(Above: Darn, that looks like fun in stereo.)
When we think of classic Christmas albums, many of the same names come to mind, but one we don’t think of by name was playing on darned near every hi-fi in the country 55 years ago. In 1962 Columbia Records released We Wish You a Merry Christmas, the second LP of Christmas songs by Ray Conniff.
Joseph Raymond Conniff was born in 1916, and learned to play the trombone as a child. After World War 2 he worked for a while playing in Artie Shaw’s band. That later caught the attention of Mitch Miller, who had a knack for all things square and who also had the job of keeping Columbia Records equally square. Conniff went to work as an arranger, supervising hit releases by Rosemary Clooney and Johnny Mathis among others. He went on to start producing his own collections of music beginning in 1957, mixing horn sections and vocalists to create a bigger sound.
Enter the Ray Conniff Singers. A group of 12 women and 13 men formed by Conniff in 1959 to put a soft, safe and sanitized spin on popular recordings. The formula sold a ton of vinyl: the Singers’ version of “Somewhere My Love” from Dr. Zhivago made the Top Ten and is the signature version of the song. In all Conniff sold seventy million LPs in his career. That’s on par with Journey, The Police, KISS, Nirvana, and Kenny G. I’m serious.
One of the early releases by the Singers was 1959’s Christmas with Conniff. It’s a collection of largely-secular holiday classics, like “Jingle Bells,” “White Christmas,” and the like. “Christmas Bride” always stood out to me as a little unusual for its cornball factor, but I think that that’s because I approach it from today’s point of view. There was a time when America loved this sort of thing. (Just this evening one of the retro channels re-ran Perry Como’s 1974 Christmas special featuring The Carpenters and Rich Little. On the one hand, I thought “How could people have watched this and enjoyed it?” – and then I watched the whole thing.) The combination of wholesome Christmas songs – in that newfangled 360 Sound stereo, no less – made this album a must-have under the tree in ’59.
The formula was duplicated in 1962 with We Wish You a Merry Christmas. It’s mostly medleys of recognizable Christmas classics, with two exceptions: the always-tedious “12 Days of Christmas” and “Ring Christmas Bells.” You likely will recognize the latter upon hearing as “Carol Of the Bells.” But this version is different – it’s less about the bells and more about the birth of Christ. It’s a little scary sounding, what with the minor key and the other-worldly high notes at the end. But you can’t help but enjoy it. This album is less secular and more traditional than the 1959 offering, and it also sold in the millions. For decades this is the one that has been a staple of Christmas Eve gatherings, playing in the background while uncles you don’t see often have one-too-many eggnogs and the cousins sneak off to get into trouble elsewhere in the house. I defy you to listen to any track from it – they’re all online – and not immediately experience time-travel to a Christmas celebration you experienced as a child.
Conniff’s third Christmas LP with the Singers, Here We Come A-Caroling (1965), follows the same formula, but didn’t sell quite as well. It features the swingingest version of “Joy To The World” ever recorded (as featured in the Christmas TV special from that year), and that alone is the reason I’d stack it on the changer at the holidays.
I wrote last year about Christmas traditions and how this time of year represents a little bit of time travel. We think about the celebrations of our youth, when relatives who are no longer with us were at the party, and we smile. We think of that one toy that we found in the Sears Catalog Wish Book that we hoped we’d find under the tree. Those components aren’t a part of the holiday anymore, but when we put the music on, it’s much easier to remember all of them. The sound of Ray Conniff makes me think of laying on the yellow shag carpet of our living room in Tinley Park in the 1970s, looking up at the tree, and counting the nights until “the big day.”
You can relive Christmas of 1962 – or any Christmas after that, for that matter – by clicking here.