Monday, March 16, 2009

When Irish Eyes Are Searching ... for Christmas LPs

In March of 2007, I travelled to Chicago sans wife & kids to search through the bowels of Chicago thrift stores, flea markets, and rare record stores to search for Christmas LPs for my collection. This past weekend, I travelled again to Chicago sans wife & kids to do the exact same thing.

Upon learning the news, the Chicago River turned green with envy (keep reading).

My weekend trip began last Friday and I stopped at various flea markets and antique stores along the Lincoln Highway from Fort Wayne to Chicago. I walked away with two Christmas albums (both have been shared out by our friend Ernie (Not Bert) - keep reading).

After getting to Illinois, I went to a thrift store location that two years ago had just opened, had one entire corner of their store reserved for LPs, and yielded a good portion of the titles I shared out last year. Upon my return this year, their selection was reduced to an eight ft. folding table with about 10 milk crates full of LPs. Sadly, I walked away with nothing.

Such was the case at many of the Goodwill and Salvation Army stores that were once my salvation when it came to Christmas LPs. I pressed on to the next location, then then next, and the next only to discover little to nothing for my troubles.

These stores used to have teeming vinyl bins, so fully compact that you couldn't slide your fingers inbetween albums. They are now being replaced by two or three milk crates with a smattering of LPs and only when they are empty will the stores accept more donations of albums. One suburban Goodwill store has not only stopped carrying vinyl for resale - VHS and CDs are strictly forbidden as well.

I was getting majorly depressed. So I decided right then and there to head to the mecca of all Chicago vinyl stores - Beverly Records on Western Ave. I spent nearly 45 minutes going through their nine boxes of Christmas 45s then asked entrance to the backroom and its famous wall of Christmas LPs.

I wrote about this wall in July of 2007 when I posted "A Polka Christmas" by Li'l Wally. Then the wall measured eight feet in height, 12 feet in length. I'm happy to report it's still there and OVERFLOWING onto other temporary shelves. After spending two hours at the wall, I was euphoric and came away with a good pile of albums.

I had originally planned on coming to Beverly on Sunday before I left for home but overheard one of the employees talking about the South Side St. Patrick's Day Parade. This was a March 17th Chicago tradition that I had forgotten about. "You won't even get near the store" was the direct quote.

Indeed, Irish eyes were smiling on my decision to head to Beverly Records that day - still the best place in Chicago for vinyl (thank you Dreznes family!).

On Saturday, I headed into Chicago to visit even more thrift stores and ran into the phenomenon known as the St. Patrick's Day parade and traditional dying the Chicago River green for the day:

This made travelling by car through Chicago miserable thanks to the many streets closed for parade prep and the parade itself. Thankfully, I stayed north of the river and searched through thrift stores there. Again, not much luck of the Irish in the way of LPs or Christmas albums.

I then headed to Laurie's Planet Of Sound in the Lincoln Square section of town. The owner of the store was a former acquaintance of my brother John and I and it was good reconnecting with him again. He did manage to have a good selection of Christmas LPs (including a mono copy of the Three Suns "A Ding Dong Dandy Christmas!" for $2) and I walked away with a short stack of LPs.

By now, I was getting tired of driving the streets of Chicago. I needed a pick me up. So I headed over to Nuts on Clark, several blocks from Wrigley Field, and home to the best caramel & cheese corn on the planet. I picked up some gift bags for the wife & kiddies (and a small taste o' my own), and kept driving south on Clark Street.

There are some places in the world that are truly heaven on earth. One such place for me is 1060 W. Addison Street. I have spent many days there with my family and friends. I have encountered joy, heartbreak, misery, anger, hysteria, nausea, and ever-flowing optimism from this corner on the North Side. It's a landmark, it's Valhalla, it's a ballpark. Its name is Wrigley Field:

On this day, Wrigleyville was alive thanks to the hoards of returning residents and tourists fresh off the "L" from the parade, wearing leprechaun derbies and green beads, heading to various bars for more alcohol consumption and mating rituals. Wrigley sleeps knowing that more of the same is coming in under a month when the Cubs return for another season.

I headed west on Addison to a little curio store 3/4 of a block from the ballpark called Yesterday's. It continues to sell old LIFE magazines, movie stills, film posters, vintage memorabilia, and baseball collectibles - a nod to its famous neighbor up the street. I picked up a few magazines that contain vintage Christmas ads that will continue to be a feature here.

