Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Sap's Guide to Christmas Music Part 2

Today's song is White Christmas.

It was written by Irving Berlin (yep, another Jew) and was first recorded by the silky smooth Bing Crosby in 1942 although that Decca recording's master was damaged and Crosby recorded another version in 1947. That one is said to be the most successful selling song of all-time until it was usurped by Elton John's Candle in the Wind although it may (already have retaken the lead since then). Yeah, I know: crazy. No single piece of popular music is more associated with
modern Christmas and believe it or not, it's the most recorded song in history. Wow, right?

It first appeared in 1942's Holiday Inn and later in the movie White Christmas in 1954. NPR ranked White Christmas, the song, as one of the 100 most important songs of the 20th Century. There is even an entire book written about it, reviewed here in the New York Times back in 2002.

According to legend, when Berlin finished the song, he reportedly said, "Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it's the best song anybody ever wrote.'' It's hard to argue with him. A beautifully constructed melody with a wonderful lyric. Seriously, who does n
ot dream of snow on Christmas?

Since Crosby debuted the song, it's been recorded by a remarkably wide range of performers, from the usual suspects (Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and Tony Bennett) to a strange mix of folks, Beach Boys, Al Green, Bob Marley and even Charlie Parker.

It was hard to narrow it down to just two versions of it, but I'll save the couple that didn't make the list for my post-Christmas day Christmas music blog.

I've posted two of my most favorite versions on my Vox stash. The first is in my view by Rosemary Clooney, who was actually in the film White Christmas. All due respect to
Bing Crosby, Clooney's is the traditional version I most prefer. In fact, if I was forced to hear only one artist sing Christmas songs, I'd pick Clooney. With a few over-produced exceptions, she always seems to perfectly walk the line between sentimentality and melancholia, owning the song as much as inviting you to sing along with her.

She recorded many versions of the song (and I happen to have most of them) but my favorite are the ones she did later in her career. They were much more sparse and relied on her voice and p
hrasing as opposed to overwrought orchestrations. This one is one she recorded in the late 90s and again in the last few years before she died. I actually saw her sing the song in person -- she did it live on a sound stage for a TV show I worked for back in the late 1990s.

I know I said two, but just for fun, here's another version by Clooney that includes the rare first verse about Beverly Hills L.A. It's a very smaltzy orchestration -- not my favorite -- but you can get an idea of how good she was -- her voice easily cuts through the sugary sweetness.

Finally, this one pretty much speaks for itself, a soulfully jazzy version by Tony Bennett with a mournful yet sweet sax backup by Dexter Gordon, in what I believe is one of his final recordings. Bennett does what he does best -- relegate his ego to the song and then lets Dexter roll on out of there with his horn. One of the best arrangements of the song ever and believe it or not, you won't even find it on a Christmas record but on Bennett's tribute album to Irving Berlin's music called Bennett Berlin.

Tomorrow: The Christmas Song.

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