The songs of Christmases past

It’s Christmas Friday! How great is that?

The strangest Christmas ever for most of us has arrived. Many of us chose not to (or couldn’t) travel to be with our families, and some of us are all on our own for the holiday. But we’re making the best of it and try to be grateful for what we have, and that “this too shall pass.”

I have always maintained that one of the best ways to get through difficult times is to listen to your favorite music, or maybe some brand new music, or, at this time of year, seasonal music that cheers you up. My favorite rock music Christmas songs have been in rotation at my house for a month now, and perhaps at your house too.

In many cases, there are some interesting back-story details about these songs, and Hack’s Back Pages is happy to provide this information as you listen to the holiday playlist below. Merry Christmas!

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“I Believe in Father Christmas,” Emerson, Lake and Palmer, 1977

Emerson, Lake and Palmer were one of the most bombastic of the British progressive rock bands of the ’70s, with Keith Emerson’s virtuoso keyboards dominating their albums.  Each LP featured at least one commercial ballad by bassist/vocalist Greg Lake (“Lucky Man,” “From the Beginning,” “Still, You Turn Me On”).  In 1974, as a solo track, Lake collaborated with lyricist Peter Sinfield to write this piece, intended as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas.  Musically, it has a grandly traditional, hymn-like flair to it, thanks to Emerson’s suggestion to use a riff from Prokofiev’s “Lieutenant Kij√©’s Suite” (1934). Lyrically, though, it’s a bit dark. As Sinfield has said, “It’s about the loss of innocence and childhood belief. It’s a picture postcard Christmas song, but with morbid edges.” Lake’s solo recording reached #2 in the UK, but didn’t chart here. In 1977, ELP re-recorded it for their “Works Part II” album, and that’s the version you’re hearing here.

“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, 1975

J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie teamed up back in 1933 to write this holiday favorite, which became an instant hit when performed on Eddie Cantor’s radio show the following December. Hundreds of recorded versions followed, from Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters to The Temptations and Neil Diamond. A version by The Four Seasons reached #23 on the charts in 1962, and Phil Spector included a rousing version by The Frystals on his Christmas collection in 1963. When Springsteen and his band recorded a performance of their rendition in 1975 at a small Long Island college, they used a modified arrangement of The Crystals’ version. It was released as part of the “In Harmony 2” package on Sesame Street Records in 1982, and again as the B-side of the “My Home Town” single in 1985. It had long been familiar to Boss fans through distribution to rock radio stations in the late ’70s, and the band has been featuring it for decades in its playlist any time they’re touring in late November and December.

“Run Rudolph Run,” Chuck Berry, 1958

In a November 1958 recording session, Berry and his backing band recorded two tracks: his new tune “Little Queenie” (which would be released as a B-side several months later with “Almost Grown”), and “Run Rudolph Run,” which was basically the same song with different lyrics, made up quickly in the studio by Marvin Brodie and Berry. The label rush-released “Run Rudolph Run” for the Christmas market, and it reached #28 on the charts that year. Both songs are melodically similar to Berry’s earlier signature song “Johnny B. Goode.” Since then, the song has been recorded by such big names as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sheryl Crow, Cheap Trick, Grateful Dead, Foo Fighters, Jimmy Buffett, Brian Setzer Orchestra, Hanson and Foghat.

“Please Come Home for Christmas,” The Eagles, 1978

Blues pianist/singer Charles Brown co-wrote this track in 1960 with Gene Redd, and Brown’s recording made the charts that year. It remained a seasonal favorite each year throughout the 1960s, reaching #1 on a Christmas Singles chart in 1972. Six years later, as The Eagles were struggling to come up with the follow-up to their mega-platinum 1977 LP “Hotel California,” their label insisted they select something to release for the lucrative Christmas season. Glenn Frey, a blues rock aficionado, had always liked Brown’s song, so he brought it to the group’s attention, and they polished off a solid cover version, which reached #18 in 1978, the first Christmas single to make the Top 20 on the pop charts since Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper” in 1963. Bon Jovi had a popular version of “Please Be Home for Christmas” included on “A Very Special Christmas 2” collection in 1992.