After spending a full morning and afternoon in the city, I headed back to my hotel room to nap and get ready for another trip. That night, I spent an evening with Groucho at the Rialto Square Theater in Joliet, Illinois.

Frank Ferrante is perhaps the greatest Groucho Marx interpreter / impersonator this planet has known since the original Groucho was still smoking cigars. His recent tour brought him to Joliet and I couldn't pass up the chance to take in his wonderful show and laugh again and again at the genius of the one, the only...

I got a great front row seat (thanks Frank!) and watched as Jim Furmston, his pianist, played a rickety, badly out of tune grand piano to perfection. Frank hit the stage, transformed into Groucho, and explained that he was sharing the same stage Groucho, Chico, and Harpo used back in 1935 to fine tune their upcoming movie "A Night At The Opera".

The audience and I had a great time and it was great catching up with Frank and Jim after the show. We exchanged gifts (two vintage Marx Brothers stills from Yesterday's went to Frank - Jim gave me a copy of a children's book he did the music for), more laughs, and danced until the cows came home.

Yesterday morning, I awoke late and went to my final two thrift stores that were on the road to Indiana and home. I came away with nothing thanks to the minuscule selection of LPs both carried.

I stopped at one flea market and found a copy of Spike Jones' "Let's Sing A Song Of Christmas" in fair condition. I asked the elderly vendor for a price and he quoted $15. "Nope, too much money" I thought out loud. The vendor was a wee bit miffed - "That is the book price for that album."

Certain flea marketers strictly go by the book - anything Elvis is always $10 to $15 more expensive than anything else on his ship shod table of treasures. My weekend of trying to find Christmas albums was ending in an argument over a Spike Jones record. It was time to call it quits. Later that evening, I arrived home to many hugs from my family.

Overall, I came home with about 20 albums in total - half of which have already been posted along the sharity network:

(Click on image to enlarge)

Albums pictured from top to bottom (my reviews where applicable):

The Three Suns - A Ding Dong Dandy Christmas (MONO)

Eddie Dunstedter - Christmas Candy (review)

Jan Garber - Christmas Dance Party (STEREO) (review)

Robert John Carwithen - The Bells On Christmas Morn

Lorne Greene - Have A Happy Holiday (review)

The King Family - Christmas With

Thurlow Spurr & The Spurrlows - Christmas: Time For Song (review)

Peter Wood Singers - Jolly Christmas Songs (review)

Andre Kostelanetz - Wonderland Of Christmas (review)

The Holiday Bells - Ring The Bells On Christmas Day

One moment - that "Holiday Bells" album of mine is different than the one I just linked. Hmmm... And my King Family album is in stereo while the linked copy is mono... differences, differences.

So I have several new albums to add to the share stack - which all depends on my schedule with my family, two special projects that are beginning to see the light of day (details will be released when I'm officially able to), and the production of my annual Christmas CD. Wait and see.

I didn't find as many new Christmas LPs like I hoped but the wild Irish ride was well worth it. Thanks you wife and kids for allowing me a few days of R & R - back to the regularly scheduled life already in progress.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Old Hawaiian Christmas (SeaWest Records)

Last week, I reviewed a Christmas comp that was the last present I received last December. This CD was the very first present I received.

Back in November, my good friend Martin Johns sent me his annual Christmas comps (which I'll be reviewing some time down the road). Inside the box was a wrapped Christmas package that read "DO NOT OPEN 'TIL DEC. 25". I dutifully tucked it under the tree and there it remained until Christmas morning.

What went through my mind on Christmas morning as my kids tore through their gifts with this CD staring at me in the face? I remembered reviewing Martin's 2005 comp "No Rain, No Rainbow: A Contemporary Hawaiian Christmas" and mentioning this very CD when reviewing a version of "Jingle Bells" in Hawaiian:

WOW! "Jingle Bells" in Hawaiian! Featured on the 2001 comp "Old Hawaiian Christmas" which is OOP? I'm about to cry here...

I also remembered that a year earlier, I sampled a track from Martin's comp for my 2007 Christmas CD - the hilarious track of the SeaWest Artists trying to record "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" played on the ukulele that came from this very CD.

