May 27 – When Rock Found A Chum In Canada

One wonders if it began with a DJ like Johnny Fever from WKRP In Cincinnati ripping an old easy-listening record off the turntable and breaking it. Rock & Roll really arrived for good in Canada on this day in 1957, when CHUM Radio in Toronto switched to an “all rock & roll” format. It was the first station in Canada to do so.

Rock was becoming quite a big thing by then of course; Elvis was becoming “The King” and artists like Fats Domino and Little Richard were in their prime…and confusing a lot of radio people. Something new was happening, but radio was rather conservative and didn’t know quite what to make of it. So when the powerful, 50 000W station in Toronto made the change, it was a watermark. CHUM had been on air since 1945, but oddly only broadcast during daylight hours and had a lot of news and sports and a little music, mainly of the Big Band or crooner-style variety. That changed dramatically 66 years ago when the DJ there put on “All Shook Up” by Elvis, the new format’s first record and also the first #1 song on their chart. For nearly 30 years they published a weekly singles chart, initially a top 50 but later a top 30. It was influential enough to be considered the “official” Canadian chart until 1964.

Elvis songs spent another eight weeks at #1 on CHUM that year and it would soon become the source of rock music in Ontario, for instance sponsoring three different Beatles concerts in the city. By the late-’60s they’d launched an FM station which was largely an early “album rock” station that played bands like Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake & Palmer that AM hit radio often overlooked.

For a couple of decades, it worked amazingly well for CHUM. It typically was the most-listened to pop/rock channel in the country and it vied with CKLW in the border city of Windsor (which we heard about yesterday in the Skylark post) for the most-influential one. But of course, times change and by the ’80s FM was taking over music radio. Their own FM station was beating them in ratings with a blend of album rock and top30 singles, there were new Classic Rock and New Wave stations on air drawing hundreds of thousands of listeners and CHUM-AM began to falter. In the summer of ’86 they published their last Top 30 chart (Madonna had the #1 hit), played “We Built This City” by Starship, then switched from hit radio to “favourites of yesterday and today”, playing mostly oldies. That didn’t click all that well and by 1989, they were only 11th in ratings in the city itself. Since then they’ve gone through various incarnations as talk radio and now TSN Sports talk radio. Young music fans up there will probably never have a clue as to how much that now seemingly All-Maple-Leafs-and-Blue-Jays-all-Gab station changed the musical landscape from coast to coast in their parents’ (or grandparents’) generation.

That was Canada. Many of you are probably asking what the first such rock station in the U.S. was. That is not as easy to answer, as Google will quickly show you.

Many would point to WJW in Cleveland for an obvious reason – it was the home of DJ Allan Freed, who coined (or at least popularized) the term “rock & roll” and sponsored the very first “rock” concert, the Moondog Coronation in 1952. It also had Casey Kasem when he was young and far from well-known. But it was primarily a “beautiful music” and classical one which gave Freed a short late-night show to play his type of music.

KSHE in St. Louis bills itself as the “longest-running rock station in the world”, which is debatable, but they weren’t first to do so, appearing on the rockin’ airwaves in 1967. Their claim though does point out how most of the early rock pioneer stations have long-since switched to other formats, usually talk or sports. So, if one was to answer the question, a good choice might be right in the home of … Country music. WLAC in Nashville.

WLAC went on air in 1926 and by the 1940s had amped up their transmitter to 50 000W, one of the strongest in the nation. On some nights it could be heard as far as away as the Northeast … Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm both say they listened in at times at night from Canada. By the early-’50s it had adopted a format playing mostly R&B music, or “race music” as it was often called then, to appeal to theoretically the African-American population in the Southeast. But a lot of youth of other races loved it too and as the decade wore on it incorporated more and more rock into its playlists. If not the very first, it was probably the most influential American station in getting early rock heard far and wide. However, it dropped the rock music format in 1979, like so many other AM stations in that era. But at least there was still WKRP…


May 16 – Turntable Talk 14 : The King Reigned In Germany

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks once again to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 14th instalment…if you’re wondering about past topics, I indexed the first dozen here. For any new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columnists from other music sites, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is Feels Like The First Time. No, no, we’re not going X-rated here, we’re talking about a different kind of first – the first album our guests ever bought.