“Father Christmas,” The Kinks, 1977

The hardest rocking tune on this list, and the least Christmassy, is this angry diatribe by Ray Davies and The Kinks.  They wrote this and recorded it in 1977, during punk rock’s heyday in England, as a screed about the unfair class system prevalent there, where rich kids got many Christmas presents while poor kids got none.  Davies sings of a gang of poor kids beating up on a department store Santa Claus, telling him they want his money, not toys. “Father Christmas, give us some money, /Don’t mess around with those silly toys, /We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over, /We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed, /Give all the toys to the little rich boys!…” Many punk and hard rock bands have covered it in recent years, from Green Day and Bad Religion to Warrant and Smash Mouth.

“Little Saint Nick,” The Beach Boys, 1963

It’s no secret to Beach Boys fans that there’s plenty of bad blood between Brian Wilson and cousin Mike Love that has kept the band in different camps on and off for decades. Sometimes the differences were artistic; for example, Love didn’t care for Wilson’s new direction with the songs on the universally praised 1966 LP “Pet Sounds.” Love also took exception to being excluded from songwriting credit for some of the classics in the band’s lucrative early catalog. The Christmas single “Little Saint Nick,” recorded in 1963 and borrowing heavily from their earlier Wilson/Love tune “Little Deuce Coupe,” was one such bone of contention. The original single indicates Wilson as its sole writer, but Love won back royalties and co-writer credit in a 1993 lawsuit. The song appeared on “The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album” in 1964 along with a dozen covers of traditional carols.

“Happy Xmas (War is Over),” John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1971

Like so many Lennon tracks of his early solo period (“Cold Turkey,” “Instant Karma,” “Power to the People”), this unique “holiday protest song” was written and recorded quickly, this time to capitalize on the 1971 Yuletide season, but they were late getting it out. “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” never got past #42 in the US that year, but it was a Top Ten hit in Europe and #4 in the UK when released there for the 1972 holiday season. The song, which utilized the basic structure of the English folk song “Stewball,” was designed as an anti-war anthem mixed with untraditional Christmas tidings (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?…”), bringing in the “War is Over if you want it” theme from past protests. John and Yoko used session musicians Nicky Hopkins on piano and Jim Keltner on drums, and brought in the Harlem Community Children’s Choir to add vocals to the chorus, all produced by Phil Spector. Following Lennon’s death in 1980, the track soared to iconic status and is now heard relentlessly every December.

“A-Soalin’,” Peter Paul & Mary, 1964

PP&M did a nice little trick in 1963 when they took a traditional English folk song, added a new verse by Paul Stookey with Christmas references and part of the “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” melody, and voila! A Christmas song for their repertoire. It’s a simply stunning performance which appears on their “Peter Paul and Mary In Concert” double live album in 1964 when the trio blend two acoustic guitars and their three voices. Lyrically, it sounds like it’s from some sort of soundtrack for a Charles Dickens tale. “A-Soalin'” is a variation on “A-Wassailing,” which is the practice of going door to door, singing a song and getting a small gift in return. These gifts were often fruit, candy or soul-cakes (or soal cakes) to commemorate the recently departed souls of family members… PP&M’s live recording in Paris in 1965 is on YouTube and should definitely be on your must-see holiday viewing list.

“Song for a Winter’s Night,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1967

Not so much a Christmas song as a wintertime song, its use of sleigh bells evokes fond memories of Christmases from the ’60s and ’70s when I first heard it.  Lightfoot wrote and recorded this beautiful tune in 1967 on a hot summer night in Cleveland. He was there while on a US tour and was missing his wife, and his thoughts turned to winter in Toronto. It appeared on his 1967 album “The Way I Feel” and was then one of several Lightfoot re-recorded in 1975 for his “Gord’s Gold” greatest hits collection, which is the one you’re hearing on my playlist.

“Christmas Song” and “Another Christmas Song,” Jethro Tull, 1969 and 1989

Of all the British rock artists of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, none has written and recorded as much Christmas-related material as Tull. Leader Ian Anderson is a self-confessed Yuletide fan, and as early as 1969, he wrote “Christmas Song,” which uses traditional imagery of “Royal David city” and cattle sheds, but also reprimands us about “stuffing yourselves at the Christmas parties” and reminds us that “the Christmas spirit is not what you drink.”  In the late ’80s, he wrote what amounts to a sequel, “Another Christmas Song,” which centers on a dying patrician who yearns for his estranged family to gather ’round one last time to celebrate the holidays. Both of these tracks are melodic and poignant.

