When ‘Elvis’ Christmas Album’ was first released in October 1957 it was not only a little controversial but also a number 1 smash for both the album and 4-track ‘Elvis Sings Christmas Songs’ accompanying EP.
The story is well-known to Elvis fans. After the success of Elvis’ Peace In the Valley’ EP producer Steve Sholes realised the potential for an Elvis Christmas package. This in itself was foresighted as in 1957 the Christmas market was basically owned by the “crooners” who would treat the religious music with respect. Considering "Rock’n’Roll rebel" Elvis and his teenage fans as a potentially lucrative Christmas market was an impressive move.
All Elvis needed to do was supply eight Christmas songs and the ‘Peace In The Valley’ numbers would make up the rest. Elvis had asked that Millie Kirkham (RIP) join him for the session, having been impressed with her vocal work on Ferlin Husky’s hit “Gone”. The first Christmas song they tried out was ‘Blue Christmas’ and the rest is history.
‘Elvis’ Christmas Album’ soon sold over a million and would be re-released on vinyl multiple times. The 1970 Camden Christmas album (which added ‘Mama Liked The Roses’) would also sell millions. The combined sales are over 15 million alone in the US. ‘Blue Christmas’ itself has sold over 22 million.
Being such a rich market Elvis Christmas CD compilations are usually released every couple of years combining various mixes of the 1957 and 1971 sessions. The best of these being ‘Memories of Christmas’ (1987), ‘White Christmas’ (2000) and ‘Christmas Peace’ (2003) the most recent being ‘The Classic Christmas Album’ (2012) and ‘Merry Christmas... Love, Elvis’ (2013).
Sadly the original session tapes have been lost (due to the indefensible and inexplicable RCA vaults clear-out) and so very little remains that hasn’t been released hundreds of times before.
Elvis collectors, like myself, have no doubt purchased multiple versions of these various Vinyl and CD releases over the years and so FTD needed to provide the ultimate compilation to make it worth buying all over again.
Within the glossy fold-out sleeve FTD include a 20 page booklet. As always featuring a couple of pages of memorabilia including a fabulously negative review from the time which includes....
"If the carolers outside your door this Christmas season come decked out in dovetail haircuts and Victorian sideburns, you'll know that Elvis Presley's latest album has had its usual fallout effect on the nation's teenagers.
In a masterpiece of seasonal miscasting, RCA Victor has called on that undulating one to warble (whisper, actually) a few Christmas carols and has plastered his sugarplum features on the jacket, of a gaudy album otherwise decorated with color prints of Elvis In his latest movie, an unseasonal drama entitled "Jailhouse Rock." The result is ludicrous and pathetic."
There are also the nine special “Bonus” Jailhouse Rock photos that were included with the original release. While I realise that they are scanned from the original album release it is a shame they are not presented in high-res quality. You can also play spot the reverse image as on the last photo where Elvis’ hair sweeps to the wrong side as it did in the original LP.
The booklet features all manner of Christmas album covers, including the very rare New Zealand album, but sadly there is no indication or notification of where any of them originate from. FTD usually do include this kind of detail so I presume this was a design mistake.
The delicious UK Christmas album cover (opposite) is nowhere to be found in the FTD booklet - which is a ludicrous oversight.
And while the later Camden / Pickwick versions do not originate from the time it was these budget versions that truly pushed sales through the roof (the first version I ever bought !) so I am surprised they are also not included somewhere.
Johnny Saulovich (AKA Dr John Carpenter on the FECC message board) provides the sleeve notes. This includes the stories of Irving Berlin complaining about Elvis’ ‘White Christmas’ (although perhaps this should have been investigated better as it is apparently not true! - See article below) and the clever publicity stunt of the (fake) sacking of DJ Al Priddy for supposedly playing the song against radio station rules. Saulovich also mentions that Elvis wanted to record a beautiful ballad “personally given to him by his R&B hero Ivory Joe Hunter” but then forgets to note that the composition ‘My Wish Came True’ was recorded at the second day of the session.
Fans who previously bought 1994’s excellent ‘If Every Day Was Like Christmas’ might remember the same stories in its excellent liner notes from country-music scholar / author Charles Wolfe but back then told with more passion and verve.
Charles Wolfe needed no byline (nor in fact anyone else who has previously written FTD sleeve notes) so I find it strange that Johnny Saulovich is noted as a “FM Radio DJ, Rock ‘n’ Roll Fan and Elvis Scholar” ! The FM station Saulovich works at is Berkeley's student and community-operated radio station KALX and so hardly a major player. The Elvis world, it seems, has its share of fragile egos.
