Album Spotlights focus on specific (usually vintage) albums. Album Spotlight articles will pop-up randomly. There might be another Spotlight next month or six months from now. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects the Album Spotlight!
My Album Spotlights typically focus on vintage albums. In this Spotlight I focus on Wamono Groove, a compilation album released in January of this year, technically making it a new release. However, its contents are anything but. Like amber containing flesh from prehistoric creatures, the rare recordings Wamono Groove preserves in its polyvinyl chloride are significant. To be more specific, it’s a collection of funky jazz from 1976 with the primary instruments being Japanese. I admit it sounds odd, but would you expect anything less from me?
Honestly, I don’t recall how I became acquainted with this particular title, but I’m very glad I did. The music is a throwback and the Japanese influence gives it a refreshing twist. Wamono Groove features 3 giants of Japanese music: Arranger Kiyoshi Yamaya, koto legend Toshiko Yonekawa, and shakuhachi master, Kifu Mitsuhashi.
Kiyoshi Yamaya started playing baritone sax in local Japanese jazz bands in in 1953. Just a few years later he was arranging and recording Japanese big bands. He became a key figure in Japanese jazz and founded the Contemporary Sound Orchestra in the mid-70’s. With his CSO, Yamaya merged jazz funk with traditional Japanese melodies and instruments. Yamaya passed away in 2002 at age 70.
Koto is the national instrument of Japan and is played by plucking the 13 strings with 3 fingers. The instrument stretches 71” long and has moveable bridges. Toshiko Yonekawa studied koto since age 3. She held her first concert at age 8 and performed on national radio at just 12 years old. According to Wamono Groove’s liner notes, “Her unique style of koto playing is widely recognized due to the extreme accuracy of the intonation and rhythm, as well as the unequaled beauty of the instrument’s sonority. After a life decorated with awards and prizes, Toshiko Yonekawa was named a Living National Treasure in 1996.” Yonekawa died in 2005 at the age of 92.
Kifu Mitsuhashi plays shakuhachi. Shakuhachi is a bamboo flute made in various lengths. It contains a small piece of ivory at the edge of the blowing end to further vary the sound. Mitsuhashi has toured the world performing classical and contemporary compositions with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Berliner Philharmoniker, to name a few. In 2020, Mitsuhashi was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun.
Here’s a list of the other musicians who performed on Wamono Groove’s tracks:
Kazuyoshi Okayama: drums on all tracks
Kiyoshi Sugimoto: guitar on all tracks except A1 by Mitsuo Murakami
Keisuke Egusa: piano on A3, A5, B2 and B4
Minoru Kuribayashi: piano on A4, B3 and B5
Hiromu Hisatomi: piano on A2 and B1
Naoya Matsuoka: piano on A1
Kimio Koizumi: bass on A1, A2, A3, A5, B1, B2 and B4
Kunimitsu Inaba: bass on A4, B3 and B5
Isao Kanayama: vibraphone on A1, A3, A4, A5, B2, B3, B4 and B5
Ryusei Matsuzaki: vibraphone on A2 and B1
Osamu Nakajima: percussion on A4
Hiroo Umezawa: percussion on A5
Tetsuo Fushimi and Takehisa Suzuki: trumpets on B3 and B5
Yoshitsugu Nishimura and Tadataka Nakazawa: trombones on B3 and B5
Jake Concepcion: tenor sax on B3 and B5
“I admit it sounds odd, but would you expect anything less from me?”
The opening track, Nanbu Ushioi-Uta, sounds rather mysterious, and at times, out of space, as if it had been randomly plucked from a Space: 1999 episode. My favorite track, Hohai-Bushi, features some fantastic keyboard, guitar, and flute work. It sounds exactly like a 1976 funky jazz tune should. I wish it had gone on forever. In Otemoyan and Yagi-Bushi, you can practically taste the Japanese flavor. Aizu Bandaisan is more adventurous, taking your ears for a full funky ride. Soma Nagareyama, on the other hand, sounds like a Japanese version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition from 1972.
Considering these recordings are 46 years old and the word “mono” is part of the title, one might be concerned about the sound quality. Fear not. The tracks on Wamono Groove were originally recorded at the Nippon Columbia Studios in Japan, not some garage studio, and they’re in stereo. The songs were re-mastered in Finland from the original tapes. Moreover, the Japanese are obsessed over sound quality, so you know a lot of attention went into the recording. Rest assured, Wamono Groove will put you in the groove with nary a hint of its age.
You might think I posted this Album Spotlight at this time because Japan has been in the news lately over the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but that isn’t the case. I had actually planned on posting this Spotlight on my Recommended Stations blog earlier this year when the record was released, but it took me almost 6 months to pin down 180g Co-owner and Executive Producer Gregory Gouty and get answers to my questions for this article. Gouty is based in France and has several record projects in the works so he’s a very busy guy these days. I’m grateful he was able to carve out a little time for this special Album Spotlight and it was worth the delay:
Peter: What was your involvement with “Wamono Groove” and how did the Wamono series come about?
