Tuesday, September 09, 2008
We're recovering here from a weekend in Cincinnati. For the past several years, my wife & kids, my brothers and their families, and my father & stepmother gather to watch baseball games between the hometown Reds and my beloved Chicago Cubs.
We didn't get a chance to drive or walk down Ruth Lyons Lane downtown but maybe next road trip.
Ruth Lyons was (and still is) an institution in Cincinnati. She had a four decade career in broadcasting, first in radio, then television and "accidentally" invented the daytime TV talk show. An estimated 7 million viewers in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia tuned in (including some who credited her as an influence - Phil Donahue, Jane Pauley, and David Letterman).
Back in 1939, a visit to Children's Hospital left her depressed over the thought of young children being hospitalized over Christmas. The Ruth Lyons Children's Christmas Fund has raised more than $21 million over the past six decades. Insuring that no sick child fails to receive a visit from Santa remains its primary purpose, the money also is used for TVs, books and crafts for playrooms at 20 hospitals.
Several years later, Ruth was preparing for the 1943 Christmas Fund campaign when she composed a Christmas tune while driving through downtown Cincinnati. "Let's Light The Christmas Tree" was recorded on the Radio Artist label with a standard dance tempo (not ideal for its melody). Ruth didn't mind - she played the organ on the record and it was released to help the Christmas fund.
Flash forward a decade: Harry Carlson was the head of Fraternity Records who remembered Lyons' Christmas tune. He called Ruth to ask if she would be willing to re-release the single with another original Christmas song of her choosing.
Lyons wrote "Have A Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry Christmas", gathered her faithful pianist/bandleader Cliff Lash, and vocalist Ruby Wright, and boarded the train to Chicago to record the single. When they arrived, they found that the arrangement was written in the wrong key for Wright. Lyons was tiffed but when the arranger suggested another singer come in who could sing it in the key it was written in, Ruth put her foot down and demanded they transposed the entire score for Ruby.
The single was released in at Christmas, 1957 (Fraternity F-787) and thanks to her massive regional audience, it was a huge hit, reaching #41 on the Billboard Top 100 by year's end. Pleased by this success, Ruth began sifting through the backlog of Christmas tunes she had written over the years and planned her first full Christmas album.
She first began her own label, Candee Records (named for Ruth's daughter Candy). She then utilized the hometown King Records studio where she could oversee production and distribution for the album. Ruth brought back Lash as conductor & arranger, hired some strings from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and assembled many of her stars from "The 50-50 Club" to help sing - Bob Braun, Marian Spelman, Bonnie Lou, and Ruby Wright (who re-recorded "Let's Light The Christmas Tree").
"Ten Tunes Of Christmas" (Candee Records 50-50 (RL-1)) was a phenomenon. Whereas an LP selling 50,000 copies nationally was considered a hit, this regional LP - available in the four city area where Lyons' television was broadcast - sold 250,000 copies!
In 1959, Ruth and the gang recorded an album of standards entitled "Our Best To You". However, the lure of Christmas kept calling as five major labels came a-calling to Ruth asking for another Christmas single. Liberty Records offered the most money but Columbia Records had the larger promotional budget, tipping the scale in their favor.
Ruth recorded a new Christmas single in the summer of 1960. "All Because It's Christmas" b/w "Everywhere The Bells Are Ringing" (Columbia 41810) was released at Christmas the same year and sold moderately well across the country.
Three years later, Ruth and Co. went into the recording studio for their third and final album - a second full Christmas album. Despite the sub par recording quality (stereo balances not in balance and overloading the tape with signal to minimize background hiss), the sessions yielded amazing songs such as "Christmas Marching Song" and a new swing version of "Everywhere The Bells Are Ringing".
"It's Christmas Time Again" (Candee Records 50/60 (610-RL-5060)) was released in both in mono and stereo in November, 1963 and looked to duplicate the success of the first Christmas album. Something else happened that month that put a damper on the entire nation for Christmas of that year. Ask Vaughn Meader.
In 1966, the daughter for which the record label was named, was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Despite this, she soon died of breast cancer and Ruth was devastated - this led to several minor strokes of her own and being off the air for several months. Lyons didn't have the heart to continue and soon retired from "The 50-50 Club" in 1967.
A year later cross town, another development soon occurred. Syd Nathan, founder of King Records, succumbed to heart disease and his label was sold to Starday Records. The Cincinnati operation was shutdown and all masters of the King catalog were shipped to Texas.
However, since all of the music Lyons produced was on her own Candee label, the masters weren't involved in the sale. The masters went unclaimed for a short time and subsequently disposed of - if anyone has them, let us know!
The producers of this compilation (WVXU-FM / X-Star Radio Network) had a serious dilemma when they wanted to reissue both albums on CD. With no masters to work from and modern technology on their side to help, they scoured the thrift stores to find as many workable copies of both Christmas albums to sample from.
Over 130 samples from the first album (most on low quality vinyl) were transferred and evaluated to come up with the ten tracks needed. On several tracks, waveforms were redrawn by hand in order to eliminate scratches, ticks, and pops - "Let's Light The Christmas Tree" took nearly six 18-hour days to remove all vinyl sound before digital sound restoration could proceed!
Thanks to the off-balances on the second album, stereo LPs were sought out. When this didn't work, mono LPs were sampled to achieve proper balance on the tracks. The sound quality was tamed but it still exists and doesn't distract.
