By Billy Altman
A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU From Phil Spector
Released: 1963 on Philles Records
reissued on CD, 1990
Even after a full half-century, few holiday albums carry the mythic weight of 1963’s A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records, wherein Phil Spector sought to put his personal stamp on Christmas music by “treating” a batch of well-worn Yuletide classics to his signature “Wall of Sound” production style–an approach that in just two short years had helped the young record company owner/operator rise to the top of the pop music mountain as he became (in the famous words of Tom Wolfe) America’s “First Tycoon of Teen.”
Nineteen-sixty-three had been a spectacular year for 22-year-old Spector and his small roster of artists–the Crystals, the Ronettes, Darlene Love, and “combo” group Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. Spector liked to boast that his marketplace acumen was so sharp that he wouldn’t release any record unless and until he was positive it was a hit and, astonishingly, he actually had the numbers to back it up. Between January and September, each and every one of the 10 singles released by Philles had made the Billboard Top 100 charts, with eight making the Top 40, six the Top 30, and three (the Crystals’ “Da Doo Run Run” and “Then He Kissed Me” and the Ronettes’ debut “By My Baby”) reaching the Top 10.
Darlene Love, ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),’ from A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
The Crystals, ‘Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,’ from A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
Suffice it to say, then, that expectations were understandably high when Spector decided to cap off the year with an album of familiar Christmas favorites done in Spectorian fashion that would make them of a piece with his most recent body of work for his own Philles label (a partnership with music publisher Lester Sill). He proceeded by locking down L.A.’s Gold Star Studios for six weeks and making hostages of his four groups of artists, his great engineer Larry Levine, his gifted arranger Jack Nitzsche, his “Wrecking Crew” army of regular session players (including drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, keyboardist Leon Russell and percussionist [yes] Sonny Bono), as well as various other participants including then-17-year-old Cherily LaPiere–an aspiring singer who, a year later, would marry Bono, launch an unsuccessful solo career as simply “Cherilyn,” then shorten her name to Cher and emerge as a successful duo with her husband. All this to record the likes of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Marshmallow World” and “White Christmas.”
On these songs, as well as on virtually all the others on the collection, Spector’s auteur-like approach made it sound like he wanted not so much to celebrate Christmas music as to celebrate himself, with his extreme makeovers of the songs sporting all sorts of musical nods to his own hits: the Ronettes’ “Frosty the Snowman” referenced the “bum bum-bum” drum hook of “Be My Baby;” the Crystals’ “Rudolph” quoted from the arrangement to “Then He Kissed Me;” etc.
In a musical nod to Phil Spector’s own hits, The Crystals’ ‘Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer’ quotes from the arrangement to ‘Then He Kissed Me.’ From A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.
The Ronettes, ‘Sleigh Ride,’ from A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records, cops the horn arrangement from Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Heat Wave’
From track to track, there are what seem to multiple sets of sleigh bells, castanets and glockenspiels all merrily ringing, knocking or clanging away over, under and around the thick swirl of strings, horns, keyboards, guitars, bass and drums. And there’s much to admire: “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” sung by Bob B. Soxxer Bobby Sheen, rises to a gloriously melodramatic fever pitch; the Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride,” complete with the sounds of horse hooves, neighs and a horn arrangement swiped from Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave,” is a flat-out hoot; and the lone original, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” co-authored by Spector with the hit Brill Building duo Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, gives Darlene Love a much-deserved place in the spotlight.
The Spector Christmas album’s piece-de-resistance: La La Brooks and the Crystals’ over-the-top version of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,’ in which a careful listener can hear what will a decade later be the foundation for Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band’s sound on “Born To Run”–a fact underscored by Springsteen’s inclusion of the song in his holiday set list for many years.
Darlene Love, ‘White Christmas,’ from A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records
That Phil Spector himself believed his Christmas album was going to be a career-defining event could certainly be inferred from the album-ending final track where, with orchestra and angelic choir rising behind him to perform “Silent Night,” he steps out from behind the control room to thank everyone involved in “my endeavor to bring something new and different to the music of Christmas–and to the record industry which is so much a part of my life.”
Bob B. Soxx (Bobby Sheen) & The Blue Jeans, ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s,’ rises to a gloriously melodramatic fever pitch on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
‘Marshmallow World,’ the holiday classic penned by Carl Sigman, received one of its most memorable treatments courtesy Darlene Love on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
A not so funny thing happened to Phil Spector, though, on his way to musical world domination. On the very same day A Christmas Gift for You was released, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, leading to perhaps the most subdued and solemn holiday season in all of American history. To most people, it was deemed unpatriotic and sacrilegious to celebrate Christmas too heartily that year, and the music in people’s homes and on the radio reflected that. What Spector thought would be a crowning achievement (and just in time for his 23rd birthday in late December) went largely unheard and unacknowledged that Christmas–and when the calendar turned to 1964, four moptop kids from Liverpool called the Beatles showed up to breathe new life and spirit into pop music and pop culture. Soon, the handwriting was on the wall of sound for Spector, who wouldn’t claim any more Top 20 hits until 1965, when the Righteous Brothers helped him briefly recover some of his fast-fading glory. By 1966, though, and the relative commercial failure of his self-professed masterpiece, Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep Mountain High,” Spector was shutting the door on Philles Records. His days as the tastemaking “Tycoon of Teen” were over–and we all know where the story twists and turns from there. As for the tipping point, though, one need not look, nor listen, any further than A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records.
Phil Spector’s touching spoken finale to A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Then, a not-so-funny-thing happened to him on his way to music world dominance.
Ace engineer Larry Levine, Cher and Lou Adler, among others, discuss aspects of the making of Phil Spector’s Christmas album, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector