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ALADDIN 3037; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

It hardly seems fair this holiday season when you stop and think about it. In a year in which Amos Milburn has already given us more presents than we could’ve asked for, including two perfect records from late last year that sat atop the charts in early 1949, there’s a bright shiny gift from him sitting under the tree.

Shouldn’t rock ‘n’ roll fans be the ones giving HIM a present for being the most consistent artist in the genre’s two year odyssey to date?

But then again you should never say “you shouldn’t have gotten me this” when someone gets you an unexpected present. You may mean well but it’s really an insult to the one doing the giving. They got it, they wanted you to have it so be grateful for their thoughtfulness, not embarrassed by it or feel guilty that you’re opening it.

So in that spirit during this Christmas season of 2018 we look back on Christmas 1949 when Amos Milburn was at the height of his powers, arguably the greatest rock artist yet to make the scene, and see what present rock ‘n’ roll’s most benevolent Santa Claus has left for us.
 

 

Slide Down Your Chimney
It’s a funny thing about the passage of time and music. No matter how transformative an artist may be, how big of an impact they have in their day, how all-enveloping their records are for an entire generation of listeners… once that moment passes their music – loud and alive – starts to fade until its sound can barely be heard. Eventually, in almost every case, it will go silent.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s silenced forever, but no longer will it ever be passively listened to for the most part. You’ll have to actively seek these songs out and play them, unlike when they were new and everywhere you turned you’d hear them pouring out of jukeboxes, radios or whatever form of dissemination – from Victrolas to boom boxes – that was in vogue at the time.

Music history is heartless in many ways, which only reinforces its image as a barometer of current pop culture. Artists and the songs they make famous exist in the present and as time goes on all but the biggest artists and biggest songs from the past become extinct.

With one very notable exception that is. Christmas music.

By any barometer the most dominantly popular artist of the Twentieth Century wasn’t Elvis Presley or The Beatles or Michael Jackson. It was Bing Crosby.

However you want to measure it Crosby comes out on top. He scored a ridiculous number of hits – almost 400, though it must be stated that prior to 1940 the “charts” were not what they were after that date with precise calculations. He had 43 #1 hits, one more than The Beatles and Presley combined. But beyond mere numbers and even beyond the fact he was arguably the first true multi-media star – an Academy Award for acting, host and star of a long-running radio show, television specials, even producer (Hogan’s Heroes and Ben Casey being the most popular of the programs he oversaw), there’s his sheer influence on music that is enormous.

In the early 1930’s he essentially invented the crooning style of singing which dominated the next three decades of pop music. Whereas artists previously sang in loud tones to project their voices in theaters and be heard on primitive recording apparatuses, he dialed it back taking full advantage of the recent technological development of better microphones and drew the listener in by singing intimately. He’d also helped to spread jazz to a wider audience, making the once scandalous music acceptable to mainstream America and then he dabbled successfully in almost every conceivable style of song over the years creating a catalog with a truly vast scope.

But today virtually the only Bing Crosby songs you’ll hear played anywhere are his Christmas songs. Of course White Christmas remains the best selling single of all-time but the rest of his output in holiday music gets annual re-airings which keeps his warm baritone from ever disappearing completely from the ears of each successive generation.

The same can be said for other of the biggest pre-rock stars, from Nat “King” Cole and Perry Como to Doris Day and Gene Autry, their entire musical legacies reduced to singing about chestnuts, mistletoe, Christmas toys and reindeers.
 

Coal In Your Stocking
This is a sad but inexorable fact of life when it comes to the shelf-life of all music, even that of musical legends.

In the past three decades Mariah Carey has had more hits than anyone yet fifty years from now it’s a good bet that the only song of hers anyone will know offhand is All I Want For Christmas Is You.

Doubt me? Well let me ask you this, how many times this entire year have you heard At The Hop by Danny & The Juniors, Elvis Presley’s smoldering Don’t, The Champs raunchy instrumental Tequila or The Everly Brothers’ ethereal All I Have To Do Is Dream being played on radio, four records that were #1 for a combined five and a half months during 1958. Now by comparison how many times this month alone – December, 2018 – have you heard The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) sung by cartoon animals?