Greg: It started with meeting DJ Yoshizawa Dynamite in a bar in Tokyo in 2018. Me and my label-mate Max were listening to his mixes on Soundcloud. He gave some mix CDs to Max, and he also told us that he was working on some Wamono compilations to be released on CD in Japan. We thought the music [was] amazing and discussed about doing some vinyl releases outside of Japan, which are Wamono Volumes 1, 2 and 3. For Wamono Groove, Max and myself did the selection ourselves.
Peter: How would you describe the music on this record for someone who isn’t familiar with the series?
Greg: I would say that Wamono is the perfect mix of western music influences with Japanese instruments and melodies. For example, on this Wamono Groove selection, some great mixture of jazz funk/rare groove music with shakuhachi and koto, which are some traditional Japanese instruments, played by great masters of their art.
Peter: What does “Wamono” mean and why is the music on this record considered rare?
Greg: Technically “Wa” is “Japan/Japanese”, and “mono” is “something”. So Wamono is music made with Japanese sense in my opinion, being instruments, melodies or feeling. A lot of these records are from the 60s-70s and were pressed in small quantities at the time, so original copies for a lot of these records are quite rare.
Peter: What does the Japanese writing on the cover translate to?
Greg: On Wamono Groove, the three vertical lines are the artists names, with their instruments (which you can find in alphabet above the Wamono Groove title).
Peter: Have you been in contact withKifu Mitsuhashi?
Greg: Yes, Mr. Kifu Mitsuhashi (shakuhachi player) is still alive and well. He is still playing as a professional and also a music professor. We have actually contacted him to present the project and he is very happy with the result.
Peter: This is the first time this music has been available outside of Japan?
Greg: Except in some collectors’ circles maybe, yes.
Peter: You had access to the original Columbia master tapes? The re-mastering was done in Finland? The recording is in stereo, right?
Greg: Nippon Columbia [did] the transfer from [the] master tapes (they don’t lend any master tapes; they do the transfer themselves). We work on almost all of our projects with Jukka Sarappa at Timmion Cutting Lab in Helsinki, who are really good and we are very happy with the result. Their cutting skills are phenomenal. And yes, the recording is in stereo.
Peter: Do you have a favorite track on “Wamono Groove”?
Greg: The first one with the long shakuhachi intro, Nanbu Ushioi-Uta. Puts you in the album’s mood. This track is perfect and beautiful.
Peter: The Japanese take this vintage music very seriously, don’t they?
Greg: Oh yes, any music I would say! Killer collectors over there, going super deep. In any musical style. I was living in Tokyo nearby a very small store where the guy was selling only punk music from Eastern Europe on cassette format.
Peter: Is this kind of music still performed in Japan?
Greg: There is still a lot of music today that we could call Wamono, mixing various musical influences from all over the world with a Japanese touch, such as Ajate for example.
Peter: Was this music played on radio stations in Japan in the 70’s or was it mainly intended for record buyers and live performances?
Greg: The music in the Wamono Groove compilation was more featured in some kind of “seasonal” albums about seasons, places (mountains, etc…).
Peter: Tell me a little about your company, 180g. What projects do you have in the works for this year?
Greg: We are just starting a new compilation series called “WaJazz”, exploring Japanese jazz with music selection by world-renowned expert Yusuke Ogawa. And we also have a sub-label called 180g x Disk Union, made in collaboration with Japanese record stores Disk Union, where we release contemporary Brazilian music such as the new Leonardo Marques album to be out in September.
Peter: With COVID supply chain issues, is it a challenge to manufacture records today?
Greg: Yes, all pressing factories are full and we have to book pressing capacities a year in advance even if we don’t know yet what we will press. We have to be very organized and work on releases well in advance.
Peter: Any final thoughts about “Wamono Groove” or the music?
Greg: Thanks to you, Peter, and all people who are interested in this music and are helping us [spread] it. This is just the tip of the iceberg and there is still a lot of great Japanese music, old and new, to be discovered!
What’s In Your Wallet?
Frankly, it isn’t cheap to get your Wamono Groove on. The record will set you back $36 from Amazon where it enjoys a 4.2 star rating. I purchased my copy direct from Bandcamp which cost me about $35 including shipping. As I’ve pointed out before, I don’t get free samples, nor do I earn a commission if you buy something I recommend, which is partly why I ask for your support through Patreon. That said, the unique Japanese jazz funk fusion of Wamono Groove is a delight for the ears and well worth the investment. It’s also pressed on 180g heavy vinyl and includes a reverse board inner jacket. I should mention there’s a less expensive digital download option, as you prefer. Hats off to the musical archeologists at 180g for uncovering this rare, lost music, carefully preserving it, and making it available to the world.
