Friday, December 16, 2011

The 25 Biggest Christmas Singles of the Early '70

I've ranked the entries in this roundup of early seventies Christmas hits according to their initial Billboard U.S. chart positions and also their longevity in terms of repeat visits to the charts in subsequent years. To qualify, they all had to have charted for the very first time between 1970 and 1974. Bobby Helms and Charles Brown are here, therefore, because they charted with re-recorded versions of their own Christmas classics during that time. The Singing Dogs' 1955 "Jingle Bells" is here because it first charted as an A-side in 1971. Another rule: They had to have first charted during the Christmas season.

Many an early seventies trend can be seen here: proto-adult contemporary, singer-songwriters, downbeat realism, a preoccupation with children, progressive country, novelty songs, and more.

In accordance with Christmas numerology, I've made all of my comments in exactly 25 words.

1. The Carpenters - "Merry Christmas Darling" (Billboard Christmas 1970 #1, 1971 #1, 1972 #4, 1973 #1). Written by Frank Pooler. Produced by Jack Daugherty. 45: "Merry Christmas Darling"/"Mr. Gruder" (A&M 1970).

This touchstone sounds like it could have been released at any time post-1970 and is Exhibit A for today's "lite FM" stations' Christmas sound.

2. Merle Haggard - "If We Make It Through December" (Billboard #28, entered 11/24/73; country #1, Christmas 1973 #7). Written by Merle Haggard. Produced by Ken Nelson. 45: "If We Make It Through December"/"Bobby Wants a Puppy Dog for Christmas" (Capitol 1973). LP: Merle Haggard's Christmas Present (Capitol 1973); If We Make It Through December (Capitol 1974).

With this single, those who regretted Haggard's late sixties jingoism had reason to believe he was possibly back on track as a compassionate social observer.

3. The Jackson 5 - "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" (Billboard Christmas 1970 #1, 1971 #1, 1973 #9). Written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie. Produced by the Corporation and Hal Davis. 45: "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"/"Christmas Won't Be the Same This Year" (Motown 1970). LP: Jackson 5 Christmas Album (Motown 1970).

It's virtually impossible not to hear this antsy, hustle-bustle single as the quintessential topper to an extraordinarily busy two years for the Jackson 5.

4. Elton John - "Step Into Christmas" (Billboard Christmas #1). Written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Produced by Gus Dudgeon. 45: "Step Into Christmas"/"Ho, Ho, Ho (Who'd Be a Turkey at Christmas?)" (MCA 1973).

Still remembering when rock was young, Elton John's "eat, drink, and be merry" foray into good-humored yuletide glitz has always sounded entirely well advised.

5. The Staple Singers - "Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas" (Billboard Christmas 1970 #2). Written by Deanie Parker. Produced by Al Bell. 45: "Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas"/"Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas (Instrumental)" (Stax 1970).

Multi-leveled, ingratiating finger-wagging that's at once a mistitled call for more "Mary" at Christmas and a rather hot-tempered rebuke of the joyless.

6. Charles Brown - "Merry Christmas, Baby" (Billboard Christmas 1973 #2). Written by Johnny Moore and Lou Baxter. 45: "Merry Christmas, Baby"/"Let's Make Every Day a Christmas Day" (King 1968).

Charles Brown's 1968 re-recording for the King label of his 1947 classic didn't chart until 1973, which was an especially fertile year for Christmas singles.

7. The Singing Dogs - "Jingle Bells" (Billboard Christmas 1971 #2). Produced by Don Charles. 45: "Jingle Bells"/"Oh! Susanna" (RCA Victor 1955; 1971).

This first appeared as a 1955 B-side, but crescendoing early '70s nostalgia, which also brought back 1962's "Monster Mash," turned it into a charting A-side.

8. John and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir - "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" (1971) (Billboard Christmas 1971 #3). Written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Produced by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Phil Spector. 45: "Happy Xmas (Was Is Over)"/"Listen the Snow Is Falling" (Apple 1971). LP: Shaved Fish (Apple 1975).

This single, the ultimate John Lennon/Phil Spector collaboration, manages to be simultaneously sentimental and serious while seamlessly incorporating the shrill voice of Yoko Ono.

9. Cheech and Chong - "Santa Claus and His Old Lady" (Billboard Christmas 1971 #4, 1972 #3, 1973 #3). Written by Cheech and Chong. Produced by Lou Adler. 45: "Santa Claus and His Old Lady"/"Dave" (Ode 1971).

Cheech and Chong's cozy Christmas conversation is their least jarring comedy single and also their funniest. The backing music is as funny as the chatter.

