Thursday, November 30, 2017

Jim Nabors, 1930-2017

I was terribly saddened to learn of Jim Nabors' death this evening. Best known for his portrayal of North Carolinian auto mechanic and Marine private Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show and, later, Gomer Pyle, USMC, Nabors was also a successful singer and recording artists who produced a number of best-selling Christmas-themed albums in addition to a range of popular releases.

In 2013, shortly after same-sex marriage was legalized in Washington state, Nabors married his longtime partner Stan Cadwallader at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle. Following the announcement of his death earlier today, Karen Pence, the wife of Vice President and former Indiana Governor Mike Pence, issued a statement mourning the loss. 

 "So sad to hear about the passing of Jim Nabors," she wrote. "We heard him sing 'Back Home Again in Indiana' at the Indianapolis 500 countless times. We will miss his beautiful voice."

Ho! Ho! Ho! It's 2017 and We're (Finally) Ready to Rock!

A warm season's greetings to you and yours -- or, better yet, as our esteemed former President and his fellow travelers frequently exclaimed during what must currently be described as the Golden Era of American Democracy:  "Merry Christmas!" It's great have you with us as we throw a couple of logs on the fire and begin to string up the festive holiday lights for another year. It's always nice to see the warm faces of good friends during the holidays, even as we remember those we've lost during this most discouraging of years.

I want to start with a heartfelt apology to anyone who's looked this way in vain for news about my latest holiday CD, as I'm at least several weeks late in opening up the store this year. The truth is that until last Sunday I wasn't planning to open up at all. I've been exceedingly busy the past couple of months and expect that to continue for the next couple of months or more, and I've been finding it difficult to scare up the old Christmas spirit of late. Moreover, for the first time ever I've been having trouble finding the kind of material I like to use in my annual compilations. The combination of these various factors led me to regretfully conclude that I wouldn't be able to create a Christmas mix this year.

Toward the end of the recent Thanksgiving weekend, however -- right around 2:00 on Sunday afternoon -- I was overcome by feelings of guilt and inspiration in roughly equal measure and found myself starting to poke around in my files to see whether there was anything there I might be able to use. Perhaps I could throw together an EP, I thought. Even a few tracks would be better than nothing.

Well, within an hour or so I started to feel some of the old magic returning, and before I knew it I'd assembled the rough outline of another full CD. While it usually takes me a month or more to assemble each annual mix, I actually created this year's mix in a single, albeit extremely late evening and I'm pleased to report that my 2017 mix, titled "It's Christmas Time Again" is now complete and ready to go!

Over the next several weeks I will try to follow the model I've used in previous seasons -- that is offering a few words about each of the tracks included on this year's CD. There are 34 tracks in all, so I'll be lucky to finish the project in time for Santa's arrival on Christmas Eve. But I'm going to try, even if I have to cheat a little bit and clean up a post or two after the fact.

I'll be on the road sporadically throughout these next several weeks -- tonight I'm in Exton, Pennsylvania, where it's drizzling and in the upper 40s. Today's news brought little cheer or solace as our nation's elected leader retweeted a series of anti-Muslim videos and continued to promote legislation that would slash the taxes of many of our wealthiest citizens at the expense of million of middle class and working Americans who are going to have trouble buying holiday gifts this year. Several more once-respected public figures have been exposed as sexual predators, and North Korea has successfully launched another intercontinental missile test. And to top it off, another beloved celebrity has died. Against that background, I'm mighty glad to have something nice to throw into the mix. There's an awful lot of good still out there. I'm hoping we can salvage something better from this year's holidays and begin to set things on a better and more uplifting course -- after all, whatever else is going on, It's Christmas Time Again!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

It's New Year's Eve!

In anticipation of this evening's festivities — and tomorrow's holiday — here are several of my favorite New Year's tunes:

Happy New Year, by Charlie Weaver

Happy New Year, by Spike Jones and His City Slickers

Happy New Year, by The Glad Singers

I've also got three Happy New Year mixes on the Extras page of my holiday music website, HERE

Whatever you do and however you do it tonight, have a safe and enjoyable New Year's Eve! The coming year will likely be filled with awesome challenges, and we're going to need everyone to be at their best!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Let It Snow!, Part 12

Well, we didn't do it in time for Christmas, but at least it's done! Here are a few notes about the final two songs in my latest holiday mix, Let It Snow!:

Track 37
Muhammad Ali (The Meaning of Christmas), by Greg Trooper (2003)
Looking back over the list of public figures who died this past year, the name of Muhammad Ali stood out as perhaps the most widely known and most influential of them all. He's a man I greatly respected — not so much for his boxing skills as for his principled opposition to the Vietnam War and subsequent positions on public issues. I was hoping to find a suitable audio clip of Ali wishing people a Merry Christmas or some such thing, but when I googled Ali's name along with the word "Christmas," many of the resulting links were to this song by singer/songwriter Greg Trooper. I wasn't aware of the song at the time — in fact, I'd never heard of Greg Trooper. I'm not sure why I hadn't because he's been around at least as long as I have and several of his records were produced by Garry Tallent of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, but them's the facts. So I listened to it on YouTube, and instantly liked it. In fact, I thought it would be a great way to end this year's mix, as it's the kind of thoughtful, quiet and reflective track that I like to use to close out each CD. Yet if I had to explain the meaning of the song from Trooper's point of view — just what is he trying to say? — I wouldn't have the foggiest idea how to do it. I'm not even sure I have a valid interpretation of what it means to me. Clearly, Trooper was a fan. He seems to admire Ali for defying the odds and remaining true to himself regardless of what anyone else believed.
Muhammad Ali (The Meaning of Christmas)
I saw Muhammad Ali
Talking to me
From the TV
Teaching me
The meaning of Christmas. 
Float like a butterfly
Sting like a bee
How could this be?
Him teaching me
The meaning of Christmas?

His hands were shaking
His knees were weak
But listen to this old warrior when he speaks
I am the greatest he said with a grin
But he was talking about you
Not about him
And he was teaching me
The meaning of Christmas.

I remember they called him a clown
But then Sonny went down
In no more than six rounds
And he was teaching us all
A new day was coming.

And I remember this Louiseville kid
Wouldn't do what they said
Found his own God instead
And he was teaching us all
The meaning of Christmas.

There are kings in the east
There are kings in the west
There are kings all around
But not every king knows
The meaning of Christmas.

It seems clear that Trooper's references to Christmas are to Christmas in the broadest sense of the word — not only to the day of Jesus' birth, but to the spirit of the holiday and the rich and diverse group of qualities and ideals people ascribe to it. Still, it's not the most comfortable fit. The Ali brand of bravado and trash talk might be a useful model for someone lacking in confidence or self esteem, but it's hardly the kind of quality we associate with Christmas. To an awful lot of people, Ali's abandonment of Christianity and his adoption of the Muslim faith should disqualify him from a seat at our holiday table. He did more than change parishes, he "found his own God instead," a rather clear violation of the First Commandment. Yet still somehow this song sounds appropriate. Perhaps because here on earth, each of us is free to set our own moral compass and to worship the God of our own understanding, and because tolerance for these truths, so long as others are not disrespected or hurt, is indeed part of the holiday spirit. Ali refused to be drafted at a time when the majority of the Christian people of our country were probably quite opposed to his position. The power establishment certainly was. And whose position turned out to be the more moral stand? I don't know, I can see where Muhammad Ali could teach me a thing or two about the meaning of Christmas. The whys and wherefores will likely come, as all things inevitably will, in time.

Listen to Greg Trooper's "Muhammad Ali (The Meaning of Christmas)"

Track 36
Another Lonely Christmas, Prince

I was a big Prince fan going back to his very first commercial releases. I was amazed by the brash openness of his third album "Dirty Mind," and his flaunting of conventional morality on his follow-up release, "Controversy." His 1982 album "1999" hardly left my turntable for the first five or six months after its release, which is quite something considering it came out around the same time as Michael Jackson's "Thriller." I was blown away by the song "When Doves Cry," even though it kept Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" from reaching the top spot on Billboard's Hot 100. I didn't care too much for the movie "Purple Rain," but the soundtrack was awesome, and I remained a big fan of Prince's music throughout most of the 1980s. I didn't follow him too much after that, although I was lucky enough to see him close up at NBC's Burbank Studios in 1999 and to attend special performance of his at the Key Club in Hollywood that was just incredible. His death this past April came as a real shock. I had no idea he was in such pain and so close to the end of his endurance.

I confess that this song was never one of my favorites. The lyrics are beautiful and sobering, and they always struck me as a message to enjoy each day to the fullest. I would have preferred to include something else of his, but I'm not sure Prince ever recorded anything else about Christmas. In the end, he seems to have been a very private and possibly lonely soul. I can identify with that. Many people are. He certainly left a rich musical legacy behind, and he did a great deal of good while he was here. Those things, too, reflect the meaning of Christmas.

Listen to Prince's "Another Lonely Christmas"

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Let It Snow!, Part 11

Three days left in 2016 and five songs left to examine from this year's holiday mix, so let's have at it!

