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DERBY 723; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

How many ways are there to say Merry Christmas?

…Don’t list them all in the comments section, it’s a rhetorical question.

The reason we ask is to lead to another question that we’ll actually attempt to answer… How many ways are there for musicians to create a distinctive Christmas record using the same old Christmas tunes?

The answer is: Not nearly as many ways as artists and record labels seem to think, which is why after a more than century of selling recorded music to the masses there rarely seems to be anything more than slight variations presented for age-old songs that everybody over the age of five knows by heart.

Sadly, rock ‘n’ roll, revolutionary in almost every other way, didn’t always try and change that approach nearly enough when they came along.
 

 

One Horse Sleigh
Like most independent start-up labels Derby Records, begun just six months ago, didn’t start with much. Their initial roster of artists was about as thin as angel hair pasta. Essentially they had saxophonist Freddie Mitchell and a cast of misfits and outcasts, and their output reflected that with the type of nondescript misfires that generally make up ANY new label’s first year of releases.

But Mitchell was different… not that he was necessarily oozing with talent, but at least he had a well-defined game plan to follow that gave him a chance to connect with the same audience that had turned the boisterous sax instrumentals of the past two years into one of rock’s first cornerstones.

He also had a bit of luck… though we’ll be generous and say that it was savvy planning… as he named the second of his releases after Larry Doby, the first African-American to play in the American League, making his debut just a few months after Jackie Robinson integrated the Major Leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League.

Though Doby’s Boogie was an instrumental and thus contained absolutely no reference to the ballplayer outside of the title itself, the black community bought it as if their support of the record was intrinsically tied to their support of Doby himself, not to mention the larger cause of integration and equality that was being waged every day against often virulent opposition from society.

As a result it became a national hit and in some areas of the country, not surprisingly around Ohio where Doby played for the Cleveland Indians, the record was still residing in the local Cash Box charts into the winter months still to come, thereby ensuring that Derby Records was generating income and attention from distributors, retailers and jukebox operators, all of whom would be eagerly anticipating the next pink labeled release featuring the tenor sax of one Freddie Mitchell.

Though not very experienced – both Derby Records and Mitchell himself for that matter – they landed upon the perfect follow-up by deciding to record a Christmas song (backed by a New Year’s song for good measure!) that was another example of strong commercial instincts and good timing since the record would be scheduled for a fall release.

Christmas records may have a short lifespan in terms of the potential time in a year in which it will sell, generally running from late October at the earliest to early January at the latest, but in that time they’re almost guaranteed to get a look by curious audiences. This would be especially true for rock fans who had far fewer options for holiday music made with their tastes in mind.

So it was with that mindset that Mitchell set out to shake the bells until they jingled just a little louder than James Lord Pierpont had ever imagined way back in 1857 when he composed it.

Of course Pierpont supposedly wrote his song while ensconced in a tavern after who knows how many mulled wines were consumed, so maybe he would be a little more likely to find merit in the rowdy uninhibited spirit of Freddie Mitchell’s Jingle Bell Boogie nearly a century later.
 


 

Dashing Through History
The concept of rocking up a classic song is about as simple as you can get in theory but that doesn’t mean the execution of that concept is always capably carried out. There’s obviously no shortage of renditions of this song to compare various attempts which allows us to try and determine how unique Freddie Mitchell actually was. But to do so let’s not focus on future rock releases, but rather let’s examine two earlier versions from the mid-1930’s to show how artists can play it safe or take some risks no matter what style of music we’re talking about
 


 
 

Back in 1936 Benny Carter released a version of Jingle Bells that featured his “Swinging Quintet”, though “swinging” is hardly the word you’d use to describe it as it starts slow and mordantly before picking up some. But the pace never really varies once it hits its stride, while the melody itself hasn’t been touched for the most part save for a few transitions to highlight another instrument. Each musician gets a chance to solo, as was the standard for this style, and their playing is fine but hardly revelatory. The uniqueness is simply in hearing the different tones and textures of Carter’s clarinet, Albert Harris’s guitar and Gerry Moore’s piano playing the same familiar parts, one after another. You wouldn’t complain about getting this for a gift but you’d quickly move on to the next present under the tree.

The year before that another jazz cat named Benny… Goodman that is… cut his version of it and was much more adventurous, giving free rein to Gene Krupa’s drums to step up the pace enough to make it feel more exciting – like a kid on Christmas Eve looking forward to opening his gifts rather than that same kid on Christmas night feeling slightly let down that they didn’t get whatever toy train or doll was hot that year.
 


 
 

Goodman’s band… err, orchestra that is… employs the same instrumental trade off that was the hallmark of the era but they take great pride in tweaking the melody from what you’ve come to expect. It starts off fairly predictable but in the mid-section where they each get to solo they start to stretch out. Goodman’s own clarinet kicks it off in whimsical fashion, riffing as much as that instrument will allow. Trumpets follow playing a spry line that gets increasingly buoyant as it goes along before the saxophones come into the room having the most fun it seems. When they settle back into the main structure of the song you actually feel as if you’ve gone on a sleigh ride through another song or two. It’s recognizable enough that you never lose your way, but you also never know quite what’s coming because they keep the arrangement fresh.

