Johnny Nash‘s 1969 Christmas album Prince of Peace turned up recently in suburban DC’s Value Village thrift shop. Initially captivated by the groovy 3-D cover, I was even more enthralled, once I returned home with the LP and cued up the 41-second opening track — a fresh pop arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” that stands apart, musically speaking, from the other more devotional songs on the album:
“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” Johnny Nash 1969
[Pssst: Click triangle above to play “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as arranged and produced by Johnny Nash and Arthur Jenkins]
This JAD (J for Johnny Nash; A for Arthur Jenkins; D for Danny Sims) release was produced, not surprisingly, in Jamaica, although it is not a ‘reggae’ album as such.
Pretend the red dots vibrate in 3-D pop art fashion
This 41-second offering joins Zero to 180’s official list of short songs.
The male heir to the Zero to 180 fortune insisted that his father write a history piece centered around a nearly 100-year-old Christmas song that, for today’s generation, inspires apprehension and consternation — but was that the intent of Arthur A. Penn, the songwriter responsible for “Santa Claus Hides in Your Phonograph“?
Editorial comments from those old-timers at Archive.org show that the unsettling feelings evoked by this recording are actually a cross-generational phenomenon:
This is one of the more unusual of Edison’s records. Listen to Santa’s sinister laugh he makes as he tries to sound fun, loving and kind. The www.menloparkmuseum.com staff agrees — if we were kids, we’d run!
“Santa Claus Hides in Your Paragraph” Harry Humphrey 1922
An obvious indicator of how far we’ve come since the days of Edison is represented in the recordings themselves. While it’s no surprise that the sound quality has improved, it’s interesting to note one particular improvement as well:
This is a 1922 recording made by Thomas Edison of Harry E. Humphrey. It was intended to be sold to owners of Edison’s phonograph so that their children could have some Christmas joy. In fact, on the contrary it is rather awful. If I were a kid, this would put me off Christmas forever. That laugh! Ugh!
Jerome from Watch Tower History points out that Harry Humphrey (“monologist, elocutionist, actor and recording artist”) and his association with Edison goes all the way back to 1912, when Humphrey made his first recording. Jerome, too, helpfully demystifies the technical aspects around the recording process in that era:
In those days, raw sound with its limited frequency range was literally collected by a horn and sent to equipment that vibrated a cutting stylus. Recording artistes sometimes had to virtually put their head into the recording horn and shout to get an acceptable result.
Speaking of primitive sound technology, have you ever seen a cylinder record being played back? Play the video below and also be sure to click on the link above to enjoy “thematic playlists” of recordings that go as far back as the 19th century, thanks to the fine folks at the UC Santa Barbara Cylinder Audio Archive.
“Santa Claus Hides in Your Phonograph” cylinder record 1922
How cool to discover that the Library of Congress catalog record for this 1922 recording by Thomas Alva Edison also includes the ability for anyone to (a) play a copy of the original recording and/or (b) download this 12.8 GB file to your own computer!
I wonder if the Arthur A. Penn Estate is aware that someone named Alan Brown has taken credit for having written a song with a nearly identical title — “Santa Claus Hides in The Phonograph” — that was released in 1923 for the US and Australian markets on the Brunswick label.
The Soulful Strings evoke the magic of falling snow — thanks to Dorothy Ashby‘s harp — on their classic instrumental track, “Snowfall“:
“Snowfall” Soulful Strings 1968
Discogs helps us appreciate how The Soulful Strings were able to create an identifiable sound despite only playing other people’s material:
“The Soulful Strings was a project of the Chicago soul arranger Richard Evans, working with several musicians from the Cadet Records house band between 1966 and 1971 including Charles Stepney, Bobby Christian, Billy Wooten, Phil Upchurch, Lennie Druss, and Cleveland Eaton.
Employing a repertoire composed almost entirely of covers, Evans and company created a unique sound, combining a sharp, soulful rhythm section with a lush string backing. Evans pushed the strings to the front, assuming an attitude previously reserved only for the hulking funk of bass and rhythm guitar. It was this crucial element that made The Soulful Strings sound, so successful.”
“Snowfall” can be found on The Magic of Christmas, released in 1968 on Chess jazz subsidiary label, Cadet.
Cadet would issue 7 albums by The Soulful Strings between the years 1966-1970.