Track 35
The Christmas Song, by Natalie and Nat "King" Cole (1998)
We seem to have lost an awful lot of entertainers and cultural icons this year; in fact, I'm beginning to brace myself each time I look at the news for fear of hearing about another death. Singer George Michael died on Christmas Day, followed by Carrie Fisher yesterday, and, remarkably, Fisher's mother, Debbie Reynolds, this afternoon. It seems kind of odd sometimes to feel so affected by the passing of some celebrity we never met and know so little about, especially when so many very special unsung heroes and non-celebrities die without any fanfare nearly every day. But many of the popular entertainers whose deaths attract wide notice have become a common point of reference whose works serve as mileposts as make our own clumsy ways through life, "I remember seeing her first movie in college," we might think, or "I remember listening to her music when we drove up the coast that summer." Well, we've lost too many this year, and I'm afraid we'll need to get used it with so many from the post-WW II generation entering their 70s and 80s.

Natalie Cole died on New Year's Eve of 2015 at the age of 65. As the daughter of popular entertainer Nat "King" Cole, Natalie's career got off to an easier start than many, and I remember her best for her first several albums, which included hits like "This Will Be," "I've Got Love on My Mind, and "Our Love." After several years of great success, however, Cole apparently become heavily involved in drugs and her career hit the skids. In time she was able to recover somewhat, although she seemed to have to struggle each step of the way. In 1991 she released an album of duets with her late father, which became her biggest record ever. This track, released in 1998, is in that mold. "The Christmas Song" has been released by hundreds of different artists, but it will always remain most closely associated with Nat "King" Cole, which is a big part of the reason this version is so special.

Listen to "The Christmas Song" by Natalie and Nat "King" Cole

Track 34
O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Tyler Joseph (2013)
My friend Eddie turned me on to Tyler Joseph and his band TWENTY ØNE PILØTS shortly after the release of their first major label album last year, and they quickly became one of my very favorite groups. The band originated in Columbus, Ohio in 2009 as a collaboration between Joseph and two college friends. In 2011, the two friends were replaced by drummer Josh Dunn, and it's remained a two-person operation ever since. After self-releasing a variety of material and touring for several years, the band signed with Fueled by Ramen, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. They've released two albums for the label thus far, the first of which, Vessel, was well-reviewed and attracted considerable notice. Additional interest was generated by the group's busy touring schedule, so that by the time they released their second major studio effort, Blurryface, in May 2015, it debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200.

This track is an excerpt from a program found on Vimeo titled "Christmas with the Stars," which appears to have been produced by the Five14 Church in New Albany, Ohio. The program is cast as old fashioned variety show, with some kidding on either end of the song between Joseph and the master of ceremonies. But there's nothing funny about the performance of the song itself, which showcases Joseph's fine voice, a quality that's sometimes overlooked in his work for TWENTY ØNE PILØTS:

For those who aren't familiar with them, here are several songs by TWENTY ØNE PILØTS:

The song "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is a beautiful carol that appeared twice on my 2014 mix, "Is There Really a Santa Claus?" in versions by the Front Range Christian School Advance Band and Boyz II Men.

Track 33
KJR Rock and Roll Christmas, Ric Hansen and Julie Miller (1975)
From one of my favorite songs on the mix we turn next to the one I probably dislike the most. This is a promotional track put together in the mid-1970s for Seattle radio station KJR, featuring two of its former DJs: "Rockin'" Ric Hansen and Julie Miller. I certainly don't mean to be critical of Ric and Julie personally, but this whole business of radio stations creating "morning teams" to "entertain" listeners with crappy jokes and talk about what they did over the weekend has always struck me as one of the lamest acts around — and schlock like this, which is about as edgy as a ball of yarn, simply underscores how far from its moorings commercial radio has slipped. There were lots of good independent radio stations around in the mid-'70s with announcers who had genuine personalities and playlists that reflected the popular tastes in their communities, and for all I know KJR was one of them. In fact, I've read about some of the fallout following Clear Channel's acquisition of the station several years later that suggests Hansen was a good guy with a considerable following during his tenure at the station. But I have an instinctive negative reaction to anything involving business marketing and commercial radio these days, and this track makes me gag every time I hear it. So why in the name of God did I include it in this year's mix, you ask? Well, life involves a certain amount of suffering, and why should I have to endure this on my own? When I first started these mixes at least half of the tunes I included were dreadful monstrosities a normal person could barely stomach and now we're down to only a couple of them per disc and I pulled the other one of those intended for this year's disc* at the last minute so please just listen to this, cringe with me for a moment, and be grateful for the progress we've made. 

Listen to "A KJR Rock 'n Roll Christmas," by Ric Hansen and Julie Miller

*For those masochists among you, my last-minute deletion this year was "Christmas Season" by the inimitable Little Suzi, and you can listen to it HERE. Good luck to you.