As Elvis joked in his 1968 special, “Crimmus” is “Southern for Christmas”. He recorded a lot of Christmas stuff, but here are some of my favorites.
“Merry Christmas Baby” – While most associations with Christmas are family-friendly, involving stockings and nutcrackers and gleaming ribbons, for Elvis here it’s about sex and the blues. There’s a wandering sexy piano, a bluesy slow pace, and grown-up Elvis, moaning repeatedly over how Christmas “sure did treat him nice.” A bluesy classic. Apparently, when they recorded it, Elvis never wanted the song to end. The jam went on forever. That’s how deep the blues can go.
“Santa Claus Is Back In Town” – Taking a religious holiday and doing THIS to it? Go, Memphis Flash, go. This is one of Elvis’ sexiest bluesiest performances. To quote Tom Petty: “‘Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight’ sounds absolutely filthy when Elvis sings it.” And how Elvis sings “be a good little girl” is damn near indecent.
“Blue Christmas” – A classic. I love the recorded version, with the crazy trilling soprano behind him, but he also performed it during his 68 special, and a whole other side comes out. The real “blue” side. In the planning stages for the NBC special, Colonel Tom Parker had expected it would be a Christmas special, and, in his fantasy, wanted Elvis in a white suit, standing onstage with a Christmas tree behind him, maybe a living room set, with a roaring fire, singing Christmas carols. Cuddly family-friendly Elvis. As we all know, it didn’t quite work out that way. Elvis singing “Blue Christmas” was the only nod to that original plan of Colonel Tom’s, and clearly … this is not what the Colonel had in mind.
“If Every Day Was Like Christmas” – This is lush, dramatic, satisfying. Elvis at his emotional best.
“If I Get Home on Christmas Day” – Heartbreaking, and very personal. One of my new favorites. He puts his heart into it. Personal. Listen to the lyrics. Loneliness, ache, family.
“O Come All Ye Faithful” – Wonderful arrangement. I love the opener, those piano chords. How interesting. There’s a big emotional finish, involving strings and ringing bells. Elvis loved Christmas. This is gorgeous. Elvis as Patriarch.
“The First Noel” – One of my favorite Christmas carols. Another choral arrangement, traditional, with a giant chorus behind him. It opens with a quiet churchy organ.
“White Christmas” – This is off of Elvis’ first Christmas album, 1957. Irving Berlin, famously, was so outraged by Elvis’ version of his song that he tried to get it banned from radio play. When you listen to it now, it’s hard to think what was up Irving’s ass. Except if you include the fact that Elvis’ sexuality was always activated, always, and it is here too. But he doesn’t do anything TOO outrageous with the song. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty mild, all things considered. And very beautiful. Listen to his vocal stylings, listen to what he’s doing with his phrasing. It’s often been said by people who know more about such things than I do that it’s almost not the voice that matters as much as it is the phrasing. It is the phrasing that separates the great ones out. Such things cannot be taught. I think what Elvis does here, with his voice, and his phrasing, is beautiful. Original. Sui generis, as I keep saying.