I rest my case.

The reason for this is simple. Christmas is a cottage industry, self-contained and reliant on conjuring up on demand a familiar nostalgic feeling. Music is the easiest way to do so, but while everybody under the sun has released a Christmas album at one point or another it seems, most of them are just retreads of the same holiday standards… songs which have already had their definitive version enter into the popular lexicon. Sure, you’ll occasionally get someone re-inventing one and sharing space alongside the enduring classic, The Drifters version of White Christmas comes readily to mind, as does The Temptations epic take on Silent Night, and this year John Legend threw his hat into that particular ring by suitably rocking up Silver Bells which might wind up becoming a go-to version of that well-worn classic for this century, but for the most part you need to come to the table with something brand new to ensure your own musical immortality… for at least one month of every year.

Paul McCartney, a man who’s written as many legendary songs as anybody, who was in the most popular group ever and certainly when you combine The Beatles and his solo output he must have sold more records than anybody and thus is someone who you’d think is in absolutely no danger of ever having his musical legacy diminished in the least… well, think again. A hundred years from now it won’t be Yesterday people are familiar with, it’ll probably be the cheesy Wonderful Christmastime because that has a built in replay cycle that is unlikely to ever disappear.

This is musical reality – legendary artists from across the spectrum all being reduced to little more than holiday white noise at shopping malls.

But today let’s go back to just the third Christmas celebrated in the rock ‘n’ roll era where we get our second original Christmas song to be delivered by a rock artist. Though it didn’t wind up doing for Amos Milburn what those other examples did for their creators, Let’s Make Christmas Merry, Baby gets on both our naughty AND nice list for Ol’ St. Nick.
 


 

Let Me Be Your Santa Claus
In 1949 very few radio stations played rock ‘n’ roll. We’ve delved into a some of those who did in the past, mostly ones in various big cities, from New Orleans to Chicago, Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, but while more were popping up every month as rock’s commercial prowess became harder to ignore, these outlets were still limited to usually just a single show each night, maybe two or three hours at the most, with a handful of the bigger records making the wider playlists on black-oriented radio that wasn’t confined to just one style.

In spite of this it’s hard to envision many stations, no matter how enthusiastic about this brand of music they might’ve been, being entirely comfortable airing Let’s Make Christmas Merry, Baby because it’s about as sexualized as a Christmas song can be. Yet they must’ve because as hot as Milburn was the record hit #3 on the charts for a full month, giving him his sixth Top Ten hit of what is unquestionably the most successful year for any artist to date in rock ‘n’ roll and for what it’s worth he’s not done for the year just yet.

But because of its racy content it’s easy to see why this didn’t become a Christmas standard, like say his fellow piano-playing buddy from Texas, Charles Brown, the cocktail blues star who scored with Merry Christmas, Baby while fronting Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers a few years back, and who on his own would go on to notch another all-time classic with Please Come Home For Christmas in 1960, making him just about the only black artist to have originated two holiday standards.

Whereas Brown only hinted at the type of present he was getting from his girl on the cut with Moore from 1946, Milburn does far more than hint. He practically takes his clothes off while he’s seductively crooning suggestive double entrendres to his girlfriend making ample use of such easily understood imagery as chimneys, stockings and toys.

Come to think of it even today if you heard this piping over the speakers at the mall while you’re shopping for presents to give ungrateful relatives and so-called “friends” who stretch the definition of that term far past its comfort zone, especially when it requires buying them crap every December, you’d stop and do a double take at what Amos is crooning here… seventy YEARS after it was cut.
 


 
 

Fill Your Stockings Full Of Toys
But that’s the thing about the holiday, as much of a hassle it can be to be standing in lines and fighting crowds, there’s still joy to be found if you look in the right places… like reading between the lines of this song and envisioning the sexual acts Milburn’s describing and mentally checking each one off your own Christmas list, past, present and future.

