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.
- Various: New England Christmastide (North Star Records CS0002), 1986
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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
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…”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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