As Elvis joked in his 1968 television special, “‘Crimmus’ is Southern for Christmas.” He recorded a lot of Christmas music, some traditional, some totally not, some religious, some secular, and 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.” Apparently, when they recorded it, Elvis never wanted the song to end. The jam went on forever.
“Santa Claus Is Back In Town” – This is one of the sexiest bluesiest most outrageous performances in Elvis’ entire career. It was the first track on his Christmas album, released in 1957. I love how it starts sweetly, with the Jordannaires, making you think it will go one way, and then … well. All hell-fire breaks loose. 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 trilling soprano behind him, but he also performed it during his 1968 television 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 have a Christmas theme, and, in his fantasy, saw Elvis in a white suit, standing 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. The sounds the women in that crowd make are as much a part of the recording as Elvis’ vocals. At around the 37 second mark, a woman makes a low sexual moan, a grunt, really, and watch Elvis hear it, and look for her in the crowd, a sudden animalistic flash in his eyes. Normally, he treated all the screams with a humor and humility that is quite touching, he accepts it, he smiles, he’s easy with it, but that sound called to him.
“If Every Day Was Like Christmas” – Lush, dramatic, satisfying. Elvis at his emotional best.
“If I Get Home on Christmas Day” – Heartbreaking, and very personal.
“O Come All Ye Faithful” – Wonderful arrangement. I love the opener, those piano chords. There’s a big emotional finish, strings and ringing bells. Elvis loved Christmas. This is gorgeous: Elvis as Patriarch.
“The First Noel” – One of my favorite Christmas carols. Elvis plays this one straight, with a traditional choral arrangement. It’s beautiful.
“White Christmas” – This is off of Elvis’ first Christmas album, in 1957. Irving Berlin, famously, was so outraged by Elvis’ version of the 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 when you take into consideration the fact that Elvis’ sexuality was always activated, always, and it is here too. But Elvis doesn’t do anything too outrageous with the song. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty mild, all things considered. Listen to what he’s doing with his phrasing. It’s often been said that a singer’s voice doesn’t matter as much as the phrasing. It is the singer’s phrasing choices that separate the great ones from the pack.
Christmas at Graceland
All photos by me.