My childhood Christmases were propelled by an eclectic soundtrack of vinyl albums. Dad would have probably been fine with Elvis’ Christmas album, Johnny Cash’s The Christmas Spirit, and The Dean Martin Christmas Album. Mom had much more wide-ranging tastes, so gospel albums of Christmas hymns sat on the shelf next to Christmas albums by Loretta Lynn, the Chipmunks, Brenda Lee, Glenn Campbell, or the Philidelphia Orchestra. There were lots of compilations, such as the 1965 Goodyear’s Great Songs of Christmas (there’s a whole blog devoted to these albums which could only be purchased in tire stores Or at gas stations) or one of the Firestone Your Christmas Favorites albums, and then there were the (usually all instrumental) albums where none of the musicians were identified.
Among my favorites were two different Andy Williams’ Christmas albums. For the longest time I thought the older album with the red cover had been recorded in the 1950s, because I couldn’t remember a time when it wasn’t in the family collection of records. But also because I couldn’t remember a Christmas where we hadn’t watched Andy Williams and the Williams Brothers (and other guests) perform christmas music along with comedic sketches a couple of weeks or so before the holiday itself.
I don’t think I realized that Williams was the host of a weekly musical variety show until he changed networks in the late sixties. As far as I know, our family never watched his show except for the one Christmas-themed episode each year. There were a lot of variety shows on network TV back then, and there were several that we watched faithfully every week. I’m not sure why Andy’s wasn’t one.
And the Andy Williams Christmas shows were hardly the only Christmas-themed specials and musical programs we watched every year. I know I loved watching all of them. When I was about 10 or so one of my cousins went on a bit of a rant of what a freak I was because I liked watching specials—why would anyone want to watch people sing, for instance? But I realize the Andy William’s specials stuck out in my head precisely because we had the albums, which included some of his own original songs (“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “A Song and the Christmas Tree”), so I could listen to them until I’d learned the lyrics, but also learned a lot of the harmony and counter-melodies and other vocal flourishes. So when those particular production numbers came up on screen, I could follow along.
I understand, now, why the cousin (and other relatives) thought I was a freak. I was the kind of boy who danced and sang along with the big theatrical production numbers in movies and on variety shows. I thought nothing of behaving that way in front of the family television. Which was quite entertaining for my adult relatives when I was a cute four-year-old, but much more disturbing as I got older.
When I got my own record player so I could listen to music in my bedroom, the Christmas season was when I’d close the door and imagine that I was the star of my own musical variety show, with the elaborate sets and costumes and the large groups of dancers and singers backing me up. I was worse than that. With careful use of a portable cassette recorder, the big stereo in the living room (when I was home alone), and some of those studio musician instrumental-only Christmas albums, I recorded my own Christmas shows. Not just me singing along with the instrumental albums, but then playing that recording over the stereo then with the recorder and a second (and third, and sometimes fourth) tape, recording myself singing the harmony parts along with myself.
Freak might have been putting it mildly.
I watched Williams’ faithfully into my teens. Even the really disastrously bad one that involved the cast (along with special guests Captain Kangaroo and Gomez Addams) are transported to Rock Land and Doll Land and I don’t remember where all else in a strange attempt at an original Christmas fable that made no sense…
When Williams’ weekly series ended, he signed a deal with the network to produce three or four seasonal specials a year, and one of those each year was a Christmas special.
Williams’ work weren’t the only Christmas albums I sang along with. And they aren’t the only old albums of that vintage that I’ve since tracked down and added to the insane amount of Christmas music that resides on my computers and phone. But even now when I find newer recordings by modern singers and bands that I like, I find myself imagining those songs performed on a stage in the style of one of the Williams’ Christmas episodes, with the costumes, sets, fake snow, and multi-camera coverage.
And sometimes, especially if I’m listening during the long walk home each night from the office, you may still catch me at least doing jazz hands while I sing along. Might as well make a production out if it, right?