“River,” Joni Mitchell, 1971

Deftly weaving in multiple musical phrases from “Jingle Bells” in both the introduction and the ending, Joni Mitchell created a marvelous piece that is regarded by many as a Christmas-related song, even though it’s actually more about the sorrowful breakup of a relationship she’d been having with Graham Nash.  Her Canadian roots are evident in the recurring line about how “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”  Several of my close friends and family members share my fondness for this one. My daughter recorded a gorgeous cover of “River” a couple years ago with two musical colleagues. It’s available on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.

“Merry Christmas Baby,” Elvis Presley, 1971

Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore came up with this beauty back in 1947, and dozens of versions have been recorded since then, from Bruce Springsteen to Otis Redding, from Melissa Etheridge to B.B. King.  I’m torn between Elvis’s smokin’ rendition from his 1971 Christmas album and the sexy blues cover by Natalie Cole in 1994. Pretty much any version of this song is worthy of inclusion on your holiday mix, but in the end, you gotta go with Elvis…

“Pretty Paper,” Roy Orbison, 1963

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Willie Nelson struggled mightily to find a major label to sign him as a recording artist. In the meantime, he wrote songs which sometimes were made into hits by other artists. Most famously, he wrote “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, “Funny How Time Slips Away” for Billy Walker and “Pretty Paper” for Roy Orbison. Nelson was inspired by a disabled man he knew in Texas who sold paper and pencils on the street corner to eke out a living, and Nelson turned it into a Christmas-themed song by singing about wrapping paper. Orbison turned it into a #15 hit in 1963, and then Nelson recorded it himself after he was signed to RCA the following year.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Band Aid, 1984

An amazing collaborative effort by the best of Britain’s pop scene at the time, including Sting, Phil Collins, Bono, the members of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, and Bob Geldof, who produced it and co-wrote it with Midge Ure.  Geldof and his wife had seen heartbreaking footage of the starvation in Ethiopia at that time and rallied their colleagues to put together this charity single, which not only raised needed funds but sparked “We Are the World” by USA for Africa and the Live Aid event the following summer. These and other efforts helped stem the tide of misery in that part of the world.  That’s what Christmas should be all about.

What the people need is a way to make ’em smile

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell. In this essay, I take an in-depth look at a band that has enjoyed considerable success with different lineups, playing several very different musical styles from roadhouse boogie to country rock to “blue-eyed soul,” selling many millions of albums and singles, and are still active into their sixth decade: The Doobie Brothers.

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I have often chuckled about how many of The Doobie Brothers’ more straight-laced fans have raved about them and their songs over the years without knowing that their name is slang for marijuana.

Co-founder Tom Johnston, the group’s chief singer-songwriter-guitarist, recalls how the name came to be. “Back in 1970, we were brand new and didn’t even have a name, really. We were just playing around the San Jose area where we lived. One night after a gig, we were sitting around in the kitchen of the house where I was living, getting high. Our friend Keith walked in and said, ‘Man, you guys love smoking pot so much, why don’t you just call yourselves the Doobie Brothers?’ We thought it was a stupid name, but we used it for the next several jobs, and it kind of stuck.”

Tom Johnston

Fifty years later, after being eligible since 1996, these multi-talented former stoners were at last inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month. As Patrick Simmons, the band’s other co-founding singer-songwriter-guitarist, put it, “I figured it would happen eventually, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be around to enjoy it!”

For a decade (1972-1982), The Doobies were one of America’s top rock groups, pumping out nearly an album a year and sprinkling the Top 40 with all sorts of hit singles, all while touring almost relentlessly. In the years since their initial dissolution, various members have reconvened for special performances, several tours and a couple of new studio and live albums, and the band was set to embark on a full-fledged 50th reunion tour in 2020 before the coronavirus postponed those plans.

They were so good at everything they tried that it’s hard to define what Doobies music is. There’s pounding rock and roll, highlighted by hard-edged electric guitars. There’s melodic acoustic stuff, featuring country-style picking, pedal steel guitar and fiddle. There’s funky R&B, carried by soulful electric piano, jazz-inflected guitar and syncopated percussion. In the Doobies, these disparate styles had a common denominator — dominant three-part harmonies and strong lead vocals.

I remember the first time I heard The Doobie Brothers when their first hit, “Listen to the Music,” came bursting out of my friend’s high-quality stereo. I was immediately taken by the pristine sound of the guitars, the distinctive lead voice and the fabulous harmonies on the chorus. I picked up my own copy of their “Toulouse Street” album within a day or two and was delighted to find another five or six excellent tracks: the quintessential road song “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” the insistent “Jesus is Just Alright,” the gorgeous acoustic tunes “Toulouse Street” and “White Sun,” the island music of “Mamaloi” and a balls-out cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s blues stomp, “Don’t Start Me Talkin’.” I became a big fan and have remained one ever since.

