Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Hollyridge Strings - Christmas Favorites

This was another Christmas CD that was labelled "To Daddy". This one was chosen by my daughter Maggie whose track record in picking Christmas CDs is pretty impressive. In 2008, she gave me a reissue of Lena Horne's phenomenal 1966 album that followed her 2007 gift of the most recent Christmas collection of from Miss Peggy Lee.

There was a little bit of drama over the decision for this CD - her younger sister Josie had the number one pick of CDs this year and chose the Christmas CD that Maggie had her heart on. Unlike the various professional sports drafts, Maggie couldn't trade up. After some pouting and a mild fit (wonder if that ever happens in sports?), she selected the album you're looking at now.

Back in 1990, I was still living in Illinois and desperately trying to find Christmas music for my annual tapes. In years past, I was content with Crosby singing "Do You Hear What I Hear?" but now I was looking for novelty and Christmas tunes with a distinctly different sound.

While driving across Chicago to a relatives house that December, I was listening to a local radio station whose DJ was listing off the numerous Christmas events in town backed by a version of "Jingle Bells" that hooked me completely.

I stopped at a pay phone (remember those?) and called the station. The DJ on duty said it was a production music bed and there was no artist listed.

Flash forward to 1996 - Toledo, Ohio. I had just acquired the first "Christmas Cocktails" CD and was listening to all the loungey Christmas tunes and was stopped cold when the same version of "Jingle Bells" I had heard six years previous came over my boombox.

The Hollyridge Strings... wonder if they had an album?

Thanks to my access to a PhonoLog at a local music store, I was able to discover that they did indeed have an album. It went onto my search list and this is where the trail goes cold for almost eight years.

Five Christmases ago, the King of Jingaling established where other Christmas music maniacs like myself gathered and shared their knowledge and love of holiday tunes. One of the first albums to achieve a featured status was this very album.

To quote the King:

This is one of my two very favorite Christmas albums (the other being White Christmas by The Mike Sammes Singers). It's one of the ones that we played at my house when we were growing up and has the strongest sentimental attachments for me. I just ingested the syrupy reverb and drifted off to Christmas dreamland.

The Hollyridge Strings were the in-house orchestra of Capitol Records. They released a series of records covering songs by popular artists of the sixties including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, Elvis, etc.

Stu Phillips, who was only one of their conductors, went on to write some famous TV theme songs: The Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica and Quincy to name a few.

This was all new info for me. As I listened to this entire album for the first time, I had to agree with the King - it's Christmas easy listening par excellence.

Now we move ahead to September of last year. The King announced at FLLLL that the good folks of Collectors' Choice Music (who reissued the aforementioned Lena Horne CD) were reissuing the Hollyridge Strings CD. It was a no-brainer - it went to the top of my list where Maggie picked it for me.


1.) Winter Wonderland
Great 1960s spy theme beat that accompanies the lush strings and brass. Phillips' arrangement is tops!

2.) Jingle Bells
The track that hooked me way back in 1990 still gets with me that string intro. Add the harpsichord bridge and this ranks as one of the best renditions of this song ever.

3.) The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)
The bossa nova beat was extremely popular in the 1960s - mixed the right way with Christmas music (a la Phillips) and it's magic.

4.) Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town
This usually bubbly song only sounds subdued at first - the strings and beat explode in well-measured charges and suddenly it's Christmas!

5.) Santa's Got A Brand New Bag
Don't look for anything close to James Brown here - this is Stu Phillips at the top of his game. The only original song on the album and for my money, the best track on the album. I would have paid the $13 retail price just for this song - a blend of strings, bounce, and 1960s feel that has more Christmas in it than full albums by others.

6.) Jingle Bell Rock
Bold and lush were the only two words I came up with when I first heard this on "Christmas Cocktails". They still apply here.

7.) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Another example of Phillips' brilliance - this could have been just another lush arrangement but he made sure the bass and drums were up front, giving this a rock feel that propels everything else.

8.) White Christmas
This song has one of the best intros thanks to Irving Berlin. However, Stu's intro is a mix of soft woodwinds, accented strings, and harpsichord - bloody good! The rest of the song is just as good!

9.) I'll Be Home For Christmas
Blame it on the bossa nova again... a perfect mix of song and beat, Christmas and contemporary. Pardon me while I hit the repeat button for another listen.

10.) Little Saint Nick
It's only fair that the house orchestra of Capitol Records covers one of its labelmates. I'm not a fan of The Beach Boys and this song but I really like this version (another astounding Phillips arrangement). Perhaps its because I don't hear Mike Love singing.

11.) Do You Hear What I Hear?
Only Stu would have come up with using oboes as a bass line. Add the usual amazing lush strings and accented horns... outstanding!

Kudos again to Collectors' Choice Music - they did a great job with the audio and keeping the original artwork from the 1965 Capitol album. For some, it's a little too dark but it's what's on the shiny silver CD that counts. This could have stayed locked away in a music vault collecting dust but CCM had thousands of requests for this one and took a gamble.

That's why I immediately put this atop my list. We want great Christmas music we grew up with sitting under the Christmas tree. If they give it to us, we need to support them and purchase it via CD or album download. Otherwise, it will remain locked away.

If you love Christmas music, then this album will be right up your alley. This is a tour de force; one of the best Christmas albums ever. Go find your copy before it's too late.

Late last year, Stu Phillips contacted the King of Jingaling to talk about the album. The King set up a phone interview and made it available for all to hear. It's a great listen full of wonderful remembrances from Stu. I urge you to take a listen and then go find your copy of this album before it's too late.

Maggie, you are three for three in Christmas picks. Thanks for a great Christmas present!


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