Music to Watch Christmas Trees Grow

Christmas music is not a genre, but a body of compositions that share a common theme. In the world of popular music, the canonical Christmas songs—“Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells,” or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”— have been recorded and re-recorded so exhaustively (even ad nauseum) that they probably make up the bulk of the popular holiday discography. There also exists a huge body of original Christmas songs in the wider popular music field, whether pop, rock, soul, funk, country, or even reggae. Admittedly, the vast majority of these can be unbearably schmaltzy, intolerably saccharine, embarrassingly maudlin, or just plain grating. But hidden amongst these slabs of good intentions gone wrong are a few gems. Below, I present five little-known 45s from the heart of the 1960s, all either released privately or on very small labels. For me, each of these discs has at least one side that is worth the three minutes or so of the attention it demands.

Little Jimmy Thomas
Official – 104 (1964)
A          Deck the Halls (Fa La La La La)
B          Jimmy’s Christmas

Little Jimmy Thomas is better known to record collectors as Jimmy James Thomas, the Cincinnati-area musician who, sounding like the bastard child of Roy Head and Joe Tex, recorded the blue-eyed soul-funk monster “I Can’t Dance” on the Cinn-Sound label in 1967. Back in the early 60s, though, he was performing as Little Jimmy Thomas and the Flashers. Although it was a Christmas record, this RCA Custom release—probably pressed at RCA’s Indianapolis plant—was no novelty disc. A reworking of the holiday classic, with its solid beat and prominent organ it simply screams midwestern go-go club. This record should have been a seasonal, regional hit, and it’s really a shame that It’s not better known. 

YouTube: Deck the Halls (Fa La La La La)

Brendan Hanlon and the Bat Men
Bat Records – B-1005 (1964)
A          Christmas Party
B          Christmas Alphabet

I wonder if a young John Waters was ever aware of this local 45. If so, I could easily see it having been a contender for the soundtrack of the Christmas scenes in his 1974 film Female Trouble. The grungy guitar, dirty sax, and slightly slack-jawed vocals on Baltimore artist Brendan Hanlon’s “Christmas Party” come off like something from the Holiday Favorites box in Lux and Ivy’s record collection, or perhaps a track from a never realized Special Yuletide Edition of the Desperate Rock and Roll series of compilations. If Hanlon is remembered at all these days it’s not as a greasy rocker, but as an oily crooner. His fifteen minutes of fame came in 1968, shortly after he recorded a short string of singles for Columbia. He was hired that summer to appear on Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca’s touring stage revue. This led to a number of national television appearances along with Caesar and Coca, including one on The Merv Griffin Show. This was as high as his star was destined to rise, however. By the end of the year Columbia was finished with him. Once the touring show closed he milked his relative name recognition for another year or so, still making the occasional television appearance. He was last heard from in Miami in 1975, performing at a show club that promised audiences “a never-ending party.”

YouTube: Christmas Party

Saturday’s Children
Dunwich – DN-144 (1966)
A          Deck Five
B          Christmas Sounds

Often touted as a Chicago band, Saturday’s Children actually hailed from three widely dispersed parts of the Chicagoland area, with two members even living in Indiana. In fact, in those days before cheap long distance calls their wide geographical distribution could sometimes cause communication problems. An early newspaper account of the band quoted lead guitarist Dave Carter as saying, “It runs us about $15 to settle something by phone.” The group got its start at The Cellar, a popular teen spot in suburban Arlington Heights. The club was managed by Paul Sampson, who also actively groomed artists for wider success via his Chicago-based Windy City Management agency. Under Sampson’s guidance the band released three 45s on Bill Traut’s legendary Dunwich imprint. Their first single for the label seemed to channel both ‘65/Revolver-era Beatles and the Zombies, with a healthy dollop of bent midwestern psychedelia added to the mix. Their second release took the Zombies-flavored jazz sensibilities one step further. For me it is one of the more remarkable discs to come out of the mid-1960s Illiana scene, not to mention one of the more interesting Christmas records of the era. “Deck Five” takes Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” as its basis, then adds lyrics from the carol “Deck the Halls.” A Hammond organ bridge briefly transforms the track into “We Three Kings,” before breaking down into tasteful jazz improv. The pleasant flip side could almost be a holiday offering from The Cyrkle. Overall “Deck Five” shows that Saturday’s Children were not just Beatles copycats, but had serious chops, both technically and creatively.

YouTube: Deck Five

The Tropics, aka Chipper, during their candy cane period..

Malaco – 2002 (1967)
A          Groovy Christmas
B          Toy Soldier

It’s not clear why Malaco Records decided to release this disc under the pseudonym Chipper, while still providing the band’s real name on the label. The Tropics started out as a Tampa-based show band, complete with horn section, but soon switched to a British Invasion sound once it became clear that they could earn much more money that way. “Groovy Christmas,” the A-side of their sole recording as Chipper, is a good example of why male rock vocalists should really think twice before deciding to sing in falsetto. But the flip, “Toy Soldier,” is a dark, little organ-driven psychedelic pop tune. The song possesses enough subtlety and mystery to make it well worth the price of admission. A fun fact for record geeks: two members of The Tropics later went on to form the band White Witch, the “white magic” alternative to “black magic” bands like Coven and Black Sabbath.

YouTube: Toy Soldier

The Buck Rogers Movement
21st Century Records – 602 (1967)
A          Do Christmas Trees Really Grow
B          Music to Watch Christmas Trees Grow

On the night of February 23, 1970, The Buck Rogers Movement were driving down I-85 into Atlanta to perform their next gig. Earlier in the evening they had stopped for gas in the town of Commerce. Here they attracted the attention of a couple of locals, who began heckling them about their long hair and beards. As the band left the station the rednecks followed them, before aggressively speeding around them and vanishing into the darkness ahead. A bit further on, the vehicle was again spotted on the roadside with the occupants standing beside its open trunk. Then, on the outskirts of Atlanta, the car suddenly pulled up alongside the band. A shot was fired from within, hitting lead guitarist Harlan Cornelius in the head. He survived, but lost his left eye. Even though police later identified the assailants, contemporary reports stated that it was unlikely that the pair would ever stand trial as no one in the group could agree on the exact details of the description of the car the shot was fired from. The Buck Rogers Movement emerged from the late-1960s New England scene, releasing three discs on their own 21st Century label. Listening to these records today, it’s obvious that the group was trying for major market success. This was no scruffy garage band, but the sort of act that could easily have appeared on The Kraft Music Hall or The Joey Bishop Show. While the over-arranged show band sound might be a bit bland elsewhere, the minor key arrangement combined with just a hint of private press imperfection makes “Do Christmas Trees Really Grow” an effectively dark little seasonal offering.

YouTube: Do Christmas Trees Really Grow

—Stephen Canner

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