Christmas With Elvis
Source: Peter Lewry Blogspot
December 22, 2023
In the 1950s artists including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and even Gene Autry had all recorded and released Christmas albums. However, Elvis wasn't that excited about the thought of recording a selection of festive material.
At this time his priority was to attempt the song Treat Me Nice again, in an effort to produce a better version than the one he'd recorded a few months earlier for Jailhouse Rock, and also make a further attempt at One Night. There was also My Wish Came True and another song, the ballad Don't, from the song-writing team of Leiber & Stoller who had already provided several hits for him.
Elvis finally agreed and sessions were booked at Radio Recorders in Hollywood for three days in September 1957 to record enough tracks for an album to celebrate the season.
Produced by Steve Sholes the sessions would see Elvis backed by regulars Scotty Moore (guitar), Bill Black (bass), D. J. Fontana (drums), Dudley Brooks (piano) and The Jordanaires (vocals). Elvis also requested the services of soprano singer Millie Kirkham.
Eight Christmas songs were recorded over the three days, one on the 5th, three more on the 6th and a further four on the 7th.
The three aforementioned songs were also recorded during the session, Treat Me Nice, My Wish Came True and Don't. It was rumoured that Elvis also planned to record I'm A Hog For You Baby and Fools Hall Of Fame during the sessions, although the latter may have been attempted no tapes have ever been located. In fact no outtakes exist for any of the songs recorded during the sessions.
The eight seasonal recordings were expanded into a twelve track album with the inclusion of the four religious songs Elvis had recorded back in January 1957, originally released on the extended play album Peace In The Valley (EPA-4054) in April 1957. The four songs, Peace In The Valley, I Believe, Take My Hand Precious Lord and It Is No Secret (What God Can Do) all fitted well with the religious theme of the album, even if many fans felt short-changed having to buy the tracks again to get just eight new songs. It was a practice that RCA (and The Colonel) would be guilty of many times in the years to come.
Elvis' Christmas Album (LOC-1035) was released on 15 October 1957 and would spend four weeks at the #1 spot, go on the sell over 175,000 copies by the New Year and would eventually be certified 3 x Platinum by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Side A featured six popular Christmas songs while the second side consisted of two traditional carols and four religious tracks.
The album opens with Santa Claus Is Back In Town. Although it is the opening track of the album, as requested by Elvis, it was a song that had not been originally planned or chosen to record. Realising they needed one extra song The Colonel asked Leiber & Stoller to go and write a Christmas song. They disappeared to a room and ten minutes later returned with the song Christmas Blues, the original title of Santa Claus Is Back In Town. Typical of the Colonel, when the pair returned with the newly written song he asked, 'What took you so long!' Elvis loved the song and completed a finished master in seven takes. With its double-meanings, raunchy performance and lyrics that included 'pretty stockings' and 'big black cadillacs' as opposed to the more traditional snow, sleighs and toys it is the standout track on the album.
In 1942 Bing Crosby recorded and released the Irving Berlin song White Christmas which has become the best selling single of all time with his version shifting over 50 million copies. It is also one of the most popular Christmas songs which receives regular airplay on stations across the world. Elvis followed the arrangement of the Clyde McPhatter and Drifters version and laid down a satisfactory master in nine takes. This is the song that caused a major uproar when the album was released, as we shall see later on in this article.
Here Comes Santa Claus has been recorded by many artists including one of its composers Gene Autry. The song, which only took a couple of takes, followed the recording of another old standard, White Christmas. Written as a humourous children's song, Elvis manages to make it playful and more adult with his performance.
Another song associated with Bing Crosby followed. I'll Be Home For Christmas had been written by Walter Kent, Kim Gannon and Buck Ram and it took fifteen takes before a satisfactory master was completed.
Blue Christmas features great backing from the band and especially the vocal accompaniment from Millie Kirkham and The Jordanaires. Composed by Billy Hayes and Jay Johnson it was the first of the Christmas songs recorded at the sessions. Apparently Elvis was reluctant to record the song and had mentioned this to Millie Kirkham. Before recording started he told her, 'Well let's just have fun. Just do something silly!' With Kirkhams 'ooo-ing' in the background he joked, 'Well, that's one they'll never release.' Fortunately they did and despite his reservations it has become a favourite with fans everywhere and the definitive version. During the recording of the 1968 TV Special he commented before singing the song that, 'I'd like to do my favourite Christmas song of all the ones I've recorded.' Strange considering his lack of interest in the song when he recorded it. However, when more recordings from the TV Special appeared it was clear he was talking about Santa Claus Is Back In Town.
