The personal blog of Peter Lee a.k.a. "China Hand"... Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel, and an open book to those who read. Now an archive for my older stuff. For current content, subscribe to my patreon "Peter Lee's China Threat Report" and follow me on twitter @chinahand.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
The Dark Side of Santa: Elvis' Great Christmas Blues
With the “white Santa vs. black Santa” faux controversy
roiling the Internet this year, it is interesting to recall that Elvis Presley
pledged allegiance to the dark side of Santa in one of his greatest performances.
One of the early pinnacles of Elvis’ achievement is, rather
surprisingly, the Christmas album he released in 1957.It is divided into secular and sacred sides.
On the second side, Elvis beautifully sings some religiously-tinged Christmas
songs and delivers magnificent and memorable renditions of “Peace in the Valley”
and other gospel standards.It’s clear
that Elvis loves his gospel, and his renditions are full of the power and
dignity that characterize these noblest of popular songs.
The pop/rock/R&B action is on the first side, and Elvis
gets right down to business with the opener, “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”, a blues carol written by ace songwriters Leiber and Stoller in the studio on a
dare in fifteen minutes.It is capped by
the memorable couplet, sung in an ecstatic shout by Elvis:
Hang up your pretty
stockings, turn off the light
Cause’ Santa Claus is comin’ down
your chimney tonight!
In their joint autobiography, Hound Dog, Leiber and Stoller recalled:
The Colonel doesn't laugh
and the Colonel doesn't smile when we run down the song for Elvis. I know the
Colonel thinks it's too bluesy and too black, but just before he can say
anything, the King speaks out.
'Now that's what I call a
goddamn great Christmas song!' he tells the Colonel, 'I told you these guys
would come through'. And with that, Elvis proceeds to sing the [expletive] out
He does it in just a
couple of takes. …
For me, 'Santa Claus Is
Back in Town' lives on as one of Elvis' great blues performances. It took him
back to his Beale Street roots, a place where he was always comfortable.
Elvis was all of 22 at the time.
I had the honor of communicating with Mike Stoller’s
management team (Jerry Leiber has passed on) and was assured that the innuendo
was completely intentional.
Given this context, it is rather remarkable that the lyric apparently
provoked no conspicuous ruckus.
Maybe Irving Berlin had more than an inkling; he called for
a boycott of the album, ostensibly because Elvis took some vocal liberties
in his cover of White Christmas,
which was sequenced right after Leiber & Stoller’s racy cut. Berlin’s objections did not stop the RCA from
selling a mind-boggling 3 million units of Elvis’
Christmas Album in its original release, making it that decade’s biggest
seller and a holiday soundtrack for generations of Americans (another 10
million sold as a budget-priced edition in the 1970s; indeed Elvis’ Christmas Album is his
top-selling album, period, and No. 142 on Billboard’s all time list).
Sneaking Santa Claus double entendres into pop songs seems
to have been quite the vogue around this time.In 1960 Ella Fitzgerald sang about “fat and round” Santa Claus who “got
stuck in my chimney.”
About the same time, Sonny Boy Williamson II recorded "Santa
Claus Blues" for Chess Records.Williamson’s double entendre of choice
“Lookin all in my baby's dresser drawers.
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..”
In fact, in the R&B world in which Leiber and Stoller and
Elvis were steeped at the time, “Santa Claus” had been invoked as the good
thing, male principle division, since the pre-war era, as Gerry Bowler relates
in his Santa Claus: A Biography. Blues scholar Paul Oliver has a chapter on
Santa Claus in Screening the Blues
and quotes a melancholy lyric from the great Texas country bluesman Blind Lemon
Just the day before Christmas let me bring you your present
I wanna be your Santa Clause even if my whiskers ain’t white.
So Santa is black and white.Get used to it! Happy holidays, everybody.