Today we have Christian , from Christian’s Music Musings. He looks at new releases and spotlights older great songs there, and unlike the rest of our guest writers, grew up in Europe so his first LP might have been bought in Deutschemarks:

Thanks, Dave, for inviting me back for another Turntable Talk contribution. Your recurring feature truly is a gift that keeps on giving. I particularly enjoy reading the posts from fellow bloggers and the insights I gain in both their music tastes and personalities. And since I love writing about music, of course, it’s also fun sharing my own two cents.

This time, Dave asked us to reflect on the first album we bought, whether on vinyl, CD or in other formats. Jeez, I oftentimes can’t recall what I did the previous day, so remembering what I did some 45-plus years ago seems to be impossible. So, I decided to take some liberty with the topic.

While I really can’t remember the first record I bought with my own money, which to be clear would be my monthly allowance or any German Marks I received as a gift for my birthday or Christmas, I’m fairly certain three records were among the very first I owned and still do to this day!

Two of them are pictured above.

I believe The Beatles compilation I bought with my “own” money. The greatest hits sampler by The Everly Brothers, on the other hand, was a gift.

Obviously, I could have picked The Beatles, my all-time favorite band. But I’ve written multiple times about them, including once for Turntable Talk. That’s the main reason I picked the following record. Plus, given Elvis Presley was my first and only childhood idol before I discovered the four lads from Liverpool, there’s a high probability I owned Elvis’s 40 Greatest prior to getting the Beatles compilation.

Before I get to the record, let me tell you a little bit about my obsession with Elvis as a kid back in Germany. While my six-year-older sister introduced me to some of the greatest music ever recorded, such as Carole King’s Tapestry, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu, the “King of Rock and Roll” was my own discovery.

I must have “met” the man for the first time on the radio. We’re talking about 1976 or 1977, when I was 10 or 11 years old. I can’t recall specifically what it was that grabbed my attention in ways no other music had done before then. Mind you, I didn’t understand or speak any English, so I was reacting to Elvis’ amazing voice, as well as the cool groove and incredible energy projected by tunes like “Tutti Frutti and “Jailhouse Rock”.

I became truly infatuated with Elvis and wanted to know everything about him. Obviously, there was no Internet back then, so I couldn’t simply ask Mr. Google or check Wikipedia! I do recall reading a bio published in paperback but sadly don’t remember the author or the title. Mr. Google didn’t help either, but since that bio included Elvis’ death in August 1977, obviously, it must have appeared thereafter – I assume sometime in 1978.

I also watched Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite on German TV. Given the original broadcast aired in 1973, it must have been a re-run, likely in the wake of Elvis’s passing. I also recall watching the Western Flaming Star (1960). Elvis starred in many movies, most of which were forgettable. I would say Flaming Star and Jailhouse Rock (1957) were among the best ones.

My obsession with Elvis culminated in attempts to impersonate the King in front of the mirror. I would even put grease in my hair. Once I also “costumed” as Elvis during the so-called Karneval season, which is prominent in the Rhineland, the area where I grew up, especially in the cities of Cologne, Bonn, Düsseldorf, Aachen and Mainz. Costuming, dancing, parades, drinking and happiness (or is it really forced silliness?) are part of the celebration, which reaches its climax in the week leading up to Ash Wednesday when ‘everything is over,’ as the Karneval fans say.

Once I started picking up the guitar as a 12- or 13-year-old, incorporating the instrument became part of my Elvis impersonation package. One of the first Elvis tunes I learned was “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”. My poor parents really had a lot to endure!

Okay, I think you get the picture. I idolized Elvis, of course in an innocent childish way.

Time to finally get to some music and the aforementioned compilation, which according to Discogs was released in 1978. I know I got it as a present for Christmas, and we’re likely talking about the holiday in that same year.

As also noted above, I still own that copy. While a bit worn it’s still playable. To prove it, I’ll leave with clips of four tunes I captured myself, one from each side of the double LP.