I wanted to give Martin a hug - this was totally unexpected, I was thrilled to no end, and it added another great Christmas memory to a long line of Christmas memories. Without a doubt, it was the best wrapped Christmas CD I had ever received:

As you could tell by the date on the picture, I had a hard time opening this one up - the wrapping was such a festive part of the CD. But how does one listen to the music? I finally opened the CD and the cats had a field day with the ribbons.

I wish there was more I could tell you about SeaWest Records - their website seems to be offline, their recording studios in Pahoa, Hawaii are still open by all accounts, and searching for other releases on their label has come up short. Can anyone add any details?

I did manage to find a mini-review of this album from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin along with other Hawaiian Christmas releases in 2001. But nothing else much. Sooooo...


1.) Leka & D Nui of Ka'u - Old Hawaiian Christmas
This reworking of Lee Greenwood's "Lone Star Christmas" isn't too Hawaiian nor too Christmas. Next...

2.) Kevin & Joe of Pa'ani Pila - Mele Kalikimaka
This is a fool-proof song; you can't really screw it up and Lord knows many have tried. These guys do a fine job with their version.

3.) Bryan Kessler - What Child Is This?
A simple acoustic guitar with added surf effects gives it just a touch of a Hawaiian feel. Okay.

4.) Bradshaw Ellis of Pu'uwai - Po Hemolele
A lone ukulele, Bradshaw's fine tenor, add some great backing vocals, and you have an amazing Hawaiian version of "O Holy Night".

5.) Bruddah Smitty - Please Come Home For Christmas
With a great song and above par singing voice, how can you go wrong? From note one, it sounds like the entire band is on a programmed synthesizer churning out the beat (despite a fine harmonica solo). A canned feel throughout...

6.) Ken Emerson & Jordyn Pung - (Walking In A) Winter Wonderland
Ken plays the lap steel guitar and Jordyn shows an amazing maturity for a then-8th grader on vocals! The end result is a great version of this winter song!

7.) D Nui & Leka of Ka'u - Pretty Paper
Now we're talking - the guitars give it the Christmas feel and the fine Willie Nelson lyrics are sung well!

8.) Bruddah Smitty - Christmas Big Island
WOW! Very good original song by Smitty - no band in a can here!

9.) Ken Emerson & Orchestra - O Holy Night
Ken's guitar talents are on full display with both acoustic & lap steel guitar - the orchestra is fully synthesized and detracts whenever Ken isn't playing.

10.) Alicia Bay Laurel - Festival Of Lights
Man, this is so tranquil and Christmas-ey, I can't stand it! Laurel especially composed this song for this album and it deserves to be heard! Absolutely wonderful.

11.) Na Leo 'o Leilani - Jingle Bell Rock
To quote the liner notes: Na Leo 'o Leilani are a group of friends who got together at the recording studio... just for fun. [Producer] Rick played the guitar, ukuleles, and bass (all at the same time)... what a guy. Why not join us and 'sing along' with Jingle Bell Rock! I pass judgement on this one.

12.) Kevin & Joe of Pa'Ani Pila - Po La'i'e / Silent Night
Sung in English, Hawaiian, and both toward the end. Very reverent and Hawaiian all at once.

13.) Lindsey Trinidad - Merry Christmas Darling
Lindsey was a 16 yr. old high school student at the time of recording. Many synthesizers in effect.

14.) Ka'u featuring D Nui - Kani Na Pele / Jingle Bells
Sung straight in Hawaiian - this is more fun than a one horse open sleigh ride!

15.) SeaWest Artists - We Wish You A Merry Christmas
It gets funnier every time I hear it. Aw nerts!

This Christmas CD is out of print so if you can find a used copy, grab it because the pluses outweigh the negatives on this comp. Some tracks were great, others good, a few bad. But even the bad tracks have their moments to those without a Hawaiian Christmas ear.

"Old Hawaiian Christmas" is the 17th Hawaiian Christmas CD in my collection - Christmas organ took over as the largest sub-genre in my collection a while back. If I were to add two or three more Hawaiian Christmas CDs, it's right back at the top of the list. I have found a new goal for 2009!

Martin, many many mahalos for this gift. I'm glad to have it but even more happier to have you as a friend.


Friday, March 06, 2009

Vintage Christmas Ads Pt. 17 - Westinghouse, 1940

In addition to collecting Christmas music, I have collected nearly 1000 vintage Christmas ads over the years. Many of these include celebrities, radio, television, cigarettes, liquor, modern appliances, and the like.

Almost every Friday from here until I run out, I will feature an ad from my collection.

