A Christmas Story, Part 1

By Peter Skiera

You might not recognize his name, but chances are good you have seen one of the over 150 films or TV programs Paul Zaza has written music for. Zaza, along with follow composer Carl Zittrer, won the prestigious Canadian Genie Award in 1980 for their score to the Sherlock Holmes film Murder by Decree. That same year, the two wrote the score to the classic horror film Prom Night. The following year, Zaza composed the music for another classic horror flick, My Bloody Valentine, one of my top ten favorite horror films.He also composed the soundtracks for the horror film Popcorn (“Buy a bag, go home in a box”) and the sex comedy Porky’s. He teamed up with Zittrer again in 1983 to compose the music he is perhaps most famous for, A Christmas Story. On the television side of things. Zaza wrote music for shows like Eight Is Enough, That’s Incredible, and some partial music for The Waltons to name just a few.

Composer Paul Zaza. Photo from paulzaz.com

For this special holiday blog post, I spoke with Zaza, 69, by phone from his home in Canada. For more than an hour, Zaza pulled back the curtain on A Christmas Story, the music he scored for the now-classic holiday movie, the soundtrack release, deleted scenes, working with director Bob Clark and narrator Jean Shepherd, money issues with the movie, and more. Due to the quality of the phone recording, I was unable to clearly understand a couple of the passages. Rather than guess what was said, I noted “unintelligible” in those few, very brief portions.

If you are a fan of A Christmas Story, you will definitely enjoy Zaza’s first-hand accounts. Even if you are not a fan, you will still find Zaza’s inside stories fascinating. I triple-dog-dare-you to try to stop reading.

Jean Shepherd on the radio.

Peter:The time period of A Christmas Story is not made clear in the movie, although Ralphie’s Radio Orphan Annie Secret Society decoder pin is definitely from 1940. How did the time period influence your compositions?

Paul: Well, yeah. I’s a period piece, right? So obviously, you didn’t want to put any rap songs in there (laughs).

The other thing that a lot of people don’t know [is], actually a lot of people don’t know a lot of things about the film, the production. But the picture really was [director] Bob Clark’s vision of a Jean Shepherd radio show. [Shepherd] had a series of these little stories that he would tell on the radio. That was what Jean Shepherd did. He wrote these audio-only stories. And he had such a wonderful voice. He’s the voice of Ralphie In the picture that you hear. I had many, many lunches and dinners with Gene Shepherd. I could just sit there and listen to him talk all night because his voice was like a musical instrument. It was so soothing. It didn’t even matter what he was saying. It was just so nice to listen to the man talk because he had such emotion and such- just human warmth in his voice. When you hear him doing the narration on the movie, that’s what he talked like in real life. He wasn’t acting. That’s him.

Bob fell in love with a lot of the stories that came out of the Jean Shepherd novels and said, ‘Look, why don’t we make one, but for Christmas. It’s a little boy who wants a BB gun.’ And they went back to Jean Shepherd’s actual time. That’s when he was growing up and he remembered all these things. This is very autobiographical. He grew up in Indiana, wanted a BB gun for Christmas, he got all the push back from everybody saying, ‘No, no, no you’ll shoot your eye out’, and all this stuff. So, this was just really a recounting of his childhood. And of course, when Bob and [Jean] teamed up, it was magic because Bob added a lot of…well, you don’t know him, but he had a way of taking something and then just giving it a little extra twist or juice just to give it a little more…Sometimes it was a little too edgy and he had to cut back, like the stuff in there about ‘Oh, fudge!’ and ‘son-of-a-bitch’. That wasn’t in the original. Bob put that in there and he had to be very careful because the picture had to be a PG rating. You didn’t wanna have a kid saying ‘Oh, f***!’. This would not fly (laughs). Anyway, that’s the period and it’s a little before Bob’s time but not a lot. Bob might have been born in that era but he certainly wasn’t old enough to know about a BB gun. Jean was quite a bit older than all of us.

My reproduction telegram “the old man” received announcing his “major award”.

As far as the music goes, which I think is what you’re asking me, you’ve gotta remember, too, and a lot people don’t know this- with the music it was, with Bob and so many other directors, it was really more what their vision of it is than mine. I was a facilitator. My job is to give you what you want. What do you want? In the cases of a lot of Directors they say, ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t know. Let’s try some things.’ Well, you can’t just try some things with a 90-piece orchestra (laughs). The trick, and we did it on every film that I’ve ever done, still done today is, you go to the record store, you buy a bunch of records like John Williams’ Star Wars, you buy Close Encounters, and you buy Superman, and you buy everything you can and then you take that needle drop, or you put it on, illegally of course. But it’s not goin’ anywhere, so nobody knows about it, and you use these soundtracks against your film to see if it works or not. And it’s perfectly legitimate. It’s called a temp track. So, the temp track goes on and then you know right away, and this is free. It doesn’t cost you anything more than the cost of buying the record. You know right away if it works or not. So, what we did was, we looked at the film- Bob’s got this idea. I think he heard it driving to the Baskin Robbins one day (laughs) for one of his milkshakes. He heard the Grand Canyon Suite on the radio being played on one of the classical stations in Massachusetts. I forget which one it was. And he really loved it. He called me from the car and he said, ‘This is fantastic. We could put this, this is perfect, this is Ralphie wanting his gun, shooting the bad guys. This is it.’ So, I remember saying to him, ‘What is it?’ ‘Well, I don’t know, but it’s on the radio now.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I’m in Canada and you’re in Massachusetts. I can’t get to the radio station- you don’t even know what radio station you’re on’ (laughs). You don’t know what it is. You don’t know what station it is.’ So, we had to kind of delve into what did he hear that he fell in love with? And it turned out it is was Ferde Grofe, the composer who wrote the famous Grand Canyon Suite. If you listen to the score on the movie, you’ll hear the Grand Canyon Suite all over the place. It became the basis of the film.

Then there [was] other…obviously the Christmas carols, that’s a no brainer. Then there were little areas that didn’t- we couldn’t really find anything. Like the Bumpus hounds. What other movie has ever had a scene like the Bumpus hounds eating a turkey? Where do you begin to look for that? In my wisdom I said, ‘You’ve got a bunch of dogs ravaging a turkey.’ The only thing I could think of was the old standard, Turkey in The Straw. And the only reason I thought of it was because it was a turkey [sings some of the song]. You know how it goes. It’s an old classic. So, I did an orchestral version of Turkey in The Straw and put it on the movie where the dogs are rushing in to eat [the old man’s] turkey and he loved it. Bob said, ‘That’s brilliant. It’s fantastic. It’s beautiful.’ I said, ‘Okay, great.’   

The other area we had a problem with was [Bob] didn’t know what to do with the whole scene where the boy was walking with the kids, getting beat up by the bullies. There was all the dialogue between them: ‘Oh, your old man’s an idiot. ‘What does he know?’ And all that stuff. I came up with this stupid little polka which plays all through the movie when we’re transitioning from home to the school, between his fantasies, and all this. It’s that stupid little polka that Bob fell in love with because it was just childish, and it was playful, and it’s not really comical or cartoon-y, but it was just kind of fun. So that I came up with and he liked it. And the boys running and that little kind of chase music thing. But the rest of it was pretty much derived from Peter and The Wolf, Grand Canyon Suite, and what else? A lot of other whimsical parts where [Ralphie’s] fantasizing about getting an A++++ in the school. So really the whole thing was kind of pieced together over, probably 6 to 8 weeks, and a lot of it was trial and error, and a lot of stuff didn’t work, so we didn’t use it.

Peter: Is that a normal time frame for a film soundtrack?

Paul: Ah, yeeaah, you know, normally, in the case of like, especially with Bob, where he wasn’t always sure what he wanted, yeah. He tried things. He tried them. Very often what he would do is if he himself wasn’t sure if it worked (laughs), he would play it for anybody who happened to walk in the cutting room. One time, I remember it was late, we ordered a pizza, and the guy who brought the pizza, Bob said ‘Hey, come here. Watch this. What do you think of this?’ (laughs). And the pizza guy loved it so it ended up staying in the movie. That’s just the way Bob worked.

Peter: You mentioned going to the record store and buying soundtracks. Did soundtracks from other period holiday films enter the picture at for you?

Paul: Well, when I was speaking about that I was talking in general. This is for all the movies that I’ve done, especially Bob Clark films. In A Christmas Story, obviously we didn’t buy Star Wars because there would have been no place for it.

Peter: Right, right.

Paul: But I did buy the Grand Canyon Suite. And I did buy Tchaikovsky’s Peter & The Wolf. No. Sorry. Was it Prokofiev? I can’t remember who the hell wrote it. Anyway, Peter and The Wolf is used for the fight scene with the [kid] with the yellow eyes, so we did like excerpts of that, recreated of course. We don’t just drop the needle. We had to re-record it. I wrote it out again and re-recorded it. So, we had to buy that record. I had a lot of Christmas carols in my library. Of course, I re-recorded Jingle Bells. I think the opening of the film, which, I’m just trying to remember…Deck the Halls? Yeah, I think it was Deck the Halls. And again, variations on the Christmas carols that they fit the film and transitioned into the drama of the film.

My Zaza-signed lobby card photo.

Peter: But did you watch Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life or that kind of thing?

Paul: No, no, no, because the movie really isn’t anything like Miracle On 34th Street. I mean, this was kind of a unique film. So unique in fact, that the studio didn’t even want to release it. First of all, they said, ‘This is a documentary. We don’t do documentaries.’ Because [Bob] did it documentary style with the voice over. And Bob fought tooth and nail with MGM, and this happened all the time with Bob. He’d get into a pissing match with the studio heads…big arguments…he didn’t like them and they didn’t like him. They’d end up being at odds. They just weren’t working in synch with each other. MGM didn’t even want to release the film. First of all, they thought, ‘What are we doing here? It’s a documentary. It’s about a kid who wants a BB gun. Who cares?!’ Boy, were they wrong.

Anyway, the other problem was, and this is historical, but at the time, MGM just went through a massive change of management. They got a whole new studio head who came in, and if you know anything about the way Hollywood works (laughs), when they change studio heads, the new guy comes in, the first thing he does is, he un-does everything the guy before him did. Right? So, [the new guy] came in and he said, ‘What’s this?’ (laughs). Who green lit this project? Why is this project even in our roster? Why are we doing this?’ The problem was it was too late to stop it. Cameras were rolling, the money was being spent, I was hired, things were goin’. You couldn’t stop it. You can’t stop it because there’s contracts and unions and stuff like that. So instead of stopping it they just said, ‘Alright we’ll put it out. We’re gonna let it go, and we’re just gonna let it die.’ And that’s exactly what they did. The movie had no advertising. It came out around Christmastime. I think it opened on a Friday night and it was gone by Monday. Absolutely abysmal ticket sales. Didn’t even get a chance. It was just so pathetic. At the time, we just looked at each other and said, ‘Well, you know, what the hell do you expect? It’s a movie about a kid who wants a BB gun.’ At that time, people were goin’ to the movies to see John Travolta and all these people dancing…and all kinds of…Friday the 13th and exciting stuff. Nobody really had an appetite for a kid who wanted a BB gun for Christmas. So, that’s a little bit of the history of it.

Now, if you fast forward to the next what, 40 years? The film gained, slowly but surely, it gained an audience and it gained almost a cult following to the point now where it’s become an evergreen. It’s probably right up there with Miracle, and what’s the other one?

Peter: Wonderful life.

