What a joy to stumble across this brand-new book published by Seattle’s Sunyata Books – The Singing Earth by Barrett Martin. There are numerous reasons why it, from page one onward, happened to intrigue this particular reader, but the foremost is that it is such an unusual memoir as penned by a stalwart member of the Northwest’s music community. Martin – like myself – was an Olympia kid who grew up playing drums all throughout our school years. We also both ended up studying at the University of Washington – albeit, my years there preceded his by a decade. From there we both formed or joined rock ‘n’ roll bands, played the local scene, and cut some records. A major difference in our subsequent paths is that my bands are mostly better left forgotten, while some of Martin’s will likely be remembered widely for many years to come.
Down through the ages many songs have been penned that celebrate the Yuletide season. In the Northwest, local recording artists have long excelled at this festive tradition. What follows is a survey of four decades of Northwest artists and their Christmas recordings.
BING CROSBY: Surely one of the most notable careers in all musicdom, Crosby recorded the song "White Christmas" for the movie Holiday Inn in 1942, creating an All-American classic favorite. Tacoma-native, Crosby also recorded wonderful renditions of "Jingle Bells," "Little Jack Frost," and countless others."
YOGI YORGESSON: Yogi Yorgesson, the Hindu Mystic was the act Harry Stewart first developed and performed on KVI radio live from the Tacoma Hotel. A bit later he realized his true calling as the creator of zany Scandinavian ethnic novelty tunes. Yorgesson, the mentor of Stan Boreson, released his hilarious national hit, "I Just Go Nuts At Christmas" in 1949.
STAN BORESON: The hero of KING's Klubhouse, the local kid's TV show, and the man who gave the world "Swedish Rock 'n' Roll" in 1959, Boreson finally yielded to popular demand and released his Christmas LP in the early '70s. Actually his fifth release with sidekick and fellow Scandinavian screwball, Doug Setterberg, the album presents numerous ridiculous novelty tunes including my favorite, "Yingle Bells, Yingle Bells."
THE GLOBE TRIO: This instrumental version of "Silent Night" was released in 1953 as a 78 rpm disc on a short-lived Seattle label, Glove Records. Pressed by Seattle recording pioneer Morrie Morrison on his trademark multi-color wax, Globe's optimistic motto was Played The World Over. We can only hope so. The Globe Trio consisted of: Cork Tippin (guitar), NW accordion master Frank Iacolucci, and on Hammond organ, "E'lan, the Hi-Fi Girl From Kashmir." 'E'lan" – it turns out – was none other than Ellen Ogilvy, later one of the forces behind the esteemed '60s labels, Seafair and Bolo Records. Ogilvy is also the mother of Seattle singing sensation, Jimmy Hanna of the Dynamics. Oh, and she did actually hail from the distant and exotic local of Cashmere, Washington.
JIMMY RODGERS: He began his career at age five when he sang in a Christmas show in his hometown of Camas, WA. Rodgers, who bummed all around the Pacific Northwest after the Korean War, was marketed as a "modern-day folk singer" with his first hit "Honeycomb" in the summer of '57. "It's Christmas Once Again" was released in 1958.
THE ELIGIBLES: Formed in Renton in the mid-'50s, these four fresh young men hit the charts in 1959 with "Car Trouble." They would eventually record backing vocals on over 100 discs. As their promo-bio stated: "extreme versatility is the Eligible' keynote." Their 1960 offering? "First Christmas With You."
THE VENTURES: If I explain that the cuts on The Ventures' Christmas Album are fairly predictable retreads (you know, the usual Christmas standards crossed with their early hits, "Walk—Don't Run" or "Pipeline") you'll get the idea here. Even so, it's entertaining enough to escape the critical Bah Humbug rating.
RON HOLDEN: Seattle's Soul Man who was swept out of town in 1960 on the strength of is national hit, "Love You So," was later teamed, by his label, with a young (pre-Beach Boy) Bruce Johnston, to write a series of follow-up singles. His fourth release was "Who Says There Ain't No Santa Clause." Holden is still a believer today.
DALE SMITH: In 1961, Smith, the house bartender at the Camlin Hotel, entered Joe Boles' West Seattle studio with local keyboardist Gene Boscocci and Combo, and arranger Ross Gibson and recorded his "When Christmas Bells Are Ringing" and "Christmas Story." The single was released on the Seafair-Bolo label, and like most seasonal records, was promptly never heard of again.
BONNIE GUITAR: Seattle's '50s country/western Queen released her Merry Christmas LP in the mid-'60s. Packed full of good old-fashioned carols, it also included some nice originals such as, "Last Christmas." I've long maintained that there is something essential about a little pedal steel action during the holidays. This stuff's great.
THE SONICS / WAILERS / GALAXIES: OK, OK, OK, OK, I know that this one is the one you've waited for. The legendary multi-band Merry Christmas LP. Three of the area's toughest bands of the 1960s joined forces and released the ultimate rockin' Christmas album. From the Sonics' irreverence on "Don't Believe In Christmas," and their "Jingle Bells" spoof, "The Village Idiot," to the Wailers' "Maybe This Year" and the Galaxies' "Christmas Eve" this record puts most other efforts to shame. Originally issued at dances in 1966, it has been a highly sought-after item ever since. This is one disc you may need to speak to Santa directly about if you want it stuffed in your stocking.
