There is something about Christmas that brings me back to Christmases long past and memories of loved ones long gone.
For years my mother would use tempera paint and do a Christmas-themed picture in a large front window of wherever we lived at the time. Her inspiration would come from either a Christmas card that she liked or even from the cover she liked from an album of Christmas music. I have long thought of doing the same thing but I don’t have enough confidence in my artwork to even try.
Every year my mother would bring out her Christmas albums. One of the albums she played was by the Robert Shaw Chorale. I was always moved by the gospel sounding Mary Had a Baby. I looked forward to hearing it every year.
This is the other Robert Shaw Chorale album but with the same type of label as the above record. I found the labels to be works of art.
Another album my family had was the somewhat bizarre ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians and Glee Club. The title cut was the one I remember most.
As years went by my mother would start listening to Christmas music on the radio. In the early 1970’s, San Francisco had two commercial classical music radio stations on the FM dial, KDFC and KKHI, with the latter being my mother’s preferred station. Every year on Christmas Day KKHI would play an eclectic selection of Christmas music. The only thing about the music was that it had to reflect the meaning of the day and be heartfelt. I don’t recall any “We’re expected to record some Christmas music so here it is” stuff. They may have played some secular music, but I doubt they would have played Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The music had to reflect the feeling of the day as I recall. While it might be an exaggeration, it seemed that if Led Zeppelin had recorded a Christmas song, KKHI would have played it on December 25.
One of my all-time favorite Christmas songs was Nat King Cole’s version of the 1945 Robert Wells/ Mel Torme’s composition, The Christmas Song.
For years I only knew Cole’s 1961 stereo rerecording of the song. In the mid 1980’s, my friend Mad Man Moskowitz played his old 78 of the song. To me it is the definitive recording. I don’t think anyone else should even try.
Whether your memories of Christmases past be happy or bittersweet, may this Christmas be a good one and bring a smile to your face in future years.
Music has a way of etching itself into your memory even if you don’t consciously remember it. My father always had the radio on when he drove. Before he went to Korea in 1960 he would listen to KSFO in San Francisco. They played what was then called “Middle of the Road” music. Frank Sinatra would have been the type of artist they played. In the late 1950’s I’m sure they played Big Band music to a certain extent – not really the swing stuff, but the more melodic tunes from the late war, early post-war era.
In 1984 I bought an album of Harry James’ Greatest Hits. I knew some of the songs on that album but not all. One tune stood out to me. I did not know it, but I knew it. It was Man With a Horn.
As that song played it was almost as if I was three years old again. It brought back a memory of riding in the car high on a hill overlooking a bit of a valley in or near San Francisco/Daly City. There was a billboard, I think for Dial Soap, with a working clock at the upper left-hand corner.
In 1985 I attended the National Association of Broadcasters convention In Las Vegas. A company that provided music services was giving out sample CD’s and I picked up one. On it was a recording from 1955 – Band of Gold by Don Cherry. Again, it blew off dust from the recesses of my memory.
Another song that takes me back is Old Cape Cod by Patti Page even though I have known this record for years. I seem to remember hearing this in an old military building on the Presidio of San Francisco.
KSFO also had what has to be the most beautiful jingle I have ever heard. It still brings me back to the San Francisco of my childhood.
That is the long version — there was also a shorter version. That jingle made such an impression on me that I remember where I was when I last heard it on the air in March, 1972.
There are also songs that bring me back to a specific incident.
My Grandfather lived in Washington DC until I was 15. When we lived in New York we would visit him from time to time. It was not unusual for my Grandfather to give us a dollar to buy something in the stores on H Street North East. One time, I bought a friction-motor toy of a 1960 Chevy station wagon. My oldest brother bought a record: Rinky Dink by Dave “Baby” Cortez. As my brother played the record, I pretended that it was playing on the radio in my toy car.
My oldest brother liked ships and other things nautical. The July 7, 1965 issue of Life Magazine had an article about yachting on the Riviera. Being interested in such things, he bought a copy. The lady in a bikini on the cover probably did not hurt, either.
While he was looking at that we listened to the first record by the Four Tops that I remember: I Can’t Help Myself.
That is the power of music. It brings you back to an earlier time. It is the closest thing we will ever have to a time machine.