Side 1, Track 7: (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear (1957) – of course, I couldn’t skip that one!

Side 2, Track 2: Hard Headed Woman (1958) – this song just rocks; love the cool guitar solo by the great Scotty Moore!

Side 3, Track 10: Can’t Help Falling In Love (1961) – call it schmaltz, but that tune is a true beauty, which literally has brought me to tears!

Side 4, Track 8: Suspicious Minds (1969) – one of my all-time favorites I couldn’t skip!

While since those days back in the second half of the ‘70s I’ve become a bit more mature (I think!) and no longer idolize Elvis, or anyone else for that matter, I still enjoy much of his music. I also think Elvis was an incredible performer, especially in the ‘50s before joining the U.S. Army in March 1958 for his military service.

May 4 – And The Winner Is…

Every tradition has to begin somewhere, sometime. In the case of music, one of the biggest got going in both New York & L.A. 64 years ago. That was the first Grammy Awards, held in 1959 for the 1958 year in music. Over six decades later, despite the jokes and criticisms they are still the industry standard. Sure, there are American Music Awards, Junos, Brits, CMAs… but a Grammy is the one that has the prestige and carries weight (and the weight is about five pounds per trophy in case you’re wondering.)

The awards were thought up by the people behind the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They noticed that the movies and even the relatively new-fangled television had awards to honor their best, but music didn’t. So they coupled with the Recording Academy to change that and give out trophies for musical excellence and have a fancy ceremony/party to do so. They had a contest to pick a name, and Jay Danna from New Orleans won with the suggestion, a shortened version of “gramophone”, which they decided to use as the main theme for the trophy itself.

The first awards, split between fancy hotels in Manhattan and Hollywood, handed out 28 awards. By the early-’00s, it had grown to over 100 a year; after a little scaling back and reconfiguring of categories, there are 91 currently. NBC filmed the awards and aired them, although not live. It wasn’t until ABC took over the broadcasts that they were shown coast-to-coast in real time on TV.

Actor-comedian Mort Sahl hosted the first ones (although it’s not stated if he was the West coast or East coast one) and since then they’ve used a line of famous actors, comedians and only infrequently, musicians, as hosts. Andy Williams holds the record, hosting seven straight (1971-77), followed by John Denver with six. Denver has the distinction of being the host to the most-watched ones, the 1984 edition which over 50 million people tuned into… although more probably were waiting for Michael Jackson’s moonwalking appearance than hoping to see the bespectacled country singer. This year’s Awards drew about 12 million viewers by comparison.

Among the big awards were the first winners for Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year. Henry Mancini’s Music from Peter Gunn won the Album, beating out two Frank Sinatra ones among others. Song of the Year (basically for the actual song lyrically and melody-wise) and Record of the Year (for best-sounding song, with the producers and engineers also being credited) both went to “Nel Blu Dipinto de Blu” by Domenico Modugno. Not familiar? The hit was better known as “Volare”, and to this day it’s still the only foreign-language song (Italian) to win best song. Among the competitors it beat out was … “The Chipmunk Song”. By The Chipmunks. Don’t feel sorry for the singing rodents though, they won three awards that night, for Best children’s Recording, Best Comedy Album and Best Engineered, non-classical recording. Interestingly, comedy records were a much bigger deal back then; a Bob Newhart stand-up routine won the Best Album in 1961. Other winners in the first show were Ella Fitzgerald and Perry Como in their “pop” category and The Champs rockin’ “Tequila” which was classified as the Best R&B record!

Obviously there’s always debate and arguments aplenty over the winners and losers, and there’ve been some obvious missteps, perhaps none more glaringly than Milli Vanilli who had to give back their 1990 Best New Artist one after it was found that the supposed winning duo didn’t perform on it. Certainly some greats like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Elton John seem to have been overlooked relative to their importance and enduring records, and at times the Awards seem to play catch-up, like naming Ray Charles the winner of Album of the Year posthumously in 2005 and Steely Dan winning their first in that category in 2001. But in general, one would probably agree that the list of winners, at least for the 20th Century have been a pretty good, if perhaps conservative, list of records and artists who mattered. Since then… well, debate amongst yourself if you think Beyonce really should have more wins than any other act , ever?