That’s the approach Freddie Mitchell wants to take on his Jingle Bell Boogie. The setting has shifted from swing to rock but the overall mindset isn’t all that different from Goodman… in theory anyway.
 


 
 

Making Spirits Bright
It starts off in rather startling fashion, with a baritone horn, drums and piano combining in almost a haphazard sort of way, jolting you from your slumber. The band itself might not be “out on the lawn”, but the police report will definitely say “there arose such a clatter” with the racket they’re making.

When pianist Rip Harrigan takes the lead on piano you’re sure he’s been doing a backstroke in the punch bowl, so much so that you’re laying odds his first “name” is short for “Ripped”. He sounds toasted. He hits the keys like a kid with three months of lessons under his belt… at least to start with, but he soon gains his equilibrium and starts to show some skill, deviating from the written lines to add some flourishes before the main event kicks off.

No, not Santa Claus, but an equally jolly man who happens to have a gleaming saxophone slung over his shoulder rather than a bag full of toys. Nobody’s complaining though once he opens his sack and starts tossing out guttural riffs on the horn. Can a Christmas song sound raunchy? You bet it can, at least if the tenor sax is involved, as Mitchell grinds away while the drums keep up the energy. By this point the old folks at the Christmas party are sitting in horror by the tree, possibly on the verge of dropping dead from shock.

Unfortunately Jingle Bell Boogie threatens to drop dead on its own when Harrigan jumps back to take the lead in the second half. Here’s where the best intentions are sidetracked by incompetence. Though he plays the right notes without diverging too much from the melody, he’s back to the harsh style he started with, pounding the treble keys while eschewing the foot pedals so there’s no sustain, all while relegating the horns to the background playing just a repetitive underpinning. Harrigan’s part is crude… enthusiastic maybe, but clunky in execution.

It drags on for far too long. You keep waiting for the pushy elf to go back up the chimney and let ol’ St. Nick… or St. Freddie as it were… get the spotlight again but he doesn’t make another appearance out in front. The power of the song gets lost, the excitement built over the first half wanes and the impact of the song that was shaping up to be so rewarding can’t help but pay the price.

Mitchell however should be praised for his part since he delivers the gift you had at the top of your Christmas list. He embodies the rock ‘n’ roll spirit, if not the Christmas spirit, every second he’s taking the lead, but it’s just not long enough to push this over the top. I suppose that’s to be expected in a way, Santa Claus can’t linger at every kid’s house after all, he’s got a lot of stops to make, but when he takes off in his sleigh so early in the proceedings it can’t help but feel like a slight let down.
 

Yust Go Nuts
The thinking behind this record was perfect. Let Mitchell deliver exactly what made rock so different… so exciting… on a song that everybody knew and in the process put him out in front of creating the first real rock ‘n’ roll holiday party starter. He does just that… when he gets the chance that is.

But while you feared they might give too much time to others to try and tone down that excitement you never expected they’d allot that time to somebody who’d keep the song in the alley yet who played like someone who just received his first piano as a gift that same morning. That drags Jingle Bell Boogie down, reducing a good idea and a great Mitchell showcase into a well-intentioned gift that you might wind up standing in line to return the week after Christmas. It shows just how tenuous these things are. One lapse of judgment in an otherwise solid arrangement is like getting a lump of coal in your stocking. It’s still a good record, one you’re glad they cut, but one you know was within reach of being a great record.
 


 

For comparison’s sake we should mention that this same year two other new takes on Jingle Bells were issued. The first by Art Mooney was about as unimaginative as you could possibly get. Cloyingly sung and played, though it probably falls short of being unfit for airing. In fact it’s a good bet you’ll hear it once or twice each year depending on how deep you get into the holiday fare, but there’s absolutely nothing about it that was even trying to be original.

Then there was a novelty take on it by a comedian known as Yogi Yorgesson, a Sweedish character created by Harry Stewart who mangled English and made a few records to highlight his routine. His most popular was a popular two-sided Christmas single released this same month on Capitol, I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas backed by Yingle Bells.

Each listener can decide for themselves how humorous they actually are and whether the dialect gimmick alone is enough to recommend the record, but it was unquestionably original and unique and he was rewarded when both sides hit the Top Ten.

Mitchell’s attempt was unique too and he got some spins, at the time and even in the future as it remains moderately well-known today, but he didn’t get a hit out of it. Maybe it wasn’t quite original enough, or maybe it was because his last record was still on the charts when this was put out and Derby released another non-Christmas Mitchell record on its heels that quickly made regional charts across the nation and so Jingle Bell Boogie got lost in the shuffle.

Or maybe with all the noise around the holidays this one was only adding to the din and people just wanted some peace and quiet instead.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Freddie Mitchell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)