1.) Ruth Lyons & The Bello-Larks - Hey Nonny Nonny
With or without the 35 second montage tribute to Ruth tacked on at the beginning, this song is the right one to lead the album off. Ruth always said she wasn't a singer but that's the charm on this one!
2.) Marian Spelman - Soon 'Twill Be Christmas Eve
Simple waltz tempo, lush strings, great lyrical play by Lyons, great singing by Spelman.
3.) Bonnie Lou & Peter Grant - Christmas is Getting Mighty Close
Bonnie does a great job... but Peter Grant was the newsreader on Lyons' TV show - his spoken words are a bag full of chuckles!
4.) Ruby Wright - Christmas is a Birthday Time
Wright's voice reminds me of another fantastic singer from Cincinnati - Rosemary Clooney. Outstanding track with a lush organ solo from Ruth.
5.) Ruby Wright & The Dick Noel Singers - Have a Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry Christmas
This song is still infectious to listen to! John Waters used this song in his 1974 film "Female Trouble" (fast forward to 7:51 - NSFW)
6.) Ruth Lyons & Cast of "The 50/50 Club" - The Happy Time
Sort of has a western rodeo roundup feel to this song. A rip-snortin' good tune, y'all!
7.) Marian Spelman - There's No Time Like Christmas Time
And I thought her first song was lush - this is bordering on operetta! Lyons can sure write a song, Spelman can sing it!
8.) Bonnie Lou - It's Christmas Time Again
Are you sure this isn't Rosemary Clooney? Bonnie's a dead ringer! Great, great, stuff!
9.) Bob Braun - Sing a Song of Christmas
Braun sings a song of Christmas quite well. He was Ruth's fill-in host on TV and eventual successor after her retirement. His show ran from 1967 - 1984 and heavily promoted the Ruth Lyons Christmas Fund.
10.) Ruth Lyons & Cast of "The 50/50 Club" - Christmas Marching Song
I have memories of this song being played during my first Christmas in kindergarten. That explains a lot - wait until I tell my therapist!
11.) Ruby Wright - This is Christmas
Another fine song. Lush, lush, lush... this is definitely Christmas!
12.) Bob Braun - Always at Christmas Time
"In the air, there's a zippy nip. Makes you feel like you want to flip..." Had to listen to that two or three times! Smooth stuff!
13.) Marian Spelman - Once Upon a Christmas Time
Spelman's vibrato is fully on display here with another lush song from Ruth. The sound imperfections distract a wee bit on this one.
14.) Bonnie Lou & Peter Grant - All Because It's Christmas
Peter's back! Add some Bonnie and a steady hand on the organ by Ruth, and presto! This re-working of her 1960 Columbia single is great fun!
15.) Marian Spelman - Christmas Lullaby
We've reached the operetta - this is a lavish lullaby that doesn't sound Christmas at all. I lost interest around the 2 minute mark and there's 2 more minutes to go... next!
16.) Bonnie Lou - Everywhere the Bells Are Ringing
Heyyyy! Got a Sinatra beat, I detect some jazzy bass, and vibraphone? Oh, yeah... swing, baby!
17.) Bob Braun - It's That Very, Very Special Time of Year
Wordy, but this song on the second or third listen has warmed up to me. Bob's in good voice!
18.) Ruby Wright - Let's Light The Christmas Tree
The song that started it all. Why this didn't take its place amongst the Christmas standard honor roll is beyond me.
Overall, this album has so much great Christmas music that I can't pick just one favorite - it's that good.
Tracks 1-4, 6-9, and 18 are from "Ten Tunes Of Christmas", Tracks 10-17 are from "It's Christmas Time Again", and Track 5 is the original 1957 Fraternity single.
Earlier today, I pulled my stereo of "It's Christmas Time Again" to compare the tunes on the albums to this CD. Glad I did - I found three of the 1963 versions to be totally different and not on the CD:
1.) "Let's Light the Christmas Tree" has a spoken intro (presumably by either Bob Braun or Peter Grant) and is a much simpler version of the song. Quite nice.
2.) "Hey Nonny Nonny" has different inflections in Ruth's singing voice - amazing but true! - and the arrangement is totally different from the original song presented on the CD.
3.) "Have a Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry Christmas" has Ruth and the gang singing the song as opposed to kiddie singers!
I'm adding this album to my stack of things to be transferred - I'll probably post these three songs closer to Christmas!
Kudos to the music restoration team of X-Star for taking the time to preserve this - this was a labor of love for sure! Sadly, this CD was issued in 1995 and copies are indeed scarce - I got the last used copy from Amazon.com early last year and haven't seen a copy there or on eBay since.
Ruth Lyons' love of Christmas gave us these albums and a kids fund that encapsulates Christmas completely. Her legacy in the Cincinnati tri-state area has forever been cemented. Mark Magistrelli (one of the album producers) was working on a Lyons documentary several years ago (was it ever shown?) and is probably the largest collector of Ruth Lyons' memorabilia out there.
Next month, a new book by Michael Banks entitled "Before Oprah: Ruth Lyons, the Woman Who Created Talk TV" will be released. Count me in as one of the people who will buy and read this book. I'm hoping this renewed interest will get this CD reissued - it deserves to be heard.