4 ELVIS’ CHRISTMAS ALBUM
Released in the USA October 15 1957
It may not deny free will but the chaos theory adds a significant caveat. The theory claims that everything that happens follows a predetermined pattern. As human beings we have the freedom to change gears and tug on the steering wheel but the car in which we sit has only one destination. Those who find such thoughts tempting and happen to be rock and roll fans might just wonder about 1957. Three events happened during that year that could even now be determining future musical destinations of whatever vehicle we are supposed to be driving.
These were the events. One, RCA released Elvis’ Christmas Album, two, the Cavern Club opened in Liverpool, and three, a never to be repeated Christmas present was received by Elvis Presley. So far Elvis’ Christmas Album has managed to sell 17 million copies in the USA alone. It is the best selling Christmas album of all time. The financial reward for widening the musical identity of Elvis was noted by RCA and the opportunist Parker. In its early years the Cavern Club staged jazz bands. In the next decade the Cavern was obliged to attract customers with rock and roll. That meant The Beatles could stop banging out numbers in Hamburg strip clubs and return to Liverpool. Soon they met manager Brian Epstein and secured a recording contract with Parlophone Records. The success of Elvis’ Christmas Album helps explain the strange attitude of Colonel Parker to event three or the surprise present Elvis received that year. Just about the time some people were beginning to call him the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis picked up his draft notice for the US Army. This occurred on the 20th of December. The contribution Elvis was making to the US economy was sufficient argument for the Colonel to negotiate Elvis being excused. A two year gap in his musical career, though, made Elvis more dependent on a manager who wanted the Elvis brand to reach mature adults. Elvis’ Christmas Album, the Army draft notice for Elvis and someone at the Cavern Club selecting economic diversity rather than bankruptcy occurred almost simultaneously. Without these three events Elvis might have continued to shape and lead popular music and The Beatles would have become a pub band and part time songwriters.
In 1957 band members Scotty Moore and Bill Black forwarded a letter of resignation. Elvis and the Colonel were making a load of money, and the musicians wanted a pay rise. Skinflint Parker said no. He might have had other reasons. Parker was receiving negative feedback about the contributions of Moore and Black. The respected Thorne Nagar, the engineer at RCA Sound Studios, thought the musicians were limited and that Elvis indulged them. Elvis could sing anything, and Parker and RCA wanted that skill utilised. Scotty Moore, and, in particular, Bill Black had a narrower range. Elvis felt the Southern feel of the musicians was important to him and wanted the musicians to be retained. Instead of saying something, Elvis wilted in front of Parker. The letter of resignation from Moore and Black was dated the 7th of September. The Christmas album was recorded over three days, and the last day of recording was the 7th. Drummer DJ Fontana stayed with Elvis. Scotty Moore returned to work with Elvis in 1960. Bill Black formed his own combo and remained independent of Elvis until he died in 1965. The Bill Black Combo was the opening act for The Beatles on their first American tour in 1964. Because of his deteriorating health, Bill Black was not able to join the Combo.
Before the arguments between the musicians and Parker, the trio of Moore, Black and Fontana had planned to record an instrumental album. Elvis had proposed that he played the piano on the record. It did not happen and perhaps it was inevitable that it did not. The Colonel had other plans, and they meant not just saying no to Scotty Moore and Bill Black but for two years taking Elvis away from his career. Most of that time the US Army had Elvis stationed in Germany, the country where The Beatles would later practise their craft.
I only bought the Christmas album when it was subsequently released on a budget label. No Elvis albums appeared in my home until after I left school and found a job. And when the albums did appear the Christmas album was not a priority. In the 1950s the record sales of rock and roll were dominated by singles. The 33 inch record album format had been introduced as a response to classical music. The scope of albums widened but they continued to reflect aspirational taste. But the distinction between albums and singles was not just determined by taste. It also reflected income. The middle class collected albums, and the working class bought singles.