The first side closes with the upbeat and jaunty Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me written by song-writing team Aaron Schroeder & Clause Demetrius who had previously written I Was The One and Mean Woman Blues, both recorded by Elvis. It was a song he obviously enjoyed singing.
Two carols open side two. O Little Town Of Bethlehem dates back to the mid 19th-century when Phillip Brooks wrote a poem and then music was added with the help of Lewis Redner. With the organ backing and vocal support from The Jordanaires it receives a sincere performance from Elvis. It only took four attempts to complete the master. Whereas the first side of the album was dedicated to popular Christmas songs this opened the second side which covered the Christian side of Christmas.
The final Christmas song Silent Night is beautifully sung by Elvis with great support from the band and vocalists. His voice is crystal clear and the song is sung with sincerity and reverential calm. Originally an 1818 poem, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, written by Josephh Mohr, it was set to music by Franz Gruber, a church organist. English lyrics were added by Rev. John Freeman Young in 1863 and the carol has been recorded by many artists over the years. It was yet another song that was probably influenced by Bing Crosby.
The remining four tracks are not Christmas songs but the four gospel recordings that Elvis recorded back in January 1957 and first issued on the Peace In The Valley extended play album.
I Believe was written by Ervin Drake, Irvin Graham, Jimmy Shirl and Al Stillman and had been recorded, successfully by Roy Hamilton and Frankie Laine before Elvis turned his attention to the hymn.
Written by Thomas A. Dorsey, Take My Hand Precious Lord, was one of Elvis' favourite gospel songs and the recording by The Golden Gate Quartet was no doubt an influence on his own recording. The song was performed by The Blackwood Brothers at the funeral of Gladys Presley in 1958.
A beautiful performance of It Is No Secret (What God Can Do) follows. Written and recorded by Stuart Hamblen the hymn took thirteen takes before Elvis was happy to move on.
The album is bought to a close with another Thomas A. Dorsey composition, Peace In The Valley, a song Elvis had sung during the famed 'Million Dollar Quartet' session at Sun Records back in December 1956. Another sincere performance from Elvis that would demonstrate, along with the rest of the album, that he wasn't just a rock 'n' roller but could handle many styles of music.
All four are handled well by Elvis and do not feel out of place on the album. However, one wonders what other Christmas songs could have been included.
Apparently a few other songs were suggested but rejected including, Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!, Santa You've Done Me Wrong, Let's Play Jingle Bells and You're All I Want For Christmas.
The album was issued in a booklet style which included promotional photos from Jailhouse Rock although these were dropped for future issues of the album. A gold foil tag was attached to the shrink-wrap that read, 'TO______, FROM______, ELVIS SINGS' followed by a list of the tracks.
The album had advance orders in excess of the planned original production. W. W. Bullock, RCA Victor album department chief, commented at the time, '...the greatest advance album order in the history of the company.'
Reviews were mixed and AP Newsfeature Writer Hugh Mulligan didn't hold back in his review headed 'Elvis' Christmas Album Is Sung In A Whisper.' He wrote, 'If the carolers outside your door this Christmas season come decked out in dovetail haircuts and Victorian sideburns, you'll know the Elvis Presley's latest album has had its usual fallout effect on the nation's teen-agers. In a masterpiece of seasonal miscasting. RCA Victor has called on the undulating one to warble (whisper, actually) a few Christmas carols and has plastered his sugarplum features on the jacket of a gaudy album otherwise decorated with colour prints of Elvis in his latest movie, an unseasonal drama entitled 'Jailhouse Rock.' The result is ludicrous and pathetic. It's not that Elvis is irreverent, blasphemous or sacrilegious in chanting such hymns as 'Silent Night' and 'O Little Town Of Bethlehem.' Far from it. Most of the time, he's hushfully reverent in his approach to these unfamiliar themes that he just isn't there at all.'
With a reference to a well-known stripper from the time, a disc jockey in Los Angeles compared playing the album for his listeners would be like, '... having Tempest Storm give Christmas gifts to my kids!'
It was one song in particular that caused the greatest uproar, White Christmas. When its composer Irving Berlin heard Elvis' version he saw it as a 'profane parody of his cherished yuletide standard.' He asked his New York staff to contact radio stations demanding that the song be banned from receiving any airplay. Fortunately most ignored this request leading to one DJ in Portland, Oregon being fired for playing the song.
A newspaper article at the time told of the event. 'Radio Station KEX said that it has fired Al Priddy, disc jockey, because he played Elvis Presley's recording of 'White Christmas' on the air. Mel Bailey, station manager, said Priddy violated the ban the station put on the Presley recording about three weeks ago. The record was banned, Bailey said, because 'it is not in the good taste we ascribe to Christmas Music. Presley gives it a rhythm and blues interpretation. It doesn't seem to me to be in keeping with the intent of the song.'
