Christmas: There’ll Be Peace In The Valley By Johnny Cash

March 16, 2017

A new Johnny Cash release is a part of a series of vinyl-only albums issued by the Legacy label in time for the holiday season.

Christmas: There’ll Be Peace In The Valley comes on the heels of a new Elvis Presley Christmas vinyl release and pales in comparison. The sound is excellent and the individual performances are fine but the album has a cobbled together feel. Cash has a vast catalogue of material to draw from and there are a number of Christmas songs that would have fit together better and given the album a more cohesive feel.

Cash had a unique vocal approach and when applied to the right material; the results are excellent. Songs such as “Mary Christmas Mary,” “The Christmas Spirit,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and “Christmas Time’s A-Comin,’” are like putty in his hands. On the other hand, “Jingle Bells” and “Blue Christmas” are a bit of a stretch.

The main problems are the “Opening Dialogue,” “The Ballad Of Hap Weaver,” and “(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley” don’t really fit in with the Christmas theme.

The album is what it is and the individual performances should please any fan of the man in black, especially since they are a unique collectable because of the vinyl format. However, if you are a casual fan of the man in black, there are a number of classic Christmas albums out there.

The Magic Of Christmas By The Soulful Stings

January 16, 2016


During the 1960’s and 1970’s, rock pop, rhythm & blues, and country music sold tens-of-millions of albums. What is often overlooked is the huge commercial success of what has become known as easy listening music. Artists such as Ray Conniff, Andy Williams, and Percy Faith sold millions of albums by appealing to the generation that came to adulthood between the end of the Second World War and the advent of the rock and roll era. This all brings us to the Soulful Strings.

These types of music came together when labels and their rock and soul studio musicians would release albums in order to cash in on this easy listening market.

The Cadet label was a subsidiary of Chess and was the home to such artists as Etta James, Ahmad Jamal, The Rotary Connection, Ramsey Lewis, and The Dells. It may not have seemed like fertile territory for an album of laid back easy listening music but producer/arranger Richard Evans, (1932-2014), formed the Soulful Strings with the labels studio band including guitarist Phil Upchurch, vibraphonist Bobby Christian, organist Ordell Brown, bassist Cleveland Eaton, and an assortment of string players. They released seven albums 1966-1971, including The Magic of Christmas during 1968. That album has now been re-released for the first time.

The Soulful Strings had a slightly different approach. Instead of violins, thy used violas and cellos, which gave everything a little harder sound. Throw in some funky rhythms and you have easy listening music unlike most everything else that was being produced at the time.

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is funk meets strings with some improvisational cello thrown in for good measure. “Jingle Bells” has some improvisational guitar excursions by Upchurch. Harpist Dorothy Ashby plucks the strings in a unique and bluesy direction, while Upchurch adds some jazzy guitar on “Merry Christmas Baby.”. “Deck The Halls” even incorporates a sitar among the lush strings. Christian’s vibes carry a traditional presentation of “The Christmas Song.”

The Soulful Strings created easy listening music but with a few twists. Not your normal Christmas background fare but perfect for when the party gets a little raucous.

Funky Christmas by Various Artists

January 8, 2014


Have yourself a funky little Christmas. Funky Christmas, originally released in 1976 on the Cotillion label, which was a subsidiary of Atlantic, has slid under the radar for decades. It now returns with remastered sound and new liner notes as a part of the Real Gone Music Christmas reissue series.

The album is comprised of two songs by six artists who had just released their debut albums for the label. It was hoped the release would give the artists some additional exposure during the Christmas season.

The five person vocal group, Luther (featuring lead vocals by a young Luther Vandross), provides the strongest two tracks. In addition both songs are original compositions. “May Christmas Bring You Happiness” has a disco feel as Vandross’ voice soars as the three female and one male member of his group provide backing. “At Christmas Time” is a ballad that has a jam style with Vandross seemingly making up the lyrics as the song progresses.

John Edwards would only spend a short time with the label as he would leave in 1977 to begin a two-decade stint with the Spinners. His contributions are the well-known Christmas classics “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song.” Both benefit from his soul styling but are a little two short and add nothing new to these oft recorded tunes.

Marge Joseph is an underrated singer who was a staple on the R&B charts. Legendary Motown writer Lamont Dozier wrote both of her Christmas performances. “Christmas Gift” and “Feeling Like Christmas” are propelled by her energetic vocals and makes one wonder why she did not gain widespread popularity.

Lou Donaldson and Willis Jackson were both saxophonists who had a long recording history for other labels. Donaldson’s take on “Jingle Bells” is a non-funky clunker but his “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” percolates along. Willis’ “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is one of the better instrumental takes on this old chestnut but “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” finds him on cruise control.