Johnston and original drummer John Hartman met in San Jose in 1970, eventually teaming up with Simmons and bass player David Shogren to form the group. Ted Templeman — then a young A&R man for Warner Brothers and now a respected veteran producer of multiple artists — heard their demos featuring the dual lead guitars and three-part harmonies and signed them to the WB label.

Their early following consisted of Hells Angels and other rough-and-tumble biker types who frequented the bars and roadhouses they played in Northern California, and although their debut album cover featured the band dressed in leather jackets, the music within was decidedly more acoustic-based. It didn’t sell much.

That all changed with “Toulouse Street,” which reached #21 on the album charts in 1972 and yielded two singles (“Listen to the Music” at #11 and “Jesus is Just Alright” at #35). The Doobie Brothers, now with bassist-vocalist Tiran Porter and second drummer Michael Hossack, were on their way.

The band’s finest hour, in my opinion, came in 1973 with the outstanding “The Captain and Me” LP. Two tracks, “Long Train Runnin'” and “China Grove,” are permanently imbedded in everybody’s classic rock ’70s playlist, but it’s the deeper tracks that have always grabbed me. Simmons contributed “Clear as the Driven Snow” and the stunning “South City Midnight Lady,” two of the finest tunes in their catalog, and Johnston’s “Ukiah” and “The Captain and Me” bring the album to a dynamic finish.

The band adopted a three-guitar attack with the addition of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter in 1974. Baxter had been an original member of Steely Dan, but when co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker decided to quit touring and become a creature of the studios, Baxter found a spot with The Doobies, bringing his adventurous, jazz-inflected chops to the mix. Drummer-singer Keith Knudsen took Hossack’s place on second drums, and this lineup cranked out two albums, 1974’s “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits” and 1975’s “Stampede,” both making the Top Five. A trove of really fine material — “Song to See You Through,” “Spirit,” “Eyes of Silver,” “Daughter of the Sea,” “Sweet Maxine,” “Take Me In Your Arms,” “I Cheat the Hangman” — beefed up their already high-quality repertoire.

Pat Simmons

From “Vices and Habits,” the label released Johnston’s pretty “Another Park, Another Sunday” as the single, but it stalled at #32. In Virginia, a radio station started playing the single’s B-side, “Black Water,” partly because there was a real Blackwater River nearby. The song took off like the proverbial wildfire, first regionally and then nationally, and by early 1975, The Doobie Brothers had their first #1 single. Simmons’ lead vocal, sublime acoustic picking with intermittent fiddle, and the a cappella refrain “I”d like to hear some funky Dixieland, /Pretty mama, come and take me by the hand” made “Black Water” one of the most popular songs of the year.

During the 1975 tour to promote “Stampede,” Johnston began suffering from exhaustion and ulcers, and doctors advised him to stay off the road and rest. “I hadn’t quit the band,” he later stated. “I just wasn’t physically able to do it. I needed to get off the road and get away from that whole scene for a while.” In need of someone who could somehow temporarily replace their leader on stage, the band approved Baxter’s suggestion to invite occasional Steely Dan vocals contributor Michael McDonald to fill in. McDonald was hesitant at first: “They were looking for someone who could play organ and a lot of keyboards, and I was just a songwriter who dabbled at piano. More than anything, I think they were looking for a singer to fill (Johnston’s) shoes.” It proved to be a momentous decision, as we shall see.

Michael McDonald

Their contract required another album in 1976, but Johnston still wasn’t able to participate fully, so the band asked McDonald if he had any original songs to contribute. Once producer Templeman heard the demos for “It Keeps You Runnin’,” “Takin’ It To the Streets,” “Carry Me Away” and “Losin’ End,” he told the band, “You’ve got a real diamond in the rough here that you can make into something if you want to go ahead.” Everyone was reluctant to mess too much with the Doobies formula, including McDonald. “I knew the record company was panicked about any change in the band,” he said. “They were leery about getting a new guy. I was thrilled just to have the gig, but I wasn’t expecting much.”