10. Leon Russell - "Slipping Into Christmas" (Billboard Christmas 1972 #4). Written by Leon Russell. Produced by Denny Cordell and Leon Russell. 45: "Slipping Into Christmas"/"Christmas in Chicago" (Shelter 1972).

His bluesy drawl and loping arrangements tended to give Leon Russell's records a uniquely melting-taffy effect. This oddball Christmas single is a perfect example.

11. Bill Withers - "The Gift of Giving" (Billboard Christmas 1972 #5). Written and produced by Bill Withers. "The Gift of Giving"/"Let Us Love" (Sussex 1972).

Few can take a seemingly one-dimensional title like "The Gift of Giving" and imbue it with contrasting layers of melancholy and congeniality like Withers.

12. Bobby Helms - "Jingle Bell Rock" (Billboard Christmas 1970 #5). Written by Joe Beale and Jim Boothe. Produced by Aubrey Mayhew. 45: "Jingle Bell Rock"/"The Old Year Is Gone" (Certron 1970).

This was Helms's fourth charting makeover of his 1957 signature song. Released on the Certron label, it could have been retitled "Jingle Bell Honky Tonk."

13. John Denver - "Please, Daddy" (Billboard #69, entered 12/22/73; Christmas #7, country #69). Written by Billy Danoff and Taffy Nivert. Produced by Milton Okun. 45: "Please, Daddy"/"Rocky Mountain Suite (Cold Nights in Canada)" (RCA 1973). LP: Farewell, Andromeda (RCA 1973).

Denver, a possible model for the yellow '70s smiley face, surprised listeners by sharing a gloomy tale of alcoholism, a la Commander Cody, for Christmas.

14. James Brown - "Santa Claus Is Definitely Here to Stay" (Billboard Christmas #7). Written by Nat Jones. Produced by James Brown. 45: "Santa Claus Is Definitely Here to Stay"/"Santa Claus Is Definitely Here to Stay (Instrumental)" (King 1970). LP: Hey America (King 1970).

The biggest single from Brown's Hey America Christmas album featured him tinkering with Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" in the style of the Impressions.

15. Donny Hathaway - "This Christmas" (Billboard Christmas 1972 #11). Written Nadine McKinnor and Donnie Pitts. Produced by Don-Ric Enterprises. Arranged by Donny Hathaway. 45: "This Christmas"/"Be There" (Atco 1970).

This flash of uptown Christmas brilliance showcases Donny Hathaway as one of the decade's greatest soul singers and a class act. Rest in peace, Donny.

16. Michael Holm - "When a Child Is Born" (Billboard #53, entered 12/14/74; easy listening #7). 45: "When a Child Is Born"/"Other Way Round" (Mercury 1974).

An Italian melody with English lyrics performed by a German singer. Johnny Mathis turned this into a UK smash hit, going number one in 1976.

17. Stan and Doug - "Christmas Goose (Snowbird)" (Billboard Christmas 1970 #7). Written by Gene MacLellan, Stan Boreson, and Doug Setterberg. 45: "Christmas Goose (Snowbird)"/"Christmas Medley" (Golden Crest 1970).

Not to be confused with Bob and Doug MacKenzie, this comedy duo saluted Yogi Yorgeson's Great White North to the tune of Anne Murray's "Snowbird."

18. Charley Pride - "Christmas in My Home Town" (Billboard Christmas 1970 #11). Written by Lassaye Holmes. Produced by Jack Clement. 45: "Christmas in My Home Town"/"Santa and the Kids" (RCA Victor 1970). LP: Christmas in My Home Town (RCA Victor 1970).

Christmas cookie-cutter hokum from country's preeminent African-American, who was on the verge of becoming the Country Music Association's 1971 Entertainer of the Year.

19. Dingo, The Most Lovable Elf of All - "Santa's Little Helper Dingo" (Billboard Christmas 1973 #11). Written and produced by Richard Doyle. 45: "Santa's Little Helper Dingo"/"Santa's Little Helper Dingo (mono)" (Perspective 1973).

Two Billboard ads pushed sales and airplay for this rather tuneless curiosity put together by Richard Doyle, an LA comedian later known as Shamus M'Cool.

20. Commander Cody - "Daddy's Drinking Up Our Christmas" (Billboard Christmas 1973 #19). Written by John Tichy. Produced by Ozone Productions with Pete Drake. 45: "Daddy's Drinking Up Our Christmas"/ "Honeysuckle Honey" (Dot 1973).

Commander Cody's Christmas single showcases three specific early '70s pop music trends: "progressive country," children's perspectives, and a willingness to wallow in reality (i.e., disappointment).

21. Love Unlimited - "It May Be Winter Outside (But in My Heart It's Spring)" (Billboard #85, entered 12/15/73; Soul #35). Written by Barry White and Paul Politi. Produced by Barry White. 45: "It May Be Winter Outside (But in My Heart It's Spring)"/"It's Winter Again" (20th Century 1973). LP: Under the Influence of Love Unlimited (20th Century 1973).

This "girl group" project featured producer Barry White reveling in musical '50s motifs skewed by slippery rhythm shifts. This single also borrows liberally from Bacharach.

22. Jim Croce - "It Doesn't Have to Be That Way" (Billboard #64, entered 12/29/73). Written by Jim Croce. Produced by Terry Cashman and Tommy West. 45: "It Doesn't Have to Be That Way"/"Roller Derby Queen" (ABC 1973). LP: Life and Times (ABC 1973).

This song closed the last album Croce released before perishing in a 1973 plane crash. Its elegiac realism made for a prototypical singer-songwriter single.

23. Dee Mullins - "Remember Bethlehem" (Billboard country #71). Written by Jake Thackery. Produced by Shelby Singleton, Jr. 45: "Remember Bethlehem"/"California, The Promise Land" (Plantation 1971).

This strange country polka in a minor key featured some of pop music's most cerebral lyrics. The title's implied sentiment was its deceptive calling card.

24. Perry Como - "Christmas Dream" (Billboard #92, entered 12/21/74). Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Timothy Rice. Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Pete Spargo. 45: "Christmas Dream"/"Christ Is Born" (RCA 1974). LP: The Odessa File (Original Soundtrack) (MCA 1974).

One of Como's final Christmas outings was a cheerful accordion polka featuring children's voices. The song figured prominently in The Odessa File, starring Jon Voigt.

25. James Brown - "Hey America" (Billboard #105, entered 12/12/70). Written by Nat Jones and Addie Williams Jones. Produced by James Brown. 45: "Hey America"/"Hey America (Instrumental)" (King 1970). LP: Hey America (King 1970).

This minor-key workout captures Brown, at the height of his influence, mostly name-checking the nation, taking note of the peace movement, and improvising.

5 more:
Nilsson - "Remember (Christmas)" (Billboard Hot 100 #53). Written by Harry Nilsson. Produced by Richard Perry. 45: "Remember (Christmas)"/"The Lottery Song" (RCA Victor 1972). LP: Son of Schmilsson (RCA Victor 1972).

Having no overt musical or lyrical references to Christmas other than the title, Nilsson's tender ballad entered the charts on Dec. 23, peaking at #53.

Tony Bennett - "Tell Her It's Snowing" (Billboard easy listening #38, entered 5/5/73). Written by Nachum Heiman, Michael John Mallows, and Eddie Marnay. Produced by Tony Bennett. 45: "Tell Her It's Snowing"/"If I Could Go Back" (MGM/Verve 1973). LP: Listen Easy (MGM/Verve 1973).

This melodramatic number, which charted in May 1973, merges the "Love Story Theme" musical template with the fashionable theme of familial discord's effect on children.

Linda Clifford - "(It's Gonna Be) A Long, Long Winter" (Billboard soul #75, entered 2/23/74). Written by Curtis Mayfield. Produced by Curtis Mayfield and Rich Tufa. 45: "(It's Gonna Be) A Long, Long Winter"/"March Across the Land" (Paramount 1973).

A regular on the R&B and dance charts between 1973 and 1984, Linda Clifford took this Christmas afterthought to Billboard's soul chart in February 1973.

The Jackson 5 - "Christmas Won't Be the Same This Year" (Billboard Christmas 1970 #1 flipside). Written by Pam Sawyer and Laverne Ware. Produced by Hal Davis. 45: "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"/"Christmas Won't Be the Same This Year" (Motown 1970). LP: Jackson 5 Christmas Album (Motown 1970).

The B-side of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" charted alongside the A-side as per Billboard's custom at the time. Sounds hurried, like the A-side.

Sister Janet Mead - "The Lord's Prayer" (Billboard #4, entered 2/23/74; easy listening #2). Written by Martin Erdman. Produced by Lee Sands. 45: "The Lord's Prayer"/"Brother Sun and Sister Moon" (A&M 1973). LP: With You I Am (A&M 1974).

Although Australia's rocking nun hit the US charts in February 1974 and peaked at #4 during Holy Week, she's racked up years of Christmas airplay.

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