December 19, 2013
It’s been weeks now, more than a month in some places, but it is all about to come to an end. “It” is the soundtrack of the season — Christmas carols. From mall to shining mall, these carols sync American life in a rare shared cultural experience that lasts exactly as long as the holiday shopping season itself. Most of the widely — OK, incessantly — played songs are secular in content: “White Christmas,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and more. But their glory days run according to the holiday calendar. They vanish from audio range as soon as Christmas Day is over and the sales begin.
Many will say good riddance, having been Frostied, Rudolphed and Silver-Belled to a tinseled pulp by year’s end. But I will confess to regret on seeing many of the great voices of American popular song once again retired to seasonal oblivion. I refer to the likes of Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mercer, Margaret Whiting and Judy Garland. Theirs are the golden tones of white Christmases, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and walking in a winter wonderland even though, baby, it’s cold outside. (Frank Sinatra, at least, wafts year-round over sound systems in certain Italian restaurants.) Once kings and queens of the pop charts, these singers now have a popular appeal restricted mainly to caroling. Then again, could these limits be because their seasonal repertoire is all that Americans are familiar with?
With that possibility in mind, below is a starter kit for the Great American Songbook (for enduringly hep cats, an enhancement) — my own Christmas present to readers. These selections, of course, represent a fractional sampling of these vocalists’ prodigious output, much of which remains available, including as downloadable tunes. What would Yuletide be without Bing Crosby (“White Christmas”)? He and Rosemary Clooney (“Little Drummer Boy”) team up to swing with big bandleader Billy May on an album called “Fancy Meeting You Here.” Highlights: “Fancy Meeting You Here,” “On a Slow Boat to China,” “Love Won’t Let You Get Away.”
Ella Fitzgerald (“Let it Snow!”) sang so much pure gold it’s hard to choose one album, but “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook” is tops. Highlights: “Blue Skies,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “I Used to Be Color Blind.”
Mel Torme, aka “The Velvet Fog,” not only sang but he also wrote “The Christmas Song.” Don’t miss “Mel Torme Swings Shubert Alley.” Every track is a highlight.
Nat King Cole also made Christmas carol history recording “The Christmas Song.” Cole, of course, was not only a star singer, but also a phenomenal piano player. “Penthouse Serenade” is a marvelous showcase. Highlights: “Penthouse Serenade,” “Once in a Blue Moon,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.”
Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”) team up again in “Hit the Road to Dreamland,” a track on “An Evening with Johnny Mercer.” Other highlights include: “Out of This World,” “And the Angels Sing,” and “I’m an Old Cowhand.”
In 1961, Judy Garland recorded “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall,” a live album that has been described as “the greatest night in show business history.” Garland sings many signature standards, including: “Who Cares?” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “The Man That Got Away” “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” — but no “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Just like the rest of these albums, of course, this one would make a wonderful gift.
Diana West’s new book is “American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character” from St. Martin’s Press. She blogs at dianawest.net, and she can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @diana_west_.