Paul: Wonderful Life. It’s become a classic. I can’t tell you, Peter, I don’t go through one Christmas without getting like a dozen phone calls (changes his voice)- ‘Hey! I just saw A Christmas Story on TV!’ Oh, Jeez, that’s a shock (laughs). I’m just tired of hearing everybody [saying], ‘Oh, I just watched A Christmas Story. What a great movie. You’ll shot your eye out. I double dog dare’…all that stuff. I’ve heard so much of that its almost depressing.

The film got taken over by Warner Brothers. We did a soundtrack on Rhino [Records] which you alluded to in your email. We’ve just been through…we haven’t made a dime on it.

Peter: Really? Wow!

Paul: Oh, yeah. They’re really bad people. They’re fighting them now- there’s all kinds of litigation. They can’t find the contracts, they took it over from MGM (unintelligible) the library. There’s just so much legal crap involved, but the (unintelligible) continues to make a fortune and we haven’t seen a dime.”

Peter: That’s a shame for you guys.

Paul: Well, I’m not telling you this, I don’t want pity, I’m just letting you know just how evil Hollywood is. The only way you really get to the bottom of it is to get some N.Y. attorney at $1,500 an hour and go after them. It’s hard for me to do, too, because I’m in Canada, and we’ve got to sue them in Los Angeles. It’s not in my near future. I don’t want to deal with it. The other interesting thing is the estate of Bob Clark has still got law suits because they screwed him, too. Yeah. So, there’s all that out there, but the average guy doesn’t really know or care about that (laughs). So that’s the name of that one.

“…He had such a wonderful voice. He’s the voice of Ralphie In the picture that you hear. I had many, many lunches and dinners with Gene Shepherd. I could just sit there and listen to him talk all night because his voice was like a musical instrument.”

Peter: When you were scoring the music, did you get the segment of the film you were scoring, or how did that work?

Paul: Well, I don’t just get a segment, I get the whole film. When I have a copy of the film, we would get together, sit down and look at scenes, individual scenes. Obviously, (unintelligible) a movie running almost 2 hours you can’t do that all-in-one blow, but there’d be problematic scenes that just weren’t either working right, or [Bob] wasn’t sure, and we would try things. I would work with him on it. He just doesn’t send me off and say…I mean, the times he did do that it would just be simple. ‘We need a Christmas carol here. They’re driving in the car. They’re on their way to buy the Christmas tree. Put something on the radio. I don’t care. Deck the Halls, Jingle Bells, whatever.’ There was one part where they’re actually singing Jingle Bells along with [the radio] in the car. I don’t know if you remember the scene. So, I had to get on the set there and work with them on that because then I had to tie it in with the rest of it. But if it was just radio music, or if you listen to the beginning of the film, there’s an old radio on in the kitchen and they’re playing period music like The Hut-Sut Song or something that would have been very much played on the radio in that era. So [Bob would] say, ‘Let’s just find something and put it there’, just ‘cause it’s more an ambience in the background than it is a feature. Most people aren’t even aware of it. Those were the areas that weren’t of major concern.

The areas that were big were the flashback scenes where [Ralphie’s] fight Black Bart or whatever the guy’s name was. He’s gonna save the world, right? Those were big scenes and that’s where we really wanted [the music] to work well with picture. There were two scenes in the film, big flashbacks that never made it. They got cut out. The interesting thing about it is that these 2 scenes, I spent more time on scoring these scenes than anything else (laughs) and [Bob] ended up cutting the scenes.

My reproduction of Ralphie’s school paper about what he wants for Christmas. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Peter: Were they cut because of a time constraint or Clark just didn’t think they worked?

Paul: No. The scenes worked. One of them was Ralphie was Flash Gordon and he was up in outer space and there were all kinds of monsters and aliens. They built this incredible set with prosthetics and all these monsters and space shuttle…what do you call them? Flying saucers around and all this stuff. Really elaborate. It was actually very well done. This was Ralphie saving the world from the interplanetary monsters. Cut the whole scene out. Scoring it was a bitch because it just had to be big and larger than life.

The other scene was, Ming, The Magnificent (laughs). There was this whole scene built where he was again saving the world from Ming who was an evil man [or] whatever that folklore is. Ralphie was transplanted into that fantasy and the music again had to be big and evil- foreboding. They cut that scene, too. These two scenes ate up a lot of the money and the time in the movie. And then when I got the word they wanted the scenes [to be] cut I thought, ‘Jeez, what do I do with all this music?’ Why was it cut?’ I think you asked me. Basically, there was too many…we were storied out. We just had too many flashbacks. It was getting to be almost…when you looked at the whole film with all of these [flashbacks] in there, it was running too long. People were getting edgy because it was just too over the top. They found out of all the scenes to cut those were the two that were running the longest and the other [flashbacks] were more entertaining. They weren’t always [Ralphie] saving the world like when he was dreaming of getting an A++++. That was more on the mark. The movie is more than about Ralphie saving the world. So that’s a little bit of trivia for you.

My Zaza-signed A Christmas Story soundtrack. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Peter: Being the music geek that I am, it would have been wonderful if they had included the music from those deleted scenes on the soundtrack as bonus cuts along with some snippets of dialogue.

Paul: Well, yeah, that’s a whole other story. We did the soundtrack, my partner, Carl Zittrer, who edited all the music. We put the soundtrack together and we had a lot of problems with Rhino Records, which is Warner Brothers by the way. It’s just a subsidiary. We had done a version of the album originally on our own label and of course they got their lawyers on the phone and then it started to get really ugly. Finally, we said, ‘Look, we’re doing the album with or without you’, and they said, ‘Alright, well we’ll do it. We’ll put it out. We can put it out much bigger than you guys can on your own’, which [was] true. So, they did. Still haven’t seen a nickel from any of the sales. Then they said, ‘We want to cut it down to just the music that’s in the movie. We don’t want any deleted scenes, we don’t want any special bonuses’, and stuff like that. I said ‘Well, why not?’ I mean, give somebody something for free, they’re gonna love it and there’s a lot of Christmas Story buffs out there that go to the house in Cleveland they love to see all this behind- the-scenes stuff. But no, we couldn’t persuade them, so we had to make a decision. Do we just run with it? Well, what else do we do? That music still sits in my library and there’s not too many people that have heard it.

Peter: Well, that’s unfortunate, but you have to do what you have to do.

Paul: Well, that’s normal, Peter. That’s normal. In the life of a film composer some of their best work is sitting on the floor. That happens. It’s just life. It’s just the nature of the beast, that’s all.”

Peter: To back track, how did you get involved with all of this to begin with? I know you had worked with Bob in the past. Was that the link?

Paul: Absolutely. One thing about Bob… and film directors, though there are exceptions, but most tend to be very loyal and that’s not just because they’re great people. It’s very often an insecurity in that If a director has success with, say, a composer, an editor, a D.O.P. [Director of Photography], whatever- they tend to go back to them because they feel, well, it worked once, maybe it will work again. It’s almost a superstition. The only time they’ll make a change is if for some reason it doesn’t work, or the film was a disaster, or the [director] is just too hard to work with. [Bob and I] had done a couple. I think Murder by Decree, the Sherlock Holmes film, and what else did we do? I can’t remember the timeline. I don’t know if Porky’s was before or after that.

Peter: I think it was before because I read that Porky’s actually helped fund A Christmas Story. I read that somebody said if it hadn’t been for the success of Porky’s, A Christmas Story never would have been made.

Paul: Ah, I don’t know how true…that may be. Again, I don’t know, I wasn’t in the board room meetings when these financial decisions were made, but I know that Murder by Decree was the first one and it was critically acclaimed. It was probably one of the best things Bob’s ever done. It won awards. Really put him on the map as a very good, strong director, but I don’t think it made any money. Porky’s was put together and shot in Florida and a very limited budget, very little. In fact, we ran out of money and had to stop and then I think at the 11th hour a guy by the name of Harold Greenberg came in and finished the film. He took a big piece of it which paid him huge dividends later but the film did well…very, very well at the box office as you know. And there [were] all kinds of money flying around for everybody, and I think Bob said, ‘Oh, I wanna to do’…he was fascinated by this Jean Shepherd story as I told you, so he shopped the thing around and went to MGM and convinced the then head of MGM to put up a very mediocre budget to let him make the movie. This is the movie he wanted to make. I don’t remember it running out of money. I think it just simply- they capped it and they said, ‘No, this is as far as we’re going to go with it’ because they kinda new before the film was made that it wasn’t going to get a big, what they call a P&A budget. A P&A is print and ad. Normally if a film, just for round figures, if a film cost 10 million dollars to make, it needs another 10 million in prints and ads. Those are the physical prints that used to be. It’s different now with digital, but in the old days, if you had to make 3,000 prints of a movie, that was a lot of money. And then the ads…the bus shelters, the newspapers, the TV ads. That’s big. That’s expensive. As a rule of thumb, usually whatever the budget of your movie is, is what the budget of the P&A is. They already knew they weren’t going to put any money into the P&A. [A Christmas Story] didn’t have that many prints and there were no ads. So, I don’t remember Bob or anybody putting Porky’s money in to finish it. Might have happened but I don’t know anything about it.

“…We ordered a pizza, and the guy who brought the pizza, Bob said, ‘Hey, come here. Watch this. What do you think of this?’ And the pizza guy loved it so it ended up staying in the movie.”

Peter: What was Carl’s (Zittrer) role in all of this?

Paul: Carl really was, I mean, Carl and Bob went to school together. They were buddies in Florida. I’m a Canadian. I met Carl- that’s a whole other story for a whole other interview. But Carl and I knew each other and then when Bob said, ‘Look, I wanna make this period piece called Murder by Decree and I need music’, Carl kinda knew that, well, it’s a little out of [his] league. He had done a movie with Bob first called Black Christmas.

PS: Yes, I know it well. A great Christmas horror film.

Paul: Yeah. He did a great job, but it wasn’t- if you know the film, you know that the music in it is nothing like Murder by Decree (unintelligible). But [Carl] knew enough that if he had to do a period piece in 1888 in England, and it had to be Sherlock Holmes and it had to be stately, he knew he was a little out of his league. So,[Carl] called me and he said, ‘I want you to collaborate with me on this…do a lot of the writing and come to England and we’ll work with Clark there’, which is exactly what I did. So that’s how I met Bob through Carl, and Carl knew Bob since they were in high school.

So, what was [Carl’s] role? He was really kind of the conduit between me and Clark because Clark didn’t know who I was. A lot of the movie was shot in Canada because it was a co-Canadian-English production. He did do some shooting in Canada so this all worked well. I think they needed a Canadian content component to it. Like I don’t know whether you- how into the Canadian film thing you are, but to get government money…what do they call them?

Peter: Grants?

Paul: Grants? You can get governments to put tax shelters together for Canadian businessmen who will put, say, $100,000 into a film investment and then get to write off the complete amount against their income tax ‘cause they’re investing in cultural…it’s just a thing. We’ve always had tax shelters here which has been the only reason for our film industry going anywhere. But as one of the caveats of that is you have to have a certain [number] of Canadians on the film. You look at the cast of any of these films you’re gonna see a lot of Canadian people, like Christopher Plumber was a Canadian. I was one of the points. Each component was worth so many points. If you had a leading actor or an editor or a D.O.P. or a first A.D. [Assistant Director], whatever. Every one of these would be worth so many points, and a music composer’s worth quite a few points. So, they needed me for that. Plus, I mean, I wasn’t just hired because I was Canadian. I was hired because Carl knew I could do it.

