I'm writing this on a gray and rainy December day that doesn't feel much like Christmas — instead, it seems dreary and depressing.
Which means it's a perfect time to talk about holiday music!
Readers have spent the past few weeks nominating a variety of holiday-themed songs for inclusion in the Think Too Much Holiday Music Hall of Fame. The challenge is to identify specific performances of holiday songs that are so definitive, it should be illegal for any other musician to ever record that track. (We allow exceptions for concert performances, but only if those artists pay a fee to the Hall of Fame to help cover our operating costs.)
Every year I write this column, I get more nominations from readers, which says something about the deep connection many of us feel with these holiday tunes. The best Christmas songs connect with a range of emotions, from dark despair to giddy joy. They celebrate nostalgia and tradition, take stock of the year that is ending, hope for better times.
This year's nominations were remarkably eclectic. (The online version of the column includes a list of all the nominations this year, as well as a list of all the tracks inducted into the Hall of Fame thus far.) The nominations covered the gamut from songs that celebrate the sheer joy the season can bring to ones that don't shy away from the emotional devastation it can bring.
Which brings us to perhaps the single most depressing song ever written, and this year's first inductee: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." (The runner-up, in a tight race, is "I'll Be Home for Christmas," covered with heart-crushing precision by Diana Krall on her recent Christmas album.)
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane and appeared first in the 1944 movie musical "Meet Me in St. Louis." In the movie, a family is despondent over the prospect of having to move from their beloved St. Louis to New York City; to help cheer up her sister, the character played by Judy Garland sings her the song. I'm not sure if that would have done the trick.
But here's the thing: The original version of the song was deemed too depressing by Garland and the movie's director, Vincente Minnelli. And they might have had a point: The song originally began with these lines: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last."
Martin originally was resistant, but eventually changed the lyrics. (Years later, he did the same favor for Frank Sinatra.) Which is not to say that the song now is a bundle of fuzzy joy. Every once in a while, a singer tries to give the song an optimistic sheen (I'm talking to you, Yolanda Adams), but the song shakes off those attempts like a dog shaking off water and resumes its hangdog ways. It is a worthy inductee into the Hall of Fame, and the version we enshrine — of course — is Garland's 1944 recording.
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" requires a pure sugar chaser, and this year's second inductee fills the bill: Brenda Lee's 1958 "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," recorded when the singer was 13 and not quite the big star she would become. (The song was written by Johnny Marks, who specialized in Christmas songs and also wrote tunes like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "A Holly Jolly Christmas.") Although "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" has been covered many times, none has had the benefit of Lee's big-voiced delivery and the crack band, which included pianist Floyd Cramer, guitarist Grady Martin and Boots Randolph on saxophone. One thing's for certain: You will get a sentimental feeling.
A third honored song this year splits the difference between the year's other inductees: "Merry Christmas Baby," arguably the second-sexiest Christmas song ever (behind Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," inducted last year). The song, written by Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore, dates to 1947, when it was recorded by Johnny Moore's Three Blazers. The vocalist and pianist in the Three Blazers was a fellow named Charles Brown, and Brown eventually became associated with the song. Moore recorded the song a number of times and other artists have produced fine recordings (Fantasia, for example, turns in a strong performance on her her excellent new Christmas album). But for a slow, warm groove, stick with Brown.
So, there are your three new members of the Hall of Fame, worthy additions all. Faithful readers may object that in the past, I have enshrined just two songs into the Hall of Fame each year. That's true. I only have two responses: First, if you're outraged, start your own Holiday Music Hall of Fame.
Second, have yourself a merry little Christmas. (mm)