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REGAL 3298; OCTOBER 1950

 
 

 

It was a year ago when Larry Darnell burst onto the scene with two of the biggest records of the fall making him the hottest commodity in rock as 1949 wound down.

Normally that would be the ideal time to capitalize on that popularity with a Christmas record, one of those easy-to-make surefire best sellers that will move copies based entirely on name recognition and seasonal good spirit.

But of course Regal Records had absolutely no idea that Darnell was going to take off like he did and so by the time those first two releases began to hit big it was already too late to bring him into the studio, write a new song or come up with a new arrangement for a standard and release it in time for the holidays.

Now it’s a year later and while Darnell’s popularity may have leveled out he was still enough of a big name to finally take advantage of this brief market window if only he can find the right song.
 

 

It’s Going To Be A Blue Christmas… Sort Of
Two years ago, in 1948, Doye O’Dell released the first version of a song called Blue Christmas and a year later it became a huge hit in a number of renditions, most prominently Ernest Tubb’s #1 country record and two pop offerings by Russ Morgan and bandleader Hugo Winterhalter that made the charts, nearly a decade before Elvis Presley would deliver the most famous take on it.

This is NOT that song… but it clearly was inspired by it.

For one thing there’s the rather obvious inversion of the title Christmas Blues, fairly innocuous unto itself admittedly but which when combined with some of the lyrics which always refers to Darnell having “a blue Christmas” you can see how the idea was hatched.

But while the larger sentiments might qualify as similar, the song (melody, instrumentation and vocal delivery) is pretty far removed from any version of that other more widely known tune and that’s frankly a good thing. Christmas is the one classification of song that still is comprised of a relatively small batch of compositions and it’s become very difficult to add an entirely new song into the seasonal canon, often for lack of trying as many artists prefer to roast the same ol’ chestnuts year after year.

This one was never going to make that leap onto everybody’s playlist and be covered incessantly by artists from all walks of the musical kingdom for decades to come, but for this precise moment in time in rock ‘n’ roll it’s actually not a bad offering using the familiar theme and taking full advantage of Darnell’s dramatic vocal style to put it across.

It may not be very joyous in nature, but then again there are plenty of people who get coal in their stockings each year that this would resonate with.
 


 

Christmas Just Won’t Be No Fun
Much of Larry Darnell’s work thus far has found him residing down in the dumps left to wail about his misfortune when it comes to losing the girl he loves.

Whether the same girl each time out or different ones matters little, but with his stellar voice revealing perpetual heartache these kinds of laments were the perfect match for his skill set and if anyone could turn the happiness of a yearly celebration of humanity’s greed and avarice into one focused on a single person’s romantic despair it was surely Larry Darnell.

On Christmas Blues he wrings out his emotions over losing this girl while at the same time showing dogged determination to get her back any way possible, including emploring Santa Claus to stuff her in his sack and deposit her under his tree.

Now I’m sure Kris Kringle has a battery of expensive lawyers on retainer to deal with the potential breaking and entry charges he faces each year along with a few random suits for parking his sleigh in restricted zones and flying without a license and registration, but you wouldn’t even need a law degree to know that what Larry’s asking St. Nick to do is what we laymen call kidnapping, not to mention the fact that if he transports her across state lines for immoral purposes that’s a violation of the Mann Act which is a big time offense that might find them sharing a cell at Leavenworth.

In spite of those potential legal issues it is one of the best lines in the song and you could even say shows admirable resourcefulness on Larry’s part to explore every potential option when it comes to reuniting him with his beloved.

Throughout all of this Darnell displays his versatility, his voice drops and swells, soars and sighs, aches and wails as he navigates each emotional twist of the story, resigned to his fate yet still hoping that somehow, someway he’ll get the present he truly wants.
 

Calling On You Santa (A/K/A Paul Gayten)
What we all want for Christmas and what we need however are often two different things, as any kid who unwraps boxer shorts and winter scarves when they were hoping for toys and the latest smartphone well knows.

Larry Darnell tells us in no uncertain terms that what he wants is for him and his sweetie to be together again, even if elves had to construct her in their workshop to ensure that difficult feat. But what he really needs to sell this record is a good musical arrangement.

For that he turns to Paul Gayten, a talented but often fanciful producer who has been known to try and expand the musical appreciation of listeners at the expense of fulfilling their needs as rock fans first.

That’s somewhat the case on Christmas Blues as he’s faced with the “problem” of having a song ostensibly about a holiday without any traditional Christmas sentiments aside from the lyrical touchstones of Santa Claus, gifts and trees. So to ensure that it’s immediately recognizable AS a Christmas song he injects musical quotes of far more familiar – and totally unrelated – songs into the arrangement starting with Jingle Bells and later adding Deck The Halls before reverting back to the former again down the stretch.

It’s more of a distraction than a help though, if for no other reason than it shows the difference between this song and those, namely they had more emphasis on traditional melodies.

What this has instead, at least with Gayten shaping it, is a strange mix of big band horns and gut-bucket blues guitar both looking to support a soulful rock singer which makes for an uneasy pairing. He manages to keep it from clashing altogether but the fact that he’s not completely derailing the record isn’t quite the same as aiding and abetting it to come up with a better product.

This works as well as it does in spite of the arrangement rather than because of it which further ensures it’s one of those gifts that sort of gets shoved off to the side after you unwrap it on Christmas morning.
 

Got My Presents All Wrapped Up
When you look at the dozens of Christmas songs that have endured year in and year out for nearly a century the one thing most have in common is the catchy and memorable melody that this song just doesn’t have.

That’s not exclusive to rock Christmas tunes by any means, a lot of songs in the pop, jazz and blues fields that sold well enough when first released before fading into general obscurity share that trait and sure enough Larry Darnell’s Christmas Blues did manage to spend a few weeks on the New Orleans regional listings in Cash Box but was hardly remembered thereafter.

Taken strictly as a current release though it qualifies as a decent enough record when you get down to it, but one that has rather limited appeal. Granted all Christmas songs are really only serviceable for a month out of the year, but this one with its gloom and despair front and center means even during the holidays it doesn’t always fit easily into more festive playlists.

But if using this record simply to assess Larry Darnell’s ongoing viability it might not be the shiniest ornament on the Christmas tree but it does enough to earn him a fruitcake if nothing else.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Larry Darnell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)