And what did he do? Well, a lot of the music I wrote. I conducted The Royal [Philharmonic] in London. It was a big treat for me to do that to hear this beautiful orchestra playing all my music. Then Carl would take it, edit it, work with Bob in the cutting room and say, “Okay, you know, we’ve got this and this. We worked this out here.’ A lot of the movie wasn’t even shot when we did the music. [Bob] ended up doing some pickup shots. Then we came back to Canada and had to do more sessions. But at that point we kinda knew what Bob wanted- where this was gonna go. If you’ve ever seen [Murder by Decree], you’ll see that it’s pretty dark. There’s not a lot of happy scenes in the movie. We had to make sure that the music didn’t bring it down so much that it was just too depressing to watch. There’s always that fine line…you’re doing a movie about Jack the Ripper, it’s not a feel-good film. There’s always that balance.

My Ian Petrella autographed piggie picture. Oink Oink!

Peter: Did you have any interaction with the actors in A Christmas Story?

Paul: A Christmas Story was pretty much…I wasn’t on the set for a lot it that was shot in Cleveland and if you look at the movie, the movie was actually shot mostly in Cleveland, and I’d say maybe 30% of it in Toronto. They never went to Indiana to shoot it which is where it’s supposed to have happened. I didn’t get to Cleveland. There was no reason to go there. But for the Canadian pickups I went to the sets and got to meet Ralphie and all, but again, these were kids. I knew a couple of the actresses who were Canadian, like the teacher, Tedde Moore, who plays the teacher. She’s from Toronto. I had worked with her on a few things beforehand.

Again, it was pretty much put together very quickly. It was a short set. The longest scenes were the two I told you about. They had to build these sets for, so that’s where the time was spent. The other scenes pretty much, I mean, come on, it’s not like, how long does it take to shoot a movie? Most of it was taking place in the house or the school where he was running from the school. Those were easy to shoot. The flash backs were the hardest part to shoot. That’s where the time was spent. But anyway, good memories from that, too. Nobody was pulling any tantrums. There [were] no problems. Bob and Jean Shepherd got along really well.

Where I think we had more, and this is off topic, but was there was a sequel made called My Summer Story. It got re-titled to, what did they call it? Some stupid…It Runs in The Family, or something like that. It was supposed to be the sequel. It was the sequel to A Christmas Story. It was the same gang only in the summer time. Instead of a BB gun [Ralphie] wanted a top. You know, those spinning tops? You probably haven’t seen the movie and don’t bother. They took all the same ingredients…Ralphie and the brother, and the old man, and the Bumpus hounds, the Bumpus’ were back, and all this nonsense. But it got convoluted. It just got to be- it wasn’t working. Jean [Shepherd]and Bob were arguing all the time and Jean was saying, ‘No, this isn’t what the old man would have done.’ It wasn’t working. It didn’t jell like the original did. It died a very quick death and (laughs) didn’t have a resurgence unlike the original.

Trivia: Paul Zaza is a graduate of the prestigious Toronto Music Conservatory and is professional musician, playing bass and piano. He played bass in the hit Canadian stage production “Hair” and toured with the Fifth Dimension in the 1970’s.

I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of my conversation with composer Paul Zaza. In Part 2, Zaza discusses A Christmas Story house in Cleveland, the vintage fire engine used in the movie, what he thinks of the movie and the soundtrack today, the singing Chinese waiters’ scene, the tongue frozen on the flag pole scene, and more great tales of working with director Bob Clark. Part 2 of my exclusive interview is available now for all Patreon supporters only. Please consider supporting my blog by becoming a Patreon supporter for just $1. You will have immediate access to Part 2 of this exclusive interview on Patreon plus my monthly Recommended and Hitchhiker Internet radio stations.

Album Spotlight: We Need a Little Christmas

By Peter Skiera

This is my inaugural Album Spotlight post. Album Spotlights will focus on a specific (usually vintage) vinyl album or CD. They will pop-up randomly. There might be another Album Spotlight next month or six months from now. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects The Album Spotlight!

The Golddiggers singing with Dean Martin on his TV show. Photo courtesy of Neil Daniels.

Fifty-three years ago this month, American television viewers looked forward to watching Dean Martin’s annual Christmas TV episode on NBC on a Thursday night at 10. Whether it was his beloved Christmas special or a regular episode of his hour-long, weekly television show, Martin would perform musical numbers with a backing group of talented, attractive young ladies collectively known as The Golddiggers. The group’s name was not meant to be derogatory but rather a nod to the Warner Brothers musicals of the 1930’s.

The Dean Martin Show

Before I dive deeper into this group and their vintage holiday record, We Need a Little Christmas, I beg your indulgence as I devote a little time to talk about The Dean Martin Show that The Golddiggers performed on. Martin was not keen on hosting his own variety show when NBC pitched the idea to him. For one thing, several other star-hosted TV variety shows had failed. For another, Martin was involved in other projects (records, films, etc.) and enjoyed playing golf, and he did not want a TV show to get in the way. He came up with the idea to insist on a list of unreasonable demands that he was sure NBC would flatly turn down…a huge salary, a one-day work week (Sundays only), not having to rehearse, and the list went on. But Martin underestimated how badly NBC wanted him and the network agreed to his demands without exception. Whether he liked it or not, Martin had his own TV show.


Since Martin refused to rehearse before the taping of his show, and since he actually sang his songs not lipped synched to them, gaffs were inevitable. These usually took the form of blowing lines while reading a cue card, messing up the lyrics to a song, or hitting the wrong note. This was often followed by Martin making an unscripted joke about his mistake. These uncut bloopers only endeared him to his fans and his audience even more, and proved a refreshing departure from other shows that re-shot their mistakes as standard operating procedure.

From Ann-Margaret to John Wayne

The Dean Martin Show proved wildly popular with TV viewers. During its long 9-year run it won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for a dozen Emmy Awards. The complete list of celebrities who appeared on his program is far too long to detail here, but some of Martin’s guest stars included (in no particular order) Frank Sinatra, Bob Newhart, Dom DeLuise, Flip Wilson, Red Buttons, Lena Horne, Edgar Bergen, Ann-Margaret, Debbie Reynolds, Duke Ellington, Nipsy Russel, John Wayne, and Vic Damone. Even Martin’s band had star power, being led by Les Brown. I will pause a moment for you to catch your breath. And of course, he was surround by his beautiful Golddiggers girls. Martin was not called the “King of Cool” for nothing.

The groovy gold Golddiggers logo. Image from originalgolddiggers.com

I Just Sat There Wide-Eyed

In 1968, Martin’s TV Producer, Greg Garrison, formed The Golddiggers, a showgirls-style singing group, as a backing group for Martin. A dozen young ladies (later to be 13) were selected out of thousands who auditioned across the US and Canada. I could write about what happened next, but I would rather Dean Martin tell you himself. “After [Garrison] had shaped the act, he invited me into a rehearsal studio to look and listen. [The Golddiggers] were so fresh and talented I just sat there wide-eyed. I looked like a guy who jumped on his bicycle and discovered there was no seat. After several appearances on my show, they were such a hit I asked them to star on my summer show…They are talented and believe in themselves. I can’t tell you how happy I am to have them around.” That from Martin’s liner notes to The Golddiggers’ self-titled, debut album.

The Golddiggers with Bob Hope in Vietnam. Photo used with permission. Photo courtesy of Neil Daniels.

The Golddiggers also volunteered to tour with Bob Hope entertaining US troops during the Vietnam War from 1968-1970 on his USO Christmas tours. It was a major sacrifice to be separated from their families at Christmas, but the girls appreciated the major sacrifice our boys were making in Vietnam. The troops must have thought they had died and gone to heaven when the stage filled up with beautiful young ladies!

In 1971, the group’s popularity earned them their own weekly TV show, Chevrolet Presents The Golddiggers. Five of the ladies continued to perform with Martin on his TV show as The Dingaling Sisters, a name that probably would not fly in today’s politically correct environment. In 1973, an entirely new Golddiggers group was formed. The members have varied over the decades but six of the original Golddiggers remain friends and occasionally reunite as they did 3 years ago for their 50th Anniversary.

“I just sat there wide-eyed. I looked like a guy who jumped on his bicycle and discovered there was no seat.”

We Need a Little Christmas was released in 1969 on Metromedia Records (MD 1012). It was one of 3 records The Golddiggers released and the only Christmas record by the entire group. The second you drop the needle on this record you know you are listening to music from the late 1960’s. That is not meant as a criticism. On the contrary. The arrangements are playful and dare I say a bit flirtatious. Christmas music should make you feel good inside. It should bring a smile to your lips. We Need a Little Christmas accomplishes that in spades. Some of the comments left on YouTube include, “This was beautiful and they sounded great” and, “The Golddiggers were such a huge part of my childhood Christmases. I still know the words to all the songs!” On Amazon someone commented, “I love this! Took me forever to find it, but it totally takes me back to my childhood!”

Photo by Peter Skiera.

My favorite tracks off of We Need a Little Christmas are Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, My Favorite Things, and a beautiful version of Silent Night which closes out the album. Without a doubt, the stand out track is Winter Wonderland which I can only describe as deliciously groovy. In fact, I think it was a mistake not to title the album Winter Wonderland. If Austin Powers ever throws a Christmas bash at his swinging retro bachelor pad, you can be sure this will be the first record he plays.

There are a couple of lovely tracks you do not often hear on the radio or find on Christmas records these days such as And the Bells Rang and I Sing Noel. These are just icing on the musical cake.

The Golddiggers’ backside. Photo by Peter Skiera.

“Christmas music should make you feel good inside. It should bring a smile to your lips. ‘We Need a Little Christmas’ accomplishes that in spades.”

I donned my detective’s fedora and tracked down five of the original Golddiggers who sang on We Need a Little Christmas as well as with Dean Martin on his TV show. Sheila (Mann) Allan, Susie (Lund) Ewing, Jackie Chidsey, Nancy Bonetti Wilson, and Rosie Cox Gitlin were very generous with their time during the busy holiday season, each responding via email to my questions. Here is my exclusive Golddiggers Q&A:

Peter: Can you tell me an interesting or amusing behind-the-scenes story or two about recording We Need a Little Christmas?

Sheila: 52 years is a long time ago and if I can remember I guess I would say that it was the quickness of which we learned all of the numbers and then recording the album in no more than two days. Our Christmas album is timeless.

Susie: I remember that we were on the road performing so we would rehearse all the songs for the album in taxies, airports, on airplanes…anywhere we could find a place and catch a moment!! People would look at us like we were crazy and we would crack up laughing because it was July and we were singing Christmas songs!!

Jackie: Recording our Christmas album in 1969 proved to be disconcerting. In the midst of recording festive holiday music, I found myself very much in the Christmas spirit. Upon completion of the studio sessions however, we stepped outside to a beautiful sun filled July afternoon in southern California – the very last thing that brought Christmas to mind. Moving between the two very distinct seasons was somewhat unsettling but as we would soon discover it was just another ordinary day in the lives of The Golddiggers.

Nancy: I remember that we recorded the album during the summer (August, I think) and it seemed funny to be singing all of these Christmas songs at that time of year! Another memory was when Lee Hale called me on the telephone to tell me that I would be doing the Silent Night solo. I was so surprised and honored!

I paid ten times the original sticker price for my copy of ‘We Need a Little Christmas’. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Peter: Do you remember where the front cover album picture was shot?

Nancy: The front cover was shot on The Dean Martin Show set where he would sing a song and then open the door (behind us in the pic) where a surprise guest would come out.

Rosie: We shot the album cover photo on the set of The Dean Martin Show during
the taping of our Christmas show which I believe took place in the fall of 1969.

