Snow Job

If the only way you hear Christmas music is by what’s played in department stores and those seasonal radio stations that spend the rest of the year broadcasting soft rock you’d be forgiven for thinking your only options are stiffly archaic orchestral arrangements, Crosby-esque crooning, and the occasional over-produced pop song. But as anyone who’s spent any serious amount of time crate-digging through dusty vinyl can attest, there’s a veritable sea of Christmas recordings out there that are way too out there to serve as background music at Macy’s.

Eccentric Christmas music and the people (often eccentric themselves) who are obsessed with it are the subjects of a new documentary, Jingle Bell Rocks!, out now on DVD and VOD. The film includes interviews with artists like Run-D.M.C. and the Flaming Lips who’ve recorded non-traditional holiday songs, but the real stars are the collectors whose intense interest in the music extends year round. John Soss is one such fanatic, and he’s compiled a mix of obscure Christmas tunes for EW that includes contributions by a bewildering range of performers, from James Brown to Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm from The Flintstones.

“Reindeer Rock” by Jimmy Boyd [Columbia 1955]

“This was a record I found in my parents’ basement while my sisters and I were sorting through their stuff. What’s strange is that I don’t recall ever hearing this played around the house during the holidays, so it was completely unfamiliar to me. It was that sense of discovery–plus the thrill of rescuing a song from the donation pile–that helped it make this list. Other than a weird fidelity issue in the first few seconds, this track is a sonic blast. The producer pushed the horn section and background singers right into the front of the mix, making it sound like a huge orchestra. It even changes keys towards the end, a gimmick that gets me every single time. My copy, and those I’ve seen on eBay, is a 45 RPM ‘promotion record,’ meaning that it wasn’t for sale at retail, and the song doesn’t appear on Jimmy Boyd’s holiday collection Christmas With Jimmy Boyd. What may have happened was that after he cut the original version of ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ and had a major hit record with it, Mitch Miller smelled money and kept assigning the kid to sing more and more holiday novelty songs, hoping to strike gold again. ‘Reindeer Rock’ must have been a casualty of that period, which is inexplicable considering what a blast it is.”

“Cool Yule” by The J’s with Jamie [mid-1960s]

“Toad Hall Records, the sprawling now-defunct record shop in Rockford, Illinois, was a very weird joint run by an eccentric old man and a cast of total oddballs. Sounds like a lot of old record stores, come to think of it. Hours of digging around yielded me this EP, featuring six songs on a 7-inch disc that gets played at 33.3 RPM. It’s a blasting big-band romp, not very much like Satchmo’s version at all. The group was a first-rate singing ensemble, known for performing covers of modern hits and recording jingles for cigarette companies. They were actually good enough to have been nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy award (they lost to the Swingle Singers). There was no record label credited on the physical record or the picture sleeve, so it may have been self-released.”

“This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway [Atlantic 1970]

“I was reluctant to put this on my list, primarily because it was such a major hit, but came to the conclusion that there’s a good reason it was such a smash: it’s a friggin’ terrific record! It has everything, starting with a killer horn riff, strings, bongos, timpani, a sneaky bass line, and some groovy guitar along with Donny’s smash vocal delivery. The song itself, co-written by Donny and Nadine McKinnor, paints a picture of two lovebirds getting ready for Christmas, and it’s so positively upbeat that I can’t help but listen to it multiple times every single year.”

“Merry Christmas, I Love You” by James Brown [King 1966]

“I’ve been hosting my family Christmas party for the last several years, and a big part of the celebration involves music. One year, when my 5-CD changer broke down, I could only play one CD at a time, so I reached for the James Brown compilation Santa’s Got A Brand New Bag. Until you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to imagine James Brown invoking such seriously killer Christmas vibes, but if you ever find yourself in a bind to get everyone in the holiday spirit, this CD is my recommendation. He went way off the beaten path and compiled a collection of Christmas recordings unparalleled in modern times. Talk about your Cool Yule! He even died on Christmas day, cementing his place in the holiday canon.”

“Snow Flake” by Pebbles & Bamm Bamm [Hanna Barbera 1965]

“I originally found this on a 4-song EP featuring the cartoon characters from The Flintstones cartoon series. I would have bought it just for the picture sleeve, but when I gave it a listen, I was floored by the mostly-instrumental track ‘Snow Flake,’ a trippy ’60s song heavy on the reverb and completely uncommon. My copy was clean but had a hairline crack, so I ended up buying the full-length LP on eBay. Based on the era and that it was a Hollywood production, I half-wonder if The Wrecking Crew was behind this.”

