The Voice of the Holidays
Celebrating the Season with Sinatra
Copyright 1978 Ted Allan/MPTV.net
"Frank Sinatra loved the holidays"

"Oh by gosh by golly, it's time for mistletoe and holly..."

Copyright 1978 Ted Allan/MPTV.net

The line, one of the most charming opening lines to grace any Frank Sinatra recording, is notable for a couple of reasons. First, it comes from one of the handful of songs for which Sinatra himself served as co-writer, along with Dick Sanford and Hank Sanicola. But in addition, the fact that he chose to make one of his few songwriting collaborations a Christmas song is a sign that for Frank Sinatra, the holidays were always something special a time of year worth that extra effort.

Maybe it had to do with his mother being born on Christmas Day, or he himself coming into the world in mid-December. Whatever the reasons, Sinatra was a famously generous gift-giver on Christmas, a performer who typically made special appearances on television around the holidays, and a singer whose Christmas recordings are among the classic Yuletide offerings in all of popular music.

This is a man who once played the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas on Christmas Eve "two shows, of course" then hopped on a 7 a.m. plane and flew to Los Angeles so he could spend Christmas day with his kids, before turning around and winging back to Vegas in time for two more shows that night.

Or let Sinatra`s daughter Nancy tell the story of Christmas 1973, when she and her husband were the ones flying in to celebrate the holiday. "We finished our late show at the Sahara in Las Vegas," she wrote in Frank Sinatra: An American Legend, "then boarded Dad`s plane at 2:30 a.m. We headed to Palm Springs, tired, hoping that Dad`s gardener, Angel, would be at the airport to pick us up. Arriving, we saw a small crowd on the runway: Mom, Tina, Frankie, assorted friends and a mariachi band led by Guess Who singing `Jingle Bells.` We sat by the big fireplace and had hot toddies and sandwiches until 6 a.m. For me the most vivid memory of that Christmas is my parents` beaming faces as they sang `Jingle Bells.` "

In other words, Frank Sinatra loved the holidays. The evidence is there in the stories of children`s hospitals he visited on Christmas Day as far back as the 1940s. It`s there in the fact that in his long career in television, Sinatra virtually never directed shows himself but that`s exactly what he did for the December 1957 special "Happy Holidays with Bing & Frank."

And mostly, the evidence is there in the holiday music that Sinatra left us. "For over 50 years," wrote James Ritz in his liner notes to Frank Sinatra: The Christmas Collection, "[Sinatra`s] music grip on the Yuletide consciousness has become more and more pronounced."

He recorded more than two dozen different holiday songs between 1944 and 1991, some of them several times. Sinatra cut "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," for example, twice for Columbia Records in the summer of 1947; once for Capitol exactly ten years later; again in 1963 for the film The Victors; and then a final version for his own label, Reprise, later that same year. He tackled "Silent Night" at the very beginning of his career for an MGM holiday trailer, then revisited it more than 45 years later for a charity record at the behest of Nancy.

And "Jingle Bells," to name another notable example, received a gentle, subdued treatment in 1946 but the old holiday standard truly came into its own in 1957 with a delightfully swinging arrangement and classic, sassy introduction: "I love those J-I-N-G-L-E bells."

Holiday songs, after all, are often simply wonderful, heartfelt songs, and Sinatra always knew how to serve the song. Some were written by the same songwriters responsible for many of Sinatra`s other recordings: Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen ("An Old Fashioned Christmas"), Irving Berlin ("I`ve Got My Love to Keep me Warm"), Alan and Marilyn Bergman ("Christmas Memories"). Others dated back considerably further: say, the 16th Century in the case of "Adeste Fideles," which Sinatra recorded in Latin in the '40s and then in English (as "O Come All Ye Faithful") a decade later.

Most of these recordings, by the way, were laid down in Southern California in the summer. As Pete Welding pointed out in his liner notes to CD reissue of A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra, "[I]t's not easy to sing at all convincingly of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose in, say, July or August. Still, the best singers always manage to rise above this sort of thing and, in Sinatra's case, it's clear from the stunning, heartfelt quality of his performances that he more than rose to the occasion, despite their having been recorded in the middle of a sweltering summer in Los Angeles."

And anyway, just because it was hot outside doesn't mean that Sinatra couldn't bring a little bit of Yuletide cheer to the occasion. One of his pals, Frank Military, remembers that on the "hot and beautiful" August day when Sinatra recorded "The Christmas Waltz" in 1954, the session concluded with the singer throwing a full-fledged Christmas party in the studio.

Sinatra's holiday recordings are now available in a variety of packages on a variety of labels. The choice can be a bit confusing though in one way, of course, buyers don't really need to beware, since Sinatra made terrific music during all the phases of his career.

But if you're looking to tell them apart, his Christmas recordings began during his days on Columbia Records in the 1940s. Beginning at the height of his early fame, when bobby-soxers swooned and parents fretted, Sinatra went into the studio to record about a dozen Christmas songs; his most prolific period came in 1947, when he cut "White Christmas," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Christmas Dreaming" and several others. These are his least mature recordings; his voice was younger and lighter, the arrangements lush and beautiful but conservative.

When he moved to Capitol Records in the `50s, the approach changed. There, celebrated arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle arranged versions of "White Christmas" and "The Christmas Waltz" in 1954` but it was another key collaborator, Gordon Jenkins, who took over for what would be Sinatra's first classic Christmas album. A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra was recorded in a two-day session in July 1957, and released that fall. With one side of traditional carols and one side of pop songs, including "Mistletoe and Holly," a new version of "The Christmas Waltz" and his dynamic take on "Jingle Bells," the album lives up to the verdict handed down by daughter Nancy: "quite simply the best Christmas album ever made by anyone anywhere."

When Sinatra formed Reprise in the early 1960s, he wasted little time returning to the holiday beat. The album 12 Songs of Christmas, released by Reprise in 1964, collected the first recorded holiday duets between Sinatra and Bing Crosby, "Go Tell it On the Mountain" and "We Wish You the Merriest."

A few years later, Sinatra made Christmas a family affair with the album A Sinatra Family Christmas, in which he, Nancy, Frank Jr. and Tina all tackled a variety of holiday tunes, both singly and together. Alongside the album's traditional Christmas songs was a dark, moody new Jimmy Webb song, "Whatever Happened to Christmas," which drew from Sinatra one of his best vocal performances.

Sinatra would continue to record holiday songs on occasion: in 1975, for instance, he put out a single, "Christmas Memories" backed with "A Baby Just Like You." And in 1991, after a recording hiatus of more than three years, he allowed Nancy to talk him into recording a heartfelt, tremulous version of "Silent Night." More than a dozen years later, producer Charles Pignone organized a new session in which Johnny Mandel wrote a new arrangement and Frank Sinatra Jr. conducted a full orchestra to flesh out the song. The result is the final track on Frank Sinatra: The Christmas Collection, which is drawn from all of Sinatra's holiday work for Reprise.

The music critic John Rockwell was talking about all of Sinatra's music, not just the Christmas recordings, when he wrote about the deep feelings that imbue the man's work. "Today we are beginning once again to recognize the place of human feeling in song," Rockwell wrote, "and no singer of our time has better invested the widest range of emotion in his music than Frank Sinatra."

Or, as another reviewer once wrote, more simply: "Seriously, Frank Sinatra and Christmas carols how can you possibly go wrong?"

 

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