Inspired by the November 18 birthdays of Graham Parker, Kim Wilde, Fabolous and John Parr.
In 1958, 13-year-old Brenda Mae Tarpley went into a recording studio with famed producer Owen Bradley and cut “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,” written by Johnny Marks (Jew!). Released as a single for that year’s holiday season, it bombed. That really isn’t surprising. Tarpley, better known by her stage name, Brenda Lee, was virtually unknown at the time.
In 1959, her record label reissued the single. It bombed. That really isn’t surprising. Lee hadn’t dented Billboard’s Hot 100 all year.
In 1960, her record company released it yet again. Third time lucky. Coming off two #1 singles, “I’m Sorry” and “I Want to Be Wanted,” plus two other top ten hits, “Sweet Nothin’s” and “That’s All You Gotta Do,” Lee’s Christmas record peaked at #14.
For years the hits kept coming for Lee. She placed 55 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100, including twelve top tens. These days she is perhaps best-remembered for “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,” a holiday staple.
Johnny Marks, the Jew who wrote the song, also wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “Run Rudolph Run.”
He’s not the only Jew to have written Christmas standards. Also written by chosen people? “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Baby,” “Sleigh Ride,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Let It Snow Let It Snow Let It Snow,” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and “Give the Jew Girl Toys.” Oy gevalt!
Today Brenda Lee turns 70 years old. Our playlist today includes her classic version of “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” as well as nineteen other holiday tunes from the early days of rock and roll, before The Beatles took over the United States in 1964. Some were written by Jews, some were not. Some get a lot of radio airplay this time of year, some deserve more (specifically “Christmas in Jail” and “Trim Your Tree.”). All put me in the mood to rock around my menorah.
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In the grocery store yesterday I heard the most joyless version of “Joy to the World.” I heard a dull version of “White Christmas” that made me glad it was 77 degrees outside. I heard a rendition “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” so lifeless it would make Kris Kringle say “Fuck this – I’m staying home.”
My fourth and final Christmas playlist for 2013 includes more festive fare. Mostly it consists of Christmas songs that have not been overplayed. Some of the holiday classics are represented – “The Little Drummer Boy” as performed by Iggy Pop and RuPaul’s twist on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” in which mommy is not the parent doing the kissing.
1) Mojo magazine’s list of “The 100 Records that Changed the World” placed Little Richard’s “Tutti-Frutti” at #1.
2) Pat Boone, who made a career of recording new tracks by African-American acts and sanitizing them for white audiences, covered Little Richard’s “Tutti-Frutti” in 1956 and had a bigger hit with it than Richard did. To avoid a repeat of this, Richard and his producer, Bumps Blackwell, rehearsed the follow-up single, “Long Tall Sally,” until Richard could sing it as fast as possible, with the thinking that Boone wouldn’t be able to sing it as fast. Little Richard’s version became his first top ten pop hit and the biggest-selling single in the history of Specialty Records. Unfortunately, Pat Boone also enjoyed a top ten hit with his version.
3) Richard wrote a song about a female impersonator from his hometown who was called Queen Sonya. He changed Sonya to Lucille, which became the song’s title. It became Richard’s longest-charting hit in 1957.
4) While on tour in 1957 Richard decided to give up rock & roll and enter the ministry. He left the tour ten days early. The original flight on which he had been scheduled to return home crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
5) In 1962 Richard returned to performing secular music while touring Europe. Sam Cooke was his opening act.
6) Later in 1962 Little Richard’s opening act was The Beatles. Richard taught Paul McCartney how to sing like he does.
7) In 1963 The Rolling Stones opened for Richard. Said Mick Jagger: “I couldn’t believe the power of Little Richard onstage. He was amazing.”
8) Members of Little Richard’s band at times include Jimi Hendrix and Billy Preston. This line-up can be heard on the track “I Don’t Know What You’ve Got (But It’s Got Me),” the last single released by Vee-Jay Records.
9) Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The Greatest Artists of All Time has Little Richard at #8.
10) Today is his 81st birthday.
Enjoy this playlist inspired by one of rock and roll’s originators, Little Richard.