Phil Spector was basically put on this earth to make a Christmas album. The guy specialized in big, comforting bells and whistles (sometimes literally), and that’s what Christmas is. Even the heartbreak of songs like the Ronettes’ “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” have tranquility in them. It’s as if Spector’s mission was to smooth out the wrinkles and soften the edges of everyday life.
Given these talents and the producer’s star power in the early sixties, you’d think A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records (later retitlted A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector), featuring superstars like the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Darlene Love, would have been a commercial slam dunk. Unfortunately, the record came out on November 22, 1963, a day on which potential record buyers were not, understandably, in a Christmas mood. Its reputation grew in the years since, and it’s become a holiday classic. It’s one of my favorite records, and I get excited every year when I get to dig out my vinyl copy and annoy the rest of my family with its inarguable (hear that, family? INARGUABLE) charms.
The album’s highlight is “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” which I’d feel comfortable placing in my top 10 favorite songs—not out of Christmas songs, but of all songs. I just think it’s perfect. It was originally intended for Ronnie Spector, but Spector couldn’t quite get a vocal handle on it; Darlene Love took over and absolutely nailed it. I love Ronnie Spector, but I can’t imagine her coy, batted-eyelashes delivery working on a song driven by pleading and despair. She did just fine with the darker Ronettes songs, but “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is something else entirely.
The song, from its beautiful melody to the simple, sad words, is great. But the arrangement and performances make it stellar. As usual, Spector puts plenty of instrumentation on the bottom and top—big fat saxes below, sleigh bells above—making the recording sound simultaneously solid and light, heartbroken and joyous. The Wrecking Crew plays its heart out, and Love brings a novel-worthy emotional arc to a 3-minute pop song. The end of the last chorus, as Love begs “Please! Please! Please!” as Leon Russell’s piano notes go higher and higher, as if they’ll never stop…it gets me every single time.
Song 326: Ludwig Van Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, 2nd Movement (Boston Symphony Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond.) (1806/1963)Posted: November 22, 2013
Fifty years ago today, at about 2 p.m., Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Erich Leinsdorf approached the conductor’s podium before a packed Symphony Hall. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, shakily but steadily, “we have a press report over the wireless. We hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it. That the president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination.” Most of the audience—and the musicians onstage—were unaware that Kennedy had been shot, let alone killed, and in the below recording of the event, you can hear the shock, the anguish, the despair in peoples’ reactions.
Ten minutes before his announcement, Linsdorf asked BSO librarian William Shisler to distribute copies of the second movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica.” Leinsdorf used the movement, commonly known as “the funeral march,” to eulogize a president who had died only moments before.
Beethoven originally wrote the Symphony as a tribute to the then-emerging Napoleon Bonaparte; he rescinded the tribute at the last moment when learning of the emperor’s shortcomings. The symphony, then, is a tribute to greatness in everybody. Its darkness and (intentional) inconsistencies reflect the shortcomings in humanity.
The below recording, which was made for the BSO’s regularly scheduled afternoon broadcast on WGBH, is a tough listen. Leinsdorf’s announcement is predictably heart-wrenching, but the piece itself—performed by musicians who had just learned that the president, their president, had died—is raw and visceral, as if each performer is processing the terrible news with every measure. The audience, though grief-stricken, and gutted to the core, is absolutely silent.
I had intended to write about the first movement of the “Eroica,” which is triumphant, idiosyncratic, and downright amazing, but I stumbled on this piece of history and couldn’t resist the timing. I’m glad I changed course, because I found this absolutely fascinating. It also made me listen more closely to the second movement, which is an odd mixture of sadness and sweetness—minor and major chords, to be overly simplistic. There’s acceptance amid the despair, especially in those big fat quarter notes that first erupt around the 5:15 mark. It is what Leonard Bernstein would have called “a fact” (“Beethoven always started with a fact,” Bernstein once wrote about the first notes of the “Eroica”’s first movement). The interval between the two notes is a fourth, a span that, if played simultaneously to form a chord, would be neither minor nor major. In a song full of subtlety, it’s a striking change of tone, as if Beethoven is trying to shock us back into processing the terrible idea (or fact) of death.
In his book The Infinite Variety of Music, Bernstein points out that the movement’s coda provides a brief moment of peace and respite before the last handful of measures, a reprise of the main march melody that “break[s] up into fragments before our eyes, like the speech of one so overcome by grief that he can speak only in halting, gasping efforts.” For this reason among others, the “Eroica” funeral march was a fitting choice for the moments after Kennedy’s death. Leinsdorf had many funeral marches to choose from, and his decision to pick this ambiguous, unsettled, sadly beautiful piece was one that acknowledged that everyone in that room was struggling with the unthinkable.
The choice is also a testament to how much of a unifying force Beethoven can be. After Shisler distributed the sheet music to the orchestra, he hurried to his usual listening spot at the back of the first balcony. He, like many others in the room, cried, not only because the president had died, but because, as he noted years later, “It’s such beautiful music anyway.”
Whenever I hear this song, I’m instantly relaxed. It’s not sad or overly quiet, it just is, the same way sentimentality can be sad, but it’s really its own thing. Duke Ellington’s piano especially captures the idea of being “in a sentimental mood,” somehow. Like sentimentality and nostalgia, it’s a little sad, and seemingly both major and minor. Coltrane, meanwhile, makes the melody sound like a human voice, sort of a reversal of how Ella Fitzgerald tried to sing like a horn. The combination is beautifully seamless, so much so that you wouldn’t ever guess there was a nearly 30-year difference between Ellington and Coltrane.
Coltrane and Ellington had never worked together before, but they each knew their way around a standard. Not that there’s anything bland or old-fashioned about this record. It sounds, with its bare-bones arrangements and production, like jazz in its purest form. It’s the kind of sound you think of when you think of jazz. With these two guys, of course, it couldn’t have gone any other way.