The first Elvis record that belonged to my family was Jailhouse Rock. This was the single and not the five track EP that contained all the songs from the movie. The B side of the Jailhouse Rock single was Treat Me Nice. As long as those songs were on the radio, there was no one doubting the rock and roll credentials of Elvis. My mother bought the single but this time she bought the record as much for herself as me. The assistant in the shop was surprised to see someone her age buy a rock and roll record. My mother was thirty five years old and looked younger. Jailhouse Rock was printed in the UK as an old fashioned large 78 rpm record. The single had a plain brown paper sleeve. The record cost six shillings and nine pence, the same price as a bar of chocolate today.
In the Jailhouse Rock movie, Elvis plays a man convicted for manslaughter. An argument becomes a fist fight, and Elvis kills someone. Assuming the symbolism has importance, Elvis had become a murderer before recording his Christmas album. Nothing suggests that Parker was alert to the irony. The script for Jailhouse Rock was written by the experienced Guy Trosper who was as enthusiastic about consumer capitalism as the prospect of working on an Elvis movie. The script is cynical about the record business. The hero leaves prison and has one ambition which is to use his singing talent to make as much money as possible. As the movie proceeds, the hero becomes an unpleasant heel and not the victim the audience anticipated at the beginning of the movie. The imposed sentimental ending of the film jars with the rest of the preceding drama but neither does it suggest redemption or reform. Jailhouse Rock was the movie that inspired riots in British cinemas. The cause might have been the aggressive behaviour of the heel on the screen. More likely is that the audience danced to the title song and that led to exuberant and unrestrained behaviour.
I have never heard the best Christmas record album. James Brown’s Funky Christmas is a CD collection that contains 17 songs from the three Christmas albums Brown released between 1966 and 1970. He used the albums to not just celebrate Christmas but advocate something like decent treatment for African Americans. The Elvis album cannot compare but it was released ten years before the efforts by James Brown. Elvis’ Christmas Album may not be the very best of the seasonal offerings but it is equal to the leading contenders. There is context. The album is of its time and it reflects the commercial considerations of Steve Sholes, the supportive record executive at RCA. If Elvis does not wave a flag for the oppressed, the record contains sufficient rock and roll independence. Four of the tracks were also borrowed from a gospel EP by Elvis that had been released earlier that year and they alone give the album distinction. Peace In The Valley sends chills down the spine. But what should be weak points in the album are also strengths. Here Comes Santa Claus has a marvellous feel good charm. Elvis’s version of Silent Night is soulful, mysterious and profound and it finishes with a bluesy soprano coda by Millie Kirkham. The Bing Crosby hit Blue Christmas is transformed into eccentric and subversive doo wop. The standout track Santa Claus Is Back In Town is a fine blues that has smart lyrics from Leiber and Stoller and an inspired snarling performance from the greatest white blues singer of them all. The song was also released as the B side of Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me. I first heard the record when I visited an aunt with my mother. ‘What’s the B side like?’ said my mother. The aunt was less than impressed. ‘It’s jazz,’ she said. ‘But you might like it.’ My mother and me listened to the record and grinned at one another.
Irving Berlin the composer described the Elvis version of White Christmas as a ‘profane parody’. Berlin did not realise that there were two profane parodies. The Elvis treatment paid homage to the Clyde McPhatter version of White Christmas. Berlin had avoided being offended by McPhatter because he did not listen to the same record stations as Elvis. Nor would Berlin have been tempted to visit the WDIA Goodwill Revue as Elvis did at the end of 1957. The Colonel advised Elvis not to attend but on this occasion Elvis defied his boss. The Goodwill Revue was held by the WDIA radio station. Publicity for the station proclaimed it to be the ‘mother radio station for all negroes’. Elvis was a listener of the station and had visited the Revue the previous year. WDIA used the proceeds to help African American children. As in the previous year, Elvis met some of the people he admired and posed for photographs with musicians such as B B King, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker and Brook Benton. He was also photographed with members of the audience. In the photographs he appears to be the only white man present. One musician that was there and missing from the photographs is Ray Charles. Amongst the black musicians of his generation Ray Charles was the least appreciative of Elvis. There might have been a disagreement between the two that night or the absence of Charles amounted to nothing more than people missing one another at a party. In the next decade Elvis became friendly with James Brown. Elvis said, ‘No one gets down like James Brown.’ ‘Elvis is my soul brother,’ said James Brown. Whether either of the men heard the Christmas albums of the other is not known.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book Go Break Bad is now available here.