The Golddiggers’ Christmas album on CD. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Peter: What do you think of the record as you look back on it over 50 years later?

Sheila: It doesn’t matter how many times I play the record…and I do play it every holiday season. If you are at my home on Christmas morning and are on your way to my kitchen the Christmas album is the first thing you will hear and you will find me singing along to every song with a big smile on my face.

Susie: 50 years later it holds up to be one of the best Christmas albums ever! That’s not bragging because I attribute its greatness to our musical director Lee Hale, who chose all the right songs with all the right arrangements including some he wrote!!!

Jackie: As far as physically putting We Need a Little Christmas together, Lee Hale was our musical director and involved in every aspect of its production. Van Alexander was our wonderful arranger. To this day, listening to this 50 plus year old album brings these two musical giants front and center in every tract with their definitive and unmistakable sound. Lee’s presence is still very strongly felt in every song every time. I think it’s safe to say, there will never be anyone like him again.

Nancy: It is always included in our household Christmas music. We really like the album and it brings back great memories.

Rosie: I love our Christmas album. I think it’s excellent and it has stood the test of time. We sound wonderful on it and I can sing along because I know all the words! I have given the CD to friends & family over the years. It is a nice selection of well-loved Christmas carols plus a few originals written by our musical director Lee Hale. I especially love our version of O Come All Ye Faithful. The arrangement is beautiful.

Peter: Who’s idea was it to put out a Golddiggers Christmas record?

Sheila: I believe it was both Lee Hale our musical director and Greg Garrison the Producer/Director of our show as well as The Dean Martin Show.

Nancy: I suspect that it was a joint decision made by Lee Hale and Greg Garrison.

Rosie: I don’t know who had the idea but I have a feeling it was Lee Hale. If I remember correctly, he joined us on tour and we rehearsed the songs for 2 weeks during the day while performing our act at night.

A Golddiggers recording session. Photo courtesy of Neil Daniels.

Peter: Where was the music recorded and do you recall how long it took to record the album?

Sheila: I can’t remember which recording studio was used to record the album but it didn’t take more than 2 days to record the entire album.

Rosie: The album was recorded at TTG Studios at Sunset & Highland in Hollywood on July 24 & 25, 1969. It took us a day & a half to record.

Peter: Do you have a personal favorite Christmas record (besides your own) or song?

Sheila: My favorite Christmas song is I’ll be Home For Christmas. There is something about that song that touches my heart every time I hear it and hearing it always brings back wonderful memories of people I love that are no longer with me.

As far as my favorite song cut from our album, I’d have to say it was I Sing Noel. I believe this song if played today would be just as meaningful as it was when we recorded it over 52 years ago.

Susie: I’ll Be Home For Christmas is my favorite song and I love Dean’s albums as well as Frank’s and Johnny Mathis!

Nancy: There is a Frank Sinatra Christmas album that I really like.

Rosie: I love any Dean Martin or Bing Crosby Christmas song.  

Peter: You pretty much became famous overnight. How did you handle that?

Sheila: Becoming a Golddigger was a dream come true for me. it wasn’t as glamorous as most people would have thought. We were either rehearsing and taping two 1 hour shows a week or traveling on bus or plane to our next show or State Fair, but I loved it all. I still have a very close relationship with most of the girls. We call ourselves Golddigger Sisters.

Susie: We were working so hard that we didn’t have time to think about it! I was always shocked when someone would ask me for my autograph!!

Nancy: We were pretty much overwhelmed and kept very, very busy with our schedule! It was a dream job for a young girl!

Rosie: We were busy from the minute we became Golddiggers. If we weren’t in LA taping Dean Martin shows, we were on tour performing in nightclubs all over the US and in Las Vegas, plus in the summer appearing at State Fairs. And in the middle of all that, we flew to NYC to appear on [The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson] and Philadelphia for The Mike Douglas Show. We had pictures taken for local newspapers and for magazine covers. I don’t think we had any time to enjoy the perks of being “famous” because it was all so new and exciting to us.

Peter: What was it like working with Dean Martin on his TV show? Was it true that when he appeared drunk, he was just acting and not really drunk?

Sheila: Dean Martin was the most amazing man to work with. I was always in awe of the fact that he was totally unrehearsed. When we appeared on his show It was our job to push him around the stage and make sure he hit his mark. He was not drunk as most people thought. It was a glass of apple juice that he would hold in his hand. When I hear his songs now, I grin from ear to ear. He was a Special man.

Susie: Dean was truly wonderful to work with!! What you saw was what you got! He was always fun and he was very good to all of us! He was such a great actor he could pull off being drunk on the show but he wasn’t!! It was apple juice in his glass!! However, it was a different story when we would all go to dinner after the show!! Like I said……He Was FUN.

Nancy: It was exactly as has been reported before. He did not rehearse with us. He watched the run-throughs from his dressing room and then came out in costume when it was time to tape the show. He was friendly and always was right on point with his work. He only appeared drunk as a character choice but did not drink while working on the show.

Rosie: Dean never rehearsed with us. We worked with a stand-in, usually Lee Hale. Our schedule on tape day was first rehearsing our songs with Dean and the stars appearing on that particular show with Les Brown’s Band of Renown. Then Dean would retire to his dressing room where he would watch dress rehearsal on a TV monitor. We taped the show in front of an audience so it felt like a live performance. Whenever we had a number with Dean, two of us were designated to push or pull him to his spot. He was very loose and would follow along. He just read the cue cards off the cuff and had fun! He did not drink during tapings – it was all an act. Usually, he had apple juice in his glass. The second year I was in the group we became regulars on The Dean Martin Show and finished each show with what we called “the concert spot”. That’s my favorite memory of the shows. Lee Hale put together wonderful medleys, each one with a particular theme.  When I look at those spots now, I chuckle because Dean would be sitting on this big circular couch all of us carefully placed around him, singing and smoking away very relaxed.

The Bob Hope Christmas Special. Photo courtesy of Neil Daniels.

Peter: You also worked with Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. How was that experience?

Sheila: Working with Bob Hope and going overseas with him Christmas ’69 was the icing on my cake. I was resigning from the Golddiggers once I would return from Vietnam (as a promise I had made to my parents when I auditioned and made the group) and since I knew that these shows would be my last as a Golddigger, I tried not to forget a moment of it. Bob Hope was a very kind and thoughtful person to the Golddiggers. Even after I left the group, I would get his family Holiday cards for many years after. As I grew older, I would realize that that our trip “Around The World” with Bob Hope would be the most memorable time of my life.

I don’t remember too much of my time on the set with Frank Sinatra although I do remember not knowing he would be coming through Dean’s door during one of the episodes we had taped and when Dean opened the door and out walked Frank Sinatra I was in total shock. After all it was Frank Sinatra.

Susie: Going to Vietnam 3 years in a row with Bob Hope to perform for our troops was the greatest experience of my entire career!! He was absolutely fabulous to all of us and very generous! He knew we were young and away from our families at Christmas so he protected us at all costs! He let us all call home on Christmas day and he gave us beautiful gifts every year!! My parents received a Christmas card, hand signed, every year for several years after our trips.

My favorite Frank Sinatra story happened when Frank guest starred on Dean’s show for New Year’s Eve. When we all arrived at the studio that morning the security had tripled!! We had to wear all access badges and when we entered the studio [the] Les Browns orchestra had doubled in size!! Being young and flippant I looked around and said ‘Last time I looked this was called The Dean Martin Show’!!!! We all were very protective about Dean!!

Jackie: Christmas in 1969-70 was spent in Vietnam with Bob Hope. We stayed at the Erawan Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. My roommate was [Rosie] Gitlin. There we would listen to Radio Free Europe while preparing to leave for our shows in Vietnam. Every morning we’d hear I’ll be Home for Christmas and the tears would start to flow. It was a bitter sweet moment in time as we both missed our homes and families. However, it was also a most rewarding and memorable experience that remains beyond compare.

New Years Eve 1971 found The Golddiggers guest starring on The Dean Martin Show with special guest star, Frank Sinatra. The NBC Studios was all abuzz with excitement! Only those members of cast and crew were allowed in Studio 4A and only with a pass-which was a picture of the “Chairman of the Board” affixed to clothing and or costumes. The musical/vocal rehearsal was thrilling. To hear Frank sing in such close proximity was truly an unforgettable experience. To be part of television history was truly momentous. The bragging rights in working with these two super stars have lasted over 50 years! How incredible is that?

Nancy: Working with Bob Hope on his Christmas tours to Vietnam was one of the highlights of my Golddigger days. He was wonderful to work with and so was everyone in his organization. I left the group before we worked with Frank Sinatra so I did not have the opportunity to work with him.

Rosie: Working with Bob Hope & Frank Sinatra was incredible too! Actually, we worked with all the top stars of the time. It was an amazing experience to be so young and chosen from among thousands of young girls who auditioned all over the US and Canada to appear on one of the most popular television shows of the time with one of the world’s greatest singers and personalities. We performed with all the top stars including Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Lucille Ball, Don Rickles, Florence Henderson, Carol Burnett, Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Bob Hope and many others. But interestingly enough, if you ask any of the girls now, and not taking anything away from Dean Martin, their trips with Bob Hope on his USO tours during the Vietnam war in 1968, 1969 and 1970 are the highlight of their professional careers. All of us feel it was one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of our lives. (A side note: the Vietnam Veterans of America every year have honored three of us at their yearly national convention and have presented us with a beautiful and much cherished plaque to say ‘thank you’. Of course, we all feel it’s not necessary – we’d do it all over again).

Peter: What are you all up to these days?

Sheila: I am married for 51 years and I love being a grandmother to three wonderful children. I retired from a 30 year career in Real Estate this past December 2020. When given the opportunity I still sing at small functions and shows. I am also pleased to say that I am the go to gal when it comes to The Golddiggers and putting together our reunions. Our last one was in 2018 and we celebrated our 50th Anniversary of the start of The Golddiggers.

Susie: I am still performing, directing and teaching adult tap dancing weekly. I also did a 10 week half hour closed circuit television show for The Motion Picture and Television Fund during the worst of the pandemic. It was very rewarding to perform remotely for all of the residents who were on lock down at the campus. I have also been a volunteer for The Motion Picture and Television Fund for the past three years. I feel very blessed to still be working!

Nancy: I am currently enjoying retirement from years of corporate executive support. In my free time, I have participated in local community theater as well as singing in a women’s barbershop chorus.

Rosie: After hanging up my professional dance shoes, I married, raised a son and owned a dance studio teaching children to dance for 30 years. I loved it. When I became a grandmother, I sold the studio to one of my teachers. Now I’m retired and I take my three year old granddaughter to my former studio for her ballet class. It’s the best!

Ron Kramer. Photo courtesy of Ron Kramer.

Eager to learn more about the recording of We Need a Little Christmas, I tracked down Ron Kramer, the producer of the record. He also produced The Golddiggers’ first record, was the first to record Climax’s hit Precious and Few in 1970, was a Senior Vice President at Capitol Records, and was Associate Producer of the Grammy Awards for more than a decade.

Peter: What was your role as producer of We Need a Little Christmas?

Ron: Well at the time, I was Vice President of A&R, Artists and Repertoire, at Metromedia Records, which at that time was a fairly new company. The Golddiggers were a pretty popular act on the Dean Martin shows. So, the President of the company said, ‘We need to get a couple of albums.’ I produced 2 albums with The Golddiggers. The first of which was a general album featuring all the girls. Then we did the Christmas album. As a producer, it’s really about putting all the songs together, hiring an arranger, contracting all the musicians, and the studio and engineer, overseeing and, ultimately, once we get the recording down, sitting down and mixing all the tracks together and putting them in sequence in the album. After that, then it goes to marketing and promotion.

