Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas album had fateful start



Holiday tunes were far from the minds of most Americans in late 1963 as the country reeled from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Yet, one of the greatest Christmas albums of all-time was released on Nov. 22 of that year, the day Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas.

Pre-occupied with a national tragedy, the record-buying public ignored "A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector," a splendid 13-song collection released by the legendary producer, featuring greatest acts on his Philles Records.

Spector had begun recording sessions for the LP at Gold Star Studios the preceding August, during a hot sweaty summer in Los Angeles. He summoned the Crystals, the Ronettes, Darlene Love and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans for the elaborate undertaking, which took six weeks to complete.

The album opens with Darlene Love's take on "White Christmas," the holiday standard written by Irving Berlin. The Ronettes perform "Frosty the Snowman," Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans sing "The Bells of St. Mary" and the Crystals give their best on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."

The artists take turns for the remainder of the album, with Spector wishing listeners Merry Christmas during the closing "Silent Night."

"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," with Darlene Love on lead vocals, was released as a single, but failed to chart, doubling Spector's bad luck with the project.

As Spector compiled the album, a track he produced earlier for the Ronettes began its ascent. "Be My Baby" spent three months on the charts, reaching No. 2. Veronica "Ronnie" Bennett was the only Ronette to sing on this number, but it featured a full orchestra string section.


For a follow-up, the Ronettes taped "Baby, I Love You," in November and then left for England, where they toured with the Rolling Stones as their opening act.

Spector went along for the trip, enjoying the London party scene and being recognized for his "Wall of Sound" production technique which took mono sound to the peak of perfection.

The young producer returned to the United States on Feb. 7, 1964 on the same flight which brought the Beatles to New York City for their debut appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and their first U. S. concerts.

In the Beatles' Anthology book, Ringo Starr recalled that day. "The first time I met Phil, we were all on a plane going to New York and that's when we realised how crazy he was because he 'walked to America.' He was so nervous of flying, he couldn't sit down. So, we watched him walk up and down the length of the plane all the way."

Pam Am Flight 101 landed at Kennedy International Airport to swarms of fans. The crowd was there to greet the Beatles, at the top of the charts with "I Want To Hold Your Hand," but for a second or two did Spector, not without an ego of his own, think the welcome was for him?

Later in the year Spector would produce "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" for the Righteous Brothers, while the Beatles would establish themselves as international superstars.

Although six years would pass, Spector would finally work with the Beatles as the group was falling apart. John Lennon called on Spector to produce "Instant Karma," which he recorded with George Harrison and Billy Preston in early 1970. The single reached No. 3.

The record's success led Lennon to ask Spector to produce "Let It Be," the Beatles' final album, released in May, 1970 on the group's Apple Records label.

After the dissolution of the Beatles, Harrison went on to record the triple-LP "All Things Must Pass" with Spector at the board.

Lennon utilized Spector for his "Imagine" LP in 1971.

Spector had married Veronica Bennett of the Ronettes in 1968 and insisted that Apple Records issue an LP of her songs, although a 45 called "Try Some, Buy Some," was the only vinyl to emerge from the partnership.

He also produced Harrison's "Concert for Bangladesh" set which received a Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1972.

With his close association to the Beatles, Spector arranged for his 1963 Christmas LP to be reissued on Apple Records, as SW-3400, on Dec. 11, 1972.


While the original release had a cover picturing the four acts performing the album's festive selections, the new package showed Spector photographed as Santa Claus.

Although I faithfully bought all the records by John, Paul, George and Ringo after the break-up, I didn't purchase "Phil Spector's Christmas Album," as it was then known, until years later.

The Beatles continued to release their solo albums on Apple until 1975, as well as other artists signed to the label, including Badfinger, Mary Hopkin and James Taylor.

As John Lennon stopped recording to raise his son Sean, Harrison started his Dark Horse label, McCartney signed to Columbia and Starr hitched his career to Atlantic. Apple Records faded from the scene.

Then, I spotted a large advertisement in Rolling Stone magazine which offered for sale the entire Apple Records catalog, both LPs and 45 rpm singles.

I dispatched my funds and was soon the proud owner of every record manufactured by Apple for the American market, including "Phil Spector's Christmas Album."


Spector's holiday masterpiece has since been released on compact disc several times. Newly remastered, the disc resurfaced on Oct. 26, 2009 with a Phil Spector Records/Sony Legacy label, after being out of print for two years.

However, Spector won't be resurfacing anytime soon.

He's serving 19 years to life at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran after being convicted of the 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkston at his home in Alhambra.

Born in 1940, Spector will turn 69 years old on the day after Christmas. Certainly, he's contemplating his life since he'll probably spend the rest of his life behind bars, despite his more than 25 Top 40 hits, working with the Beatles and releasing a holiday album millions of fan treasure.

That "A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector" was released on the day of JFK's assassination only compounds the irony.

No comments: