Review Summary: It's just not Christmas without it.
When do the holidays start for you and yours" Maybe it starts when Thanksgiving dinner’s been packed into foil and plastic containers. For some, it’s the day your neighbors decide to put up the inflatable Santa Claus in the front yard, only to leave it up until April or until one of the neighborhood cats tears it to shreds. Maybe it’s simply the moment the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. on December 25th. For me, the holidays begin the minute I start decorating the stubby, plastic Christmas tree I have sitting smack dab in the middle of my living room while spinning my favorite Christmas record of all time, A Christmas Gift for You.
Featuring the production talents of legendary Wall of Sound progenitor Phil Spector and a slew of incredible talent, A Christmas Gift for You has gone from a forgotten oddity of the mid-1960s to a mainstay of the holidays. I’m certain everyone reading this has heard a song or two off this record, blaring from department store radios or from television ads and holiday specials. But finding anyone who has listened to A Christmas Gift for You front to back might pose more of a challenge. I’m usually not this forward when recommending music, but if you haven’t listened to this album and have even a twinge of holiday spirit in you, you’re doing yourself a great disservice.
Recorded over several months at the now-defunct Gold Star Studios, A Christmas Gift for You features the talents of several performers and vocalists, including Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, The Crystals, the Ronettes, and (my personal favorite of the bunch) the stellar Darlene Love. Together, they create some of the most memorable vocal performances in Christmas music. To this day, I still find myself singing Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans’ rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” instead of the original done by Gene Autry. The Ronettes’ cover of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is an upbeat affair that is sure to make you get up and twist. Of course, my favorites on this record have to be the ones with Love at the mic. Her versions of “White Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland” remain as iconic as the first time I heard them. However, the real highlight of the album comes in the form of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", an original song written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, and Phil Spector. While it wasn’t her song originally (it was originally planned to be sung by Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes), she made the song hers. The power of her vocals combined with the bombastic instrumentation make for one of Christmas’ greatest knockouts.
The main draw of the album for many, myself included, is its lavish production, provided by rock-n’-roll’s-golden-boy-turned-convicted-murderer Phil Spector. Within the confines of this 30-minute bundle of Christmas cheer is some of the tightest production work he’s ever done. Spector’s instrument blending grandiosity has never felt more at home than with the warmth of Christmas. Old classics like “Silent Night” and "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" are given some modern flair under Spector’s keen ear. The more modern tunes (modern for 1963 that is) go all out, showcasing his prowess at the production table. Many of these songs went on to become the definitive version, like in the case of “Sleigh Ride” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. The fact that their cover versions of already established songs often overshadow the originals speaks to the stellar work done by the performers and Spector.
Now here’s the part where I put a bit of a disclaimer for those going into this album. Over the years, I’ve found that due to overplay or just the Grinch-like attitudes of certain individuals, the overly cheery gloss of Christmas music might not be everyone’s plate of fruitcake. If this is the case for you, I highly doubt this album will make your small heart grow three sizes, as the spiel goes. Detractors of Phil Spector’s echoey, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink sound should especially steer clear of this record. But if none of this has put you off, then this album is definitely worth your time this holiday season.
The album ends with “Silent Night”, sporting a particularly heartfelt message by Phil Spector thanking all the performers for their work on the album and you for giving him the opportunity to “relate my feelings of Christmas through the music that I love”. It’s a perfect cap to the record, showing just how ambitious Spector was at the time:
“…it is so difficult at this time to say words that would express my feelings about the album to which you have just listened; an album that has been in the planning for many, many months”
“…let me thank all the people who worked so hard with me in the production of this album and in my endeavor and desire to bring something new and different to the music of Christmas and to the recording industry which is so much a part of my life”
Mission accomplished, Phil.