Peter: You co-arranged two songs on the album: O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night?

Ron: There was a producer on the show named Lee Hale and Lee Hale did all of the music on The Dean Martin Show. He oversaw all the music. Lee, who unfortunately, left us about a year or so ago, was a great partner because he had worked with the girls, The Golddiggers, through I don’t know how many Dean Martin shows. He was a great liaison with me and had a great attitude. Yes, we sat down and we would work out the arrangements, and then we had Van Alexander who was the actual arranger who arranged the score, all of the music, all the underscoring for the girls, for the orchestra, we hired to lay down the tracks and put the girls on to sing after that.

Peter: Was the orchestra all session musicians?

Ron: Yes, they were all Los Angeles session musicians, yes.

Peter: What were the girls like to work with?

Ron: They were great. They had a great attitude. They were always happy and smiling. They weren’t all professional singers. They were dancers and singers…but they were all terrific. They were lovely girls.

Ron Kramer (front), The Golddiggers, Lee Hale (musical director), and Van Alexander (arranger) listening to the playback of a Golddiggers track at the legendary TTG Studios. Photo courtesy of Ron Kramer.

Peter: Do you recall anything remarkable about the TTG sessions? For instance, the girls told me the whole album was recorded in under two days because of their busy schedule. That strikes me as impossibly fast.

Ron: Well, they were rehearsed. Lee Hale had rehearsed them. Once we sorted out the songs we were going to record and the kind of arrangements that we wanted, then Lee rehearsed them. So, we went into the studio and they were pretty much together, quickly. I think for the most part they sounded like they were a well-rehearsed vocal group.

Peter: I don’t suppose Dean Martin dropped in during the sessions.

Ron: No, but I met with Dean. I had asked him to do, ah, what is the word I’m looking for?

Peter: Liner notes?

Ron: Thank you. Yeah. That’s exactly what it is. On the first album. He didn’t do it on the Christmas album, but he did it on the first album. Actually, he brought in his senior writer, Harry Crane, who actually wrote everything for him. But Dean loved the girls. He was really effusive about them when we met and he was a big fan. By the way, Dean never, never rehearsed any of his shows. He knew what was going to happen and every moment that he was on that show on television, he came in and he did it all with improv and extemporaneously. He was an interesting, very talented man. He had this great sense about him that everyone obviously loved because he was real and some of the flaws, which was great.

Peter: Presumably, Metromedia Records went out of business decades ago, or was absorbed, or something. Do you know what happened to the master tapes for We Need a Little Christmas?

Ron: I don’t know where the Metromedia product is. The biggest hit we had was [by] a fellow named Bobby Sherman who was on a TV series. We sold millions of albums of Bobby Sherman and that was part of it. Some company acquired the Metromedia catalog and I don’t know…it may be Universal because they’ve been buying everything, but I’m not sure who actually owns and controls those masters right now.

Peter: I’m just surprised no one has reissued We Need a Little Christmas on vinyl. I don’t think it’s been in print since 1969.

Ron: No, it hasn’t.

Interestingly enough, Carol Burnett loved the album, and during Christmas, is what I heard, although I did write a couple of songs for her for another album, one of her albums actually, but she apparently was playing the album during rehearsals when she was doing her television series because she somehow got a copy of it and really…it kind of resonated with her, I guess.

I don’t recall how well it sold. I’d like to think it’s still relevant. It’s a Christmas album. Christmas songs are Christmas songs. They’re sort of perennials.

Peter: Any other thoughts about We Need a Little Christmas or The Golddiggers?

Ron: No, not really, except [they were] really excellent sessions. So many times, you go into the recording studio and things don’t always go as well as you’d like. You get personalities that have a difficult time dealing with reality occasionally. With those albums, the Christmas album, was great. Everyone had a positive attitude. It was good. We did a lot of first and second takes. We didn’t spend an awful lot of time…we had the orchestra there and the tracks…the girls were terrific and really easy to work with. It was actually one of the really easy, quick albums to produce from my point of view…just based on their ability, number one, and talent, but also their great attitudes and personalities.

The pandemic prevented most of us from celebrating last Christmas with friends and family. Not so this year. So, relive some great memories by inviting an old friend over for the holidays- The Golddiggers’ We Need A Little Christmas. It is a gift that has been giving for the last 50 years and we are fortunate to have it. When the needle drops on this record, just be prepared for that ‘bicycle without a seat’ moment.

My personal thanks to Sheila, Susie, Jackie, Nancy, and Rosie for sweeping away the cobwebs and sharing their memories with me. An extra special shout out to Sheila for coordinating my questions with her Golddigger sisters who are spread out across 5 different states, and for obtaining permission on my behalf to use the great photographs in this post.

My thanks also to Ron Kramer for his time on the phone answering my questions and providing his pictures.

Trivia: TTG Studios in Hollywood, where The Golddiggers recorded “We Need a Little Christmas”, was also used by The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Monkees, Frank Zappa, Jan and Dean, The Velvet Undergound, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Glen Campbell, and The Animals, just to name a few. The studio went out of business in 1985. The historic building currently houses another recording studio and a photography studio.

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The Original Golddiggers

The Dean Martin Fan Center

Recommended Holiday CDs

By Peter Skiera

I recently posted an article celebrating strange, vintage holiday music. In this post I offer up more traditional fare…five holiday CDs I think you will like reading about and enjoy listening to even more. Pour yourself a goblet of cold eggnog, light the wood stove, and turn on the Christmas tree lights, as you read about these great holiday titles.

  1. Various: New England Christmastide (North Star Records CS0002), 1986
My Otis Read-autographed “New England Christmastide” album. Photo by Peter Skiera.

I was born in and grew up in Rhode Island and I was proud that our tiny state had its very own record company…North Star Records out of Providence. You may have heard of folk music icon Cheryl Wheeler. She released her first full length album on North Star. I interviewed North Star’s President, Richard Waterman, for my radio program on talk station WPRO-AM in the early 1990’s. almost 30 years later, here I am writing a segment about a North Star Records release. Funny how things in life circle back around.

My rare North Star Records Christmas “Sampler” CD. Photo by Peter Skiera.

One of North Star’s biggest selling titles was New England Christmastide, a unique instrumental album of holiday favorites that sold over 400,000 copies. It was recorded in Portsmouth, R.I. and was the brainchild of Otis Read who produced the record. Full disclosure: I am cheating a bit for this entry because I own the vinyl copy of New England Christmastide, not the CD, but I do own The North Star Christmas Sampler CD which includes selections from New England Christmastide 1 & 2 along with assorted tracks from the label’s other holiday albums. I do not remember how I acquired that disc, but it was probably sent to me by North Star’s President before I interviewed him.

A Special Magic

The 14 musicians who performed on New England Christmastide all hailed from Rhode Island. As one might expect living in a very small state, they were all familiar with each other, but they had never played together before as a group until this record. They selected their own instruments to play, some of which were antiques. Though not meant to be a historically accurate period recording, the instruments lent the music a distinct early New England sound. Perhaps the album’s liner notes capture the spirit best: “There is a special magic in this music, an intimacy that is a refreshing reminder of the true spirit of Christmas. Its true beauty flows from the richly textured blend of the unique instruments of some of New England’s finest acoustic musicians. In thoughtful, sensitive arrangements, the familiar holiday carols we’ve heard since childhood come alive…”

Hurdy-Gurdy Man

Some of those unique instruments you will hear across the 22 tracks (when was the last time you bought a record or a CD that had 22 tracks?) include a mandolin, wood flute, harmonium, bagpipes, banjo, tin whistles, bells, recorder, concertina, accordion, harmonica, and a hurdy-gurdy (a hand-cranked string instrument with a keyboard). Prior to New England Christmastide, I do not think there had been a holiday album like it, and although there have been imitators, I do not believe there has been one quite like it since. New England Christmastide was and remains a Christmas music game changer.

Photo by Peter Skiera.

The Track List

Here is a sampling from New England Christmastide’s impressive track list: Away In A Manger, Oh Come All Ye Faithfull, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, Joy To The World, Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel, and Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. These classics appear alongside lesser-known holiday offerings like My Dancing Day, Let Mad Boys Be Glad Boys, and Wassail Song From Leeds.

The music on N.E. Christmastide sounds like it would be the perfect period soundtrack to A Christmas Carol. Dare I say it would even bring a smile to Mr. Scrooge’s stone face. Stand out tracks for me are Silent Night, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, We Three Kings, and God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman. The average song lasts under 2 minutes, leaving this listener wanting more. Perhaps that is why four more records in the series were eventually released.

R.I. musician, writer, and producer Otis Read. Photo by Amy Eliot. Image from otisread.com

I caught up with New England Christmastide producer Otis Read via email to get some first-hand details about this wonderful, forgotten holiday album:

Peter: How did the idea first come about for N.E. Christmastide?

OR: I was at a shop and I noticed a tape recording of solo guitar doing instrumental Christmas carols. No vocals! That was a revelation…… hmmmmn. I began to think of the RI community of acoustic musicians I knew, and thought about inviting them to record instrumentals. I organized a way for musicians to participate in an equitable manner. It grew from there!

Peter: How did North Star Records come to release it?

OR: I knew the North Star Record company had just started and the founder was a friend. I pitched the idea to him and he liked it.

Peter: On your website you described the project as “low budget”. Can you elaborate?

OR: We had no idea that the recording would become so successful. The studio time was affordable and the musicians played for a portion of the proceeds. This turned out to be remarkably in our favor.

Peter:  This was your 1st project as a Producer. Was it fun or were you nervous?

OR: It was fun! A little bit crazy with fulfilling the deadline of completion. I assigned clusters of tunes to different musicians. Some collaborations happened unexpectedly. Some were planned. The production happened in collaboration with the studio owner and engineer, Steve Rizzo, who is also a talented musician.

Peter: Do you have a ‘behind-the-scenes’ story you can share? 

OR: The mixing sessions with Steve Rizzo were particularly interesting. These sessions would last hours late into the night. We often felt pressured to add an instrument or a sound to add some “spice” to the various tunes. We used a lot of percussion and bells that had been loaned to us by musician Daniel Schwartz from New Bedford, MA who is still active and playing out on a regular basis.

N.E. Christmastide’s backside. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Peter: How did you find all of the musicians who performed on the record?

OR: The musicians were part of a community of acoustic instrumentalists in RI – a small state with collaborators and enthusiastic musicians. Lots of Celtic and folk influences running through our veins.

Peter: How did you arrive at the lesser-known holiday songs?

OR: The lesser-known tunes were around – you just had to look for them. [Husband and wife musicians] Mark Davis and Marilyn Mair were particularly adept in selecting tunes.

Peter: Did N.E. Christmastide win any awards?

OR: I don’t think so. It sold nearly enough copies to become a gold record….. but not quite.

Peter: What happened to North Star Records?

OR: North Star Records went bankrupt about 7-8 years ago?

Peter:  What’s your latest project?

OR: I am working on recording original songs that I have written over the years, both instrumental tunes and tunes with lyrics. I am trying to decide what is the best “format” in which to release this music? Clusters of songs? 12-14 song CDs? Something every 3 months? 6 months? every year? every 18 months?

Peter: Anything else to add about N.E. Christmastide?