“White Christmas” by Charlie Parker [Live recording 1948]

“A terrific track from the Mr. Santa’s Boogie LP is Bird’s live recording of ‘White Christmas,’ recorded on Christmas Day at a New York City jazz club that doubled as a restaurant specializing in fried chicken. From what I’ve heard, Parker loved his fried chicken. I’ll always love this song–yes, even Bing’s original–but this recording seems to nail the melody in such an offhand way, almost as if they weren’t trying that hard, just giving the audience what they wanted on Christmas day. Can you imagine being in NYC on Christmas day in 1948 and finding yourself in a jazz club listening to Charlie Parker? And eating fried chicken!! How nuts is that whole scenario, yet it actually happened. The dueling trumpet certainly takes center stage alongside Parker, but it’s Max Roach’s drumming that really draws me in. This track was included in my very first Christmas mixtape, from 1988, when all I was trying to do was gather together a bunch of songs to impress people at my friend Nigel’s holiday party.”

“Christmas Wish” by NRBQ [Rounder 1985]

“This is what’s known as a Christmas miracle. One of the greatest bands ever—certainly one of the nuttiest—chose to record an album devoted to my favorite time of the year. If much of the album sounds like the guys were just screwing around with their home recording devices, that’s because they were, which makes ‘Christmas Wish’ such a standout. It’s a fully formed composition, written and sung by Joey Spampinato, and its simplicity is what draws me in. No need for big production or studio trickery. Just a heartfelt vocal with a simple vision: Every Christmas, there’s a magic in the air where the holiday spirit’s true.”

“Wonderful Christmas Night” by Dan Grissom [1948]

“Back in the olden days–in this case 1985–when obscure holiday records required a mail order purchase, I bought an album on the Savoy Jazz label called Mr. Santa’s Boogie. Other than the vocalist, there are no other credits, which is a shame because the ensemble compliments his vocals admirably. He sings the song quietly, like Chet Baker singing a lullaby, and the saxophone accompanist fills the gaps with empathy, barely rising above a whisper. In the background is a xylophone player, and I just love that sound. If you include this year, I’ve been making an annual mix for 27 years, and this is the only track that I’ve included twice. That’s how much I love this song. Listen to it late in the evening, after a few cocktails, when the only lights in the room are on the Christmas tree, and tell me you don’t get just a little bit misty-eyed.”

“You Don’t Have to Be a Santa Claus” by The Mills Brothers [Decca 1955]

“Amongst the many nut-jobs out there who make Christmas mixes, Tom ‘Grover’ Biery is a standout. I met him in the late 80s, at a Warner Brothers Records music conference (I was uninvited, but crashed the party nonetheless). His gift to me each year is a copy of his own collection of holiday cheer, the Ho-Down. This Mills Brothers song landed on one of his mixes and instantly shot to the top of my list. The gentle piano playing, alongside the vibraphone, stopped me in my tracks. Vocally, these guys give me goosebumps. My mom liked the Mills Brothers, and Grover likes the Mills Brothers, and that’s all that matters.”

“Merry Christmas, Baby” by Elvis Presley [RCA 1971]

“You’re probably thinking: Elvis? Seriously? My answer is that my obsession with recorded Christmas music all began with Elvis’ 8-track holiday collection The Wonderful World of Christmas, which I listened to over and over again in December of 1978. The highlight of that tape was his recording of ‘Merry Christmas, Baby,’ a slow-burning electric guitar-driven Memphis blues groove. It has the feel of a song recorded late at night, after the rest of the sessions were over, when the band finally had a chance to let their hair down and cut loose. Later, thanks to my pal ‘Decibel Dennis’ MacDonald, I would discover the long version, which ran for almost eight minutes.”

“Christmas Land” by Wally Whyton [Piccadilly 1961]

“As evidenced by the line We went walking in a misty sky and traveled into Christmas Land, this tune features two of my favorite things: traveling and Christmas. When you think of it, Christmas isn’t necessarily something that arrives, at least not for me. You have to go there, by choice, and partake in whatever it has to offer. This track came from Sequel’s Sixties Christmas, a CD that I scored via mail order from the Bear Family library. Out of 30 songs, this is the one that really knocked me out, and in the Christmas music collecting business, one out of 30 is a damn good ratio.”

“Christmas Road” by Allen Keller [Charlie Parker Records 1962]

“This is a relatively new find. While trolling through eMusic’s vast online catalog of songs, armed only with the keyword ‘Christmas,’ I listened to 999 absolutely dreadful songs before the dark clouds parted and I found this tune. Its origin is an album cut in late November of 1962 featuring all original compositions. This is not a Christmas album. It’s a 12-track LP featuring tunes written by and sung by Allen Keller, a crooner in the style of Steve Lawrence or Jack Jones, with a hipper Long Island view of the world. He was a complete original who just happened to cut one track with a holiday theme. Lyrically, it implies that with a little bit of effort, you can turn around a bad mood by digging the Christmas thing. So weary traveler, Put down your load, and start to live, On Christmas Road.”