On Let’s Make Christmas Merry, Baby he doesn’t disappoint. The wordplay is clever and his languid delivery, with its pregnant pauses and sleepy-eyed mischievous smirk, only heightens the anticipation for each payoff.

Despite his obvious horniness he’s not “dashing through the snow” to reach his baby, more like slipping through the window for a late night rendezvous. Though I have no doubt he’d be doing the same thing in the middle of July, the winter setting and mild perverting of the innocent, even sacred, holiday makes this all the more enjoyable.

Hey, if you want inoffensive good cheer fit for the whole family to listen to while eating a fruitcake then don’t play rock ‘n’ roll, play The Mormon Tabernacle Choir!

But for those who are tired of the jovial Ray Conniff Singers and have overdosed on Percy Faith records and aren’t in the mood for a political argument with a gawky redneck neighbor from down the block who somehow got invited to your uncle’s party and is now muttering profanities to himself over the playing of The Rebel Cats addicting Santa Claus Llego A La Ciudad, then Milburn’s song might be something you can slip into shuffle play if there’s enough conversation going on so that nobody starts picking apart the lyrics.

Then again, musically Milburn’s effort doesn’t quite fit into the accepted Christmas protocol either, other than the sleigh bells which open and close it. The rest is standard Milburn tactics, slinky saxophones by Billy Smith and Willie Simpson with tenor leads played by Don Wilkerson, all of it anchored by Amos’s deft piano work.

Actually, if it IS only serving as background music I’m sure just about the time someone is ready to ask what this song is doing in the playlist during a pause in their scintillating debate over which is healthier to eat, a slab of pecan pie or a dozen Christmas cookies, they’ll hear Milburn slip two passages from Jingle Bells into his solo and be mollified as they go to refill their eggnog before passing out at four in the afternoon, a turkey drumstick forcibly removed from their hand before the dog eats it.

By that point maybe it’s best to say your goodbyes and leave them to clean up the mess after dinner as the strains of Luther Vandross or Dean Martin come floating out the front door as you hurry to your car with all of your loot that will have to be exchanged next week anyway.
 

Through The Snow Frost
Though I suppose it’s understandable with family-oriented holiday celebrations and the lingering vestiges of a more Puritanical morality associated with this season as a whole that a more suggestive song like Let’s Make Christmas Merry, Baby never entered into the realm of holiday standards. We’ll just have to be satisfied that when it was new and when Amos Milburn was the biggest rock star of the day it was welcomed with open arms by an audience who had, in their recent lifetime, already received the best present of all when rock ‘n’ roll itself was delivered to their doorstep in 1947, albeit in September, not December of that year.

By now, two years later, rock had grown big enough that Milburn could boast of bringing his girlfriend a “chartreuse Cadillac and a diamond ring”. No matter how many records Bing Crosby sold it’s doubtful he was riding around so ostentatiously and that’s one of the many reasons why rock ‘n’ roll stood apart, even when celebrating the same holiday in their songs.
 

 
Though there certainly HAVE been rock Christmas songs that have stood the test of time, considering its overwhelming popularity as a whole over the past seventy-one years as of this writing, where rock in all of its many forms – doo-wop to hip-hop, punk to funk, rockabilly to EDM – dominated the charts and the airwaves and the consciousness of generation after generation, there still aren’t as MANY rock Christmas classics as you’d expect.

The reason for that is simple and it’s not just that the songs themselves were a little more racy than is recommended for bridging the generational divide that defines the season, but rather that rock ‘n’ roll is so intrinsically tied to the present that once that era passes you rarely have time to go backwards and revisit the past because there’s always something new waiting for you.

Christmas is unique in that it seems to embody the past which is why its most enduring music is tinged with nostalgia. So while it’s patently unfair that an otherwise forgettable singer like Andy Williams will always be remembered one month each year because of songs that tap into this mood, it’s important to keep in mind that it was guys like Amos Milburn who changed the entire world with the music they laid down even if the songs they sung to achieve this barely draw a glimmer of recognition today.

Milburn’s true legacy – and the legacy of rock music itself – is found in tomorrow’s hit and that’s the gift that keeps on giving.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Amos Milburn for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)