OR: N.E. Christmastide was the first recording in a series of 5 different releases. N.E. Christmastide (Vol. 2); The Steeple on the Common (Vol. 1 & 2) – hymns; and The Wind in the Rigging – sea shanties. The whole series was called the New England Music Collection. 

The recordings were sold in various shops that carried gifts, antiques, books, music recordings, traditional goods, decorations – all kinds of stuff!

It was great “background music” for shoppers during the holiday season, and it was first offered as cassettes (as this was the pre-CD era). Gradually CDs became available.

Unfortunately, New England Christmastide and the other titles in the New England Music Collection have long been out of print, though the CDs, records, and cassettes can be found on eBay. Nevertheless, I lead off my article with this album because it is a musical gem that is, to recycle something a high school chum mathematically represented in my yearbook, too good to be forgotten. Read put it more eloquently in the liner notes to the album: “In the spirit of the season, enjoy this music as you would a gift.”

My personal thanks to Otis Read for taking the time to address my questions.

Trivia: Otis Read’s then wife and artist, Frances Middendorf,came up with the New England Christmastide title and designed the album artwork for New England Christmastide and the other titles in The New England Music Collection.

2. Randy Van Horne Singers: Sleighride (Hitchcock Media HMR CD-2002), 2007

Hitchcock Media Records’ Sleighride. Photo by Peter Skiera.

You and I grew up listening to the Randy Van Horne singers and never knew it. The group sang the opening themes to The Jetsons, The Flintstones, The Huckleberry Hound Show, and Top Cat. They also recorded music for commercials and sang jingles for radio stations. But they were a professional singing group in their own right, performing with the likes of Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, and Doris Day, and recording albums with Esquivel and Martin Denny among others.

A Big Band of Voices

“The year was 1954 and after the break-up of the Billy May Orchestra, I was at a loss what to do”, Van Horne wrote in the liner notes to another record. “One night at a friend’s house after drinking some of that ‘dollar-a-gallon’ wine from the Hollywood Ranch Market, I said, ‘I wish I could have a big band of voices, but I haven’t got any singers!’ My wife Toni suggested a few names and within 3 or 4 weeks we had us a chorus. With that group, I got to write my big band charts utilizing the singers as the instruments. Basically, all amateurs, they made up for their lack of experience with enthusiasm. A demo recording followed and it was not long before we landed our first RCA album…”

A Gift

Sleighride from 1960 was the Randy Van Horne Singers’ only Christmas record. It was digitally restored, remastered, and released on CD for the first time by Hitchcock Media in 2007. All 12 tracks from the original album are here including covers of Jingle Bells, Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Baby, It’s Cold Outside, What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve, and of course, the title track. A bonus track or two would have been greatly appreciated, but just having the recording restored and seeing the light of day again is a gift.

Jack And Jill

It is curious to me that the album was named Sleighride and the title song was released as a single because the title track does not strike me as the strongest track on the album. My vote goes to Jingle Bells with Baby, It’s Cold Outside as runner up. There is also a cover of the Glenn Miller song It Happened In Sun Valley. Granted, the song is not exactly a Christmas classic, but the lyrics fit the overall theme: “Ev’rybody ought to learn to ski / For that is how we first met /We were that Jack and Jill / That came down a hill / When I looked at you / My heart took a spill / Took a spill on a hill / It’s a thrill that I can’t forget.”

Upbeat and Jazzy

The Van Horne Singers’ albums definitely got filed under easy listening, but do not let that fool you. This was not musical morphine. Their sound was upbeat and jazzy. It made you want to sing along, or dance, or something. Anything but sit there. There was something wonderfully unexpected about their singing. Like that Jack and Jill skiing down a hill, the listener encounters surprising turns and leaps that make the music an unpredictable, fun ride.

His Sound, His Thing

Hitchcock Media’s founder, Ron Hitchcock, emailed me some background. “Everest Records released The Randy Van Horne Singers’ Sleighride LP in 1960. It was actually just a promotional album for the label and did not get wide promotion or gain much attention. I remember playing it at WAZE radio Clearwater, Florida while a DJ in high school. Randy of course wrote and arranged music for the successful Flintstones television program. That was his sound and very much his thing.”

On Van Horne himself, Hitchcock told me, “I met Randy in 2006 and released Sleighride [on CD] in 2007. Randy was a character – remarkably passionate, focused and required your best.”

As for this Sleighride re-issue on CD, Hitchcock explained, “Everest Record’s owner returned rights, ownership and the master tape to Randy in the 80’s. The original master stereo tape is what we used to master from at The Mastering Lab, Hollywood. We kept it original, offering no bonus tracks although I re-sequenced the album bringing the title track Sleighride from the last cut to the opening cut.”

Essential Is Anything But

Interestingly, the Hitchcock re-issue is not the only version. Sleighride was re-issued again on CD, but by Essential Media Group after they bought Everest Record’s music catalog in 2009. Essential sued Hitchcock Media claiming rights, but a legal agreement was reached allowing both labels to sell the same title simultaneously. However, Essential’s reissue, which I also own, is in mono, does not follow the original track order, and has zero information about the title in their included “booklet”. E.M.G. apparently is also not very big on communication, having ignored every message I sent them through their contact form.

Sleighride’s back side. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Essential could not even be bothered to list the names of the singers or reproduce the original liner notes, but not so for the Hitchcock release. Here is an excerpt: “Sleighride is a delightful romp through a musical, magical winter wonderland – conducted by the magnificently blended voices of the Randy Van Horne Singers…Quite happily, the critics acclaim, the Van Horne Singers perform without gimmicks. You will discover, as you listen, an exceptional degree of tastefulness, superb clarity, captivating vitality, and a wealth of plain old listening fun.”

Like Big Decorations

In addition to listening fun there is visual fun. The Hitchcock re-issue includes a thumbnail reproduction of the original Everest Record label on the backside of the insert. I wish the image was larger, but it is nice they at least included it. I also love the classic vintage holiday album cover on Sleighride. It is these kinds of holiday album covers I enjoyed looking at as a kid during Christmas. To me, they were like big Christmas decorations that should have been hung on the wall. I admit I did not get out much as a child.

A Different Time

The music on Sleighride represents a different time…just coming out of the 1950’s, but well before the psychedelic 60’s. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, Percy Faith, Jim Reeves, The Everly Brothers, Elvis, Chubby Checker, and Connie Francis were topping the pop charts, and movie goers were flocking to theaters to watch Spartacus, Psycho, Swiss Family Robinson, and Exodus. A roundup of holiday CD recommendations from yours truly simply would not be complete without at least one vintage title from the 1950’s or 60’s.

The New Randy Van Horne Singers. Photo from their Facebook page.

As a brief aside, I recently became acquainted with a California-based singing group that perform under the name The New Randy Van Horne Singers. One of the members, Lynn Keller, who also acts as the group’s manager, knew Van Horne and worked with him. In a phone call, she told me the current iteration is comprised of professional and session singers and that the group tries “to stay as authentic as possible” to his original arrangements. During the holidays the group performs Van Horne’s Christmas song arrangements including selections from Sleighride.

Like slipping under warm tub water with your eyes closed to get a brief respite from the outside world, slip Sleighride into your CD player and escape from the breaking news coverage about the latest virus variant. Happy Van Horne Holidays.

Trivia (from spaceagepop.com): “Van Horne never really retired. Up to his last few months, he led the Alumni Association, a big band that performed regularly around the Los Angeles area. He arranged, composed, and conducted for the ensemble, which included both veteran studio musicians and young jazz players. He even reassembled his old group of singers for an occasional appearance at charity functions and retirement homes.”

3. Norah Jones: I Dream of Christmas (Blue Note B003407602), 2020

The Target CD includes one bonus track plus a Norah Jones “Christmas Card”. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Like millions of others, I first fell in love with the Grammy-winning Norah Jones after I heard her masterful 2002 debut album, Come Away with Me. I saw her live twice. She has taken numerous musical detours since her first record and I admit she lost me along the way. When I found out a couple of weeks ago that she came out with her first Christmas album, I drove to Target the same day and purchased I Dream of Christmas.

20 Years to Make a Record

In her press release, Jones explained why it took her nearly twenty years to record her first holiday album: “I’ve always loved Christmas music but never had the inclination to make a holiday album until now. Last year I found myself listening to James Brown’s Funky Christmas and Elvis’s Christmas Album on Sunday’s during lock down for a sense of comfort…I started thinking about making a Christmas album of my own. It gave me something fun to work on and look forward to.”

Bonus Track & Card

I Dream of Christmas contains 13 tracks, but Target’s limited-edition CD includes a bonus track (O Holy Night) plus a Norah Jones “Christmas card” (it would have been nice if Jones had personally signed the card). Some of the songs on this CD include seasonal favorites like White Christmas, Winter Wonderland, Christmas Time is Here, and What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? Jones even takes The Chipmunks’ hit Christmas Don’t Be Late and makes it her own by slowing it down and giving it a twangy, dream-like sound. I consider it the surprise stand out track. Run Rudolph Run also gets the slow treatment, but I do not think it works as well here. Rudolph is supposed to be running not floating. A cover of Blue Christmas is on the track list, and although it is fine, no one will ever top Elvis’ version.

Many of the tracks are simple affairs which are often the best kind…Vocals and piano (Jones), bass (Tony Scherr), and drums (Brian Blade). Other songs get more musically festive with saxophone, electric guitar, flute, and percussion. About a half dozen of the songs are originals. I always get a kick out of artists penning their own Christmas songs. Are they expecting one of them to become a holiday classic? Personally, I would rather hear more covers, but that is me.

A Christmas card from Norah Jones. Photo by Peter Skiera.

As to her inspiration behind the original tunes included on the album, the pandemic was front and center. “When I was trying to figure out which direction to take”, Jones recalled, “the original songs started popping in my head. They were all about trying to find the joys of Christmas, catching that spark, that feeling of love and inclusion that I was longing for during the rest of the year.” 

Vintage Traces

I am one of those music lovers who appreciates and pays attention to album artwork. I consider the artwork part of the experience. I Dream of Christmas’ cover has a slightly early 1970’s vintage look to it which literally makes a bigger impression on the 12” record. As fond as I am of vinyl, I avoided the record and opted for the CD instead because I had read about sound and overall quality problems with the colored vinyl pressings. Also, the bonus track is not included on the vinyl versions.

Being a Norah Jones fan is not a prerequisite to enjoy this CD, and if you are not, you probably will be after you hear it. We have all been through a lot during the past year and we deserve some dream time. I Dream of Christmas will have you dreaming of Christmas, and it is a dream that feels long overdue.

Trivia: Norah Jones is the daughter of the late Indian sitar maestro, Ravi Shankar.

4. Peter White: Peter White Christmas Live! (Lobster Music 1003), 2015

White Christmas: Peter White Christmas Live! Photo by Peter Skiera.

Contemporary Jazz acoustic guitarist Peter White has been entertaining fans with his live Christmas shows for more than 12 years. He is one of the biggest and most successful names in the genre. I was honored to meet White before one of his annual Christmas shows a couple of years ago along with Lindsey Webster, Vincent Ingala, and Euge Groove…a smooth jazz holiday super group.   

You Are There

Although he did not put out a recording of that great show, White did release a CD of recordings from a 2013 and 2014 show with Rick Braun and Mindi Abair. There is nothing quite like a “you are there” live recording and hearing the audience’s enthusiastic reactions.

Rick Braun (left), Mindi Abair (middle), and Peter White (right) from Peter White Christmas Live! CD.

