This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
and a happy 2005.
I'm sitting here listening to Bing Crosby's Merry Christmas. Nothing sounds like Christmas to me more than this record. My mom had an original vinyl LP of the 1955 version which I'd play each year in December. It's the gold standard of Christmas records: a mix of music devotional and secular, reverent and goofy - and yet it strikes the right balance of tone all the way through, despite a 13-year gap the recordings of some of the songs. Merry Christmas features the definitive recording of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas, "the top-selling Christmas single of all time, and the top selling song of all time - in any category - until 1998. Bing Crosby first performed "White Christmas" on a radio show on Christmas day, 1941, only eighteen days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was on the release of Holiday Inn in '42, when the song touched a nerve that would make it the best-selling song of throughout the war. The song that would become Crosby's signature. It captured an unironic longing for a time when things weren't so complicated. Boy, if only they knew. Most of the songs on Merry Christmas were recorded as singles throughout the War, and were compiled to an album of five 78 rpm records called Merry Christmas in 1945. By 1948, the original ascetate master of White Christmas was so degraded from over use that Crosby rerecorded it, with the original 1942 session players and singers, with the more modern recording equipment that followed the War. It was reissued as a single, and again sales soared. The late 1940's marked the dawn of the long-playing record, or LP, which could hold more songs per disc than the original 78's. The LP made the literal record album was a thing of the past, through the word is still used euphemistically to this day. I still use it all the time, even when referring to CDs. In 1949, all five discs in Bing's Merry Christmas album were condensed into a single LP, and two only peripherally related to Christmas, "Danny Boy" and "Let's Start the New Year Right," were cut. Many of the tracks feature Patty, LaVerne, and Maxine Andrews - the Andrews Sisters, one of the more preeminent vocal groups ever and Crosby's tourmates on the World War II USO circuit. The Andrews Sisters are an indelible part of the soundtrack of World War II, with a unique singular vocal blend that, like Glenn Miller's special "sound", is instantly recognizable - it can be no one else. Sure, the McGuire Sisters might have been technically "better," but they had half the Andrews' charm and few remember them today. The Andrews Sisters wrote the book on vivacious girl performers with talent to spare, and artists from Melanie to Gwen Stefani owe their careers to them. The Andrews' matched Bing's relaxed delivery with the same spunky energy they brought to Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy - they sounded great together, and uniquely American, even when singing Bei Mir Bist Du Shoen. Their version of Jingle Bells ("jiiingle bells, ji-ji-ji-jingle bells") crushes Sinatra's ("I love those j-i-n-g-l-e bells - pop!") version like a tin can. And I've yet to hear a better, more fun and version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town." It tears the roof off. Then came the 1950's. World War II still loomed large over American culture. Veterans were starting to emerge from their GI-bill funded education into the white collar workforce and into severe depression many felt they'd lived the best years of their lives during and because of combat. The officious grey flannel suits of corporate culture were no match for the ineffible camaradarie of war buddies. Bing Crosby (and his frequent partner Bob Hope) were reminders of that time, and Crosby knew it. His natural midwestern affability made him seem like a trusted buddy and a voice of comfort that crossed generations. He received thousands of letters each year from veterans who told him how a hearing "White Christmas" sustained their hope in hopless times. In 1954, Bing made the film White Christmas a peacetime remake and revision of his ownHoliday Inn from 1942. White Christmas was originally indended to bring Holiday Inn's stars, Crosby and Fred Astaire, together in a sort-of sequel. But Astaire had decided after Blue Skies in 1946 to retire from movies. So the part was reworked for Donald O'Connor (Singin' in the Rain), and then again for Danny Kaye when O'Connor was injured. While I'm sure Donald O'Connor would have rocked, and could've
danced circles around Danny Kaye, Kaye makes the movie work, and then some. White Christmas, the movie, is about a couple of war buddies, played by Crosby and Kaye, who muster up their original platoon to a country inn run by their lionized old "sarge" who has falled into deep depression. Along the way they befriend a singing sister act played by Rosemary Clooney and dancer Vera Ellen (who, according to IMDB, had to wear high-necked costumes to cover the ravages of anexoria). And of course, once again, Bing sings "White Christmas," this time in full color. I just love White Christmas, and have ever since my mom brought it home on VHS when I was eleven or so. Most film buffs consider Holiday Inn the better of the two, and I think in many ways they're right - I mean, come on, it's Fred freakin' Astaire. But Holiday Inn's gung-ho patriotism and original concept - a song for every holiday - grows tedious quickly. For me, though, White Christmas wins the prize because I simply don't buy Crosby and Astaire as a duo. Crosby's breezy charm was always better when foiled by a great partner or co-star - the Andrews Sisters on record, Bob Hope on film. The chemistry was undeniable, it just worked. And it didn't work with Crosby and Astaire. I can't see the creamy Astaire, with his top hat and tails demeanor, in Crosby's Irish pubs. On his feet, Astaire was a miracle, but he couldn't really sing. And Bing didn't wear too many top hats. After Astaire's exit White Christmas emerged as something more interesting, if less focused - instead of a sequel or a remake, it became a little of both, and yet neither: White Christmas took elements of the Holiday Inn and reimagined it through a more sober, post-war