And if you were wondering, the actual trophies are gold-plated and hand-made in Colorado by Billings Artworks. The owner John, and his small staff make the awards each year, personally drive them to the Awards pre-ceremony and then engrave nameplates for them when winners are announced.

April 19 – That Fire Was Forging Gold For Cash

A hot new single was spinning this day in 1963, a rock standard that came out of backwoods Southern country. It was this day 60 years back that Johnny Cash lit the “Ring of Fire.”

The song which became one of the most iconic pieces from one of pop music’s pioneering country-rock crossover stars had fairly humble beginnings. It had been written about a year earlier by Cash’s future wife, June Carter, and Merle Kilgore, a country music manager who’d end up being Johnny’s best man at the wedding to June. June was already enamored with Cash although alarmed by his “very volatile lifestyle” and apparently wrote the lyrics about falling in love with “the Man in Black.” Her sister Anita recorded it first, but to little note. Johnny loved the song, and after waiting a few months to make sure Anita’s rendition wasn’t going to be a hit, he recorded it, adding Mariachi-style horns to give it a “south of the border” feeling.

Johnny’s earnest delivery and spicy music made it a hit, albeit not as big a hit as many might have guessed given how well-known the song is. It did get to #1 on Country charts, his fifth such chart-topper, it only rose to #17 on the overall Billboard charts. Still, that was his best showing since 1958, and it was popular enough for the record company to change the name of a “greatest hits” package of Cash’s that followed a couple of months later to Ring Of Fire, the Best of Cash. In time the single was certified gold. Remarkably, although it’s considered to be almost synonymous with him, he didn’t include it on any of his first six live albums – it finally made it onto the 1983 Konzert V Praze release.

It’s also become a garage-rock staple, with popular cover versions by The Animals, Social Distortion and Wall of Voodoo to name just a few. Stan Ridgway of the latter said “I used to play Johnny Cash music as a teenager. I grew up with a lot of it,” a statement probably true of a lot of younger Baby Boom musicians. Still, few disagree that The Man in Black’s remains the ultimate rendering of that ring. CMT consider it the fourth best Country music song of all-time while Rolling Stone have it among their 100 greatest of any genre.

And lest you wonder, you can thank the Cash-Carter kids for maintaining the song’s integrity. Daughter Rosanne says it’s “about the transformative power of love. That’s what it’s always meant to me and will always mean to the Cash children.” Therefore they vetoed an offer from Preparation H to use it in their advertising.

March 31 – Wray Record Rumble-d Its Way Into Rock History

No need to argue – today we’re looking at one of the most influential of any songs from the early days of Rock & Roll, let alone instrumental ones. “Rumble” by Link Wray and his Ray Men came out this day in 1958. And thanks to that, we have The Who and Iggy Pop!

Wray was a Shawnee Indian from North Carolina, who’d grown up poor, barefoot, living in a “hut” without running water. He served in the military and along the way, learned to play guitar. He had a 1953 Gibson Les Paul. He was fairly popular as a live performer in the mid-’50s and signed to Cadence Records. That was hardly a fit for a guy who was going to reshape rock, as it was largely known at the time for having Andy Williams on its roster and putting out some comedy records! But they had him and put out this, his first single.

Rumble” came about rather spontaneously, when he and the band were working on a soundcheck, trying to get some “stroll” music into their set. The Virginia crowd heard it and went wild, and they ended up cheering for it as the band played it four times that night, each time getting the sound tighter and tighter. At the time Wray called it “Oddball.”

Cadence heard it but didn’t like it, but since the president’s daughter in law thought it was cool, he agreed to release it. By then it had been renamed, under the advice of Phil Everly who heard it and thought it sounded like a streetfight… or “rumble.”

To get the sound he wanted, Rolling Stone would later note that “by stabbing his amplifier speaker cone with a pencil, Wray created the distorted, over-driven sound that would reverberate through metal, punk and grunge.” They mentioned that in the story which ranked him as the 45th greatest guitarist ever.

