The Christmas Song: A Deep Dive into a Holiday Chestnut

This year our holiday theme at Half Price Books is “Make the Season Bright.” Those four words appear in one of the most ubiquitous and aptly-named Christmas songs ever written, “The Christmas Song.” You might know it better by its opening lyrics: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”

Our line comes in the second section of the song: “Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright.” We’d argue that books, music and movies also do the trick.

Here’s a closer look at the history of this holiday classic. Continue reading

Frank Sinatra and a Rat Pack Christmas

A Rat Pack Christmas

Yes, there is a CD that handily collects Christmas songs by Frank, Dino, Sammy (and Peter and Joey, as pictured above), so you could go that route.  But wouldn’t it be more fun to go looking for some of those classic Christmas albums by the Rat Pack guys, and maybe include some of their fellow holiday crooners?

Here are some suggestions for some albums and song choices that you could use to put together an ultra-cool playlist that might approximate who you would hear sing at a swingin’ holiday soiree hosted by the Rat Pack.

Dean Martin, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

Dino could make anything swing, even “White Christmas.”  OK, well, maybe not “White Christmas.”  But Mr. Suave shares vocals on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with a whole female chorus rather than the usual one female vocalist.  It’s gotta be in the mix.

Frank Sinatra, “Mistletoe and Holly”

Ol’ Blue Eyes made “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” into bittersweet holiday ballads, but to meet the Rat Pack hip quotient, my choice is “Mistletoe and Holly,” if only to hear Frank croon “Oh, by gosh, by golly.”

Sammy Davis, Jr., “Jingle Bells”

The LP bins are lousy with records by Frank and Dean, but, incredibly, Sammy never released a Christmas album!  He has recorded some Christmas songs, though, and one has got to be included.  I’m going with “Jingle Bells” to keep things hoppin’.

Nat “King” Cole, “The Christmas Song”

Cole wasn’t in the Rat Pack, but he should’ve been.  He was a lot cooler than Joey Bishop.  All of these guys sang versions of “The Christmas Song” (You know, “The Christmas Song”: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”—that one), but Nat Cole made it one of his trademark numbers, and we’ll make it the low-key change of pace to break up the Rat Pack holiday party cheer.

Ella Fitzgerald, “Winter Wonderland”

Ella knew how to swing the holiday stuff, and was a big influence on the Rat Pack crooners.  Her version of “Winter Wonderland” bounces right along, and earns her a spot as a Rat Pack special guest.

Tony Bennett, “My Favorite Things”

Why Tony Bennett was not a member of the Rat Pack I don’t know. His version of “My Favorite Things” (yes, it’s a Christmas song) is peppy.  Tony’s still goin’, and in 2008 released an album with the Count Basie Band called A Swingin’ Christmas.  Perfect!

Peggy Lee, “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”

The Rat Pack always had a few ladies around, so we’ll let Peggy join Ella to represent the feminine element.  All she has to do is sing to Dino, Frank and Sammy: “Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.”  

Of course, there’s room for other Rat Pack wannabes at the party, like Steve and Eydie, Bobby Darin, and Vic Damone. A nice, swingin’ way to dig the holidays! – Steve

Steve is Staffing & Development Manager (aka the “Buy Guy”) at Half Price Books Corporate.

Two Sides to Every LP

In this time of the resurgence of vinyl, many LP features have been noted as being superior to the compact disc’s features: warmer sound, bigger and more substantial packaging (sometimes even worthy of a frame), closer identification with an era of great popular music.  One feature that doesn’t necessarily fall into the superior-to-CDs column but that, I think, is worth mentioning is that fact that a record album has two sides.  I grew up in the LP era, and I always think in “record sides.”  I usually have a clear picture of which side of an album a particular song was on, if I played that LP myself.  The song has a particular orientation that fits in on that particular LP side.

So, some music-lovers of my generation do something that listeners of later generations may not do: they recall their favorite album sides.  Here are a few of mine.

Side 2, The Beatles—Abbey Road

This is the one that does come up most often when people talk about favorite album sides.  I probably haven’t listened to side 1 of this record since about 1971.  It’s kind of a hodgepodge of novelty songs, with one classic, George’s ultra-covered “Something,” thrown in.  The last song on that side gets my vote as the worst Beatles song title of all: “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”  Side 2, on the other hand, starts off with two of the Fab 5-minus-1’s treasures, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Because.”  Then comes the suite of songs that may or may not make cohesive sense together but continue after decades to be a fantastic aural experience, so who cares?