They decided to proceed, knowing this would significantly change the band’s overall sound and image. The sessions also included three Simmons songs (co-written with Baxter) and one lone track written and sung by Johnston (“Turn It Loose”) that maintained ties to the original Doobies groove, but the label chose to release “Taking It to the Streets” as the single (and album title), so the evolution toward McDonald began.

Many older fans balked, but I liked the new blood he injected, and most critics did, too. The arrangements of the new material reflected a Steely Dan influence, which suited me fine, and McDonald’s good looks made him something of a heartthrob as well, which helped attract a new audience. He, Simmons, Porter and Knudsen were ably to credibly perform the vocals on live versions of Johnston’s older songs and, with help from the four-man horn section, The Memphis Horns (who had already chipped in on the last few albums), the band never missed a step.

I saw the “new” Doobie Brothers five times over the next five summers every time they came to town, as they were one of the tightest, most entertaining bands going. McDonald cemented his place as band leader, first by singing lead on the Motown cover “Little Darling (I Need You),” the single from the 1977 LP “Livin’ on the Fault Line,” but even more dramatically on their 1978 #1 album, “Minute By Minute,” which dominated the airwaves for the better part of 1979 and made them superstars. “What a Fool Believes,” the #1 single McDonald wrote with Kenny Loggins (who also recorded his own version), won Grammys for Song of the Year (for the composers) and Record of the Year (for the band and producer).

The rigors of touring and recording albums nearly non-stop took its toll, though, causing Hartman and Baxter to depart. They were replaced by drummer Chet McCracken and multi-instrumentalist John McFee, and the lineup was further expanded with the addition of Cornelius Bumpus on saxophone, flute, keyboards and vocals. This lineup recorded what turned out to be the last Doobies album for a decade, 1980’s “One Step Closer,” with McDonald’s “Real Love” (a #5 single) and the title song (sung by Bumpus) getting most of the airplay. They were now about as far away from a boogie biker band as they could be, with several tracks that sounded more like cool jazz (later derisively known as “yacht rock”).

When Simmons, the only constant throughout The Doobies’ career arc, started itching to leave for a solo project, and McDonald voiced similar desires, the remaining members chose to dissolve, but not until they wrapped things up with a lengthy farewell tour in 1982 that even brought Johnston back for a few special performances.

Simmons’ album “Arcade” came and went without much attention, but McDonald fared far better. He had done guest vocals on several hit records for Loggins, Christopher Cross, Nicolette Larson and others, and he continued this trend through the ’80s with the likes of James Ingram (“Yah Mo B There”), Patti Labelle (“On My Own”) and Joni Mitchell (“Good Friends”). Two of his own solo singles (“I Keep Forgettin’,” “Sweet Freedom”) went Top 10 as well. In 2003 and 2004, he put together two sterling collection of Motown covers that both went Top 20.

Nothing was heard from The Doobies until the end of the ’80s when the original lineup of Johnston, Simmons, Porter, Hartman and Hossack reunited to record “Cycles,” a surprisingly strong effort that reached the Top 20 and was reminiscent of the band’s early work. “The Doctor” was a #9 hit in 1989, and the group made a triumphant return to the road to promote the LP, which included Simmons’ “South of the Border” and a kickass cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Need a Little Taste of Love.” They tried a follow-up album, “Brotherhood,” which stiffed by comparison, although “Excited” and the single “Dangerous” had merit.

In the 30 years since, various Doobies lineups have reconvened, always with Johnston, Simmons and McFee as the core group. A 2010 LP, “World Gone Crazy,” was generally ignored, but I suggest you check out “A Brighter Day” and a remake of their very first single, “Nobody.” Five live albums have also been released capturing various lineups and eras of the band. “Live at Wolf Trap” (2014), “Live at the Greek Theater 1982″ (2011) and Live from the Beacon Theatre” (2019) all have tracks to recommend them, and some have been included on my Spotify playlist below.

Most intriguing, and beautifully executed, is “Southbound,” a 2014 release on which The Doobies, including McDonald, re-recorded some of their biggest hits with the contributions of various new-generation artists on instruments and/or vocals, including Zac Brown Band, Sara Evans, Hunter Hayes, Toby Keith, Huey Lewis, Love and Theft, Blake Shelton and Brad Paisley.

I have to rank The Doobie Brothers in my top 20 rock groups. I’ve seen them perform 10 times and I own pretty much everything they recorded, and still play their stuff often. God bless ’em, they’re still doing Zoom performances during the pandemic and are hoping to tour with McDonald in 2021. I’d buy tickets to that one, for sure.