Rumble” was ahead of its time, no question about that. It did reach #!6 in the U.S., his biggest hit by far. It was banned from radio in cities including New York and Boston because authorities feared it might incite fights and violence! As such it is the only instrumental that’s been banned in the States.

Among the people who did hear it were Bob Dylan, who has called it “the best instrumental ever”, Jimmy Page who cited it as an influence on his playing, Iggy Pop who said hearing it made him want to play music for a career and Pete Townshend. The Who’s guitar wiz said “if it hadn’t been for Link Wray’s “Rumble”, I would never have picked up a guitar.” That was one pretty fortunate sound check!

Wray had moved to Denmark before he passed away in 2005, but his song has since been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and been used for a documentary title : Rumble – the Indians who Rocked the World.

February 15 – Turntable Talk 11 : Before They Were Fab…

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 11th instalment! But for new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is A Really Big Show. We’ve asked our guests if they had a time machine, and could go back and see one concert what would it be? It could be a show from before they were born, one tey missed or one they actually attended and would like to relive. Big festival, small club show, you name it.

Today we have Max from the Power Pop Blog. There he recently put up his 3000th post, most of which have looked at music he loves, often from bands who indeed define “power pop”. Would his dream concert follow suit?:

Dave at A Sound Day gave writers a question to write about: If you could safely go back in time and move about for one day, what one concert or live performance would you choose to go to?

Well, that narrows it down to me because there are two cities that come to mind after he asked that. Now…if this was a baseball question I would go to New York in the twenties and see who I think is the best baseball player ever…Babe Ruth. But it’s music so the two cities are Hamburg and Liverpool…the Star Club in Hamburg or the Cavern in Liverpool…and I shouldn’t have to name the band.

I’m going to pick Hamburg…and the reason is The Beatles would play 6-8 hours a night compared to lunchtime sessions at the Cavern so to Germany I go! From everything I’ve read the performances there were off the charts. They played loud sweaty rock and roll there and accumulated way past 1000 hours playing there in a 3-year stretch. It’s not a stretch to say at that time they could have had more hours on a stage than any other rock band.

Between August 1960 and December 1962, the Beatles played over 250 nights in the seedy red-light district of Hamburg. If you average 6 hours a show that would be 1500 hours…that is why they could play so well with a wall of screaming in their ears later on. They would get to know the gangsters who would buy them champagne, the barmaids who would sell or give them  Preludin (a type of diet pill speed so they could play all night…”prellies”), and the prostitutes who would take them in and befriend them. They also met Little Richard, Billy Preston, and Gene Vincent there.

They slowed down in 1962 and didn’t play as long of sets but near the end they had Ringo. I would want to see them in 1960-61 when Stuart Sutcliffe was on bass and Pete Best was drumming. Other bands from England started to come over but none of them had the impact of the Beatles. They lived off of prellies and beer when they played and would go have an English breakfast when they could afford it. There are pictures of them holding a  Preludin metal tube (what they came in) and grinning manically. They would write a few songs but mostly played covers through this period of learning. They caused all kinds of trouble and there were rumors of John Lennon urinating off of a balcony on nuns…but that has been disproven…no he did urinate off of balconies but left the nuns alone. He once appeared with a real toilet seat around his head on stage after being angered and ripping it off a toilet. George was booted out of the country for being underaged and Paul and Pete were accused of trying to burn down a cinema. Stuart Sutcliffe found his true love there Astrid Kirchherr. He would die in 1962 of a brain hemorrhage at 22.

When they came back from Hamburg in 1960 to Liverpool…people were amazed and at first thought, they were a German band with their all leather clothes. They were a sensation because they played like no one else. Without Hamburg…there would probably be no Beatles. After they got back they started to play the Cavern regularly and the promoters were wary of them because of their reputation but soon knew they would make them a lot of money. They were NOT the grinning mop-tops that the world came to love. They were rough and tough growing up in Liverpool with further education in Hamburg. Often after shows in Liverpool, they would have to fight because of the rough audiences being jealous of their girlfriends who were fawning over them.

