Big Money couldn’t make this special holiday edition of the convo, but the good news is that our pal Mike Duquette from The Second Disc joined in for some yuletide cheer!
Gonzo: Well lets strap on some bells and get this sleigh rolling!
Mike Duquette: What shall we be a-wassailing tonight?
G: Last year, you joined us for a convo about Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” which has apparently been covered by everybody in the last 50 years.
MD: There were a lot, as I recall.
G: One of the more popular covers of Darlene Love’s was U2’s rendition from the Very Special Christmas compilation, which happens to turn 25 this year.
MD: Still one of my favorite holiday LPs. I know we’d talked on Twitter some time ago about the ratio of great cuts to filler. And I know my family generally can’t stand the first volume, which I play a lot around this time of year.
G: The first two are the only ones that I even bother listening to anymore! But I digress.
Tonight we have one of my favorite tunes that was covered by many times even before the onslaught of tepid covers in last few decades. But before we get to 1987, we’ve got to go back to 1947.
MD: Yes! The delightful “Merry Christmas Baby,” written by Johnny Moore and Lou Baxter.
G: Indeed, featuring Charles Brown. Good grief! (har har)
MD: Ha! A good twenty years or so ahead of its time.
G: I always picture a living room illuminated by nothing but the tree and candles, a smoky haze, a half empty glass of whiskey, and moves being made. Brown recorded his own version in 1961 for the very literally titled LP Charles Brown Sings Christmas Songs. I just unearthed a copy recently, and the whole disc is fantastic.
MD: The thing I’ve always loved about the song is its structural simplicity. I remember taking a history of American music course in college and intensely discussing the origin of the 12-bar blues structure. There’s something about that kind of chord progression that just gets me, and this one’s no different.
G: Yes indeed. And it doesn’t get much more laid back than this! Brown’s solo version essentially the same track, so let’s move ahead to 1964.
G: True the original, for sure. And Berry is uncharacteristically softspoken here.
MD: Indeed! This is a song you’d really expect him to let it rip. I would always prefer a hi-fi to a diamond ring, myself.
G: Yes. But what about a diamond studded tooth? That’s kind of a tossup.
I can actually hear Berry doing an uptempo rockabilly version of this in my head.
MD: I think I’m just so used to “Run Rudolph Run” that this version just throws me.
G: Point taken. Because “Run Rudolph Run” follows the Chuck Berry formula. Hey, speaking of uptempo, the song went under a drastic transformation just a few years later. I give you Otis Redding’s posthumously released version from 1967:
G: And now we’re talkin’ soouuuuuuulllll, baby!
MD: Mmmmmmmm. It’s clear a certain Jerseyan we’ll get to in a bit was taking notes on this version.
G: HUSH, YOU! The only thing sweeter than those Stax horn’s is Otis’ voice.
MD: I feel like it’s a minority among people like me, but I think horn sections improve on anything.
G: In the ’60s, I’ll agree. Some of that late ’80s/early ’90s rock stuff could do without it (I’m looking at you, Aerosmith). Which brings me to Aerosmith’s version of the song.
MD: There’s an Aerosmith version??
G: Just kidding! I don’t think they’ve ever covered it.
MD: “Merry Christmas Bab-ity-bobity-bobity-bo!” But there is another version before Otis’ that I must always bring to anyone’s attention, not because I love this version as much as I love what is practically a genre unto itself:
G: Awwww snap. I honestly didn’t know about this one.
MD: There are not one, not two, but three JB holiday albums. And they are amazing.
MD: One of them was actually the first album appearance of “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”!
G: Yeah, they just collected them all a few years ago, but I have yet to pick it up. And I was wondering why the hell “Say it Loud” was on the tracklist. Man. Speaking of horns, these ones are kinda sexy. And strings! Goddamnit, James!
MD: I love how stately and understated the arrangements on the whole album are, and then three minutes in – boom! JB gets the fire!
G: Yes! Testifyin’ as he is wont to do!
MD: I’m just gonna leave this right here, for you and everyone else: The Complete James Brown Christmas
G: Of course, there’s an undercurrent of sadness here, as I awoke to a text on Christmas morning in 2006 informing me of his death.