Ironically the version by The Drifters, on which Elvis based his version, received no kind of reaction from Berlin despite being a top ten R&B hit. This could have been due to the fact that The Drifters version was only being played on black radio stations. In any case it is hypocritical of Berlin to have the reaction he had to Elvis.
Despite the issues over White Christmas and differing opinions the album was a hit with the fans and in the years since its release has become a well-deserved classic and, according to the RIAA, the album and various reissues have sold more than seventeen million copies in the USA alone and also the best selling Christmas album of all time.
The album was reissued two years later in October 1959 (LPM-1951) while Elvis was on duty in Germany, with the same tracks but featuring a new cover design, a picture of Elvis superimposed over a snow covered backdrop. Unlike the original release this included all the titles on the cover along with the words 'Elvis Sings Christmas Songs', an unnecessary addition as the title told the listener what to expect. The publicity photos from Jailhouse Rock were also omitted from this re-issue.
In the UK the album was issued with the catalogue number RD-27052 and used a publicity image from Love Me Tender on the cover and the message 'Best Wishes, Elvis' printed on the photo.
Two Extended Play albums were released in America. Elvis Sings Christmas Songs (EPA-4108) was issued in November 1957 and featured four tracks from the album, Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me, Blue Christmas, Santa Claus Is Back In Town and I'll Be Home For Christmas. The cover was a cropped image from the album.
The following year Christmas With Elvis (EPA-4340), featuring the same cover images as the 1959 release of the album, bought together the four remaining songs from the album, White Christmas, Here Comes Santa Claus, Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem and Silent Night. Billboard had established an Extended Play chart and Elvis Sings Christmas Songs topped the chart. Christmas With Elvis couldn't repeat the success and failed to even chart.
In Britain RCA released the extended play album Elvis Sings Christmas Songs (RCX-121) featuring Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me, Blue Christmas, Santa Claus Is Back In Town and I'll Be Home For Christmas. The cover, which followed the design of similar releases by Perry Como, Harry Belafonte and Mario Lanza, had a picture of Elvis from the film King Creole that had originally been used on the cover of the American King Creole Vol. 2 EP.
No singles were released in America at the time of the album's release. However, in Britain RCA paired two of the strongest tracks from the album and released them as a single in November 1957. Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me/Santa Claus Is Back In Town (RCA-1025) reached #7 on the charts.
Reviewing the single in the UK Keith Fordyce wrote, 'The seasonal rush (or is it rash?) of Christmas records is already in full swing. Perhaps the most surprising contributor is Elvis Presley, who offers a complete Yuletide pairing on RCA 1025.This is one time when I can feel quite safe in unreservedly predicting a hit; the selling side will undoubtedly be 'Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me.' This is normal Elvis--the connection with Christmas is in the words. The beat is not only good, but fairly happy and bouncy, too, so it should appeal to the semi-squares as well as the fans. Maybe that includes me, 'cos I thoroughly enjoyed this song, and I'm no Elvis fan, just an admirer.'
A second single was issued in the UK when Blue Christmas backed with White Christmas (RCA 1430) was released in late-1964 just stalling outside the top ten peaking at #11.
It would be seven years after the albums release before a single was issued in the USA, pairing Blue Christmas with the non-festive movie hit Wooden Heart (447-0720). The single peaked at #1 on the Billboard Christmas Singles Chart. The following year RCA released Santa Claus Is Back In Town and for the second time in the space of a year Blue Christmas found release on a single (447-0647), this time as a b-side. The single peaked at #4 on the Christmas Singles Charts.
The tracks on Elvis' Christmas Album have been been re-issued many times over the years on various releases and compilations. However, two to avoid are the awful duets album released in 2008 and even worse the 2017 album recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, neither of which deserve any further mention here!!!
In 2014 the album was issued on the Follow That Dream label as part of their 7-inch classic album series. With no outtakes from the Christmas sessions, the album was expanded with the three non-festive songs (Treat Me Nice, My Wish Came True and Don't) along with outtakes of Peace In The Valley and It Is No Secret (What God Can Do).
This article only covers the original releases in America and Britain of the album, extended plays, singles and the recent FTD release as to cover every release is far beyond the scope of this article.
All that leaves is for me to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year... I'm off to enjoy Santa Claus Is Back In Town and all the other Christmas classics once again.
With thanks and reference to the following books - The Best Of British - The RCA Years 1957-1958 (Trevor Simpson) and Elvis Presley: A Life In Music - The Complete Recording Sessions (Ernst Jorgensen)
Source: With thanks to Peter Lewry Blog
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