For several years now, my buddies and I have celebrated Christmas by having a modest little get-together where we exchange gag gifts and enjoy ourselves a little Christmas cheer. Now it's nothing too fancy, mind you. I usually spring for an appetizer plate — cold shrimp with cocktail sauce is the perennial favorite — and maybe a twelve-pack of beer. The guys will usually bring something to drink as well.
Anyway, the three or four of us who gather in my living room will draw numbers to exchange goofy gifts with no more than a twenty dollar price tag tops. CDs and pro-wrestling videos have traditionally been the most popular gift choices. Occasionally somebody will get a little more creative such as in 2004, when I wound up with a case of Busch beer and a can of Bush beans from one of my Republican friends. I may just have to find a stuffed donkey for him this year.
Like I said, not a big deal. Nonetheless, I look forward to these little gatherings each and every year at Christmas time. My favorite part about this, my friends will also tell you, is when I get to play Christmas DJ. I love picking the Christmas music out. My typical repertoire will consist of everything from The Beach Boys' "Merry Christmas Baby" to Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town," all leading up to the main event — Phil Spector's Christmas album.
Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You is, in my opinion, hands down the greatest Christmas record ever made. What could be more perfect at Christmas time than the timeless innocence of the Ronettes doing "Frosty The Snowman" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"? Or the Crystals singing "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Claus Is Comin To Town," (in the very same arrangement still played by Springsteen in his great version with the E Street Band)?
Unfortunately, as great as this record is, Spector's Christmas album has become a tougher sell these past few years since he became the prime suspect in a certain Hollywood murder case you may have heard about.
To be sure, Phil Spector has always had a certain reputation for craziness. A meticulous perfectionist, Spector has been known to drive his studio musicians crazy spending hundreds of hours to get something like the sound of a tambourine just right. Some claim his involvement in the Beatles Let It Be helped put the final nails in that group's coffin (and led to the revised "Naked" version a few years back). Then of course there was the time he's said to have threatened certain members of the Ramones at gunpoint during the recording of End Of The Century.
To know him may be to love him as the song says, but Phil Spector has become known as much for his reclusiveness and erratic behaviour over the years, as he has for the brilliant records he has produced.
But man, what records.
Phil Spector is one of a very small handful of record producers who, when you hear something he has produced — especially on his classic early recordings — you recognize it as much as belonging to him as the artist. Phil Spector's greatest creations — from the Ronettes "Walking In The Rain" to the Righteous Brothers "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin" to Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High" are characterized by a huge sweeping swirl of bells and strings that wash over you like being in the middle of a tornado. The drums alone on songs like "Be My Baby" and "Baby I Love You" are instantly recognizable with their signature cadence of boom… boom, boom …crash!
It's no wonder this has come to be uniquely regarded as the "wall of sound" over the years. Recorded in glorious mono, there is nothing in all of music quite like it.
The other thing Phil Spector does is coax magical performances from his vocalists — especially the female ones he is best known for — that at their best capture all of the wonder and innocence of teenage love. The greatest of these was arguably Tina Turner on "River Deep Mountain High." His work with Darlene Love and The Crystals also produced some amazing records. But his greatest partnership was with the Ronettes and the woman who became his wife, Ronnie Spector. "Be My Baby," "Baby I Love You," and especially "Walking In The Rain" capture a moment in sound and in time that all of the most modern studio technology could never reproduce again.
A Christmas Gift For You contains thirteen performances, all captured during that incredible early sixties period when Spector was producing these amazing records. You already know all of the songs, as they have all become tried and true radio staples at Christmas time over the years. Song for song, the wall of sound production — with all of its bells, whistles, and strings — captures all the magic and wonder of Christmas like very little music I can think of. When you hear these songs, it's like being instantly transported to a kinder, simpler time. It really does feel like Christmas.
In addition to the Ronettes and Crystals classics already mentioned, the standouts here include Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and a version of "White Christmas" so gorgeous you'll be checking your window for snowflakes. On Bob B. Soxx And The Blue Jeans' "The Bells of Saint Mary," the bells and the castanets ring gloriously amid a swirl of gospel-charged backing vocals.
So the thing is, Phil Spector's recent legal troubles aside, this record just doesn't sound any different to me. For my money, it's still the single greatest Christmas record ever made. And tougher sell that it may be these days, it will definitely be on my CD player when the guys and I get together for some Christmas cheer next weekend.
For me, Christmas wouldn't be the same without it.