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GOTHAM 204; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

The percentage of rock artists that have released Christmas records over seven decades of the genre’s lifespan is probably statistically pretty small. The number who’ve scored hits with those holiday singles is even smaller.

This is not one of them but that doesn’t mean its presence on the scene in 1949 wasn’t important, if only because it showed that the style as a whole was deemed viable enough to to invest in this short-lived seasonal market and have the potential to get some returns.

So based on his own role over the past twelve months in helping to vault rock ‘n’ roll from fringe style to a commercial powerhouse if ever there was a time for meek Philadelphia club performer turned scalding hot rock artist Jimmy Preston to try and imprint a cherished Christmas standard with his brand of unhinged mayhem, this was surely that time.
 

 

Hear Them Calling
Going into the fall of 1949 rock ‘n’ roll music had only celebrated two Christmases. The first of these had come just three months after rock’s birth and so it was hardly surprising that they hadn’t had much time to shop for presents in the way of Christmas songs to hand out.

The next year things began to change as the style had made notable inroads into the commercial realm in the black community throughout 1948 and with so few holiday themed records made for and by African-Americans in any field – at least compared to the white-dominated rolls of the day – it was a good sign when a few rock artists threw their Santa hats into the ring.

Had those first few Christmas songs came and went without much notice it might’ve given some in the industry pause when trying to predict the commercial ceiling rock ‘n’ roll had, but these records – a double sided offering by The Ravens, White Christmas backed with Silent Night, and a new song by The Orioles, It’s Gonna Be A Lonely Christmas – actually became genuine Top Ten hits.

Suddenly the confirmation everyone needed to fully to convince themselves that this upstart brand of music was a legitimate threat to the prim and proper establishment had been gift-wrapped and delivered under their tree by Santa Claus himself.

Now that the next holiday season is rolling around in the fall of 1949 it should come as no surprise that we’re going to start to see the stores stocked with new Christmas records by a wide array of rock artists, all hoping to cash in on the runaway success the entire style had enjoyed throughout the year.

Emblematic of that success was Jimmy Preston who was as hot as anyone in rock since last spring when he scored his first national hit with Hucklebuck Daddy, then followed it up with a good rendition of Hold Me, Baby, which probably would’ve done better had it not been competing with the Amos Milburn original, which was a #2 hit on the national charts.

But undaunted by missing out with that record Preston then unleashed an enduring rallying cry for rock’s growing power with Rock The Joint which would be his crowning achievement and another Top Ten hit.

Under the theory of striking while the iron was hot, Gotham looked to see if Preston and his gang of unlikely musical reprobates might somehow be able to turn a hallowed and solemn classic like The Bells Of St. Mary’s into a scorching rocker.

Somewhere on the golf course Bing Crosby surely cringed when he heard one of his most notable tunes being treated in this manner.
 

Comes From The Sea… Or “C” As In Crosby
In the Twenty-First Century Bing Crosby is known primarily (and for many it might even be exclusively) for his Christmas records, among them the all-time biggest selling single in recorded music history, White Christmas.

Yet that is both patently unfair AND somewhat fortuitous for his historical legacy.

It’s unfair because Crosby was arguably the single greatest singer of all-time, or at least the greatest recording star ever, scoring a record 396 hits, a total that seems unlikely to ever be matched. Yet as with almost every star once the generation(s) that bought his records when they were new passes away there’s a constant struggle for that artist to retain universal name recognition, let alone familiarity for their songs, their voice and even the style they excelled in.

So Crosby’s Christmas records are at least a guarantee that he’ll never be completely forgotten by the masses, like say… the man whom he got his start singing for, Paul Whiteman, who ruled the airwaves in the late 1920’s, or Billy Murray who was America’s top singing star in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century but whose name today has people thinking you’ve mistakenly added a “y” to actor Bill Murray’s name.

Crosby at least hasn’t sunk to the level of ignominy just yet.

Of course Crosby was more than just a singer, he starred in an extremely popular radio show for years… but even this is something which draws little recognition today since old radio programs never even had an afterlife such as what would later happen with old television shows when they aired in re-runs across the country for decades, thereby keeping the names and faces and personalities of Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and even Rod Serling familiar to later generations.

So what’s left to act as Crosby’s personal time capsule? How about movies, of which he made dozens over the years, from the classic comedy “Road” pictures with co-stars Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, to a string of more serious, but still lighthearted, dramas like Going My Way for which Crosby won a Best Actor Oscar, and its sequel the following year, The Bells Of St. Mary’s.
 


 

Both films are lighthearted dramas in which Bing plays a Priest, Father O’Malley, and does some singing of course including the title song. The ironic thing about it is thematically speaking it’s NOT a Christmas song, nor would it likely have ever been considered one if not for this movie. Yet because of a scene involving a Christmas pageant and the fact the movie was released in December meant that the song started to become associated with the holiday and has been ever since. Such was the power of Bing Crosby in the 1940’s.

Thus when looking to come up with a holiday song that wasn’t quite an obvious choice Gotham Records and Jimmy Preston pulled out The Bells Of St. Mary’s, just four years old and not yet beat into the ground as a Christmas recording, in the hopes that they might be the ones to set the precedent in that regard. Though it wasn’t a hit they just might’ve planted the seeds in someone’s head as in the years to come the song would be adopted as a Christmas record by a handful of rock acts whose versions remain far more well-known (not to mention easier to find) than Jimmy Preston’s.
 
