Christmas time for me, and for a lot of people, is a time to look forward to. It has very little to do with religious dogma, stories of stables, uncaring inn-keepers and nosey shepherds and more to do with the occasion to eat, drink and be merry surrounded by friends and family.
A staple of my household festivities has always been the music played and besides Dean Martin, Sinatra and Slade getting a pounding, there has always been a single album that stands high above the rest as the hallmark of the holiday season. This album is ‘A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector’ from 1963. It is an album of Christmas classics such as ‘White Christmas’, ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’ all given the Wall of Sound treatment synonymous with Spector, and featuring his stalwart stable of artists such as The Crystals, The Ronettes and of course Darlene Love who’s standout track ‘Christmas (Baby Please come Home)’ has been the official song for the David Letterman Christmas show for as long as I can remember.
The album was a labour of love for Phil Spector and this alone raised a few eye brows when news started to filter out from the studio about what his next project was. After all, this was coming from the creative mind of a 22 year old confirmed Jewish Atheist who was, by all accounts, a bit of a belligerent bastard. A guy with more enemies than friends, whose tyrannical approach to record making was ripping up the format and catching lightning in a bottle over and over again. Spector? Making happy-go-lucky Christmas album? Surely not.
The studio sessions throughout the hot summer of 1963 were fast paced and furious for the musicians involved. One commented later that it was very disorientating to be shaking jingle bells and playing Xmas songs for 11 hours then walking outside into the midsummer heat, but eventually after what seemed like an eternity for many involved, it was complete. The musicians were pushed to their very limits with sessions sometimes running into weeks rather than the standard few hours. Legendary musicians such as Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Glen Campbell and, allegedly even Brian Wilson, turned up to do their bit (Wilson even states that this album is his favourite of all time). This was either going to be Spector’s greatest achievement or his biggest flop.
It is impossible to feel depressed while listening to this album. Christmas can, after all, be a tough time for some who may be away from their family or secluded due to circumstance, and although this is no magic pill, this record definitely sugars the medicine to a level where a smile forms on even the most humbug laden faces.
The album itself was pretty much guaranteed to be a smash hit after insiders listened to the first pressings and considering the un-matched run of hits Spector had produced throughout the year it was a definite ‘sure thing’. This was stopped abruptly in it’s tracks by the release coinciding with the assassination of JFK (the same day). The album subsequently found it’s audience and with it’s re-release by The Beatles own Apple Label in 1972 eventually found it’s way into most record collections.
I’d admit I am bias as I admire Spector’s work greatly and will hold my hands up to the fact that I have listened to this on the beach in Spain while slowly getting sun-burnt. It’s an album for 365 days a year, but for those that like your Christmas’s white with turkey and stockings over the fire place I can’t think of a better soundtrack.