The last two tracks are by The Impressions. This is not the group of Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, or even Leroy Hutson. The reconstituted group consists of longtime members Sam Gooden and Fred Cash plus new additions Ralph Gooden and Reggie Torian. Their two performances were not an auspicious beginning for the label as their choir backed “Silent Night” and their disco-like version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” struggle to be average.

Funky Christmas is inconsistent and has some highs and lows. Its main saving grace is it is different from most other Christmas albums out there. It is a non-traditional Christmas release that was issued by a label to promote their own artists. While self-serving over 35 years ago, it remains interesting today.

Christmas With Patti Page (CD) by Patti Page

December 30, 2013


The year was 1955; Ike was President, The Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in the World Series, and Patti Page was the most popular singer in the United States. Late in the year she released one of the better selling Christmas albums of the decade. Christmas With Patti Page has now been re-released with bonus tracks by Real Gone Music.

Patti Page charted 110 singles on the Billboard Magazine Pop Charts and sold well over 100 million records during her career. She first charted in 1948 and had her last hit in 1980. She continued to perform and record well into the 2000’s and passed away January 1, 2013, at the age of 85.

Her Christmas album was recorded at the height of her career. It is a traditional release that remains rooted in the 1950s. Many of the she songs that comprise the album have since been recorded hundreds of times. On the very positive side, Page has a wonderful voice and her interpretations of light popish Christmas songs such as “Jingle Bells,” “Where Did My Snowman Go,” “The Mama Doll Sound,” and “I Wanna Go Skating With Willie,” find her at her best.

“Silent Night,” “The First Noel,” “White Christmas,” and “The Christmas Song” travel in a different direction as she employed a mixed choral ensemble to back her lead vocals. I prefer her simpler approach with the focus squarely on her voice without a lot of instrumentation.

The bonus tracks complete her Christmas recordings for the Mercury label. “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” is a swingin’ song and was recorded in 1950. It was released as a single and quickly disappeared as its B side, “Tennessee Waltz,” went on to become Page’s signature song, topping the Pop Chart for nine weeks. “Little Donkey” was recorded in 1959 and its simple message and passion make it the best track on the album.  Three Christmas performances from The Patti Page Show and the Christmas Greetings From Patti radio spot complete the album.

As with all the Real Gone releases the sound is as clean as the original tapes will allow. The accompanying booklet presents a nice biography of her life and of her Christmas recording sessions.

Christmas With Patti Page is a trip back in time to when she was the queen of American music. It may not be a modern Christmas album but it is music worth visiting.

Merry Christmas: The Complete Columbia Christmas Singles 1963-1966 by The New Christy Minstrels

December 23, 2013


The New Christy Minstrels were the brainchild of Randy Sparks who formed the group in 1961. It was unique as it was a rare folk group consisting of ten members. During its early existence a number of well-known artists passed through its ranks including Kenny Rogers, Barry McGuire, Gene Clark, Larry Ramos, and Kim Carnes. They represented the light pop side of the 1960s folk revival and were not received well by the anti-war and counterculture movements of the day. They did find an easy listening type audience as during the 1960s their albums sold tens-of-millions of copies.

The career of The New Christy Minstrels has now spanned over five decades. Real Gone Music has just re-released the two Christmas albums they recorded for the Columbia label complete with five bonus tracks. The included booklet gives a fine history of the band and recording sessions.

Merry Christmas, released during 1963, is the superior of the two albums. The original group was mostly intact and they had created a tight sound due to nearly three years of constant touring and recording.

It was a folk approach that relied on more obscure tunes than the normal Christmas release at the time. Randy Sparks composition, “Parson Brown (Our Christmas Dinner)” may sound a little dated today but it captured the Christmas innocence of the early 1960s well. “Sing Hosanna Hallelujah, a reworking of the folksong “Greenland Whale Fisheries,” and “Beautiful City” are inspiring up-tempo pieces that present the strongest side of the group.

The best of the bonus tracks is a medley of three European carols that was originally released on a Goodyear compilation album. “Joseph Dear Joseph Mine,” “Snow In The Streets,” and “Wassail Wassail All Over The Town” have all the voices combining to bring the album to a fitting conclusion.

Christmas With The Christies is not nearly as strong. All ten members of the 1963 group were gone and their replacements were not as tight vocally. They try to move from their folk roots in a folk/rock, light jazz, and pop direction with mixed results. The group at this point in their career had become more of a variety show act and this was a handicap in the studio.

They relied more on classic Christmas songs and tunes such as “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and “Silent Night” paled next to many orher versions of the day. They tried to be creative but the bongos on “Do You Hear What I Hear” are quite a stretch.

