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!
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.
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 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!”
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.
“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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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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