Well, that was long-winded…but Hamburg in 1961… is where I want Dave’s time machine to take me. I might hijack it and make another trip to the Cavern if Dave is not watching. So what is the saying about rock music? Sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll? This probably helped that saying along.

There are some low-fi recordings of them in Hamburg in 1962 with Ringo drumming which shows how stripped down and raw they were.


December 13 – Turntable Talk Round 9 : Christmas Rock Was Country Hit

Dave threw us, the guest writers, a fun little snowball to Sing A Song Of The Season. For my Holiday song choice, I’m going to talk (and fortunate for you, not sing) about “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms.

Released in 1957 it was a popular song when I was growing up, so I heard it a lot, it’s great and I still love the song. Growing up, Christmas was as it is for many families a special time. I guess you’d call my family lower, middle class, but we never really wanted for anything. Like most families there were both good and bad times. My Mother stayed at home to raise six children. My father worked in construction insulation and when he couldn’t find work, he drove a taxicab. There was always time for charity, and we were fortunate to have a turkey on the table and gifts under the tree. It seemed there was always someone listening to music either on the stereo console upstairs, the radio in the kitchen or on the old Marconi in the basement, and we all had our favorites. Occasionally when I was a bit older one or both of my two older brothers would bring out their guitars. I don’t recall having a copy of this record, but I know my ears would perk up every time it was on the radio. When I think of Christmas and family this song plays a prominent role. This is why I chose it, but when I started to research the song, I found there is more to the story.

It turns out “Jingle Bell Rock” is #9 on the Top 10 Best-selling Christmas/holiday singles (according to Nielsen SoundScan data). This list is post “White Christmas” sung by Bing Crosby which as we all know was a smash #1 on The Hit Parade chart in 1942. When it comes to secular Christmas songs it’s “White Christmas” followed by everything else. Mariah Carey notwithstanding. Any stats I use apply to the era after “White Christmas” and its many re-releases and before the latest streaming data on “All I Want For Christmas is You” that pushed it to #1.

Another fact is (after “White Christmas”) it happens to be the second highest ranking Christmas song in it’s first year of release, which at that time was Billboard’s Best Sellers chart (this was one of the charts pre Hot 100). It was 1957 when it hit #6 (technically in January of 1958 when the chart was dated). It also hit #13 on the Country and Western chart. This was all pre Hot 100 which started in August of 1958. For that chart Helms also holds a record for the longest run to enter the ‘new’ Billboard Hot 100’s Top 10 when it happened in 2019, that’s over 60 years! Since its original released, Billboard has added a Holiday Song chart. In 2020 it reached #3 behind Mariah Carey #1 and Brenda Lee at #2.

This gem of a song has a disputed origin story. By the time singer Bobby Helms got a tune titled “Jingle Bell Hop” to record he was a rising star in Country Music. His first singles from 1957 were “Fraulein” #1 on the Country & Western music chart and Top 40 on the Billboard Best Sellers in Stores chart (pre Hot 100), followed by “My Special Angel”, which also hit No. 1 on the C&W chart and peaked at #7 on another one of the pop music charts. So, he is no ‘one hit wonder’ and a talented guy.

For his part, Helms stated, and he is backed up by renowned musician and recording artist Hank Garland that he was the one who wrote the final version and of course it’s not disputed that he recorded “Jingle Bell Rock”. Adapted from some lyrics they were given titled “Jingle Bell Hop”, Helms made many changes before and while in the studio. Garland was the one to come up with the amazing guitar accompaniment and that distinctive intro. A song (admittedly based on Jingle Bells) they (Helms and Garland) say bore “little resemblance” to what they had been given. However, they were unable to sufficiently prove this and all the song writing credits went to Joe Beal and Jim Boothe, who had written the “Jingle Bell Hop lyrics. It was apparently more of a literal advertising Jingle. These advertising ditty’s date back to the late 1920’s and were hugely popular in the 1950’s. They were a pair of advertising guys that to my knowledge never wrote a song before or after. The royalty checks went to them and as was the standard, others from the record and publishing company. So, both Helms and Garland, other than the money they were paid for doing the song and some small performance royalty for Helms, they essential got cut out of what should have been a partial song credit.

