Onward! Onward our Sleigh proceeds cutting its way through the Christmas snow. Travel with me back in time now to Radio Recorders studios in Hollywood on September 7 1957. A small group of men assemble to cut an album of Christmas songs. From Gadsden Tennessee the modestly brilliant guitarist Scotty Moore, from Memphis Tennessee the ever reliable bass player Bill Black and from Shreveport Louisiana the sprung-floor drummer D J Fontana. Huddled together Gordon Stoker, Neal Matthews, Hoyt Hawkins and Hugh Jarrett – collectively the Jordanaires, a gospel quartet filled with the spirit. Today on piano sits Dudley Brooks.
Tuning up and swapping musicians banter they all look in the direction of a quietly spoken, respectful, hooded eyed, devestatingly handsome 22 year old from Tupelo Mississippi who has in the last few years recorded a series of records that seem to have shifted the axis of the planet. In addition through his live shows and TV appearances he has set an entire generation ablaze to the marked discomfort of, ‘sensible’ folks who can’t bring themselves to approve of the shaky-legged, swivel-hipped singer who bears the ridiculous name of Elvis Aaron Presley.
As usual the group will warm up by accompanying Elvis as he runs through some of the gospel songs that have surrounded him through his youth and adolescence. If there’s one thing Elvis believes in and knows through his own bodily experience it’s the power of music to raise, thrill and sustain the spirit.
Neither he nor anyone else could have guessed when he started out that he would possess an almost unique capacity to supercharge a song, to sing with such relaxed intensity and charisma that the listener felt lifted up and transported whether the song was secular or sacred. Given a half decent song Elvis always sang his heart out and on many occasions the results were and remain nothing short of miraculous.
Like the Beatles and Bob Dylan the best of Elvis’ records are if anything under rated for all the millions of copies they have sold. I really don’t have a fixed position on many of the great political and cultural issues of our times though I’m happy to debate with anyone. What I am certain of and will jump up on any table anywhere, anytime, to proclaim before any audience is that Elvis was, is, and will always remain the King!
Elvis’ Christmas album was a massive success and continues to sell today. The cut featured above, ‘Santa Claus Is Back In Town’ was written by the whip smart pairing of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who couldn’t have write a lifeless song if they had tried. Here they provide Elvis with an opportunity to demonstrate his charm, his rhythm and blues chops and the sheer swaggering physical presence his vocals could embody. I love the tip of the hat to Elvis’ love of the Cadillac and the erotic promise of the whole song incarnated in the line, ‘Hang up your pretty stockings, turn off the light …. ‘. Christmas brings many forms of celebration not least the chance for lovers to share some quality time together. And, I can think of no one better to serenade such times than Elvis.
We move now from a lover’s serenade to a mother’s lullaby. ‘A la Nanita Nana’ is a traditional song from Mexico sung here with characteristic tenderness and care by Tish Hinojosa. Tish (short for Leticia) grew up, the thirteenth child, in a crowded household in San Antonio, Texas. Through her brothers and sisters and the crowded radio waves she absorbed and was inspired by music from her native Mexican culture and the folk, country and rock ‘n’ roll traditions which suffice the very air of Texas. I recommend her CDs, ‘Culture Swing’ and, ‘Frontejas’ for those of you inclined to further listening.
The historical facts of Jesus’ birth remain shrouded in the mysteries of antiquity. However, I think we can be sure mothers nursing their new born child have always sung songs to soothe the babe just exposed to the blooming buzzing confusion of this world of ours. The first sound we hear as we grow in our mother’s womb is the beating of her heart and hers is the first face we come to recognise in those initial hours and days of life.
Similarly, our first sense of the musicality of language comes from the sound of our mother reassuring us that we are loved and all is well. If we are lucky we will carry this message with us throughout the whole of our lives. I have no doubt that Mary, though she had much to ponder in her heart, will have sung to her precious babe a song that could we but hear it would sound very like, ‘A la Nanita Nana’.
Today’s poem is, ‘Christmas’ by John Betjeman a poet who managed to combine popularity with real poetic achievement.
‘ And is it true? And is it true?
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass Window’s hue,
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a child on earth for me?
… No carolling in the frosty air,
Nor all the steeping-shaking bells
Can with this simple truth compare –
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.’