A Jolly (And Holy) Christmas From Frank Sinatra

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.

Media Credits:

Music as credited on the YouTube pages from which they were found

Album art and record label from early Capitol releases of the album.

36 thoughts on “A Jolly (And Holy) Christmas From Frank Sinatra

  1. Thanks for these; I’ve never heard the Sinatra version of any of them. As we’ve been playing Christmas music a bit, this will be a great addition.

    Sinatra has always carried an asterisk of sorts for me. My father, for some unstated reason, loathes Sinatra. The mere mention of him will set my father off, acting like Sinatra had personally insulted him. It is really weird to watch. So perhaps these could help overcome the association.

    That said, I have seen a couple of Sinatra movies. He was really good in them, to the point I cannot think of anyone who could have been better in The Manchurian Candidate.

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    • It is interesting that my parents always seemed kind of ambivalent about him – other than a greatest hits album from later in the 60s, I don’t think I ever saw either of them buy a Sinatra record beyond this one and another from the same time (that never got played).

      I guess as long as this isn’t on the playlist when your father is around, you will be OK. It’s funny how some people take a set into simply despising a given performer – someone they have never met. I suppose we all have them. That may be a good idea for a future post.

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  2. J.P. I love all the 50’s 60’s Christmas albums, mostly not because they’re the ones I listened to when I was a wee lad, but because a lot of new stuff by modern musicians seems kind of “meh” (and sometimes drift into “yikes”). Back in the 90’s I and my pals got on a binge listening to not only this Christmas album, but Dean Martins many offerings as well. My Mom was also more of a “Dino” fan than a Frankie fan, and my Dad, who had professional voice training, but much like Jason’s Dad, was not a Sinatra fan. No Frankie albums around the house, but a few Dino ones!

    BTW, for those that like to revel in the maudlin for the holiday, and that would be me, I cannot recommend enough the Jackie Gleason Orchestra Christmas offerings. Until our 90’s binge into mid-century modern Christmas music, I was not even aware that Jackie Gleason had an orchestra, much less that he wrote much of the music. His music is stunningly beautiful, many times soft and lyric, no vocals, and minor key feeling of looking out your window at Christmas decorations at twilight, right after your one and only lover left you! Yeah that wonderfully maudlin! Perfect for having a cocktail in front of the fireplace with the lights off….

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    • I had no idea that Jackie Gleason did a Christmas album, but I shouldn’t be surprised. In my youth I liked to paw through the used records in thrift stores (when an album typically cost 35 cents or something, no matter the condition) I saw my share of Jackie Gleason albums. I never paid much attention, and your reminder means I will have to look into that. Somewhere I think I have a album of 45s from the 50s that I got from who knows where – if it’s the one I am thinking of, it features the gorgeous trumpet of Bobby Hackett. I’ll bet a Gleason Christmas album would be a great addition.

      I agree totally about the dearth of decent modern Christmas music. I have reached the point of cringe whenever I see a modern Christmas musical special on television, and cannot change the channel fast enough. The law of large numbers says that there has probably been a decent Christmas song written and recorded since 1960, but I can’t think of one right now. Frankly, I can’t even stand Jingle Bell Rock.

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  3. We had a little zoom Christmas party with our small group at Church last weekend, one of the quiz events was that someone played songs and when the music stopped we had to write down the next four words of the song. One of which was Silent Night from this Sinatra album.
    My thought was Sinatra – not a model of Christ like behavior but he sure could sing at that point in his life.

    One of the people in the group is a delightful special needs lady who identified the songs, singers, and if they were still living:
    Elvis – Dead!
    Burl Ives – Dead!
    Phil Spector – Dead! Died in prison!
    Frank Sinatra – Dead!

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    • Aren’t all worthwhile musical performers dead? 🙂 And there are some out there who might dispute her on Elvis (but I am not one of them).

      That sounds like a great game. Years ago I was put in charge of making up a similar game. I took a line from a song and the object was to guess the song. I was afraid of being too easy and picked too many obscure lines from second and third verses, because too many people found it too hard.

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      • It’s awfully hard to hate anything by Tom Lehrer – his Christmas Carol is not something for trying to get into the Christmas spirit, but it is a fabulous skewering of the commercialism that I despise about the season. It goes into the category with Alan Sherman’s Twelve Days of Christmas – something you play when you are in the mood for a little seasonal fun.

