Ella Fitzgerald, Connie Francis & All the Christmas Carols
The power of the sounds of the season through two classic LPs
Welcome music lovers to the last edition of ‘Listening Sessions’ for 2023.
I want to thank you all for your incredible support over the past year. Thank you for all the kind comments and for sharing your thoughts on the many topics I tackled. Thank you to those who recommend my Substack to your readers. Thank you as well to you all for thinking my work worthy of entering your likely already too-crowded inbox every 10 days or so. It keeps me going and is very deeply appreciated.
For my final essay of this year, I have written a meditation on Christmas music focusing on two classic LPs, one by Ella Fitzgerald and one by Connie Francis, two singers who defined the music of the late fifties and early sixties. I hope you enjoy it and will share your thoughts too.
No matter how you choose to celebrate this holiday season, I hope that joy and peace are in abundance, and that you will be able to have a chance to step back from the day-to-day grind to savour the season with loved ones. I also hope that you all have the happiest of New Year’s. May 2024 be good to us all.
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At any other time of the year, the notion would be irredeemably corny: “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” So goes the final of three tenants that form the code of elves in Elf. Thirty-three years prior to Jon Favreau’s holiday fantasia captured hearts and minds (and continues to do so), songwriter Leslie Bricusse encapsulated the same sentiment this way:
“Sing a song of gladness and cheer
for the time of Christmas is here,
look around you and see
what a world of wonder this world can be.”
- from ‘Sing a Christmas Carol,’ written by Leslie Bricusse
He wrote it for Scrooge, the 1970 musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is sung over the main title credits as a thunderous choral number. In 2016, jazz singer Kurt Elling revisited it as the opener to his album, The Beautiful Day. Prior to launching into it, he fashions a kind of fugue, weaving in recognizable snippets from nine of the songs that form part of the bedrock of the songs and hymns that mark a celebration of the Christmas season, whether secular or sacred or both.
Once Elling moves into the song itself, he sings it with a sense of uplift—of its sentiment, he buys in wholeheartedly and unashamedly. It is an invitation to, as it goes, “join the chorus,” not simply because everyone else is doing it but because of the good it may do for you.
One of the most profound encounters I have ever had with music occurred one December long ago. For 41 years, The Toronto Star held an annual carol concert in support of its Santa Claus Fund and I managed to grab tickets to it in 2006. It was held at Toronto’s St. Paul’s United Church, a cavernous, modern cathedral. Multiple choirs and a brass orchestra performed. Beyond the opportunity to fundraise for a noble cause, the principal thrill of the concert was the chance to sing along to the familiar hymns of the season. The sound marshalled by the collective force inside the church was immense—a colossal, rolling wave. The tentativeness that sometimes greets singing a hymn in church in which parishioners gamely try to pick out an unfamiliar melody, progressively gaining confidence as they progress through the verses, was nowhere in sight. After all, narratives of the Nativity like ‘Once in Royal David’s City,’ ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘The First Noel’ long ago transcended the four walls of a place of worship. Their melodies are instantly hummable, the opening verses easily recitable.
To be a wallflower amid such a scene would be unthinkable. These are songs to be sung, heartily. I certainly tried to do so but found it hard. To join in was such an overpowering act of communal celebration that the words were only choked out of me, the exaltation of it all too raw to fathom. If music can be a healing force (and I believe this to be true), it was certainly so that day.
The rituals of the holiday—the most beloved of them yearly traditions that seem to act as a comforting anchor while change whirls unrepentantly—are often twinned with music, from the occasionally grating—think of the ceaseless parade of it while shoppers navigate the mad rush of the mall—to the meaningful, such as if one has a particular set of selections to play while trimming the family Christmas tree and the profound, such as the aforementioned carol concert or taking in a performance of Handel’s Messiah.
Indeed, Christmas music is arguably one of the most powerful examples we have of folk music. While others may decry Billboard’s current format that has resulted in Brenda Lee’s 65-year-old recording of ‘Rock Around the Christmas Tree’ to top the Hot 100 chart or the unstoppable ubiquity of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ (the great modern classic of Yuletide music), I instead linger on other things. And while there are always new songs—Christmas has proved to be as indefatigable a subject to set to music as love itself—there is that core group of songs that invite endless interpretation. Their contours may be rearranged but their inherent meaning, found in the songs themselves as well as in how they have soundtracked the Christmases that mark the unfolding of our lives, are potent and intact.