MD: That’s the last line of Alan Leeds’ excellent liner notes, too. It’s still a freight train – you expect guys like him to live forever.
G: Yes indeed. But as you predicted, let’s move along to the hardest working white man in show business.
G: Oddly enough, this and “Christmas in Hollis” are my two favorite Xmas karaoke songs.
MD: I can see why! Do you bring in the ad-libs for Bruce?
G: of course!
“And the boys in the band are playin’ pretty good!”
MD: This song is such a Bruce gateway drug, in my opinion. It rocks and rolls, and the Band is exactly on the same brainwave as the Boss.
G: Christmas chemistry! He seems to pull out “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” with much more frequency, which is unfortunate. This is easily the better tune in my book. Don’t get me wrong, I love “Santa” too.
MD: I thought I was the only one who agreed! Indeed, that version of “Santa Claus” is of course more popular – but I think that makes “Merry Christmas Baby” fresher, in a way.
G: Seriously! On this tour he started playing “Santa” before Thanksgiving. I don’t think he played “Merry Christmas Baby” at all. But you’re right – that might be part of what keeps “Baby” sounding so good.
MD: That last “Merry Christmas Baby” after the crowd starts to cheer, man.
G: This song (and all of A Very Special Christmas) so immediately takes me back to the holiday season of 1987. My mom had the tape. Reminds me of shopping, and the night that I threw up from eating too much jello and non-alcoholic eggnog.
G: There are many other versions of the song. I just procured a Dr. John cover from 1989 that is sadly not very good. And if I may quoteth Wikipedia:
Hanson recorded the song on their 1997 album Snowed In.
Christina Aguilera recorded the song for her album My Kind of Christmas (2000).
MD: Oh dear.
G: Jessica Simpson also recorded the song as duet with Willie Nelson on her 2010 album Happy Christmas. (THE FUCK?) Also, I don’t know who the hell Donna Loren is, but:
Donna Loren recorded the song for her Donna Does Elvis in Hawaii (2010)
And as if to one up Jessica Simpson and Willie, 2012 brought us the ill-informed decision to bring Rod Stewart and Cee-Lo together for their take on the song. To their credit, they do include Trombone Shorty, one of New Orleans’ finest.
MD: A cold comfort, at the end of the day. Speaking of Donna Loren doin’ Elvis (whaa?), The King himself did a version. Pretty similar to the early, sensuous run-throughs, but worth a spin, I’d say:
G: And he stretched it out to nearly 6 minutes.
Oh, this is fat Elvis. That explains it.
MD: He was eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches between instrumental breaks
G: Try leaving that shit out for Santa.
MD: Haha what is he ad-libbing around 3:00? He’s all “YA-TA-TO”
G: Karate chops!
MD: HAHA YES
G: Man. These adlibs are really amusing.
MD: Like when he doubles the guitar a little bit! Was this an outtake or something? It’s so baggy.
G: “shong jijijong!” Well, any other versions that you’d like to add Mr. Duquette?
MD: None in good faith, that’s for sure.
G: I feel the same way. I don’t even want to hear some of those aforementioned versions for shits and giggles
MD: Fortunately, it’s because we had so many great early choices to start with!
G: Yes indeed! That said, who shall reign in this battle, Sir Duque?
MD: The sentimental favorite is Bruce, though it couldn’t have been done without Otis, for sure.
G: It’s probably the first version that I heard. Actually, Chuck Berry’s was probably the first to enter my consciousness. And it probably took me ten years to figure out that they were the same song.
MD: That’s the funny thing about this tune: even the similar ones are markedly different, to the point where you might need a second to realize what you’re hearing.
G: So final answer – are you siding with the Boss?
G: With all due respect to the Godfather and Otis, I think I’m with you on this one.
G: And that brings this holiday convo to a close for another year. Mr. Duquette, thanks for joining us here once again, spreading cheer etc. etc.
MD: Happy to do so! Let’s hope the world doesn’t end on Friday, so I can come back next year.