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  4. I think Jackie Gleason had at least 3 Christmas Albums. The one I used to listen to all the time was the one where the cover was a reddish scene of ornaments. But an example:

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      • Yeah Lee, I don’t think he ever sang, but if your parents had his “regular” non-holiday albums, they were of the same “ilk”. Very minor key and sort of “dreamy”. Your parents were ahead of the curve! The holiday albums sent me down the rabbit hole of his regular stuff.

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      • I am back from a little Jackie Gleason research – it appeared that the orchestra was his idea and that he contributed some outlines for tunes, but mainly served to write checks. 🙂

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  5. If the image at the top is the original album cover, than all later adulterations were a crime.

    In the home in which I grew up, Johnny Mathis was THE MAN at Christmas. Merry Christmas and Sounds of Christmas especially.

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    • It was indeed the original album art. I agree, though I have wondered if my opinion was more nostalgia and familiarity than anything else. It is good to see that fresh eyes agree!

      For whatever reason, Johnny Mathes was poorly represented among my family’s records. Dad wasn’t a record listener and Mom’s tastes were hard to pin down, with “popular classical” being her thing (if popular classical is a thing, anyway).

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    • Haha – I have always wondered about those people who get so crazy about a performer that they name kids after him/her. I guess there are worse names than Frank and Nancy, though.

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    • For reasons I do not understand at all, I have never owned a copy of that famous Bing Crosby Christmas album. I have heard selections from it many times, however, including your fave. I think Bing cornered the market on Hawaiian-flavored Christmas songs. 🙂

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    • I enjoy hearing about the favorites of the families we all grew up in. Jim Reeves did indeed have a beautiful voice.

      Marianne is a huge fan of Celine Dion, so I have heard her version of O Holy Night a time or two. And the song itself is beautiful indeed.

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      • That voice could melt butter JP and though I’ve not heard Jim Reeves’ music in several decades, I’m sure I remember all the words to his songs as his albums were on the stereo every Sunday. O Holy Night stirs the soul. I’m glad you have heard her rendition.

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  6. Amazingly enough, there was a story this morning on the CBS Sunday morning show, about how the Vince Guaraldi “Peanuts” Christmas album is “the” album for many now. First aired in 1965. I always liked it, and one of the local jazz clubs here has a week of evenings where a local pick-up group plays the selections; they are sold out the minute they advertise! Even tho I was eleven in 1965, I think it’s really people about ten years younger than I am, so it really picked up steam after the first airings.

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    • Peanuts was a huge phenomenon when those specials first started to air, and that they kept going year after year brought new viewers in. I have the Christmas CD in the “favored” stack. I remember when my own kids were small (certainly under 10) Shell Oil Company did a promo of offering A Charlie Brown Christmas on videocassette for a discounted price with a fill-up. We got ours, and I am sure a lot of other people did too, so that may explain how so many millennials love the show and the music.

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  7. J.P. this entry has really got my “sibs” thinking about our Christmas song selection! There’s a 9 year spread covering me and all my sibs, so we remember things differently based on age. The one thing we agree on, is that my parents played the bejezzus out of The Little Drummer Boy album, and this would have been the one named “The Little Drummer Boy, a Christmas Festival, by the Harry Simeone Chorale” (first released 1958). This was literally played from the time we were kids in the 60’s, until my Mom passed away in the spring of 2011, after the Christmas of 2010! My littlest sister also remembers Christmas albums put out by Firestone Tires, at least 4 volumes, as something we played when we were young.

    As for the rest, my older sister and I never really played much Christmas music on our own as adults, altho I started listening to Dean Martin’s Christmas stuff in the 1990’s, and well as the Jackie Gleason selections. My sibs remember my brother listening to a “Soul Christmas” album repeatedly in his 20’s (I distinctly remember a cut called “Back Door Santa”), and as for my youngest sister, it was all Vince G,/ and Peanuts, she told me today that was the Christmas music of her youth, and fondly remembered.

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    • I have loved hearing what everyone grew up listening to for Christmas music.

      Another my mother liked (that was never a favorite of mine) was an album by pianist Roger Williams from probably around 1958-59. I have not heard that one in probably 30 or more years ago, maybe I should try it again.

