NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and this is Episode 100!
Remember to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
The trivia question I have for ye today is not so much a music trivia question today, but more of a Christmas trivia question, because, hey: look at the calendar. And there’s a comment that’s gonna sound stupid to you if you’re playing catch-up with episodes. Anyway, here we go: what traditional Christmas tradition is actually a parasitic plant? Think about that for a bit and I’ll have an answer for you later on in the show.
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is my second favorite Christmas song, and my favorite of the modern era. I think I like it because of its deceptiveness: it’s got a very joyous feel, but at its heart it’s the plaintive meditations of someone who’s alone at Christmas because their significant other is away somewhere. It might even be a post-breakup song, but I’m not really reading it that way.
The song was written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, with an additional writing credit going to Phil Spector, because that’s pretty much how he rolled in those days. You might remember that detail from Episode 84, when I told you about “Chapel of Love”, which was also written by Barry and Greenwich, with a mystery assist from Spector. But that’s all the mean I’m going to dish out for Spector on this one, because he really did something special here.
Phil Spector’s attitude toward records was essentially that an album consisted of a couple of hits and the rest of it was complete junk. So he poured a lot of effort into the songs that he thought would be hits and…I won’t say he slacked off exactly on the other tracks, but there’s certainly a difference in the overall sound. But when Spector decided in 1963 to put together a Christmas album, he really gave it his all, paying tremendous attention to each track. And he used pretty much his entire stable of artists at that time to make the album.
There are a couple of interesting things to note about the songs on this album. First, of the 13 songs that appear, all but two of them are secular songs. Only “Silent Night” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s” are religious at all. And the other thing is that “Baby Please Come Home” is the only original track on the album. I couldn’t ascertain why that was the case, but anyway: Barry and Greenwich demo’ed the song over the phone to Darlene Love, and she was in.
The recording sessions for the album took place in September and October of 1963, so this was a blazing fast album project, especially for Phil Spector. The bad news comes in the timing of the album’s release: it came out on November 22, 1963—the same day that President John F Kennedy was assassinated. So it wasn’t the monster hit they’d anticipated, and it wound up being the 13th most popular Christmas album that season, according to Billboard magazine. Incidentally, if you buy the album nowadays, it’s titled A Christmas Gift from Phil Spector, but that’s actually the second title the album had. When it was first released that fateful day in 1963, the title was A Christmas Gift from Philles Records, which was the name of Spector’s label. When the album was reissued by Apple Records in 1972, it was called Phil Spector’s Christmas Album and featured a photo of Phil Spector wearing a Santa Suit and a button reading “Back to Mono”—which was kind of ironic, considering that the next release of the album on Warner Brothers used the same cover and was issued in a manufactured stereo format. A 1981 release by Pavilion Records also used that stereo mix and that artwork, but the “Back to Mono” button was airbrushed out of the picture. It wasn’t until 1987, when Rhino Records released the album on CD that the mono mixes were restored under the title A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, and two years after that we saw yet another re-release on ABKCO Records that had the original mono mixes, and the original artwork. Nowadays you can still find it under the “from Philles Records” title here and there, but that’s mostly in Europe and Japan, in various re-issues.
Anyway. Where was I? Oh yeah, November 22, 1963. So the release date was bad luck for the album, but it was also the release date for “Baby Please Come Home,” so it was bad luck for Darlene Love as well.
So Spector, still hoping to make a few bucks off of this composition—remember, it was the only original song on that album—had some new lyrics written to remove the Christmas references, and had Darlene Love re-record the song as “Johnny Please Come Home,” but that version didn’t see the light of day until 1976, when it appeared on a compilation album. Spector took another shot at releasing “Baby Please Come Home” in 1964, but again it didn’t chart.
And that would have been pretty much the end of it, but people have a way of re-discovering the old stuff and dusting it off, as we learned only a couple of episodes ago, when we talked about Louis Armstrong.
But before I move on, let me back up to the recording of the song itself, because there is some high-powered talent going on, here. First, you have the Wrecking Crew playing a lot of the instruments, so you’re talking about Hal Blaine on drums and Tommy Tedesco playing guitar, but you’re also looking at Leon Russell on piano, Steve Douglas on saxophone, and what was then a little-known couple by the name of Sonny and Cher on the record. Sonny Bono was handling some of the percussion, and Cher was one of the backup singers.