By the way, if you’re into more of a disco vibe, 180g has you covered there as well with Wamono A-Z Vol. III- Japanese Light Mellow Funk, Disco & Boogie 1978-1988.
My personal thanks to Greg Gouty for his time answering my questions.
Album Spotlight focuses on a specific (usually vintage) album. Album Spotlights will pop-up randomly. There might be another Spotlight next month or six months from now. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects the Album Spotlight!
Space Escapade, Les Baxter: Capitol Records, ST-968, Stereo, 1958
The first Album Spotlight was The Golddiggers’ We Need a Little Christmas LP from1969. This edition goes in a completely different direction and turns the spotlight on Les Baxter’s Space Escapade from 1958, a classic space age pop album. And be sure to read all the way through to the fun contest at the end.
Space Escapade may not have been the first album in the unique space age music genre, but without a doubt it had the best cover. It depicted what your average, mid-century bachelor envisioned when fantasizing about visiting a faraway planet…enjoying a dry ice-based adult beverage with attractive, brightly-colored female aliens with springs on their heads (note the silhouette of a phallic-like rocket in the background). I’m not sure why the aliens didn’t use memory foam on their heads instead of springs. Incidentally, if you look closely at the jovial astronaut in the green suit, it looks like he has his own rocket in his pocket! How fortunate the astronauts were to have generous openings in their fish bowl helmets to be able to savor the foreign concoctions prepared in their honor. The album cover alone has made this record quite desirable amongst collectors.
One Small Step For Man
It was probably no coincidence that Space Escapade was released a year after Russia’s Sputnik satellite launch in 1957. Another decade would pass before an astronaut stepped foot on the moon. Like the front cover, Baxter’s compositions paint an overall positive landscape of outer space. But before we get ahead of ourselves by going into deep space exploration on Space Escapade, let’s first explore the man behind the music.
Leslie Thompson Baxter was born in Mexia, Texas in 1922, 100 years ago this month. He started playing piano at age 5. He took courses at the Detroit Conservatory and Pepperdine University. In 1945 he joined the Mel-Tones, Mel Torme’s singing group. He eventually quit the group to work for NBC Radio, conducting music for the Abbott and Costello and Bob Hope radio programs. In 1950, Baxter left radio behind to arrange and conduct music at Capitol Records for recordings by Nat King Cole, Margaret Whiting, and Frank Sinatra. Not a bad gig.
Baxter turned to crafting music for films in 1962, scoring at least 8 movies (some cite as many as 100) for American International Pictures, including The Pit and the Pendulum and Beach Blanket Bingo. Some websites claim he composed music for over 250 films in total.
Music Out of The Moon, Baxter’s first album, launched (if you will pardon the pun) the space age music genre. According to wrti.org, astronaut Neil Armstrong actually brought a cassette recording of the album with him on Apollo 11 in 1969! The record featured a choir, a rhythm section, a cello, a French horn, and a theremin. That’s it. For 1947 it truly was out of this world and is quite probably the best-selling theremin album ever.
A year later, Baxter’s Ritual of The Savage brought us back down to earth…to the jungle to be more specific. The music incorporated bird calls and assorted jungle sounds. As his Music Out of The Moon ushered in space age music, Ritual gave birth to the exotica genre.
The composer was not without hits. Unchained Melody and The Poor People of Paris each sold over a million copies, the former earning gold record status. He also composed Quiet Village which became a huge hit for Martin Denny in 1959.
Baxter died from a massive heart attack on January 15, 1996 in Newport Beach, CA at the age of 73. He has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
With about 70 titles in his discography, I was spoiled for choice when it came to picking a Baxter album for this Album Spotlight. Yet from the very start there was never any doubt in my mind that my focus would be on Space Escapade. Allmusic.com called the album “a definitive slice of lounge/bachelor pad music” containing compositions that “shows off Baxter’s chops as a big-band leader.”
Space Escapade is rated 4.5 stars on Amazon with one reviewer calling the album, “an American classic, to be revered and cherished. Thank goodness that we have the recordings of the wonderful Les Baxter for letting us explore his, and our, musical dreamscapes.” Another fan wrote, “All of a sudden that sound really fascinated me. It sounds so pretty and so fresh today, it shows how Les Baxter fifties’ songs were ahead of time.”
YouTube has equally favorable comments. “I am one of those who remember my parent’s Friday and/or Saturday nights, full of this music”, one person wrote. “Mostly at the beach house, sometimes in the rec. room. It mostly served as background music. Never danced too, but played to impress. Who had the best stereo. Listening again, eavesdropping on the stairs, I’m a seven year old kid again.” Another Space Escapade owner wrote, “My co-workers can only guess why I smile on a Monday morning at the computer with my ear buds in. Pure ear candy. If that first cut doesn’t put a smile on your face, check for a pulse!”