Why this matters so much is that the song has since been covered over 440 times, garnering millions of dollars in royalties. So maybe not as Merry a Christmas as could have been for Helms, Garland, and their estates. But that’s the music business. Sorry for all the glum facts at Christmas time.

To end on a happier note the legacy of this song belongs to Bobby Helms and his great original recording with the fine guitar playing of Hank Garland and the backing of the Anita Kerr Singers.

Hall and Oates had a moderately successful cover and video in 2006

Brenda Lee from 1964

David Foster and Katherine McPhee

There are many instrumental versions as well dating from as early as 1961.

The Ventures in 1965

Kenny G 

I will leave you with this version from the surf guitar greats, Los Straightjackets from 2002

References: 1, 2, 3, 4,

December 11 – Lee One Of The Season’s Leading Ladies

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past few Decembers, you know what the perennial most popular Christmas song is this century – “All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey. It tops Billboard‘s new Holiday music chart again this week, the 37th-straight such one it’s been #1 on. What might be a bit of a surprise is the song locked in at #2 on the same chart – a song gaining in popularity six decades after it was recorded! Clear some space around the yule pine because we’re all going to be “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” with today’s birthday girl, Brenda Lee. Lee turns 78 today!

To say that it’s an unlikely hit is probably an understatement, when we look at the artist (a teenager), writer (Jewish) and sound (an early rock sound quite different from the Christmas classics of the day.)

Lee was termed “Little Miss Dynamite” due to her diminutive (4’9”) stature and big voice. She was nothing short of a singing prodigy, singing live on an Atlanta radio station at age 7 after winning a talent contest. She’d signed to Decca Records as a pre-teen and put out her first record – the single “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” at age 12, in 1956. In 1959 she had her first hit song, and in the next three years she notched nine top 10 singles, including a pair of #1’s : “I’m Sorry” and “I Want to Be Wanted.”

The world had changed of course with the British invasion by the mid-’60s and tastes had shifted away from her country-rock siren stylings; her last mainstream hit came in 1967, before she put together a string of country hits in the mid and late-’70s. Nonetheless, her string of hits at the beginning of the ’60s made her that decade’s top female artist on the American charts. Along the way to stardom was the one which would end up being her iconic single.

Her record label had the idea of her doing a Christmas song back in 1958. They assembled an “a-list” of Nashville session musicians including Floyd Cramer and Buddy Harman to back her on “Rockin’ around the Christmas tree.” The upbeat tune was penned by Johnny Marks, a Jewish songwriter who’d later write all the music for Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Lee recalls the hot mid-summer day she recorded it in Nashville. “Owen (Bradley, the producer) had the studio all freezing cold with air conditioning, and had a Christmas tree all set up to kind of get in the mood a little bit. We had a lot of fun.”

In time listeners did too. Although ignored initially upon release, when Brenda became a star, people took notice. It got up to #14 in 1960. It’s popularity has endured though, and grown perhaps, with it now a staple of various radio formats including rock, oldies, easy-listening and country every December. Its use in 1990’s Home Alone ensured it would be heard in many households routinely and now it’s made the Billboard singles chart each December for the past few years. By 2016 it had been downloaded over a million times, fourth most of any Christmas song and between records and downloads, it’s sold over 25 million copies!

Lee says she still enjoys the song, saying “I don’t think you ever get tired of the well-written, well-crafted songs.” The Atlanta Journal Constitution note that at least five stations in the city spin the song each December. One station manager, Mike Blakemore, sums up its appeal: “We love it because of its upbeat fun,” he says, adding “it’s all about tradition and standing the test of time.” Kind of like Christmas itself.

December 9 – From Graceland To The Great White North Eh?