I invite you to add a fun comment, witticism, clever remark, or observation in the comments section provided. Any comments deemed worthy of repeating will be included into this entry where all the world will see it.

Last week, I posted an ad that showed a vintage transistor radio from 1955 that was the size of a church hymnal. After spending some time leafing through my ads this morning, I wondered how I would follow it up.

I kept going back through my archives year by year to find something that just struck me as odd. And I think I found it with this ad from Westinghouse:

(Click on image to enlarge)

We get a kid mentioning Santa Claus, some other mentions of Christmas throughout the ad, and that's it - no fat guy in the red suit, no reindeer, not even a Christmas tree!

Take a closer look at some of those state-of-the-art 1940 appliances - especially the "washer" and "ironer (???)"! And I thought my vacuum cleaner looked archaic!

What do you think?


Thursday, March 05, 2009

A Very Standard Christmas (Standard Recording Co.)

This is the very last Christmas CD I received as a present last December. It came from my best friend Joel who took a brief moment from his Indianapolis holiday getaway with his charming wife Samantha to check out a used CD store to see if there was something inside that I didn't have.

Joel actually called me from the store itself to read off titles to see what I had and didn't have (with Sam standing alongside, bored to tears). After reading off the limited Christmas LP titles, Joel scanned through the holiday CDs and found this particular compilation that I had never heard of.

Back in the early part of this decade, two guys named Mark Latta & Kevin Phillips decided to help out Habitat For Humanity in Indianapolis with a benefit CD. And that's how Standard Recording Company began. Since then, Mark & Kevin have improvised running an indie label as they've gone along, getting distribution deals, signing up talented Indy bands, and issuing releases when and where they want.

Back in August of 2006, they decided to release this Christmas compilation by asking their then-roster of bands for tracks. According to the liner notes, this was "the culmination of two very quick months of recording by these twelve artists and two and a half very quick days of mixing and mastering in November, 2006."


1.) BIGBIGcar - All I Want For Christmas (Is You)
I really thought Bee Gees falsettos went out of style 25 years ago. However, if you're covering Mariah Carey's Christmas tune, it works splendidly! A good time was had by all - including me!

2.) Everything, Now! - Jesus Christ / Nuclear War
Take Alex Chilton's song "Jesus Christ", add elements of Sun Ra's "Nuclear War", and you get an amazing sounding song that's extremely light on Christmas but fascinating to listen to.

3.) Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band - Plasma for Christmas
The simple tale of giving blood for extra money at the holidays. Unique rock, folky type of sound from Rev. Peyton.

4.) More Animals Of The Arctic - I Tell Lies
Alan Parsons-type ambient folk song (wow!) that's not very Christmas-ey at all. Seldom do Christmas songs work when the "F" bomb is dropped.

5.) Red Queen Hypothesis - Crockpot Barbeque
Much like the title, this one has everything - a garage band, a chorus, horn section, kazoo solo, and a fun tale of Christmas all told in just under 2:15.

6.) This Story - Themes From Christmas
An instrumental track, the simple theme builds to a crescendo around the 3 minute mark. The final 1:15 is kitchen utensils, pots, and pans being thrown around like jingle bells with the theme underlying it all. Strange.

7.) Elephant Micah - Jesus Christ
Alex Chilton strikes again - a good cover of his Big Star Christmas song. "We're gonna get born now..."

8.) Arrah & The Ferns - Merry Christmas, Not X-mas
One electric piano, a smatter of drums, and Arrah's fine vocals make this original song a cut above the rest. The song seemingly ends at 2:30 but they end it with a fast flourish exclamation point.

9.) Harley Poe - It's Christmas Time Again
What starts out as a cautionary tale on being caught by Santa turns into a laundry list of evil things the Big Guy will do if he catches you awake: "Down the chimney with all his might, you're lucky if you live tonight!". Funny and disturbing all at once.

10.) Everthus the Deadbeats - Deadbeat Christmas
With lyrics like "It's Christmas time again and they just shut off the heat", this is a tale of woe and misery. A slacker's Christmas anthem indeed.

11.) Chad Serhal - When The First Snow Comes
GREAT JUMPIN' ICEBERGS! Chad takes his simple song and layers on harmonies and counterpoint to amazing effect! Two and a half minutes of pure vocal - refreshing and mystical.