The cheerful holiday performances and humor shine through like a bright star atop a Christmas tree. White does an amusing Elvis impersonation for Blue Christmas and serves up a unique, Latin-tinged version of Greensleeves. The three wise musicians set their instruments aside for a throwback a cappella version of White Christmas and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. Mindi Abair’s sultry vocals and saxophone playing make Santa Baby and her hit I Can’t Wait for Christmas hotter than chestnuts roasting on an open fire. White’s touching performance of Silent Night practically has me in tears every time I listen to it, and I do not get misty that easily.

Peter and Peter (Skiera and White, that is).

In a press release for his current Christmas tour, White said, “My earliest memories of Christmas were probably not much different from many other people: snowflakes, tinsel, Santa Claus, reindeer, and the opening of presents surrounded by family. As a child, my father taught me to play Christmas music on my first instrument, the recorder, and my love for Christmas music has endured throughout the years.”

Buy Direct

If you ordinarily steer clear of smooth jazz, do not deny yourself the joy of Peter White Christmas Live!. To make you feel even better, a portion of the proceeds are donated to the Autism Society of America. In an email, White reminded me you can only buy this title direct from his website or at his concerts. “The Christmas Live! CD is not available anywhere except from me”, White told me. “It was never made available for mass consumption! Just for that one tour.” Better yet, White is on tour this month with Mindi Abair and Vincent Ingala, so why not take in one of his Christmas shows and experience the holiday magic live in person?

Trivia: Peter White’s brother, Danny White, was one of the original founding members of the UK-based band Matt Bianco.

5. The Harp Twins: Winter Lights (self-released CD), 2019

The Harp Twins: Winter Lights. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Camille and Kennerly Kitt are identical twins who play Concert Grand and Electric Harps. They perform professionally under the name The Harp Twins. Before you doze off on me, these young ladies are not your standard harpists. Screw Mozart and Handel. The Harp Twins have covered rock and heavy metal songs ranging from Stairway to Heaven to Highway to Hell. They have self-released nine harp music CDs and have well over one million fans on social media, with Billy Idol, Megadeath, and Kansas among them.

Hangin’ with The Harp Twins. You cannot tell, but I am smiling.

They’re Professionals

Recently, I was fortunate enough to see The Harp Twins live and meet Camille and Kennerly (and their mother!) in person, albeit masked up. Before they took to the stage, their two $21,000 Concert Grand Harps sat alone in the spotlight. Not having seen them perform live before, I had a hard time imagining how these petite sisters would handle the 47-string, 6+ foot, 7-pedal, 86-pound musical behemoths. But as they frequently reminded the audience, they were professionals, and they handled their harps with amazing grace.

You Tube

Their friendly sibling rivalry and sense of humor was also on prominent display during their concert. The sisters recalled one performance when a female member of the audience laughed out loud in the middle of a song. When the twins finished the song, they asked the woman why she had laughed. She said she had turned to her friend who was sitting next to her and asked her where the Harp Twins were from. Her friend answered, “They’re from YouTube.”

The Harp Twins signed this photo from their Facebook page for me. The photographer claims their blue eyes are original…no photo trickery.

Winter Lights is the Kitt’s only holiday release and it will light up your holiday like the star of Bethlehem. In addition to two original songs, the twins apply their holiday harp magic to classics like Silent Night, The First Noel, What Child is This?, O Holy Night, and six others. The sisters cleverly transform Carol of The Bells into Carol of The Harps. Half of the tracks are instrumental while the other half include breathy vocalizations.

Uniquely Dreamy

The Harp Twins were busy touring while I was writing this piece and were unable to contribute, but their touring coordinator emailed me this description of their CD: “Two harps entwine with ethereal vocals to create this uniquely dreamy collection of holiday and winter music. Winter Lights by Camille and Kennerly is sure to bring enchanting light to your Christmas season and beyond!”

As you know, I listen to a great deal of Internet radio and I do not recall ever hearing the Harp Twins on any Internet station. Unless you catch them at one of their rare, live shows, Winter Lights might just be your only way to hear them this holiday, and hear them you should.

Trivia: In addition to being classically trained harpists, Camille and Kennerly Kitt are “Distinguished Experts” in rifle marksmanship, trained in horseback riding, and are Third Degree Blackbelts in Tae Kwon Do.

I hope some of my Recommended CDs find their way into your holiday CD rotation. The CDs are all available with the exception of New England Christmastide, though that title can be sourced on CD, vinyl, and cassette from used record sites like eBay. You will find links at the end.

I buy all of the records and CDs I write about. I do not receive music for free. Moreover, I do not make any money for recommending a CD or LP. And I do not earn a commission if you buy a CD or LP I recommend. And I do not accept advertising on my website. I rely totally on support from you, my readers. Please help support my blog by contributing $1 to my Patreon campaign. Every Patreon supporter gets access to my monthly Recommended and Hitchhiker Stations plus exclusive blog content. Don’t miss a beat. Become a Recommended Stations supporter today. If you would prefer to just make a one-time contribution without getting Patreon access, you can make a payment through PayPal.Me.

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Otis Read


The New Randy Van Horne Singers

Norah Jones

Peter White

Harp Twins

Music For A Strange Christmas

By Peter Skiera

You have heard the old adage, “You are what you eat.” I also happen to believe you are what you listen to. I like strange music. I will let you connect the dots. I pulled out four strange vintage Christmas records from my collection along with a strange Christmas CD to celebrate in this post. It is time to get your Christmas strange on.

  1. The Singing Saw at Christmastime (Merge Records MRG330 LP): Julian Koster, 2008
My Singing Saw LP was pressed on 180-gram vinyl and came with a digital download card. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Saws designed as musical instruments are not new, though just about any non-electric, wood saw will do (musical saws are wider, use thinner metal, and do not have sharpened teeth). The musical saw became popular in the early 1900’s in the US. Vaudeville and musical hall stages in the 20s and 30s were the primary venues for the musical saw.

Saw Playing 101

How does one play a saw? Very carefully. Seriously, sawlady.com provides this detailed guide: “Most saw players play sitting down, but some play standing up, and some play kneeling down. The common denominator is that the saw is held with the handle between the player’s knees. Most right-handed musical saw players hold the tip of the blade with their left hand, and bow with their right hand. Usually the teeth of the singing saw face the player, and the bowing is done on the blunt end, which faces the audience. Bowing a musical blade differs from bowing a violin in that with a violin every note must be bowed, whereas with the saw one can play many notes with just one bowing: you can bow, then separate the bow from the saw and continue to bend the blade into many more notes. So long as the vibrations last one can play different notes without re-bowing.” I see. Saw.

Saws Can Sing

And what do you want for Christmas, little saw? Photo from The Singing Saw’s back cover.

After providing the broad view from 30,000 feet, let me now zoom in close on this rare record from 2008. Some of the saws used on The Singing Saw at Christmastime were old, some were new, some were small, some were large. It would have been more accurate to make the record’s title plural as in The Singing Saws. Sawist Julian Koster wrote in the album’s liner notes, “Each saw has its own unique voice and manner of singing. Some of their voices are quite high, others low; some have a great range, while others can only sing a few notes but with extraordinary sweetness.” Assuming you have never heard one, a musical saw sounds quite a lot like a theremin.

Missing Notes

Photo by Peter Skiera.

Marry Me

Music is in the ear of the beholder. Checking out reviews of The Singing Saw at Christmas on Amazon, they ranged from “…better suited for a one-star horror movie. It’s not even amusing; play it [at] a party and the merriment will dissipate”, to “…creates a wonderful mellow and magical Christmas mood. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a chilly night, sitting beside the Christmas tree and watching the snow fall outside the window.” Whomever the woman was who wrote that (“Heather Rose”), will you marry me?

Serious About Saws

Lest you think Koster is a novice, he is a multi-instrumentalist and played bass guitar, accordion, organ, and musical saw with the indie rock group Neutral Milk Hotel. He clearly has a hard on for musical saws and it makes me wonder if he is playing the saws or if the saws are playing him. It just goes to reaffirm my assertion about what I said at the start, that you are what you listen to. Yes, Virginia, there is a Saw-nta Claus.

Trivia: Singer and movie star, Marlene Dietrich, was a sawist. She entertained US troops in 1944 with her saw, sawed live on the radio, and even sawed at parties. See? Saw.

2. I Know What He Wants for Christmas…But I Don’t Know How to Wrap It (FAXLP 1005): Kay Martin and Her Body Guards, 1962

I have read that the album cover featured a model instead of Kay Martin. Photo by Peter Skiera.

When most people think of Christmas they think of gifts, holiday decorations, and peace on earth. Kay Martin thought of sex. Martin was a blonde bombshell model (38-24-36) turned Las Vegas and Reno nightclub entertainer who also released six “party” records. I Know What He Wants for Christmas from 1962 was one of her more popular titles and is quite collectible these days, especially the original green-colored vinyl pressing. The album is a mix of studio recorded songs performed by Martin and her “Body Guards” (Jess Hotchkiss/writer, Bill Elliott/piano, and Don Miller/drums) on Side 1 and a portion of her live nightclub act captured on Side 2 (ex. “Girls Should Be Obscene and Not Heard”). The sound quality will not win any awards, but presumably Martin was not aiming to win a Grammy.

No Vacancy

Photo from resortsandlodges.com

I donned my detective’s fedora to dig into Kay Martin’s life. She was born in Bakersfield, California in 1927 and was part Cherokee Indian. In addition to modeling, Martin did a one-time Playboy spread. She was an accomplished equestrienne. She married her photographer, Jess Hotchkiss, who later became her manager and writer. They later divorced but the show went on. In 1956 Martin turned business woman after opening The Kay Martin Lodge in Reno. I wrote the Lodge about a year ago asking Martin some questions about this record and included a SASE but received no reply. The Lodge does not even have a website. Twice I phoned the number I found for the Lodge but got a generic message and no call back. I later read a guest review of the Lodge from 2018 that said Martin had passed away, yet I cannot find her obituary. I guess because it is the holiday season I am reminded of the classic line from A Christmas Carol when Scrooge is asked, “You wish to be anonymous?” Scrooge angrily replies, “I wish to be left alone!”

Jingle My Bells

My FAX Records green-colored vinyl copy of I Know What He Wants for Christmas. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Between the album cover and song titles like Hang Your Balls on the Xmas Tree, I Want a Casting Couch for Christmas, and Santa’s Doing the Horizontal Twist, you know I Know What He Wants for Christmas is not music by The Tabernacle Choir. Let us cut to the chase- The music is basically a lap dance for your ears. The lyrics to the title track are a good example: “I need one hand to wrap with / Another hand to clutch it / It wiggles and it squirms / It even tickles when I touch it.” Somehow, I do not think Martin was singing about Jell-O.

Santa’s Doing the Horizontal Twist also does not mince words –  ”He was kind of mellow / This chubby little fellow / So I offered him a drink / After 3 or 4 / We wound up on the floor / Man, he was quick as a wink.” Remember- Santa only comes once a year.

In Come on Santa, Let’s Have a Ball, Martin leaves little to the imagination – “It’s finally Christmas Eve / And you have come to call / I bought a brand-new nightie / But I’m waiting in my altogether/ ‘cause my nightie /Is hanging on the wall / So come on Santa / Let’s have a ball.” I wonder if Mrs. Claus knows what a hornball her husband is.

Tan lines at Christmas? The bra-less Kay Martin from I Know What He Wants for Christmas’ back cover.