Only in Canada you say? Pity!” was the tagline in a famous Canadian commercial back in the 1970s. It was referring to a brand of tea, but it could just as well have described fans of “The King” in the U.S. Because on this day in 1978, Elvis Presley had the #1 album in Canada – and you could only get it there at the time. Suitably, it was called Elvis: A Canadian Tribute.

This was about a year after Presley had died, and there was a big appetite among fans for anything Elvis related. He’d put out 13 official compilation albums during his lifetime (according to Wikipedia) but it took little time for that number to be exceeded with posthumous releases. RCA cleverly came up with the idea of doing one specifically designed for the Canadian market. They came up with this rather hodgepodge release.

The LP contained11 songs, plus the recording of a Vancouver news conference he held in 1957. As many know, Elvis was never allowed to tour outside the States by his manager Colonel Tom, but he did perform twice, and only twice, outside the country. Once, on April 2, 1957 in Toronto, then on August 31 the same year in Vancouver. With a crowd of over 20 000 there, it was his biggest concert of ’57.

The album contains some tracks recorded at those two concerts, including “Jailhouse Rock” and “Teddy Bear.” And it was filled in with Elvis recordings of songs written or popularized by Canadians, including “My Way” (lyrics by Paul Anka), Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” and “That’s What You Get For Loving Me”, and “Snowbird”, made famous by Anne Murray and “Put Your Hand In The Hand”, made a hit by Ocean, both Canadian acts and both written by another Canuck, Gene MacLellan.

It came out as a regular LP, and also in a limited edition, numbered, gold vinyl version, which shows up here and there and can fetch about $125 on ebay. In 1999, it was released in small quantities on CD, with a couple of new tracks and more press conference coverage added in. One Elvis fan site recommends it more for the latter than the music which they say is “a bit soft”. Elvis apparently talks of the rigors of touring, his parents, movies and other things in the news conferences.

The album went to #1 in Canada for one week, being knocked out of the top spot by Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, which was #1 in the U.S. then as well. It was oddly only Elvis’ second #1 album in Canada, the first being a live album in 1973. It quickly hit double platinum status. In the States, RCA eventually released a small quantity of it, and coupled with sales of Canadian imports, it got to #86 on the charts.

December 2 – Cooke’s Voice Stirred The Soul

The Inventor of Soul” gave us his creation 65 years ago. This day in 1957, a day after making his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Sam Cooke had the #1 song in the U.S. with “You Send Me.” It would end up being his only #1 hit single, but enough to put his name down in music history and inspire a generation of young singers.

Cooke was born in Mississippi but grew up primarily in Chicago, where he was friends with Lou Rawls. Cooke was raised in a church-going home and was a talented gospel singer from a young age. In 1950, while he was still in his teens, he joined a gospel group called the Soul Stirrers. They were respected in their field, but had little mass-market appeal. However, Cooke also liked doo-wop and some pop music, and felt entirely justified in singing that. “My father told me it was not what I sang that was important, but that God gave me a voice and musical talent,” he reflected, making it “important to share it and make people happy.”

Which brings us to “You Send Me”, the great love song he wrote, although oddly it was originally credited to his brother LC Cooke. The song was undeniably fine. Decades later, Rolling Stone would list it as the 115th greatest song of all-time and Mojo’s Tim Sheridan would call it “one of the great pop love songs of all-time.” But, the Soul Stirrers and their label, Specialty Records, felt it was too secular, not Godly enough for them to do. So it was recorded and they made arrangements with Keen Records to put it out. That worked out well for Keen!

In a year when Elvis Presley was starting to make his presence widely known but Pat Boone was still a major star, Cooke’s song became one of the first “soul” records ever to hit it big. It went to the top of both sales and radio play charts, as well as the R&B one and sold two million copies eventually. And it made a name for Cooke. While he’d not have another #1 single (he came close in 1960 with “Chain Gang”, which got to #2) he did top the R&B ones four more times and established him as an in-demand writer. Among the many other well-known tunes he’d write was “Another Saturday Night”, turned into a hit by Cat Stevens over a decade later.

Cooke’s time in the spotlight was cut short unfortunately. He was shot dead at age 33 by a motel manager in California under suspicious circumstances. The shooting was ruled self-defense