Cold Fury

Harshing your mellow since 9/01

Twelve, count ’em, twelve

Today’s Christmas tune is a takeoff on an oldie but not necessarily goodie: Jeff Tyzik’s “The Twelve Gifts Of Christmas.” Now, I am aware that many of you don’t much care for the original “Twelve Days Of Christmas,” and I share your disdain for it myself, believe me. But back in the early 60s, Allen Sherman (of “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” fame) rejiggered TDOC as “Twelve Gifts” etc, in his inimitable comedic style. Then along came a guy named Jeff Tyzik, conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic, with sort of a spoof of Sherman’s spoof.

And lo, it’s actually quite good. Near as I can tell, the original TDOC would make exactly nobody’s list of favorite Christmas tunes. It’s facile and repetitive, and goes on way too damned long to suit most of us—just the same danged cloying melody over and over and over, verse after verse with nary a chorus or bridge in sight. Arrangers here and there over the years have tried to alleviate the ennui somewhat by working in modulations as the verses advance, changing key up with each successive one. To little avail if you ask me; it’s one of the oldest tricks in the book for spicing up an aimless or otherwise lackluster tune, especially since the dawn of the rock and roll era. And it doesn’t work with this song any better than it usually does.

Tyzik employs the old modulation sleight-of-hand too, but in an unusual way: with this arrangement, the key signature changes both up AND down. In most cases, the pitch only goes up, with rock and roll songs usually a step or half-step. The theme of the lyrics is modified to reference neither bizarre gifts like the green polka-dot pajamas and indoor bird baths of the Sherman version, nor the baffling and archaic lords-a-leaping and pipers-piping of the original. Tyzik, being conductor of a symphony and all, instead decided to indulge his passion for classical music by running down a list of orchestral instruments as his “gifts.”

That’s all well and good, but it probably wouldn’t have sufficed by itself to spark any more interest than the somnolent original does. No, what brings Tyzik’s version to life is what he does with those instruments. Each of them in its turn is called on to recite a brief snippet of a well-known favorite from the classical repertoire featuring that instrument. Some of the lyrics naming each “gift” are clever and funny, too: “five golden strings,” “six mellow cellos,” “seven brass a-swinging,” etc.

Anyway, what it all adds up to is a fresh, lilting, amusing take on a song that never really was any of those things before. The arrangement shifts itself just when you want it to without actually expecting it, and the classical (and, in the case of the brass, jazzy) bits enliven things nicely. All in all, although still necessarily lengthy, this one moves right along; speaking purely for myself, when I first heard the piece I found myself actually looking forward to the next verse just to see what he threw into the mix next. And I had NEVER done any such thing with either the original or the Sherman version. I just wanted to be put out of my misery, mostly.

I dunno, watch it through if you haven’t run across it before and see what you think. You may or may not dig the thing, depending on how you feel about classical and/or Christmas music, I guess. But I like it; it ain’t necessarily one of my favorites, but it does make me smile. When I hear it on the local classical-music radio station I usually stick with it to the end instead of diving for the channel-switcher button like I’ll always and forever do when I hear that sour old commie dirge of John Lennon’s, or his erstwhile partner’s godawful “Wonderful Christmas Time.” And really, isn’t that the proof of the pudding?

Update! Sometimes, the arrangement is everything.

Doye O’Dell was a second-tier singing cowboy who, upon America’s entry into the Second World War, found himself being groomed to step into Roy Rogers’ chaps, on the assumption by Hollywood that Roy would be drafted. When word came that Roy wouldn’t be, Doye went off to join the Marines and the big break never happened. He had small acting roles in the sort of films you expect to find singing cowboys in – The Gay Ranchero, Along the Navajo Trail – but also a few films you don’t: Auntie Mame, Days of Wine and Roses, Irma La Douce. Nevertheless, he puts a real twang in your twig of mistletoe, and decks your hall with boughs of tumbleweed and sagebrush. So you’d be for forgiven for thinking that “Blue Christmas” started out as a country-&-western song.

In fact, it’s a suburb-&-eastern song – born in Connecticut commuter-land seven decades ago. I was complaining re “Orange Colored Sky” that it’s always a disappointment when a memorable song doesn’t have an equally memorable and-then-I-wrote anecdote behind it. In the case of “Blue Christmas”, the and-then-I-wrote story is almost too good, but I was assured a couple of decades back that this is exactly how it happened. So here goes…

…There are varying accounts of what happened that day. One of them has it that Steve Sholes, the RCA man who’d signed the singer, had ordered up a bland arrangement of the song, like the pop standard “Blue Christmas” should have been but never was. It was nothing like the Ernest Tubb record, without which Presley would never ever have heard the song or had the least interest in recording it. And, as “Blue Christmas” was first up on that day’s session rundown, the dullsville chart immediately put Elvis in a bad mood. And he told the band and backing singers, the Jordanaires, that they were going to punish RCA by making a version of “Blue Christmas” so bad the company could never release it. I can’t say I entirely buy that, but it does explain those melodramatically slowed down pick-up notes – “I-I’ll ha-ave a-a” – and then the banshee-like howls of Millie Kirkham behind “blue Christmas without you”. Miss Kirkham, who was pregnant and singing from a chair, told friends she was worried that her wailing soprano obligato sounded “ridiculous”. Which suggests that, if Elvis was seriously striving to wreck the number, she wasn’t in on the joke.

But it’s harder to make a total stinkeroo of a record than you might think. Especially if you’re really good. And, if you’re as good as Elvis and Millie and Scotty Moore and Bill Black and D J Fontana and Dudley Brooks and the Jordanaires, even when you’re trying to sound bad you tend to do it really well. So, for example, on those bansee-howl backing vocals, Millie Kirkham and the boys replaced the major and minor thirds with neutral and sub-minor.

And thus for the first time in its nine-year history “Blue Christmas”, a song about feeling blue, actually felt bluesy. And what had hitherto been an insipid pop tune became a far more effective rhythm’n’blues ballad. The Presley version isn’t in fact that slow (approx 96 beats per minute, which is faster than many earlier recordings) but it feels ballad-esque because of the way he slurs and slides his words across the rhythm. And, ever since, almost everybody’s pretty much done it that way.

Yep, it’s another fascinating Steyn music post, with lots more good stuff tucked between my ellipses.


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