Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Music Part 1 - White Christmas

This blog started as a result of two guest posts on my friend Nicole Simone AKA Miss Late July’s site.  The first post was about Otis Redding and a discussion of his Christmas songs “White Christmas” and “Merry Christmas Baby”.  You can find it here:

When I was writing the post, I asked Nicole how many songs I could talk about. Would around 10 be too much? She wrote back one, possibly two or three.  I ended up with four.

Now that I have my own blog, this is partially closer to what I would have posted back then. For length (Yes, Nicole. You were right), I’m splitting this into at least two, if not three posts.  Note that these posts uses some of the material from my earlier post on Nicole’s blog.

“White Christmas” was written by Irving Berlin and the most famous recording of the song is Bing Crosby’s version from the movie Holiday Inn.

The tone is wistful, pining for Christmas’ in the past.  Recorded in 1942, Crosby’s version has sold 50 million copies, making it the biggest selling single of all time. It’s melancholy tone resonated with soldiers in WWII, where this song was one of the most requested on The Armed Forces Network.  This song even was number one on the Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade (the precursor to Billboard’s R&B Chart).

When Elvis Presley recorded Elvis’ Christmas Album, one of the tracks was “White Christmas”.  Here is his version:

It’s a bit telling, however, that Irving Berlin didn’t complain about The Drifters version of the song, since that was what Elvis’ version was based on.  It’s telling, because Irving Berlin likely never heard The Drifter’s version because that would not have been played on Pop stations.  At the time, it would have only had airplay on R&B stations.  Here is The Drifters version:

The Drifters version harkens back to their roots as a Doo Wop group.  The Drifters start out singing a syncopated riff suing vocables. Bass Vocalist Bill Pickney sings both verses first.  Then Lead Tenor Clyde McPhatter sings the first verse then half of the second. Bill Pickney finishes off the second verse, slowing it down at the end. Finally, The Drifters sing a fast couple of bars of Jingle Bells to end the song.

Elvis’ version is remarkably similar, right down to little bit of Jingle Bells at the end (played on the piano).  Instead of his backup singers the Jordanaires do the riff, it’s played on the piano instead. The riff is not the same as the Drifters, though.  It’s less syncopated that that.  It’s also a little slower than The Drifter’s version.

As I mention in my original post on Nicole’s blog, Otis Redding is my favourite singer of all time. One of my favourite songs he did is his version of “White Christmas”.  Here it is:

The first change is in the time signature. The original song (and most covers) are in 4/4 time. A lot of Otis Redding’s songs were either in 6/8 or 12/8 time.  This results in a different feel to the music.  12/8 time still feels like four beats in a bar, but each “beat” is a triplet. Listen to Steve Cropper doing arpeggios on his guitar.  You can count each of the 12 beats.

What’s really different about this version is Otis’ vocal. He improvises with the lyrics more, explicitly singing this song to his “honey”. The intensity of his voice suggests emotions that cross the line from merely being melancholy about Christmas’ past to sadness. I’ve always thought that it sounded like Otis was singing to his ex girlfriend (whom he still loves) wishing that all her Christmas’ she spends with her new man are white and special.

As we’ll see in the next post, which looks at Otis’ version of “Merry Christmas Baby”, Otis took ownership of the songs he covered.  Here he took a song that was melancholic and turned it into a sad song, completely reinventing it along the way.  “White Christmas” is one reason why Otis Redding is my favourite singer of all time.

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