MARK III: This record was issued in about 1966 as a limited release intended solely for the customers of the Mayfair Market chain. The Mark II, a very white vocal trio, was based in Eugene, Oregon. Previously these young gentlemen had released the wimpiest rendition imaginable of "Unchained Melody," but for this occasion they came forth with Your favorite Carols, a five-song EP. The pretty blue vinyl disc includes: "Deck The Hall," "Jingle Bells," and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town."
PAUL REVERE & THE RAIDERS: Their LP, A Christmas Present…And Past, with its nine originals and a salute to the past, "Jingle Bells," is simply god-awful. Yet, kind on Santa Claus himself somehow budgeted the time to write liner notes which carefully explain that both the Raiders and Christmas are "each very famous." If you must play this one, please spin "A Very Heavy Christmas Message." It's good for laughs.
THE MOMS AND DADS: And now … As Advertised on TV! The pride of Spokane, this foursome: Quentin Ratliff (sax), Leslie Welch (accordion), Doris Crow (piano), and Harold Hendren (drums) have been pleasing Eastern Washington's senior dance crowds for years with their original smash hit song, "The Ranger's Waltz," and many more. So choose 'yer partners and be prepared when this capable crew cut loose on "Jingle Bell Rock," a hot single from the popular Merry Christmas / Happy New Year LP. It's a serious toe-tapper.
JIMI HENDRIX: The supreme electric guitar god of the '60s grew up within Seattle's '50s rhythm & blues scene. Despite all the conflicting myths and increasingly compounded biographical confusion, Hendrix was born and lived here from 1942 until 1961. In December '69, between rehearsals for his Band of Gypsys' New Years Eve concerts at Fillmore East, Hendrix let the spirit move him to tape an impromptu take of three seasonal standards: "Little Drummer Boy," "Silent Night," and "Auld Lang Syne." Now folks, I'll give fair warning: if what you usually enjoy is the no-noise-or-nonsense easy listening sounds of the Christmas album series by the Firestone Tire Co, Orchestra, then this may not be for you. Remember Hendrix' cosmic freeform dissection of "The Star Spangled banner" at Woodstock? Well, these simple tunes are given an equally classic Hendrix treatment. Long after these precious tracks finally reached America's marketplace via Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?, a bootleg LP, Hendrix' label eventually wised up and released them as a DJ-only EP in 1979.
DON SNEED AND CO: A true period piece, "Santa's A Hippie" sounds like one of those early-'70s country/pop novelty numbers that always featured a redneck, though somewhat humorous, good 'ol boy who talks his story all the way to the ethics lesson at the final verse/punchline. These guys give the genre a little twist though, by tolerantly asserting that "It won't change a thing about Christmas, just because Santa has long hair." Knowing that, I can certainly rest easier now. A member of Walla Walla's venerable Sneed family Band (who themselves have cut many a country & western disc over the years), Don apparently set out with his own band for this one.
HI FI: This Seattle band released a Christmas single in 1981. Their original, "It's Almost Christmas," was back by a nifty instrumental version of "Winter Wonderland" that harkens back to the Ventures' big-guitar sound.
BILLY RANCHER AND THE UNREAL GODS: Christmas circa 1981. During a fall sweep through New York City, Portland's Boom-Chuck-Rock champions cut "Happy Santa Claus" at the top-notch Power Station Studios. A big sound. That big BCR beat. A silly song with reindeer sleighbells and all, it was released as a nifty one-sided single complete with the ranchman himself pictured on the sleeve in his custom-fitted leopard-skin Santa suit.
POPLLAMA: An aggregation of U District bands have gathered for the previous two years to record special Christmas cassettes for the PopLlama label. The cassettes, Astray In The Manger ('82) and Santaclaustrophobia ('83) feature individual members of Red Dress, Dynette Set, Fastbacks, Moving Parts, New Flamingoes, Fartz, Lonesome City Kings, Bombardiers, Young Fresh Fellows, and others on a crazy selection of standards and originals including then unique hardcore thrasher, "Saint Nick's A Dick."
CHRISTMAS IN THE NORTHWEST: Just released, this is the only record noted here that is readily available. There are, however, additional reasons to recommend it. Though conceived as a benefit project for Children's Orthopedic Hospital, this album, which features 14 current local acts, is a clear musical success. Recorded primarily at Steve Lawson's fine studio, the LP offers both nicely arranged renditions of some Christmas standards as well as several new originals. The Seattle Brass Ensemble and other musical institutions such as the Brothers Four and Walt Wagner are included. Terry Lauber, former member of '70s rockers, Gabriel, teams up with singer Carol Mayne on a medley of "Silent Night" / "Oh Come All Ye Faithful." Jr. Cadillac is thumping out a vintage sounding cover of Elvis' 1957 hit, "Santa Claus Is Back In Town." This LP also offers acoustic folk numbers, children's music … a little something for everybody. Yes, Christmas in the Northwest is special.
Perhaps in years ahead we can highlight other interesting Northwest Christmas records. If so, we won't forget the discs released by: Russ Elmore, Bobby May, the Brothers Four, Magi, Julie Miller, L. Rae Miles, Reilly and Maloney, or Santa's Little Helpers.
'Til then, Happy Holidays!
[NOTE: This is a lightly edited version of a feature by Peter Blecha originally published by The Rocket magazine in 1985. Copyright (c) Peter Blecha 1985/ 2017]