Questions linger, however. What would the core repertoire look like? How many songs would be included? And, what would be the criteria to formalize such a list? Glancing through the Library of Congress’ Recording Registry and the Grammy Hall of Fame doesn’t yield much other than affirming the pillars of Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas and Bing Crosby and Nat Cole’s renditions of ‘White Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Song’ respectively (the only Christmas recordings to appear on both lists). But, perhaps rather than building a canon, which is always subject to debate and revision not to mention the usual shortcomings of lists of this nature (though those by the Library of Congress and the Recording Academy are remarkable in their scope, a standard that maybe Rolling Stone will eventually aspire to as well. Stranger things have happened, I suppose), focusing on the albums that explore the most recognizable songs of the season may well be the best way in which to glory in these songs and hymns.
Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas was recorded and released in 1960, right in the middle of her reign as the First Lady of Song. Fitzgerald was as complete a jazz singer as there ever was and perhaps ever will be. As she was knocking audiences out with an ability to scat and improvise like the very best of jazz musicians, she was also a singing musicologist, teaming up with Norman Granz, the head of Fitzgerald’s recording home at the time, Verve, to create beautiful and resonant collections of the songs of the titans of the Great American Songbook. Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas scales back some of that ambition but exemplifies her perpetual youthfulness and when is that quality in better favour than at this time of the year.
Handling the arrangements was Frank DeVol, a multifaceted musician and sometimes actor, best known for, among other things, penning the chart for Nat Cole’s recording of ‘Nature Boy,’ and the themes to The Brady Bunch and My Three Sons. His work here is deeply expert: peppy and cheery on the up-tempo numbers and darkly romantic on the ballads. The program is, save for ‘Good Morning Blues,’ a Count Basie number from the Old Testament band that featured Jimmy Rushing, the foundation of the season’s secular repertoire. Paradoxically perhaps, it’s ‘Good Morning Blues’ where the album’s sheen is a little less bright. DeVol’s West Coast cool arrangement abuts awkwardly against Fitzgerald who gamely tries but never quite comes off as a blues woman. Everything else, though, is bounteous, like a tree laden with gifts or the privilege of being surrounded by loved ones around the holiday table.
The album kicks off with the rush of ‘Jingle Bells.’ Over a chiming rhythm section, Fitzgerald makes mince meat of the melody and DeVol layers a jazz chorus and occasional punctuations from a big band to gradually build the energy level—two key changes don’t hurt here—to a hip ending, Fitzgerald and chorus stopping time on a dime with a unison, “I’m just crazy about horses.”
The chorus also appears on ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman.’ While their exact identity is lost to history as are the expert musicians backing Fitzgerald, the chorus sounds hipper than the Ray Conniff Singers and slightly less jazzy than ensembles like the Swingle Singers or the Double Six of Paris. They kick off both songs with sizzling, sweet introductions and back Fitzgerald with aplomb. Be sure not to miss, after she sings “for when they placed it on his head / he began to dance around” on ‘Frosty the Snowman,’ their interjection of “Charleston! / Charleston!” over a Charleston rhythm to boot. It’s a textbook example on how to do novelty right as it is also on ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’
There, DeVol takes a nice-and-easy approach, adding the touch of a trilling clarinet behind the line, “Rudolph with your nose so bright / won’t you guide my sleigh tonight.” An interlude includes an ingenious interpolation of ‘Tom Dooley,’ which the Kingston Trio had taken to the top of the charts as well as a snippet of the verse before Fitzgerald remains to ‘Rudolph’’s primary lyric. These are the kind of moments that can bring a smile of satisfaction, the mutual acknowledgement of a high musical IQ.
But, going beyond these astute musical jokes, the album is pure pleasure. Its 35 minutes of music whirl by. Almost each performance has a moment or, more broadly, a mood that is transcendent. It’s in the way that Fitzgerald charges through the B section of ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’—each successive singing of it (she does so three times) is swung just a little harder—and how she makes the repeat of the B section of ‘Winter Wonderland’ absolutely soar. It’s also in how DeVol uses a simple riff to switch the setting of ‘Sleigh Ride’ from a Nordic hinterland to California’s Sunset Strip and how he uses a melancholic trumpet line to centre ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’ Fitzgerald takes care of the rest of it here. She is hopeful yet yearning, extending her phrasing to let Frank Loesser’s melody reveal itself in all its glory and slipping in the occasional quaver to allow some room for vulnerability. While there are other fine recordings of ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’—Joe Williams from 1990 and Lena Horne from 1966 immediately come to mind—Fitzgerald’s takes the cake.
