Elvis' Christmas recordings provide a remarkable and perhaps unique opportunity to explore his profound gospel, rhythm and blues, country, bluegrass, and polka! dirty ditties! roots, the evolution of the American recording industry and Elvis' career, and the postwar development of African-American music. For people interested in the revolution wrought in gospel music by Reverend Dorsey, race, appropriation, and how Elvis dealt with it, I particularly recommend Day 9: Hearing the Light: Elvis & Black Gospel
It's all here, folks, in a 12 Days of Elvis Christmas epic I originally put together in 2014, now with the Youtube videos recurated. Enjoy! And Happy Holidays!
Elvis' triumphant synthesis of American music is even more remarkable when you consider that most of his greatest achievements were recorded before he turned 23.
Day One: Santa Claus Is Back in Town
Tryin to find out,
What did she bought me for Santa Claus.
When I pulled out the bottom dresser drawer,
The landlady got mad and called the law..”
I wanna be your Santa Clause even if my whiskers ain’t white.
Day Two: The Passion of Elvis
A listener expresses her approval of Elvis' canny alchemy of R&B, bluegrass, country, & gospel:
Found this at a reddit photoshop battle (no credit, sorry). Says it was shot in the audience at an Elvis Presley concert in 1957, the year he recorded his Christmas album. What's with the ping pong balls?
Day Three: The Dirty Xmas Ditty: Who Sang It Better, Elvis or Ella? Or Jimmy Boyd!?!
Yeah, I know. But Columbia scored two gold records for this ditty, in the days when RIAA gold records were literally made out of gold.
Day Four: The Elvis Presley Debt to Polka
You laughed and called me old Santa Claus.
Well, I'm telling you,
Baby, I'm through with you.
Because, well well, just because.
There'll come a time when you'll be lonesome
And there'll come a time when you'll be blue.
Well, there'll come a time when old Santa
He won't pay your bills for you.
The evening began in self-conscious discomfort as Presley stumbled through versions of pop and country songs.
Moore and Black were good enough musicians to replicate famous recordings, but Presley was raw and green and nervous.
Phillips wasn't interested in replication. The room filled with frustration, with failure in sight. This wasn't working. It was getting late, and early morning would mean hats and tires to make, and a Crown Electric truck to drive. The men took a break, and Presley started fooling around and banging on his guitar. If he was going to blow his big audition, he might as well act like it was no big deal.
That night, in staunchly segregated Memphis, Presley started goofing on an old blues song, "That's All Right, Mama," by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. Black jumped up and grabbed his bass, and Moore started playing some speedy guitar fills.
"Fast music was what I liked," Moore wrote in his memoir, "Scotty & Elvis: Aboard the Mystery Train." "For years I had been making up guitar licks for uptempo music. ... It wasn't until Elvis was flailing away at his guitar that I suddenly knew where those licks belonged."
Turns out, those licks belonged everywhere. Phillips rushed to turn the microphones back on and captured the sound of the world's shifting axis.
We can thank Millie Kirkham for the fact that "Blue Christmas" actually made it onto the album.
“I started going ‘Whoo-oo-oo-oo,’ "...[Elvis] motioned for me to keep doing it, so I did it all the way through the whole song. When we were through, we all laughed and said ‘That’s one record the record company will never release.’ But they did. And if I got royalties, I’d be a rich old woman.”
Day Seven: Elvis/Jesus
Day Eight: Elvis/Nixon
A George Washington University website documents the meeting and includes a PDF of Elvis' letter to Nixon setting up the meeting. It states, in part:
"I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing..."
The punch line is that Elvis was allegedly stoned at the meeting.
Day Nine: Hearing the Light: Elvis & Black Gospel
Day Ten: Death, Rebirth, and Elvis
Elvis was unique in that he permitted closeness, not six to eight feet away, which was standard, but right up close, three to four feet away. He was so intensely involved with what he was doing: it was as if he were laser focused; whether he was combing his hair or chatting up the girls, he would be himself.
The seven floor stable next to the horse mart [in the pre-automobile era, 24th Street was the equine center of the universe just as New York City was the world capital of horsesh*t—ed.] became a recording studio in 1955 when RCA-Victor Records moved their offices there from Rockefeller Center. A few months later, a young, still relatively unknown singer named Elvis Presley visited the studio and recorded some of his first songs that would make him known worldwide. Alfred Wertheimer, a photographer who followed Elvis described the last time that they had recorded in that studio.
On July 2, 1956, a defining moment in the history of rock and roll took place. Elvis recorded "Hound Dog" and "Don't be Cruel," which were released by RCA as two sides of one single. This was the only time both sides of a single reached number one on the charts. The session at RCA Studio was also the last time Elvis would record in New York. Of course, I wasn't aware of any of this when I arrived at the building on 24th street between Lexington and 3rd Avenues. I did sense that this recording session would provide with me[sic] a rare opportunity to observe another stage in the evolution of my subject.Located on the ground floor, the main studio where Elvis recorded was a large room with a lot of acoustical padding covering the walls. There were two small adjoining rooms, one of which was reserved for the sound engineers. Instead of having to book orchestra musicians for three-hour gigs, Elvis brought his own crew - Scotty Moore on guitar, DJ Fontana on drums, Bill Black on bass, and four Jordanaires as back-up. Shorty Long was hired as the piano player. Also present were Steve Sholes from RCA and the always necessary Junior, Elvis's go-fer. The recording session began early in the afternoon and lasted until dusk. (The Recording Session: Studio One in Elvis at 21, San Rafael: Insight Editions, 2006)
The most convincing stories I’ve seen state that Elvis insisted on closing with a gospel number over the objections of CBS. I tend to think Elvis turned to gospel in order to asset his identity, dignity, and self respect as a musician and entertainer, maybe to his mom as well as to himself, and defy the “rock and roll vulgarian”/”safe as milk popstar” pigeonholes that the music industry and his manager had prepared for him.
Elvis’ twin 1960s triumphs are his 1968 NBC comeback special and the 1969 “Memphis Record” sessions.
Happy Holidays, Everybody! Peace on Earth!