Fitzgerald record and the friend listening with me said “This feels so Christmassy.” I paused and realized that even though it wasn’t a Christmas record, the instrumentation, songwriting style, and production are the exact same as the majority of Christmas music we are used to hearing, the same songs that artists are still covering today on their holiday albums. As Christopher Ingraham points out in his great article in the Washington Post, nearly all of the top 30 holiday songs were written in the postwar period. Ingraham argues that the reason more modern holiday songs never quite take off has a lot to do with baby boomer nostalgia for the heyday of the American dream, a particularly interesting idea to consider considering the recent sentiment to “Make America Great Again.”
Without getting into that too much, here are my favorite holiday songs dug from my many budget box 1950’s compilations.
Pearl Bailey – 5 Pound Box of Money
Pearl Bailey was an award winning singer and actress. Some highlights of her very successful career include touring with the USO entertaining troops during WWII, winning a special Tony award for the title role in the 1967 all-black production of the Broadway musical Hello Dolly with Cab Calloway, and even providing verse work for the saddest movie of my generation, The Fox and the Hound. Her talent and sense of humour really carry this silly, wry letter to Santa:
Billy May – Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Mambo
This arrangement that transports you to a 1950’s cabana bar was provided by Billy May. May was a trumpeter with his own Grammy winning orchestra, but his main achievement was arranging on Capitol Records for many of the nattiest pop albums of the late 1950’s, such as Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly with Me, and writing film music in the 1960’s…hence the transportation to the cabana. Extra points for the irreverent vocal punctuation.
June Christy – The Merriest
I had never heard of June Christy before coming across this tune, which surprised me considering the amount of vocal jazz I’ve listened to over the years. She found her break replacing Anita O’Day with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the late 50’s, and is known as one of the foremost vocalists within the cool jazz movement, in the vein of Chet Baker. This is certainly not a cool jazz tune, but reflects something cool in the very hip lyrics and Christy’s poised tone.
Julie London – Warm December
Julie London’s snuggly love song really encapsulates all the American Dream nostalgia that keeps Christmas music firmly embedded in the 50’s. London was a sought after pinup for GI’s during WWII, a prolific Hollywood actress, and a vocalist with 32 albums to her name known for her sultry vocals and poise. This song is actually from an album called Calendar Girl, which featured London in a pinup for each month
Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn – Sugar Rum Cherry
This track is my favourite out of Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, a tribute reorchestrated for jazz orchestra by Ellington and his writing partner and protege Billy Strayhorn. The album cover, featuring Strayhorn and Ellington posing in matching cream cashmere,
is unique for its inclusion of Billy Strayhorn’s picture and name. Though he had worked with Ellington for most of his career and provided such overwhelming successes as “Take the A-Train” and “Chelsea Bridge,” Strayhorn elected to stay in Ellington’s shadow rather than compromise and hide his sexuality. As an openly gay Black man living with a partner in mid-century New York, Strayhorn needed to maintain a level of obscurity for his safety. This suite was written in the late 1950’s after many frustrating years of hanging back from the spotlight, and is one of the few instances of Strayhorn receiving full billing for his work.