An American Original

Not that I am an expert on erotic Christmas records, but the only other naughty Christmas album I know of is comedian Rudy Ray Moore’s Merry Christmas, Baby from 1970 (not to be confused with a 2006 repackage called This Ain’t No White Christmas). That is an itch I have yet to scratch. The back of Moore’s album cover states in all capital letters: “SPECIAL NOTICE: SIDE 2 RATED X FOR MATURE AUDIENCE”, and that is no hyperbole. Moore’s foul-mouthed holiday stories make Martin’s LP look like a Sesame Street Production.

Martin’s record may be tame by today’s standards but when it was released in 1962 it was risqué. It is still great fun almost sixty years later and nobody puts out politically incorrect Christmas records like this anymore. I will be adding some vintage kink to my Christmas and putting a little “X” in my Xmas with Kay Martin this holiday.

If Martin is indeed still alive, she would be 94 years old. If you happen to read this Kay, Merry Christmas, and thanks for the mammaries.

Trivia: The British Journal of Social Psychology recently published a scientific study that concluded scantily clad women do not feel colder in winter than women dressed for the elements. The researchers studied women who stood outside of nightclubs showing a lot of skin when temps dropped down into the 40’s. The take away: Women wearing little clothing who remain focused on looking hot have a “diminished capacity to feel cold.”

3. Adventure in Carols (Westminster WP-6021): Ferrante & Teicher, 1955

My original 1955 mono copy of Adventure in Carols with the cool cover.

Arthur Ferrante & Louis Teicher were a piano duo who graduated from the Julliard School of Music in New York where they first met. Their career spanned between 1947 to 1989. During that span of time, they released about eighty albums (!) under the easy listening and space age pop music genres, including several Christmas albums. They scored four top 10 US hits, namely Theme from Exodus, Tonight, Midnight Cowboy, andTheme from The Apartment. They also toured all over the country.

Flip Their (Piano) Lids

That lengthy time frame was certainly not devoid of easy listening piano players. What set this pair apart was their playing style and their use of “prepared” pianos…things on strings…adding objects to the piano strings such as chains, glass, paper, etc. Ferrante and Teicher would then proceed to strum, beat, and pluck the poor piano strings as if playing a guitar, at times making the piano sound like a synthesizer. As the liner notes to Adventure in Carols revealed, Ferrante and Teicher also used their “elbows, forearms or knuckles to elicit a desired chordal effect—not to mention an assortment of wooden and metal gadgets designed to give the pianos a new personality altogether. These unorthodox and sometimes gymnastic doings are not calculated to amuse. They are an integral part of the team’s very special arrangements. Their goal always is to achieve the maximum tonal contrasts and to simulate orchestral color as vividly as possible within the limitations of pianistic dynamics.” Quick- somebody pinch me.

A Hip Sound

On the album’s back cover you can see Ferrante and Teicher plucking their piano strings. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Given all of this sound and fury, one might assume the duo butchered the twelve Christmas classics on Adventure in Carols, making the record all but unlistenable. Nothing could be further from the truth. This has become a holiday album I look forward to playing this time of year. Allmusic.com called the record “hip and fascinatingly otherworldly” and “one of the definitive Christmas records of the space age pop era.” I also really love the album cover’s period artwork. It is as much a creative departure from the traditional Christmas album cover as the music it houses.

The Sound of Tomorrow

The distinctive purple Westminster label. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Although this 1955 album is mono, it was recorded using Westminster’s exclusive “Panorthophonic” technique. I have been unable to uncover what that technique actually involved, but apparently, back in the day, Westminster was held in very high regard by audiophiles for their sound quality, particularly their classical music recordings. The label’s motto was “The Sound of Tomorrow- Today”. Whatever the technique, Westminster’s studio engineers must have wet themselves upon seeing the myriad of microphones positioned all over the two pianos, not to mention Ferrante and Teicher’s assorted piano string paraphernalia and acrobatic moves during their performance.

Both Teicher and Ferrante lived long lives. In 2008, Teicher died of a heart attack at age 83. Ferrante died in 2009 of natural causes less than two weeks after his 88th Birthday, leaving behind a wife, daughter, and two granddaughters. He had said he wanted to live until age 88 since that was the number of keys on a piano.

This is not the kind of instrumental Christmas record one would sing or dance to, but this quasi-space age pop music will get me in the mood for the fat guy in the red suit flying through Earth’s lower atmosphere. If Santa has a built-in record player in his sleigh, and you know he does, you can bet Adventure in Carols is what he will be listening to on his vintage headphones when he lands on your rooftop.

Trivia: Ferrante and Teicher retired near each other in Longboat Key and Siesta Key, on the west coast of Florida, in 1989. They occasionally reunited at a local piano store where they played together.

4. Joy to The World/Jingle Bell Boogie/Silent Night: The Cambridge Harmonica Orchestra (Bent Reeds Records),1983

Size matters: My C.H.O. EP. Note the size of some of the harmonics. Photo by Peter Skiera.

Question: What do you get when you cram 33 harmonica players into a small recording studio? Answer: A strange Christmas record.

The Cambridge Harmonica Orchestra was founded in 1981 by Otis Read after receiving a $200 grant from the City of Cambridge, MA. As Read recalled to me in a recent email, “I wrote a grant to the Cambridge River Festival for the formation of the C.H.O. (in the 80’s) suggesting that we would march to the performance sight and then play! They accepted the grant. (Oh shit!). I had to recruit the players, so I got on the phone and sent out a flurry of emails. Pierre Beauregard was a well-known [Magic] harp player in Boston and he set about contacting various players. We got between 20-30 for the original performance. A few years later we recruited nearly 80 for The Today Show! We had a string of gigs in the 80’s & 90’s. Always a fun time!” Beauregard (who has played with Muddy Waters, NRBQ, and Room Full of Blues) became the C.H.O.’s conductor.

The Journey Is More Fun

As if 80 members were not enough, two years later, the Orchestra’s membership swelled to 350! That same year, the C.H.O. was featured in the Hohner Company’s calendar. Hohner, based in Tennessee, was the world’s biggest harmonica manufacturer. As the saying goes, sometimes the journey ends up being more fun than the destination.

Speaking of Hohner, every harmonica in their catalog was put to use in the C.H.O., not to mention bass, chord, diatonic, and chromatic harmonica sections. In addition, there were melodicas, drums, an accordion section, and even a washboard and washtub bass player!

My C.H.O. 3-track EP. Photo by Peter Skiera.

In December of 1982, 33 members of the C.H.O. packed inside a studio and recorded Jingle Bell Boogie. Nine months later, 80 members assembled in a Cambridge, MA garage and recorded two more holiday tunes, Joy to The World and Silent Night. I suppose that officially made them a garage band. The C.H.O. released their three songs on a very limited-run EP which I am not ashamed to say I own a copy of.

The flip side signed by Otis Read. Photo by Peter Skiera.

The C.H.O.’s harmonicas fell silent in 1986, but their unique music lives on in this rare record, bringing some much-needed whimsy to a holiday that has been hard hit on many levels by the pandemic.

Trivia: The Cambridge Harmonica Orchestra’s 3-track holiday EP was played on a Voice of America broadcast directed at Russia, Poland, and Palestine.

5. Songs For Christmas: Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty Records), 2006

My Songs for Christmas box set. Photo by Peter Skiera.

You are forgiven if independent musician Sufjan Stevens’ name does not ring a (jingle) bell. It did not with me either, but that did not stop me from buying his very unique Christmas collection anyway. Stevens is a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, banjo, English horn, oboe, piano, drums, woodwinds, etc.) born in Detroit but transplanted in New York. At his current age of 46, he has nine albums under his belt, plus his very own record label, Asthmatic Kitty (named after an asthmatic cat), which he co-founded with his stepfather. His music is categorized as indie folk/rock/pop, alt rock, avant-garde folk, and baroque pop. Got all that? One of the songs off of his Call Me by Your Name soundtrack received a Grammy nomination and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. His music often deals with religion and spirituality.

Sufjan Stevens. Photo from asthmatickitty.com

Between 2001 to 2006, Stevens recorded five Christmas EP’s, but not to sell. He gave a different one out each year to his friends and family as holiday gifts. What a nice idea to privately record music and give it as a gift, though some of the recipients might not have felt that way after listening to the recordings.

Festive Frills & Flourishes

In November of 2006, Stevens released these personal gifts as a nicely packaged box set of 5 CDs (there was also a much more expensive vinyl option) to the general public. The set also included a sing-a-long booklet with chord charts and some short stories, a sticker sheet, and a fold-out comic book with a weird color poster on the back. Regarding these printed accessories, Stevens wrote in his booklet, “I also wanted to augment the music with a lavish display of ornamentation- it just wouldn’t be Christmas without all the festive frills and flourishes…all the cornucopia of junk that has come to represent Christmas…”

The 5 CDs are accompanied by a lyric booklet (not pictured), sticker sheet, and comic book with poster. Photo by Peter Skiera.

The 42 (!) songs in the set are a mix of traditional holiday classics and Stevens originals (emphasis on the word “original”). His own record label described the set this way: “Sufjan has, over the course of five years, constructed an odd, impressive, and compelling collection of Christmas hits (and some misses) that will either warm your heart or make you throw up eggnog all over the bath mat.” Now there is a nice holiday visual.

NPR Segues

As you could probably ascertain from that description, Stevens’ Christmas music is not for everyone. The traditional songs are interpreted with unusual instrument choices and his voice sounds like that of a young college student. I half expected to hear his mother yell at him in the background to keep it down. In fairness, sprinkled about are brief instrumental vignettes of holiday songs that actually sound quite lovely. Unfortunately, they only last between 36 to 52 seconds each. That is enough for a segue between stories on national public radio, but that is about it.

I Grabbed Your Wrist

His original compositions add to the strange experience. More than a few have lyrics sounding like they were written by an 8year old finishing up a song writing assignment at the last minute. Take It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!: “Sing a carol to your mom / ‘Cause she knows what’s goin’ on”, and “There are presents to be had / A promotion for your dad”, plus a few choruses of nothing but “la, la, la, la”. Put The Lights on The Tree features lyrics like “Call your grandma on the phone / If she’s living all alone / Tell her Jesus Christ Is here / Tell her she has none to fear”, plus more la, la, la, la’s. Things take a turn for the creepy in Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? “I stay awake at night / After we have a fight / I’m writing poems about you / And they aren’t very nice / I didn’t mean to yell / I said I couldn’t tell / I only grabbed your wrist / Or would you rather we kissed?”

Whomever Was In The Room

In “A Note of Explanation” in the booklet, Stevens confesses he had a few partners in crime helping craft this music. These included a college friend, his little brother, a string quartet, and a Presbyterian pastor and his wife…pretty much anyone who was around at the time that he could force in front of a microphone.

This is indeed a collection of strange Christmas songs, like a snow globe with tiny white razor blades swirling around Santa instead of fake snow. Well, maybe not that strange, but instead of including a sing-a-long booklet, perhaps Stevens would have done better to include a barf bag, just in case you do toss your eggnog.

Trivia (from Wikipedia):“Sufjan” is a Persian name that means ‘comes with a sword’. It predates Islam and most famously belonged to Abu Sufjan, a figure from early Islamic history. The name was given to Stevens by the founder of Subud, an interfaith spiritual community to which his parents belonged when he was born.”

Most of these records are out of print but can sometimes be found on used record sites like eBay, though not for cheap. The Singing Saw at Christmastime is still available on CD as is Songs for Christmas.

That puts a large, Lexus-like red bow on my strange Christmas post for 2021, which appropriately caps off a very strange year. Let us hope 2022 is not nearly as strange. I could really go for some normal right about now.

If traditional holiday music is more to your liking, circle back here in a week or two for my Recommended Holiday CDs.

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