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  8. I have some Frank Sinatra on my Christmas playlist, but last week I downloaded the entire Mitch Miller Sing Along with Mitch Christmas album and have been listening to it while I walk. It’s all the old hymns, wonderfully done, and is the album I most remember hearing at home in the 60’s….that and Burl Ives.

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    • I have never heard either of these, though my mother had one Burl Ives non-Christmas album.

      The intersection of Mitch Miller and Frank Sinatra in your comment is funny, as those two seemed to despise each other. Miller was in charge of popular music at Columbia Records from around 1950, where Sinatra had signed a contract after he went solo in 1943. Their musical tastes were not compatible at all, with Miller pushing commercially popular tunes on all Columbia artists, that have not held up well over time. The 1951 single Mama Will Bark is often held up as the worst thing Sinatra ever did, but was the kind of material Miller promoted. Sinatra blamed Miller for his plunge in popularity after 1950, but there was more to it than that. Columbia dropped him in 1952, and it’s probably no coincidence that all of his classic 50s records came after he signed with Capital in 1953, which was run by people more musically compatible with him.

      Miller was also the guy who refused to sign Elvis or any other rock & roll artist throughout the 50s. He had a huge footprint in the music industry of his time, and his own musical output was just a small part of it.

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      • I always love these stories about guys like Miller, “Hey buddy, the train is leaving the station!” The history of virtually all commercial “arts” is filled with people that figured almost anything “different” was just a fad that was going to go away, only to be out of the mainstream when the smoke cleared!

        Not to “dis” on Lawrence Welk, because I’ll certainly watch him currently if it’s one of the old black & white ones before the band went off the rails into “kitsch” (his bands were actually pretty hot at the beginning of TV); but as a teen, I used to see some of the singers, who were about my age, and think: “who ARE these people, and how out of it can you be? Even my parents wouldn’t watch him, because he was considered “hokum” by them. Hence wither goes Mitch Miller… I’m sure Mitch made money for them, but spent his later career really cashing in of the “Creative Wave”! So much different than Ahmet Ertegun, who could read the future!

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      • It’s one thing to play music that appeals to those far behind the curve in musical tastes – lots of folks enjoy music like that (including me). But it’s something else to force those tastes onto everyone under your creative control.

        Just think of what a powerhouse the label would have been if both Elvis and Sinatra had spent the 50s recording at Columbia – which they probably would have but for Mitch Miller.

        Poor Joni had no idea what she was starting. But I don’t feel bad for her because Mitch Miller’s Yellow Rose of Texas has been on reply in my head all morning. 🙂

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      • Agreed, almost every advertising situation I worked in always had at least one person that was “I don’t like that and I’m not going down that road” when there was no particular economic reason for not trying something you might not agree with or even understand. I always maintained that ad budgets should have about 20% in them for trying “off the wall” stuff. I don’t even understand how a record label in the 50’s would just say: “Sinatra? Hmmm, no…” So weird. Today, you see labels that do this, but even in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, labels made no bones about saying their huge successes were funding their more esoteric bands, just to see what would happen. Speaking of Jonis (sorry Joni) I’m a big fan of Joni Mitchell, and from what I hear, the mid to latter part of her career was barely a break even for her record company; but she had an artistic stature that made her “undropable”.

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      • I just read Wikipedia to see what year the tv show was on, (61-65) but see you are familiar with the feud. It was one of the few shows I remember my dad watching, on Saturday nights I think, when we would have our weekly treat of pop and chips, which might be why I remember it! There were lyrics at the bottom of the screen. Here’s the link to the Christmas album I remember. https://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Sing-Along-Mitch-Expanded-Miller/dp/B01LT8OE9O/ref=asc_df_B01LT8OE9O?tag=bingshoppinga-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=80676721524029&hvnetw=o&hvqmt=e&hvbmt=be&hvdev=c&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=&hvtargid=pla-4584276297960967&psc=1 The Burl Ives album was from 1965, and had Have a Holly Jolly Christmas on it, and one of my favorites Snow for Johnny.

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  9. I really miss the type of Christmas specials that used to come on TV when I was young. Nat King Cole was my favourite singer of Christmas songs back then. I knew all the words to the Christmas songs, and still do. My grandchildren, on the other hand, have never heard most of them!

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