Each Christmas season I have gotten into a seasonal music kind of mood. For one who writes a blog, this leads to my sharing some faves (and pulling some kind of story out of them). For those who have been reading for awhile, my tastes are nothing if not eclectic. Which is a word I hate, actually. When I think of the word “eclectic”, I think of someone who is . . . well, someone who is not me. It is, after all, the season of peace on earth and good will towards everybody, so I shall not be churlish in my description of those who use “eclectic”.
Anyhow, we have run the gamut from Catholic nuns and brothers singing ancient chants and carols, to Stan Kenton to Fort Wayne’s own Magnavox Chorus. OK, I guess my tastes are wide ranging if we enforce a cutoff of, say, 1960. But is this actually a bad way to live?
Today we will feature an album that remains a crowd pleaser to this very day. Who would have figured that when Frank Sinatra dropped this Christmas album in 1957 (which was his second in the LP era) it would still be receiving air play on the “All Christmas All The Time” radio stations every December (and November) (and October)? Certainly not me.
If there is one single Christmas Album that has been in the sound track to my holiday for the entirety of my life, it would be this one. My parents’ first Christmas as a married couple was spent in a small apartment in 1958, and this album was there for the occasion. I still own that original Capitol release, although both the disc and the cardboard jacket are now in pretty sad condition. A quick check at a reference for historical Capitol record labels (here, if you are curious) confirms that my old disc was pressed between July of 1958 and September of 1959, so my recall of when it came into our home was correct.
There have been many re-releases of that album, of varying states of quality. This appears to have been the last Sinatra album that Capitol recorded solely in mono. Which is not the worst thing in the world, because Capitol Records’ process for mono recording at that time was among the best there was. However, there were some unfortunate re-releases that were done in a process Capitol described as “Duophonic”, which was a kind of fake stereo in which the track was separated in two and one half ever so slightly delayed, giving a reverberation effect – one that I find irritating. And many newer releases have gone beyond the ten original selections, adding bonus tracks which were never part of the original concept – and no mistake, Sinatra’s albums of the 50’s were indeed carefully curated concepts. So, if we can look past the remodels to the album as Sinatra recorded it, we will be better off.
But enough about the tech and the memories – after all, we listen to a classic Christmas album for the music! Frank Sinatra’s vocal abilities may have been at their absolute peak around 1957, and his artistic taste (and his ability to apply that taste to records) were at a high water mark as well. In other words, Frank Sinatra could have made any kind of Christmas album he wanted to make in 1957. But instead of an album full of jazzy swaggar, he made this one.
Side one is the side that still gets the air play – it is a collection of postwar holiday songs from the era when plenty of good ones were still being written. But other than his up-tempo version of Jingle Bells (that opens the disc) the choices are songs full of emotion and hope, a style that Sinatra could handle in a way that few others could.
But the part that sets this album apart and still puts the Christmas spirit into my heart all these decades later is Side 2. This is the side that never, ever gets air play today because it is exclusively made up of five traditional (translated: religious) carols of the season. Yes, I know – that part of Christmas has gone horribly out of style. But horribly out of style is the way I roll, and there is no better way to do that at Christmas by indulging in traditional Christmas carols. This, by the way, is one of the only calorie-free indulgences of the holiday, even when sung by Frank Sinatra.
Frank Sinatra was a Catholic. It is true that for much of his life he was a Bad Catholic, and by 1957 pretty much everyone knew it. So I find it interesting that he chose this material for this project. But the thing about Bad Catholics is that many of them still carry at least a spark from the faith of their childhoods deep inside them, and that spark can occasionally flare up in the most unexpected ways and times. I like to think that this album was one of those ways and one of those times.
Sinatra had a way of really getting inside of a song’s lyrics so as to fill the words with a deep, genuine emotion. Some of his best work involved songs of loss, of doomed love, and of loneliness, but he brought a beauty and a clarity to them that his listeners could feel in their own lives. He brought that same deep connection to the lyrics of the old carols in a way that brought into each home the ancient ideas of faith and the rejoicing for mankind’s savior coming into the world.
There are only five songs on the original Side 2 and they are all widely available online. I am only going to share two. Oh Come All Ye Faithful (which goes by its Latin title, Adeste Fideles) showcases Sinatra’s strong, crystal-clear voice as well as anything. As the singer aged, he began to lose those clear, bell-like tones from notes held for a few beats, but they are here for us to enjoy. With an assist from the Ralph Brewster Singers (a group I know absolutely nothing about) and the lush arrangements by frequent collaborator Gordon Jenkins, it is hard to beat this version.
Next is Silent Night – who doesn’t love Silent Night? Sinatra brings another of his voice talents to this piece – his unequalled ability to sing softly and tenderly. This had been Sinatra’s fastball from the beginning and he could still bring it in 1957.
The others, for those curious, are the Side 2 opener Hark The Herald Angels Sing, then O Little Town of Bethlehem and It Came Upon A Midnight Clear. I could have just as easily chosen one of those, as there is not a clinker in this bunch.
Although these songs are becoming obscure (at least on radio) today, the 1950’s still saw many artists who would sing them, including Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. Perhaps I will go with one of them in a future year, but for this year we shall stick with Ol’ Blue Eyes.
Wouldn’t it be funny if it was Frank Sinatra, Bad Catholic that he was, who did more to keep these old carols alive for future generations than the whole of establishment Christianity? The way things are going, I would not bet against him.
Music as credited on the YouTube pages from which they were found
Album art and record label from early Capitol releases of the album.