Thanksgiving is over. That’s when the Christmas music starts.
That was my rule as a program director. It probably cost me a few ratings points over the years, but I took it seriously. Thanksgiving remains one of my favorite holidays, and I didn’t like seeing what was happening to it – the disappearance into the shuffle. (One year, my cluster decided to flip a poorly-performing AC station to all-Christmas on Halloween.)
I also didn’t like playing the basic list of the same 100 tired holiday songs, either. There are great seasonal songs that are worth the trouble to seek out. I’m not opposed to the usual chestnuts (whether they roast over open fires or not), but there’s no reason not to make an excuse to play something notable, unusual, or just plain great. So, for the month of December, I want to call attention to some of those “secret weapon” records that I used to use in the last month of the year.
1968 was a difficult year for America. Many will argue that 2016 has been a difficult year as well, but I maintain that 1968 was tougher. While we have unrest and have lost many notable celebrities this year, 1968 saw horrific loss of life in Vietnam and the loss of celebrities through assassinations. That would be enough. Throw in a bloody confrontation in Grant Park at the Democratic National Convention, and you see the stage set for what turned out to be a remarkable Christmas album that gets overlooked.
The founder of Chess Records, Leonard Chess, took their subsidiary label Argo Records and gave it to his son Marshall to supervise. Immediately Marshall looked for bands that catered to a younger, more hip audience. Bands such as the Status Quo released “Pictures of Matchstick Men” on the label. But maybe one of the greatest discoveries was right in the office. Minnie Riperton was working as a receptionist for the label when it was discovered she could sing. By sing, I mean “possessed a freakishly-wide vocal range that was not of this Earth.” Younger readers of the blog will be interested to know that her #1 solo hit, “Lovin’ You” (shown here in an original video clip), has been featured in a variety of advertisements, and that Minnie Riperton and husband Robert Rudolph’s daughter, Maya Rudolph, is someone you know well from Saturday Night Live. Minnie became the centerpiece for a psychedelic soul band called the Rotary Connection. The Connection was formed of a variety of musicians along with a band called the Proper Strangers, a white rock band. Mitch Aliotta was a member of this group: he, along with Skip Haynes and John Jeremiah created one of the best-known love songs to the city of Chicago, “Lake Shore Drive.”
The Rotary Connection released a few worthwhile albums, most notably their self-titled debut in 1967 and Aladdin in 1968. But their Christmas album, Peace, is the one I suggest that you seek out. It is a far cry from the Ray Conniff Christmas sounds that likely came out of your grandparents’ living room hi-fi. This is a rock album, a psychedelic album, a soul album, and a Christmas album. The song “Christmas Love” is a sweet song of the holidays on the surface, until you listen to the lyrics carefully: friends in Vietnam who can’t be there to celebrate, unrest in Chicago, even a name check for then-mayor Richard J. Daley lie within. “Silent Night” is the sort of thing that I can’t describe in words. You will either hate it, need a second listen to make up your mind, or get chills when you hear it. There’s no being beige about this record, and it’s far from silent.
You can experience the Rotary Connection for yourself by clicking here.