Merry Christmas: The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings 1963-1966 is an album from a different era. The New Christy Minstrels were little dated even at the height of their career. Their material still has an attractive quality to it even if it is not essential.

The Complete Christmas Recordings by Andy Williams

December 3, 2013


Andy Williams, 1927-2012, enjoyed a career that lasted over six decades. Early on he was part of a vocal group with his brothers and then as a solo artist, he sold tens-of-millions of records and had a popular television variety series, 1962-1971. He was an easy listening crooner, whose smooth style allowed him to remain commercially successful during the rock and roll era.

Real Gone music has now raided the Williams’ vaults and released The Complete Christmas Recordings. They should have put Columbia in the title as he released two albums of Christmas music after he left his long-time label and they are not included. Still, there is a lot of Christmas music here. His three Columbia Label albums, The Andy Williams Christmas Album (1963), Merry Christmas (1965), and Christmas Present (1974), are combined with three non-album Christmas singles and previously unreleased Spanish and Italian versions of “White Christmas.” The sound is clean and a booklet of his life and music is included. It all forms the definitive release of his Christmas material.

He was a pure pop singer from the beginning to the end of his career. His big hits, “(Where Do I Begin) Love Story,” “I Like Your Kind Of Love,” “Can’t Get Used To Loving You,” “Days Of Wine And Roses,” “The Village Of Saint Bernadette,” and the number one “Butterfly” are all far from a rock and roll sound.

The three original studio albums, when combined, form one long Christmas release. The songs are interchangeable as his style was always the same. The music is a combination of traditional Christmas Carols such as “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night Holy Night,” “O Little Town Of Bethlehem,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and pop Christmas songs including “Silver Bells,” “Jingle Bells,”  “A Song And A Christmas Tree (The Twelve Days Of Christmas),” and “Sleigh Ride.”

The music of Andy Williams is what it is. If you are a fan or appreciate an easy listening vocal sound, and are in a Christmas mood, then this is an album for you.

Vintage Christmas Wonderland (EP) by David Ian

November 7, 2013


Two years after the release of his debut album, Vintage Christmas, David Ian has with returned with a new five track EP titled Vintage Christmas Wonderland. It picks up where his last album left off as it is an album of light jazz Christmas songs that would have fit into the music scene of 50 or 60 years ago.

It is music that grows on you as his approach is subtle and laid back. He made a wise decision to include vocalists on three of the tracks. Still, it is an EP and if you are inclined to his style of music, it is too short. What is here, however, has a certain allure.

The music is stripped down to basics as the focus is mostly on his subtle improvisational piano runs. At times a bass, percussion, and cello float in and out of the mix.

“Angels We Have Heard On High” receives a slowed down treatment that would fit nicely into a smoky lounge at midnight. Acacia give an effective but somewhat usual vocal performance as her cadence reminds me of Devo. “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” receives a laid back jazzy treatment. “Winter Wonderland” harps back to the big band era and features a calming vocal by Andre Miguel Mayo.

“The First Noel” is the best example of his piano skills as he explores tempo changes and the use of notes that run counter to the melody. The album closing “Jingle Bells” is upbeat and the most traditional piece on the release.

David Ian has released music for late at night as you sit in front of a fire with some fine wine with cheese and crackers. It is wonderful background music for a Christmas night. It’s just too bad there isn’t more of it.

Christmas Soli by John Fahey

November 4, 2013


John Fahey, 1934-2001, was a master of the steel string acoustic guitar. While he was grounded in blues/folk traditions; his unique style of picking the strings contained classical elements. Today he is many times a forgotten musician but in 2003 Rolling Stone ranked him at number 35 on their list of The 100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time.

He released a number of Christmas albums during the course of his career. Now selections from Guitar Soli Christmas Album (1968), Christmas With John Fahey Vol. II (1975), Christmas Guitar Volume One (1982), and Popular Songs Of Christmas and New Year’s, with fellow guitarist Terry Robb (1983) have been taken to form the a new compilation album titled Christmas Soli.

He had one of the most recognizable guitar styles of his era. Each note is distinct as it connects to the next.  He released a number of Christmas albums and whether these are the best 14 tracks or not can be debated but they do fit together well.

His versions of “We Three Kings Of Orient Are,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “O Holy Night,” and “Joy To The World” are stunning in their solo simplicity. I prefer him alone but his duets with Terry Robb on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” “Deck The Halls/We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” and “The Christmas Song” show a different side of his career.

Christmas Soli is a very different Christmas album. It is music for a quiet evening around the fire place. Fahey has been gone for over a decade but his music lives on. A worthwhile addition to any Christmas collection.

