When you think of ’80s music, you quite likely think of MTV, synthesizers, big and improbable hairdos, Michael Jackson moonwalking and what seemed, briefly at least, to be a Second British Invasion. But you might think of one more thing too – a decade of benevolent music. The idea was kicked off in 1984 with the Christmas song “Do They Know It’s Christmas” by the hastily-arranged Band Aid (featuring many of the British Isles top voices of the day including Sting, Simon LeBon and Bono) raising money for African charities. That in turn inspired an American equivalent, “We Are The World” by USA for Africa, as well as a Canadian one, “Tears Are Not Enough” by Northern Lights. And before you knew it, it was summer ’85 and Bob Geldof and Midge Ure put together one of the biggest concerts ever to raise funds for African relief. That was Live Aid, of course. After that, although the idea of doing things to raise funds for good causes and increase one’s public profile at the same time didn’t disappear, it did fade into the background somewhat. But at this time of year we remember one more example – A Very Special Christmas. It was sitting at #6 in Canada this week in 1987 and would actually hit #1 the following week.
A Very Special Christmas was the idea of Jimmy Iovine, at the time a rising music producer who’d go on to start up Interscope Records soon after and eventually become one of the industry’s top moguls. Iovine was mourning the death of his dad, an Italian-American dock worker, and wanted to come up with something to commemorate him. He came up with the idea of a charitable album consisting of Christmas songs by popular artists. He approached Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, the “A” and “M” in A&M Records, who liked it and gave him a green light. Iovine’s wife Vicki suggested it help out the Special Olympics. Vicki was a lady of many talents – a Playboy centerfold who also had a law degree and was on the Board of Directors for the Special Olympics. They are, in case you didn’t know, an organization that helps people with mental or physical disabilities participate in sports. It’s recognized by the Olympic Committee and helps over five million people worldwide, but unlike the Olympics themselves, they don’t run a parallel event every four years, instead running many local competitions and giving the people access to physical training.
The idea finished, Iovine went to work calling up friends and calling out favors, and got quite a lineup to take part. More amazingly, he had all of the artists and the producers (plus visual artist Keith Haring who designed the familiar cover) to donate all their work, making all the profits go entirely to the Special Olympics.
It succeeded, largely because it was a good compilation. The original, released in the fall of ’87 had a star-studded lineup. There was Madonna, appropriately enough doing the materialistic anthem “Santa Baby.” John Mellencamp did “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”, complete with then five year old daughter Teddi singing part of a verse. Not to be outdone, Bruce Springsteen contributed his live version of “Merry Christmas Baby.” Bryan Adams did his cover of the Chuck Berry rocker “Run Run Rudolph”. Stevie Nicks, a past girlfriend of Jimmy’s, sang “Silent Night”, which she says is still “really one of my favorite things I have ever done.” For a change of pace, the esoteric Sting added an old Basque folk carol from the 19th Century, “Gabriel’s Message.” Equally obscure was Alison Moyet and her “Coventry Carol.” Both Alison and her song were likely more recognized in the UK than North America, but all the better for global audiences. And of course, there was the then red-hot Bon Jovi risking getting on the “naughty” list with the PG (to say the least) “Back Door Santa”, although he and the people at AVSC soon decided it might be better to include “I Wish Every Day Could Be Like Christmas”, which appears on the majority of copies. And that’s just the short list.
The album sold well, as noted above, being a #1 hit in Canada. It didn’t hurt that four of the nine artists that it was sharing the top 10 with were on the record – John Mellencamp, Sting, U2 and Bruce Springsteen. Oddly, at the same time, it was sitting at a mere #20 in the U.S. But that didn’t stop it from going platinum within weeks and eventually hitting 4X platinum there.
With success like that, came sequels. There’s been a Volume 2 (including Tom Petty’s “Christmas Time All Over Again” and Ann & Nancy Wilson doing “Blue Christmas”), Volume 3 (highlighted by Sheryl Crow, Tracy Chapman and once again, Sting), Volume 5 (which veered more towards rap and R&B), Volume 7 (if you’re looking for a Miley Cyrus Christmas song, it’s the place), split up by a 6th one called A Very Acoustic Christmas (with country artists like Reba McEntire and Willie Nelson, who did “Please Come Home For Christmas”) , as well as a live one and compilations of the compilations.
To date, the albums have raised about $130 million for the Special Olympics which call it their “largest single financial source” for the organization. All that and some memorable Christmas tunes. Very special indeed.