12.) Dean Plays Hardball - Little Retail Boy
With some help from Red Queen Hypothesis (see #5 above), Dean reworks "Little Drummer Boy" as a reverent, materialistic shopping list for the newborn King.

This is a very solid Christmas comp with surprises and something for everyone - even the non-Christmas stuff had me listening. If you're interested in this comp, Standard has it available for $6 at their site - not too shabby!

Even though this comp is over three years old, most of the bands listed here are still associated or on speaking terms with Standard Recording. In the ever-changing world of indie rock, that must be a record for sure. Mark & Brian, keep doing what you're doing!

Joel, thank Sam for going into that used CD store with you! Thanks for the add!


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Mannheim Steamroller - Christmasville

I can explain.

I'm reviewing Christmas albums that were given to as presents last year. So if you're thinking that I went to my local music store of choice and plunked down good money for this CD, guess again.

This was presented to me by one of my wife's aunts at a family gathering last Christmas Eve. As I unwrapped it knowing full well it was a Christmas CD, I began to wonder what new release it could have been.

Harry Connick Jr.? Sheryl Crow? Brian Setzer's umpteenth Christmas album? Aretha Franklin? The Fleshtones? Melissa Etheridge? "Cameo Parkway Holiday Hits"?

When I laid eyes on the green and purple cover and the familiar "American Gramaphone" logo at the bottom of the cover, in an instant I knew. I had to fight back the piercing shriek of terror that was building inside me.

"Ohhhhhhh... wow!" I exclaimed. My wife's aunt was pleased at my reaction. "Their new Christmas CD!" I politely thanked her for the album. I quickly found an exit and as soon as I was out of listening range, I let out a deep breath and curled into the fetal position for several minutes.

On the ride home, my wife looked at me teasingly and asked "well, what Christmas CD did you get?". I stayed silent.

"You got the new Mannheim Steamroller CD." Again I stayed silent. After a long pause, my wife delivered the coup de grâce: "Well, at least it's a CD you don't have in your collection!"

With this CD, I now own six full Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums. I can explain.

Remarkably, every album was given to me as a gift. Their first four albums (Christmas, Fresh Aire Christmas, Christmas In The Aire, and Christmas Live) were promos I received when I worked for Suncoast Motion Picture Company. The other album (The Christmas Angel) was a present / gag gift from a co-worker who knew how much I "loved" this group.

When Steamroller exploded into the Christmas consciousness in the mid-1980s, Christmas radio then was Bing Crosby, the 1950s Christmas hits (Elvis, Brenda Lee, Bobby Helms), kiddie Christmas songs ("Rudolph", "Frosty"), the Phil Spector Christmas album, and the occasional novelty tune (Cheech & Chong, The Singing Dogs).

No one had heard a synth version of "Deck The Halls" before and it was a breath of "Fresh Aire" (pun intended). As a high-school teen growing up during this time, I actually thought their music was inventive and a shot in the arm for Christmas music in general.

The music buying public took notice and the group began selling Christmas albums at alarming rates. With each new release, the sounds began to meld together, indistinguishable from the last album or even the last song. That didn't stop the record or concert sales and the thirst for more. By the time they released their third album in 1995, the oversaturation had taken its toll on me - I couldn't bear to hear them any further.

To date, Mannheim Steamroller has sold in excess of 30 million records in its lifetime. About 25 million of those have been Christmas albums. TWENTY-FIVE MILLION.

Spin the radio dial every Christmas and their synthesized renditions of Christmas standards are played incessantly. Their Christmas concerts are always sold out, have become family traditions for many, and have appeared on PBS pledge drives throughout the country every December.

"Christmasville" is Mannheim Steamroller's TENTH Christmas album.

My thoughts exactly.

I haven't listened to many of the Steamroller albums in my collection and I haven't listened to this new one. Am I being too harsh? Or am I saving myself unnecessary pain and anguish?

For example, every year I manage to sit down and objectively try to watch from beginning to end the 1963 three-hour plus epic "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World". Some years, I've been able to get through the first 2 hours of the movie before having to turn it off. Other years I barely make it through the first 1/2 hour.

In the case of the Mannheim Steamroller albums, I've tried to listen but can barely get past the first song before ripping it from my boombox. I felt like Superman being exposed to Kryptonite.

There's no middle ground with Steamroller - you either love 'em or hate 'em. I happen to fall in the latter of those two categories and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Thanks Aunt Kathy for the gift. You shouldn't have. Really!