A Charlie Brown Christmas by The Vince Guaraldi Trio

October 21, 2012

Vince Guaraldi (1928-1976) was a jazz pianist whose music was always a welcome respite from the sound of many of his contemporaries. He was one of the more melodic keyboardists in jazz music, with a style and sound that was relaxing and easy on the ears. His most famous album was 1962s Jazz Impressions Of Black Orpheus, which contained his Grammy award-winning song, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”

While his jazz career may be overlooked at times, his television work is eternal. He wrote the music for 17 Peanuts television specials. On May 23, 2012, The Library Of Congress honored his 1965 soundtrack recording of A Charlie Brown Christmas as a new inductee for its cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance. That album is now being re-released in a remastered form with bonus tracks.

While it may not have been the original intent of the project, it introduced jazz music to millions of people who may not have otherwise been exposed to the art form. The special and his music continue to air regularly and new generations of viewers are continually being introduced to his music and light jazz approach. His expanded themes from the television special and jazz interpretations of traditional Christmas music have amused and entertained three generations of fans.

His trio at the time included bassist Fred Marshall and drummer Jerry Granelli. While they are listed in the credits, drummer Colin Bailey and bassist Monty Budwig are also listed and it is difficult to know who played on which tracks. The constant was Guaraldi’s piano work.

The brilliance of the original music is in its simplicity. “Linus and Lucy,” “Skating,” “Christmas Is Coming,” and “My Little Drum” enhanced the story and are immediately recognizable to millions of Peanuts fans. The highlight was the six minute instrumental version of “Christmas Time Is Here,” which gave him room to stretch and provide a notable solo.

His take on “O Tannenbaum” is full of twists and turns while the short “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” finds him expanding his instrumental prowess to the organ. Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” is another fine vehicle for Guaraldi’s unique improvisation.

I’m not sure if the bonus tracks fit in exactly but they are welcome. “Great Pumpkin Waltz” and “Thanksgiving Theme” are recognizable Peanuts holiday music. They have a different sound as the first includes a guitar and trumpet while the second has brass. The five minute “Greensleeves” is always a pleasure as it is another tune that allows him to expand the basic theme of the song.

Vince Guaraldi has been gone for 36 years but his music has lived on. Not only is A Charlie Brown Christmas good music, it will make you smile. You can’t ask for a better Christmas present than that.

Article first published as Music Review: Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas [Remastered and Expanded] on Blogcritics.

Cameo-Parkway Holiday Hits by Various Artists

December 19, 2011

The Cameo-Parkway label was a major force within the American music industry, from 1956 to 1967. Located in Philadelphia, it issued hundreds of singles and albums, which sold tens of millions of copies. Its roster included such artists as Chubby Checker,Bobby Rydell, The Dovells, Dee Dee Sharp, ? & The Mysterians, Ronnie Dio and The Prophets, and a young Bob Seger.

If there was one thing the label was known for, it was the eclectic nature of its artist roster and the types of music it would release. Rock, pop, doo-wop, big band & orchestra, rhythm & blues, bluegrass, and even some Latin marimba music all graced its catalogue of releases.

The new reissue label, Real Gone Music, has just reached into the old Cameo-Parkway archives to gather together 18 hits of the holiday season. Cameo Parkway: Holiday Hits is an unusual but fun-filled ride through this or any Christmas season. The famous and the unknown combine for a different type of holiday celebration.

The best known tracks are the two by the combination of Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker, who issued a number of duet-type songs together for the label. “Jingle Bell Rock,” issued during 1961, was a top 30 single for the duo. It was a rocking version of this often recorded holiday classic. “Jingle Bell Imitations” was a song that forces you to enjoy it despite its goofy nature of imitating such stars as Elvis, Fats Domino, Bobby Darin, and even the Chipmunks, among others.

There are several doo-wop classics included. The Cameos’ “Merry Christmas” and “New Year’s Eve,” plus the Jaynells “I’ll Stay Home (New Year’s Eve),” with piano work by future superstarCurtis Mayfield, represented the style of music well.

The odd is best represented by “White Christmas (3 O’Clock Weather Report)” by Bobby The Poet, who would go on to have a hit as Senator Bobby with the classic rock song, “Wild Thing.” Here he sings in a Bob Dylan drone as he makes fun of Simon & Garfunkel’s too serious “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night.”

“Auld Lang Syne” is given a unique bluegrass treatment by Bob Johnson and The Lonesome Travelers.Bob Seger and The Last Heard recorded for the label before he was famous. His “Sock It To Me Santa” is the track that rocks the most and was a good way to close the album.

Cameo Parkway: Holiday Hits is a worthy addition for anyone’s holiday collection, especially if you are tired of hearing the same songs over and over again.

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