reality, where ten years on the vets weren't all that happy about being home. This was all set in a world so appointed and sumptuous as to make Douglas Sirk seem restrained. With 1950's America in peace and great economic prosperity, White Christmas was an escapist message-movie fantasy for people who had everything. The sets are such a suptuous exaggeration of peacetime prosperity, as to resemble less the actual era but a lounge scenester's dream of the 50's. Think Jack Rabbit Slim's in Pulp Fiction. Everything is outrageously lavish: Crosby and Kaye rescue Clooney and Vera-Ellen from a dead-end job at a "dinner theatre" so swanky it could be the El Morocco. The World War II prologue that opens the film is so obviously fake, even moreso than earlier movies with lower budgets, that I still wonder if it's dated or intentionally stylized. Danny Kaye saves the movie from its own length. The guy is just hilarous. I've loved him since I when I first saw Hans Christian Andersen and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on the Disney Channel at age 10. I'd always thought that if I'd gone to war, I might've reacted much like Kaye's character in White Christmas, deflecting horrors with humor, song-and dance, and slightly effete wit. But there was an interesting fact I didn't know. It was only a couple years ago that I learned that Kaye was, in fact, gay - which puts a lot of things into perspective, and makes certain elements of White Christmas affectionately funny. Consider his constant brush-off of Vera-Ellen's romantic overtures with "ew-icky" facial expressions or the jaw-dropping the interlude where Kaye and Crosby don sequins and feather fans for an impromptu lip-syncing drag show. I'm not kidding here, people. Kaye is as over the top as Farley Granger in Ben-Hur - camping and swishing around, playing it to the hilt, while Bing follows along with the smirk and shrug of a guy that's worked around the sissies for so long it's just another bit of buh-buh-boo to him. Middling reviews notwithstanding, the film was a huge hit, and to capitalize on the success, Bing's record company, MCA, decided in 1955 to release what's become the definitive version of his Merry Christmas album. Bing recorded four new songs, none of which appeared in White Christmas or in the original Merry Christmas album of 78s. They were more contemporary than their counterparts and reflected the transition from the big band era to the more singer-focused era of the 1950's hit parade. One of these is "Silver Bells," a duet with Carole Richards in a style similiar to "Tennessee Waltz" duets of "Tennessee" Ernie Ford. Another is "Christmas in Killarney," a droll song of Christmas in Ireland, perhaps intended as a replacement for "Danny Boy" which had been cut from Merry Christmas in the original transition from album to LP. My mom has video of me at age ten, lipsynching along to "Christmas in Killarney" and doing a rather instresting interprestation of a "jig" - which consisted staring into the lens with my eyes really wide, and marching at the camera. I was a weird kid.
The one new song from 1955 that strongly reflected the post-War feeling was actually a throwback. Bing brought the Andrews Sisters back for "Mele Kalikimaka," a less languid companion to the Andrews' "Christmas Island." Both songs embodied addition of exotic South Seas culture that GIs brought home from the Pacific Theatre, and for this reason a reunion with the Andrews Sisters was a stroke of genius. Like James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific (and the musical based on it), "Mele Kalikimaka" was intended to remind those who'd been there what it was like and why many chose not to leave "the land where palm trees sway." The 1955 version of Merry Christmas has stood the test of time better than any Christmas album. It's still a hot seller today, and is usually sold on CD at a discount. MCA changed the title of the CD to White Christmas in the mid 90's, a condescending gesture that assumes if someone comes into Wal Mart looking for "White Christmas" they wouldn't have the patience to figure out which Bing Crosby CD it's on. The content and song order remain the same as in 1955, and it's the one Christmas album I can play in July and not feel compelled to turn off when friends come over. Bing Crosby recorded many more Christmas songs than those on Merry Christmas and nearly all are available on CD. He kept recording them to the time he died. Only weeks before he passed away, Bing sang "The Little Drummer Boy" on a television special with none other than David Bowie. Bowie, in his early 20s at the time was fresh faced, young, slightly sissyish, and very mod. It had all the makings of a disasterous footnote in Music News of the Weird, like Elvis' drug crazed meeting with Nixon, but Bing, gaunt and weak but clear-eyed, displayed the same noncondescending grace that had defined his style. After a conversation about modern music, they begin to sing. Crosby takes the traditional melody and lyrics and Bowie takes the lead in a gorgeous countermelody that calls for peace on earth for future generations. The audio from that live performance has emerged as a holiday classic and has become many people's favorite version of the song. But when seen on television, with the two men together, on a stage at a piano, any sense of this as a studio trick or cynical money grab disappears. Their mutual respect is evident on screen. There's not a hint of discomfort or starstruck awe, just two fathers singing a song they both love. It's genuinely touching - the kind of meeting between generations that during Vietnam had all but disappeared. I don't know if Crosby really knew of Bowie's music and bisexuality when they met. If he did, it didn't appear to bug him one bit. I'd like to think that sure he knew about Bowie, and recognized the talent, and did the show because, well, as with Hope (in his straight way) and Kaye (in his gay way), Crosby knew talent when he saw it, sissy or not. At the end of the song, Bing, in his strolling way says, "ahh, that's a pretty thing, iddn't it?" Yes, it was. So, to Bing, Danny, Maxie, LaVerne, Patty, and David: Mele Kalikimaka, and thanks for all the pretty things
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.