Saturday, December 22, 2012

Holiday Special #3: The Little Drummer Boy

When the LP gained prominence in the ‘50s, it was largely due the idea of a larger theme. Frank Sinatra had already been programming sets of songs for specific moods, and original Broadway cast became big sellers. So it only made sense that a 12-inch record (played at 33⅓) of Christmas music would convince the American consumer to part with two dollars. Sinatra did his part, as older 78s by Bing Crosby were transferred to the new format, and crooners like Nat “King” Cole and Johnny Mathis laid down their stamp.
People were still writing new holiday numbers back then; it’s not an easy concept to get one’s head around, especially if the first songs you memorized as soon as you could talk were the tales of Rudolph, Frosty and Santa Claus. But somebody had to write those songs, and sat in smoky offices in the big city to do so. That’s how “The Little Drummer Boy”, an apocryphal retelling of a visit from three kings, came to be arranged and recorded by Harry Simeone and his hastily assembled chorale. (It would be another ten years before rock ‘n roll bands would try, and fail, to convert the idea of a drummer boy to the modern sound. And of course, ten years after that, David Bowie’s aversion to the song would force a team of TV writers to add an alternate descant to the melody.)
The song was a hit single, and included on an album called Sing We Now Of Christmas. After a few changes of distribution, somebody had the bright idea to change the title of the album to reflect the hit. As it turns out, outside of the title and cover art, the copy we grew up with has a back cover identical to the original release, from the blurb about the reason for the season and the complete lyrics to each of the songs on the album. It’s still in print today, with yet another cover from its tenure on the Casablanca label. Evidence of its first incarnation still exists on track six of the CD, where the “Sing We Now Of Christmas” theme appears again to set up what was side two.
What makes The Little Drummer Boy such an excellent Christmas album is its design: 31 different songs spread over the two sides, most consisting only of the first verse or so, giving the young music fan an easy way to become familiar with a wide variety of holiday music, from carols to hymns and spirituals and a few pop songs along the way. (This music fan loved the album so much that he’d attempt to listen to it all year round, a wish only granted when he got a record player of his very own, with a speaker small enough that it wouldn’t bother others in the house had he decided to play the album in July.)
Considering all the other Christmas albums that have been remastered and reissued over the years, it’s surprising (to us, anyway) that The Little Drummer Boy or whatever you want to call it hasn’t gotten the same love. The CD hasn’t been upgraded since its appearance in the late ‘80s, and even that sounds like it’s been transferred from a record. But it still set a high mark for other albums to follow, as demonstrated the other day by Christmas Chorale. Given the choice, it’s the one we like to play on Christmas morning while opening the stockings and waiting for the coffee to brew.

Harry Simeone Chorale Sing We Now Of Christmas (1958)—
1963 LP reissue: same as 1958, with new title The Little Drummer Boy
1987 CD reissue: same as 1963

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