She also gets close to the gold standard of ‘White Christmas’—Bing Crosby, as if there was any doubt—and fashions a gorgeous performance. ‘The Christmas Song’ reaches the same height. For ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ she sings the lyrics from Judy Garland’s original performance of it for Meet Me In St. Louis (in 1957, Frank Sinatra had songwriter Hugh Martin rewrite some of the words—substituting “from now on, your troubles will be out of sight” for “next year, all our troubles will be out of sight,” for one example—so that they would better suit his sole full-length Christmas album, to be titled A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra). Counterintuitively, DeVol’s chart is sugary and Fitzgerald’s performance is optimistic. An interlude in which a trombone line is doubled by a baritone saxophone adds to the sweetness. Everything about the performance is top notch but it’s hard to square the yearning for a holiday season in which everything is back in balance when one is listening and snapping one’s fingers at the same time. It demands something deeper.
A year prior to Fitzgerald’s version, there was a performer who did just that. The singer was just about the most popular female pop singer of her time.
For all the laurels that Brenda Lee has recently received (all deserved and a reminder of what a powerhouse she was), they are rarely aimed anymore at Connie Francis. Perhaps that may be as Fabian was to Elvis Presley: a pale imitation of the real thing, Francis is seen similarly to Lee. That’s unfortunate as Francis is a singer of supreme gifts. Look no further than her signature song, ‘Where the Boys Are,’ an often ravishing ode to post-Second World War romance. Anyone who would sing a bridge like Francis does on it—full of promise and elation, irony-free and with phrasing that flows like sunshine—would be destined for some kind of greatness and certainly from the late fifties until the early sixties, Francis was at that level.
Christmas In My Heart, recorded and released in 1959, in the midst of such as hits as ‘Stupid Cupid,’ ‘Who’s Sorry Now?’ and ‘My Happiness,’ follows the well-honed holiday album formula of a series of secular songs on the first side and hymns on the second side. Her rendition of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ ends side one. The album’s arranger, Geoff Love, known for his easy-listening music, centres his chart on a celeste playing like a music box, recalling Meet Me in St. Louis. It focuses attention on Francis, who sings slowly, highlighting the consoling nature of the lyrics, making the optimism that is central to Fitzgerald’s version something that will likely be hard won. As she completes the verse, a male choir begins a repeat of it with a female choir coming in later to create a chorale effect. The emotional impact is heightened. The choir returns at the end, completing their haunting visitation on what is surely one of the finest recorded versions of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’ It is the most reverent of the 12 recordings that comprise Christmas In My Heart.
There is a stateliness that pervades. Similar to Johnny Mathis, Francis demonstrates a maturity to her singing that was far beyond her years (she was all of 21 in 1959). The succession of ‘White Christmas’ to ‘Winter Wonderland’ to ‘The Christmas Song’ to ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ is hearing Francis as a true singer and interpreter (only on ‘Winter Wonderland’ does she verge into cutesy territory). Some may damn this music as schmaltz but to my ears, it is music that reflects the craft and care that went into record making at the end of the fifties. It respects the listener, recognizing that the end product is meant to edify and elevate one’s home. No corners are cut. Take the leisurely stroll through ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’ Every moment is luxurious, particularly on the ecstatic sweep of “five golden rings,” leaving space for memories to drift in, the stray moments of Christmases past to be enveloped in the song’s embrace.
The program of hymns on the second side go beyond the usual carols to include ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and Schubert’s setting of ‘Ave Maria,’ daunting showpieces that Francis ace. The best moments are when she is unencumbered by a choir with the first two verses of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ being especially moving. Francis trusts her voice and lets it tell the glory of the new story. Those looking to move beyond the usual roster of Christmas LPs and indulge in warm nostalgia will find what they are looking for in Christmas In My Heart.
Christmas music is, at its best, a profound expression of the holiday, recalling the past and reveling in the present, compelling, through its joy and its call for compassion, one to sing a Christmas carol out loud with gusto or to silently yet warming and deeply do so in one’s heart.