I never was much of a dancer. Sure, I had been in the last two spring musicals at school but there is a difference between having two months of rehearsals with a choreographer telling you what to do as opposed to getting out on the dance floor without making a fool of yourself. Up to that point I had gone to two school dances; a sock hop in the seventh grade – where I didn’t dance – and a dance in the eighth grade where a friend goaded me into asking the girl I had a terrible crush on – the Principal’s daughter – to dance. Those were the only two dances I had been to.
It was late May 1974. In less than two weeks I would officially be a high school graduate. I wasn’t planning on dancing at this dance. That wasn’t why I was going. One reason I was going was because it was an oldies dance and I liked oldies. The main reason I was going, though, was that the DJ for the dance was the program director of KFRC, the big Top 40 station in San Francisco. I was hoping maybe I would have a chance to talk to him. Actual dancing was the farthest thing from my mind — I knew the best I could do was move like I had stuck my finger in an electrical outlet.
I hadn’t been at the dance too long when Rita came up and asked me to dance. That was great. I knew who she was and I thought she was cute. She didn’t say but I got the impression she had seen my award-winning performance as the Mayor of Sweet Apple, Ohio in the school’s recent production of Bye Bye Birdie. We danced to a couple of songs. An elephant probably would have done a better job on the dance floor than I did. Rita asked me if I knew a particular dance. I told her no. At that point she decided that I was not as great a dancer as she had ever seen and left me to fend for myself.
Shortly after that I bumped into Sandy. We had become friends in our co-ed PE class. I don’t know who asked who, but we danced to a couple of songs. Maybe because I was with a friend I felt relaxed and was beginning to warm up. We then took a break from each other.
A song or two passed and I bumped into Karen. Karen worked in the school library the period after I did. I don’t know who asked who, but we danced to a couple of songs. We then took a break from each other.
Shortly after that, Patty came up and asked me to dance. I knew Patty to see her but she was never in any of my classes and we had never spoken. We danced to a couple of songs as I had with Sandy and Karen.
In the meantime I had introduced myself to the DJ. He had an actual broadcast console, two turntables, a reel-to-reel tape deck in case he had turntable problems, a powerful amplifier, huge speakers, and several hundred 45’s. These records were not just any records that happened to find their way into his boxes – they were specifically chosen because they were good records to dance to.
Everything he played was great. He had a version of Honky Tonk by Bill Doggett which put parts 1 and 2 together. That had a groove that would have gotten Dracula out of his coffin at noon to dance.
Not wanting to make a nuisance of myself I did not stay on stage too long. I went back out into the crowd and found Sandy again. Like before, we danced to a couple of songs then went our separate ways. By now I was having a great time. I danced with Karen again and then Patty.
That was the pattern for most of the night. Two dances with Sandy, two with Karen, two with Patty, onto the stage to talk to the DJ, rinse and repeat.
At one point I was getting a little worn out. Karen and I were going to dance to one song then take a break. I forgot what song it was but it had a medium-fast tempo. That song ended and the next one began. It had a medium, slightly faster tempo. Karen and I looked at each other and said, “We have to dance to this one. Then we’ll take a break.”
The DJ kept doing that. Each new song that came on was just a little faster than the one before. If there was too big of a jump we would have said, “No, we need to take a break.” But with just a slight increase in tempo each new record was like a siren song that we could not resist. One of the songs in that set – but not the fastest by far – was California Sun by the Rivieras.
Faster and faster. We kept dancing as if there was no tomorrow. I remember at one point I shook my head and sweat came flying off of my hair like I was a dog shaking off after a swim. We must have been ready to drop. This set of music must have gone on for more than twenty minutes. We were to the point where we just could not have danced to another fast song. Then the DJ slowed it way down.
As soon as Lenny Welch began singing Since I Fell For You, Karen and I fell into each other’s arms like we were in day three of a 1930’s dance marathon. That was the last song before the DJ took a twenty-minute break. Karen and I went outside to cool off.
After the break the evening progressed much the same as it had before. I was having the time of my life. When the dance was over I stayed behind and helped the DJ pack up his gear and his records and carry them out to his VW van. He gave me a personal invitation to go down to KFRC for a tour. It has often been said that shy people become radio DJ’s. That was the case with me: I never took him up on the invitation and I regret it to this day.
As I drove home, my hands felt a little odd on the steering wheel. I stopped and looked: I had blisters on my palms from clapping and on my thumbs and middle fingers from snapping.
That was over forty-six years ago but just the thought of that night still puts a smile on my face.