 

When Red Leaves Are Falling
Preston’s version of the record presents a song of two contrasting – in fact let’s say conflicting – parts. Vocals and instrumental. One isn’t very good, the other is tremendous.

Any guess as to which is which?

The piano that kicks this off sets a rather troubling vibe in that it’s played far too fast, something highlighted by the drummer’s twitchiness on the cymbals to accent it. Preston then leaps in to sing the familiar story and aside from his usual nasal tone that does no song requiring subtlety any favors, he’s in trouble from the start because he’s racing forward just to keep up with the music.

Because of the song’s content this fast-paced delivery makes mincemeat out of the melody and robs The Bells Of St. Mary’s of whatever emotional impact the lyrics impart. In spite of the title and the fact it’s considered by all musicologists to be a modern hymn of sorts, there’s not any religiosity in the words, other than the reference to a church’s bells. Instead the story is that of young love, pure and simple. There’s no plot beyond the celebration of the feeling of falling in love, unless you want to read into the church bells signifying that such couples should get married before consummating their relationship, but if so that’s purely personal speculation based on your own level of piety.

The key to the song – in Crosby’s version for sure but others as well – is in its controlled euphoria, letting the swelling melody replicate the all-consuming sensation of being head over heels for someone who apparently feels the same about you.

Preston on the other hand is forced to steamroll those feelings just to match the band’s impatience. He tries his best to keep some semblance of moderation in his approach by shading his voice lower to impart the gravity of the words, but it’s a lost cause and as a result you aren’t singing along in your head, as you might with a thousand and one other renditions, but instead are telling him to slow down while getting dizzy in the process.

You get the idea that they all STILL weren’t sure how to indicate a song was a rocker, especially one that had its origins in 1917 and had yet to be transformed into anything but an earnest rhapsody, and so they mistake speed for excitement, very nearly sinking the entire record before it has a chance to get its feet under it.

But then the band takes over and fixes things… by forcibly knocking you off your feet altogether!
 

The Bells Ring Out!
You’d think that by taking what ISN’T working and then ramping it up even more would be a recipe for disaster. On paper it certainly would seem to be but on wax it’s the one thing that not only salvages it, but actually has you thinking this might wind up being a great record.

When Preston yells out for the band to “Blow!” the unhinged feeling they were hoping for but utterly failing to achieve in the vocal section is met and then quickly surpassed. Whoever is playing tenor sax, maybe still Danny Turner brought in from Chris Powell’s Blue Flames for the Rock The Joint session, cuts loose and the result is uplifting, though hardly in the way the song as written intended it to be.

By all rights they should’ve made The Bells Of St. Mary’s an instrumental the way this gets re-worked… or perhaps “worked over” is a better term to use. The tenor inflicts bodily harm on the song, cuffing it around like an undersized sparring partner in the ring, slamming right hooks and straight left hands into it at will, battering it and leaving it limp and bloodied on the floor.

Yet it’s all the better for that brutality.

This is no go-through-the-motions solo as the horn explodes with fury, hitting its notes with precision and then drops a few low-honking bombs after that to mix things up, at times almost thrashing the song beyond the point of recognition – okay, so maybe that means it WOULDN’T have worked as an instrumental if you can’t tell what the song is anymore.

It still could’ve been even better had they let the drummer pick up his sticks and join in on the beat-down rather than just having them clap along to set the rhythmic bottom, though now we’re just picking nits. The sax keeps going, finally almost running out of breath as he climbs the scales to the top of the instrument’s range, putting the entire record through the kind of freewheeling ride rock ‘n’ roll was known for.

No, it’s not very “Christmasy”, nor very pious if you were take the more traditional view of the holiday, but it’s pretty damn fun for something so crude and haphazard sounding.
 

And So My Beloved
Somehow this failed to register with audiences, which considering how enthusiastically the rock fan was responding to his earlier – and equally raucous – sides is somewhat surprising.

Maybe people weren’t pleased that he mugged such a respectable song in broad daylight and didn’t want to be caught in the dragnet if they stopped at the scene of the crime to listen. Or maybe because The Bells Of St. Mary’s wasn’t quite thought of as a Christmas standard yet there wasn’t enough commercial push to get it over the hump.

But while it’s certainly a flawed record thanks to Preston’s hyper-fast delivery, it’s not hard to see where Clyde McPhatter and The Drifters got much of the blueprint for their classic take on this a few years down the road, something which all but ensured that it would soon be viewed as a Christmas song by rockers as well as the pop crowd who continued to identify this with Crosby as he became America’s officially sanctioned “Voice Of Christmas”.

Then again maybe the reason Preston’s record failed to make an impact could be that Gotham Records dropped the ball by then immediately releasing another Jimmy Preston single right on top of it which prevented this from having the market to itself.

But sometimes there are no explanations that suffice when things don’t turn out the way you expected. Like how reindeers fly or how Santa Claus can fit toys for every kid in the world in one bag light enough for him to sling over his shoulder.

This was too up and down for it to be deserving of being a mega-hit even in the best of circumstances, but if you were on Santa’s “Nice” list in 1949 then maybe you were among the few lucky ones he left this for in your stockings so you could toss aide those Bing Crosby records your folks were playing all night on Christmas Eve and put this on to startle them into waking up bright and early on Christmas morning so you could start opening the rest of your loot.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Jimmy Preston for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)