After the Phil Spector era, Darlene Love was mostly relegated to singing backup on records through the 1970s, but in the 80s she began doing stage shows as a headliner, in places like the Roxy in Los Angeles and the Bottom Line in New York City. This also led to acting roles on Broadway, and when she played herself in a jukebox musical called The Leader of the Pack, which featured songs written by Ellie Greenwich, that’s when things started to change. See, Leader of the Pack didn’t do so great from a sales standpoint—it only ran for 120 performances—but the show was nominated for a Tony Award, and Love came to the attention of David Letterman, who has never been big on Christmas tunes but is a big fan of soul music, so he asked her to perform on his show, and she agreed, appearing on December 16, 1986. Now, that first appearance had Darlene Love and the four members of Letterman’s band, and that was it. There’s no saxophone solo, though there is a bridge, and the whole thing looks and feels very sparse. But it was so well-received that she was asked to come back year after year, and the production became more elaborate. More instruments were brought in, including string arrangements and horns, and backup singers, and the set was decorated just a little bit more.
Band member Bruce Kapler, who played the sax solos would sometimes enter the song in odd ways, including being pulled in on a sleigh, “flying” in from the ceiling on wires, or appearing in a snow globe. Her appearances were an annual tradition right up until Letterman retired from television in 2014. The only year she missed was in 2007 because of the writer’s strike, and that year they simply re-ran the 2006 performance. And it seems to me that, as the performance became more complex on TV, Paul Shaffer’s arrangement got closer and closer to reproducing Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production values, and I think I see why. If you look at the footage of that 2014 performance, there are something like eleven backup singers and over 20 musicians, including an extra keyboard player because Shaffer is in the middle on a grand piano. And typically with setups like that, they’re using shotgun mics or even parabolic microphones, which look like radar dishes, to pick up the band as a whole. But during that show, you can see that every singer, and every musician, has their own microphone setup. The drummer is partially isolated from the rest of the band with clear plastic shields, and he has at least two mics on him. So we’re looking at something like a 30-track mix for a television show which is airing in a format that’s no better to the listener than FM radio. But my gosh, does it ever work. In fact, there was so much anticipation for that 2014 performance that the original song managed to make it to Number 21 on the Billboard Holiday Songs chart that year.
Love has continued the annual tradition by appearing on daytime talk show The View; in fact her performance for 2019 was a duet with Jason Derulo. There was a little bit of controversy attached to it, because the annual lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is covered by NBC—Letterman’s original television home—and while they used the song, they didn’t ask Love to perform it, opting instead to have it performed by Skylar Astin and Alex Newell. Why? Because those two performers are appearing on a new NBC show debuting in January 2020, and NBC is selling it hard.
There have been a few covers of the song; including Bon Jovi, Joey Ramone, Idina Menzel, and Mariah Carey, where it’s on the same album as “All I Want for Christmas is You,”
but perhaps the most notable cover—and probably one of the better ones—comes from the band U2, who recorded it in the summer of 1987 during a sound check in Scotland. That recording appeared on the compilation album A Very Special Christmas later that year. For those of you not in the know, A Very Special Christmas is a series of albums collecting Christmas songs recorded by pop stars, and the sales of the albums benefit the Special Olympics. And the extra cool thing about U2’s version, is that the backup singing was provided by none other than Darlene Love, who overdubbed herself several times in post-production to make it sound like a full backup section.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question.
Back on Page Two I asked you what common Christmas decoration is, in reality, a parasitic plant. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad Christmas tidings, but it’s mistletoe. It basically attaches itself to a tree, and then gets its water and other nutrients from that tree. As far as its connection with Christmas, we can probably give credit to the Roman Saturnalia festival, which was the cover under which early Christians celebrated Christmas. The Romans, would hang mistletoe in doorways to protect the house as a symbol of peace, love and understanding. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe started in the late 1700s in England, specifically among the servant class. By tradition, a man is allowed to kiss any woman standing under the mistletoe, and that a woman who turned him down would receive bad luck. And if I might be allowed to bring it back to music, mistletoe first appears in a Christmas song in 1952, in the song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”
And, that’s a full lid on Episode 100 of How Good It Is. Can you believe we’ve made it this far? And I definitely mean “we,” because this is a project that I could not have done without you. There’s been so much support for the show, everyone’s had kind things to say—even if you had a criticism, I could sense that it was coming from a good, caring place. And you have no idea how much I appreciate hearing from you.
And of course, since I’m not looking for money for this show, I do ask that you support it by sharing it with someone else who you think may like it, and maybe even leave a rating somewhere. Ratings don’t do a ton as far as rankings with Apple Podcasts or whatever, but once in a while people will read them and say, “Hey—maybe I’ll give that one a go.”
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we take a trip into the 90s and look at the song “In Bloom.”
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.