Side 2, The Clash—London Calling

All four sides of this album are wonderful (not a common characteristic of the dread double-album).  It was voted Rolling Stone’s best album of the ’80s.  There are lots of standout songs on the record, but for me, side 2 is the one I’ve kept coming back to.  “Spanish Bombs,” Lost in the Supermarket,” “The Right Profile.”  “That’s Montgomery Clift, baby!” 


Side 1, Charles Mingus—Mingus Ah Um

I almost hate to give preference to a particular side of this 1959 jazz classic—it’s great from beginning to end.  But side 1 begins with two of the best compositions in all of jazz, a yin and yang opening: the raucous “Better Get It in Yo’ Soul” and the plaintive “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat” (a tribute to sax player Lester Young).  “Boogie Stop Shuffle” shakes things up again and the rest of the side completes the experience.  So, honor and adore side 1, but don’t ignore side 2’s “Fables of Faubus” and other gems. 


Side 1, Harry Nilsson—Nilsson Schmilsson

I’m just wild about Harry, and this breakout record is more consistently great than his later ones, but side 2 starts off with two songs, “Without You” and “The Coconut Song,” that I believe I got my lifetime quota of decades ago.  Side 1 I’ve always thought of as a sort-of “wee hours” suite, from “Gotta Get Up” and “Driving Along” through “Early in the Morning” and the ethereal “The Moonbeam Song.”  “Down” caps it off with a sense of the other end of the wee hours—reckless late-night barroom despair.


Side 1, Van Morrison—Moondance

This album is a high point in Van’s copious output and is good all the way through, but side 2, in comparison to the first side, is relatively lightweight and forgettable.  Side 1 contains four of his best songs of all–“And It Stoned Me,” the title song, “Caravan” and “Into the Mystic.”  Right in the middle is “Crazy Love,” which ain’t too bad either.  It’s a line-up that couldn’t be maintained on side 2 and has never been equaled by Mr. Morrison since. 

So, what’s your favorite album side?

Steve is Staffing & Development Manager (aka the “Buy Guy”) at Half Price Books Corporate.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday: Top Five Books & Songs

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, here’s a list of my favorite books about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement:

Parting the Waters and the other two volumes of the America in the King Years trilogy, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge, by Taylor Branch— This masterwork tells the whole story, keeps the huge cast of characters distinct and fully-formed, and throughout its 2,700-plus pages kept me mesmerized and dumbfounded that all of it happened during my lifetime.

Stride Toward Freedom by Martin Luther King, Jr.—I picked King’s first book, written in 1958, because HPB bought a signed copy of the second printing of the book a few years ago and I was fortunate enough to carry it around to book presentations for a couple of years before we sold it!

Dear Mrs. Parks by Rosa Parks— This is a nice collection of letters written by Ms. Parks in response to admiring young people.  It’s very special to me because my copy was signed for me in 1996 by the Civil Rights heroine.

Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 by Juan Williams— This book accompanied the excellent PBS documentary on the Civil Rights movement.  It’s a trove of photos, interviews, and sidebars that vividly describe the mood of the country at the time.

Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley—It’s fiction, an installment in Mosley’s wonderful Easy Rawlins mystery series.  But its setting is racially-torn Watts in 1965, and Rawlins’ assignment puts him right in the midst of it.

Five favorite songs of or about the Civil Rights era:

  1. “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke—often covered, but the original is the best
  2. “People Get Ready” by The Impressions (written by Curtis Mayfield)—also often-covered, possibly improving on this original version, but I’m partial to it
  3. “This Land” by Odetta—Odetta, a prominent musical element of the Civil Rights movement, does a nice version of “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie
  4. “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder—this ain’t the generic “Happy Birthday to You”; it’s Stevie Wonder’s tribute to MLK, from the album Hotter Than July (1980)
  5. “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” by Chuck Berry—not an out-and-out Civil Rights anthem, but a very fine and witty 1956 tribute to people of color in history, inspired by Berry’s observance of discriminatory police actions.

 Anything I missed?

— Steve, aka The Buy Guy