We never thought of ourselves as "underprivileged" children, as they used to be called in those days. But by my current standard of living, we didn't have much. And so when our dads' veterans post used to hold a Christmas party for us little boomers, there were always gifts donated by local businesses.
The party was held every year about this time in the hall in the back of the post building. At the time, that room seemed absolutely huge, but a more recent visit showed it to be not very big at all. We kids would run around and scream in the back while some sort of entertainment went on up front by the Christmas tree, next to the flag and the picture of the local boy who was killed in the war. Christmas carols by Bing Crosby would be piped in through the same little p.a. system that they used to use for Bingo games one night a week.
After an hour of two of loosely structured merriment, the big moment would arrive and Santa would come through the door. Every year it was the same guy -- the bachelor neighbor whose red nose was authentic from too much booze, too much time on his hands, too much who-knows-what-else. But on this day, for an hour or so, he got to share a tiny bit of the life his war buddies were living in their little flats with their wives and kids. He always had a red stocking for each of us, with candy, nuts and oranges, and maybe a toy or two that the Marx Toy Company would donate via one of the dads who (like mine) delivered freight for them.
One year there was an unusual item amidst the Christmas stash: a record album donated by a company based over in New York. It was called "A Christmas Gift for You," and it featured a number of different artists who worked for Philles Records. I never figured out whether it was Philles itself or some distributor who laid these records on the post, but we all took our copy home and put it on the turntable to see what it sounded like. I remember having no idea what to expect.
Of course, the rest is history. This was producer Phil Spector's now-legendary Christmas album, performed by his talented stable of artists -- Darlene Love, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans. They put the "wall of sound" behind the holiday classics and in the process turned them upside down. Within a few days, we were all singing along. And although there was only one modern song -- Darlene Love doing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" -- the unique arrangements of some of the classics were the only ones we kids had ever heard. By default, they became the "official" versions of these songs in our little heads.
And so to our other two Christmas LPs -- the Andy Williams Christmas Album and Christmas Sing Along with Mitch -- was added this third entry. At first we didn't have a shorthand name for it -- no one in the house had ever heard of Phil Spector, and so we weren't ready to identify it by his name, and "A Christmas Gift for You" was too sappy. But one night, while we were putting up the Christmas tree in our little living room, my father's older brother (who lived upstairs and was constantly dropping by) made a request that will be forever etched in our family history.
"Jackie," said Uncle Billy, "put the Colored Christmas Album on."
Given the era, this label meant no disrespect. Indeed, it was the most polite phraseology that our folks could have come up with. If they were intending to show disapproval of this music, a different word -- which I wouldn't write anywhere, much less on the Internet -- would have been used. No, the phrase "Colored Christmas Album" was perfectly consistent with Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men.
Ironically, there were many players involved with the record who were not members of racial minorities. Spector himself, of course. And if you look through the credits on the back you see names like Leon Russell, Nino Tempo, and Sonny Bono. But the lead performers were, indeed, all people of color.
It really didn't matter. We played that Colored Christmas Album, and played it, and played it, and loved it.
As with so many great records, my actual vinyl disk of the album is long gone. Nowadays, I have a mid-'70s reissue on vinyl and the remastered CD that came out in the Spector "Back to Mono" box a decade or so ago.
But for some reason I managed to hold onto the original dust jacket, now yellowed but otherwise in pretty good shape. The liner notes, signed by Spector, illustrate the raw ambition of the project:
Can Twelve Great Christmas Songs be treated with the same excitement as is the original pop material of today; sung by four of the greatest pop artists in the country; produced with the same feeling and sound that is found on the hit singles of these artists, without losing for a moment the feeling of Christmas, and without destroying or invading the sensitivity and the beauty that surrounds all of the great Christmas music? Until now, perhaps not! But I am sure after you listen to this album, you will agree that the answers to these questions are found in every groove of this album.... Because Christmas is so American it is therefore time to take the great Christmas music and give it the sound of the American music of today....No shortage of cockiness there, and the final cut on the record, a voice-over by Spector, patting himself on the back over the strains of "Silent Night," is even bolder in its hubris. But he was right.
These days the vets who threw the parties for us are almost all gone, and the kids who ran around the back of the post are now greying parents, and even grandparents. A few of them went to 'Nam and made it back, and now they run the post themselves.
Mitch Miller is nowhere to be found. And although there's a copy of the Andy Williams album in our CD collection, it probably will not be playing during prime tree-trimming time at our house this year.
No, we'll probably be listening to that one that Uncle Billy liked. We'll just have to call it something different in front of the kids.