“…enjoying a dry ice-based adult beverage with attractive, brightly-colored female aliens with springs on their heads.”
What Is This “Stereo” Thing?
Turning the Spotlight back to the classic front cover, there were actually four variants of the cover. One might expect slightly different covers to indicate mono and stereo, but the stereo recording alone had 3 versions of the front cover. All three have white bands at the top of varying sizes promoting stereo, but one cover adds a round color Capitol logo in the photo, an inexcusable distraction from the artwork.
Why release a record in both mono and stereo? Actually, this wasn’t unusual for 1958 when stereo recordings were new to the consumer. Many people still owned monophonic hi-fi systems, bought mono records, and listened to mono AM radio at home and in their car. Stereo was so new that Capitol felt the need to dedicate one side of the record’s inner paper sleeve to educate the record owner about two-channel stereo. Example: “What is a stereo record? This stereo record recreates the needed perspective. Sounds are recorded from two points of view and, ultimately, engraved one on each side of the groove. Thus, the stereo record, when properly played, gives a realistic ‘display’ of sound.” I cannot imagine experiencing Space Escapade any other way. My stereo copy of Space Escapade came with the original paper sleeve in excellent condition, which I find amazing considering the album is over 60 years old.
Ranking right up there with the Hindenburg disaster, Jack the Ripper, and the Roswell UFO crash, is the equally stubborn question worthy of a Robert Stack voice over– Whom created Space Escapade’s incredible front cover? With my detective’s fedora positioned at a jaunty angle, I tracked down singer/songwriter/guitarist/composer/producer/band leader (whew!) and Les Baxter protégé and friend, Skip Heller, in an attempt to solve this enduring riddle. “Prior to their move to the Tower” (the 13-story building made to resemble a stack of records), Heller wrote me in an email, “Capitol [Records] didn’t maintain a full-time art and design department, so outside illustrators and designers did the covers, and they were very often credited. In Les’ case, William George — known for pulp paperback covers in the fifties — did the art for Ritual Of The Savage and Tamboo. But from 1957 on, Capitol had everything but pressing generated from the Tower, including all the art stuff, and rarely if ever with a note on who did the art or who posed for it. When I asked Les about album covers”, Heller continued, “he didn’t really remember anything about it, unless he himself was in the photo. He did mention to me once he thought that the cover of Space Escapade was very amusing, but that maybe it distracted people from some of his better writing on that record, especially The City and Moonscape. I had the pleasure of hearing him play each of those solo, at the piano.”
Despite my best efforts it would seem the mystery of whomever was responsible for Space Escapade’s orgasmic front cover will remain unsolved. Apologies to the late Robert Stack.
Flipping the cover around reveals Disney animator J.P. Miller’s illustrations. The romantic liner notes below and to the right of the images tease the listener: “We can close our eyes and dream of the future, wondering whether a starlit planet might soon replace a tropical island, the Riviera, or a distant mountain lodge as the ideal spot for a romantic holiday. Or, with the aid of this stereo recording, we can drift into the future’s lovemist with Les Baxter and make a spaceliner escapade by earthlight…” My bags are packed.
In addition to the notes and Miller’s monochrome sketches, the back cover includes delightful descriptions of each track, as if they were excerpts lifted from a space travel brochure. “On our first visit to a planet, we arrive in the midst of Martian Gras”, begins the description of Mr. Robot. I guess that explains the front cover. The Commuter provides a glimpse into the future of morning rush hour…”Jetmobiles roar through early Solar City traffic. Their frenzied speed gives rise to vertigo, until we realize that crashes are now extinct, with electric fields keeping travelers safely at arm’s length.” Hmmm…Baxter predicted blind spot and lane departure warnings sixty years before they were invented.
Some of Baxter’s music has found its way into recent major motion pictures and TV. In the Oscar-winning Matt Damon film, Ford vs. Ferrari, the first track off of Space Escapade, Shooting Star, is featured. Lunar Rhapsody from Music Out of The Moon is featured in First Man, a movie about Neil Armstrong. Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel features Baxter’s #1 hit Unchained Melody in season 3, episode 18.
No doubt Baxter would be tickled pink as an alien with a spring on his head to know that a whole new generation of music lovers are discovering his body of work and taking Space Escapade for repeated round trip listens. Fuel up your turntable, buckle yourself into your BarcaLounger, and prepare for liftoff. The female aliens with springs on their heads anxiously await your arrival.
Trivia:In 1954, Les Baxter composed the theme song to the TV show “Lassie”.In the latter years of his career he composed music for theme parks like Sea World.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 formagazine 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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