Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Elvis Presley: Christmas Album

While a glance at the budget cassette rack this time of year made it seem like the King of Rock ‘N Roll recorded ten different Christmas albums, that was a misleading implication thanks to RCA’s incessant repackaging of their biggest star. There were ever only two albums, recorded 14 years apart, give or take a single here and there. Even after the catalog was streamlined in the ‘90s, the same music has appeared again and again, sometimes with hideous results.
Of those two albums, the first is the best, recorded the year before Elvis went into the Army, never to return. But even that was a repackage of sorts, with eight new holiday tracks supported by the four songs from that year’s Peace In The Valley EP of gospel music. While not strictly Christmas music, they present a side of Elvis Presley that was perhaps his truest. Indeed, his gospel recordings rank among his finest performances. “(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)” is a wonderful group vocal, and once you get past the mawkishness of “I Believe”, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)” provide pure serenity.
But it’s still the rocking half that people remember, and for good reason. Besides having Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D.J. Fontana holding up the beat in back, this was the debut of Leiber & Stoller’s “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” and the snappy “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me”, both unmistakably Elvis. In between there’s “White Christmas” a la the Drifters, a swaggering “Here Comes Santa Claus”, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and his wacky update of “Blue Christmas”, with that yodeling backing making it more “blue” than sad. The much calmer “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” begin side two, for a better transition to the gospel tracks.
Elvis was more of a singles artist than an album artist, but the care put into this original sequence underscore what was lost anytime the contents were shuffled, reshuffled, augmented and diminished time and time again. The least intrusive ones usually pair it with 1971’s Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas. Coming from the Vegas jumpsuit years, it’s not completely awful, but over the top and insincere, about as preferable to the ‘50s Elvis as latter-day Bing Crosby is to “White Christmas”. Left in its intended state, Elvis’ Christmas Album demonstrates what made him so special, especially to those of us who weren’t around before he became a caricature.

Elvis Presley Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957)—4

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