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.

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The Magic Of Christmas By The Soulful Stings

January 16, 2016

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.