While the 20-page booklet is a bonus, sadly the music selection provides almost nothing extra.
Kicking off with the wonderful ‘Santa Claus Is Back In Town’ the original album is as glorious as ever, although I have always preferred the ‘Pop’ side.
The FTD has been mastered by Sebastian Jeansson who worked on The Complete Elvis Presley Masters and is the same, albeit wonderful, audio quality. However if you previously bought 2003’s ‘Christmas / Peace’ that was mastered by Vic Anesini (The Complete Elvis Presley Masters) and so the audio quality only differs a little.
The FTD includes the original Christmas Album plus the Binaural Session tapes for ‘Peace In The Valley’ and ‘It Is No Secret’ - the real collector's treat on this release. ‘My Wish Came True’, ‘Treat Me Nice’ and ‘Don’t’ are also included as ‘Bonus Songs’.
These could be a mystery to some as while Elvis’ 1958 number 1 ‘Don’t’ is on the CD, nowhere in the booklet does it explain that the song was recorded at the Christmas album sessions, and like ‘My Wish Came True’ and ‘Treat Me Nice’ none of them are mentioned anywhere in the booklet’s sessions listings!
What FTD really needed to include was any special extras, like the lead in to ‘White Christmas’, where Elvis joked, “It’s Greek to me” and clicked his fingers to get the band intro in sync. This explains why there is only ONE finger click at the start of the album version of ‘White Christmas’ which then suddenly stops and has always sounded like a mistake.
Unbelievably this full version isn’t anywhere on this release! FTD can state that the “Original Album” needed to be presented in its “pristine state” (as if we haven’t bought that multiple times before) but in which case why did they use Elvis’ count-in on ‘Reconsider Baby’ for the FTD ‘Elvis Is Back’? It makes no sense at all.
Ivory Joe Hunter’s beautiful ‘My Wish Came True’ was the first song attempted on the second day of the session but it took twenty-eight takes and Elvis still wasn’t satisfied with the result (the FTD booklet does not tell you this!). It would be almost two years before it was finally released as the flip of ‘A Big Hunk ‘O Love’. Here (unlike ‘White Christmas’!) we do get the nice new bonus of Elvis’ “I, 2, 3..” count in.
‘Don’t’, another beautiful song recorded at the same session - that every collector has bought multiple times before - however does NOT include the studio count-in! It’s all so infuriating.
While both ‘My Wish Came True’ and ‘Don’t’ are not Christmas songs they are both sensitive ballads and so they do fit the overall atmosphere quite nicely.
My biggest bugbear however is the inclusion of ‘Treat Me Nice’. What is a movie soundtrack song doing here? It completely destroys the lovely Christmas ambiance of the CD. It also stopped me putting this version of Elvis' Christmas Album on rotation at my last family Christmas!
To be honest it is one of my all-time favourite Elvis songs but it is the regular single version and has been released so many times before - in fact twice on the Jailhouse Rock FTDs which is where it belongs. It is SO, SO wrong to include it here even IF it was recorded at the same session. And IF it was so historically important to the FTD compilers then why did they place it incorrectly as the second Bonus Song when it was in fact recorded the day before ‘My Wish Came True’?
To me the song grates in the way ‘Rock A Hula Baby’ would do in the middle of the ‘His Hand In Mine’ FTD release. In the past FTD have released Classic Albums based on “album themes” and not “Recording Sessions”, so why not here?
Two pages from the FTD booklet
The Binaural Session Tapes
‘Peace In The Valley’ – Here we finally get all the nine attempts at this wonderful song. The gorgeous Take 1 rough run-through was released (in mono) on ‘Today, Tomorrow & Forever’ set. Again I am not sure why the count-in wasn’t included here. Other takes have been released on “Essential Elvis Vol 2 - Stereo ‘57” but it is great hearing the banter and good-humour of the session. “What do you think I am, a wart-hog?” joked Elvis before Take 3.
Disappointingly the only previously unreleased Take 5 and Take 6 are only intros while Take 8 is the amusingly cut-short, “I had to belch up that egg I ate” version.
‘It Is No Secret’ – Again the full session all thirteen takes are featured. Earlier Takes 1, 2 and 3 as featured on “Essential Vol 2 Stereo 57” are delightful and light - with the piano arrangement and intro changing dramatically between the early takes.
Previously unreleased Take 4 falters half-way through when Elvis “pops” the microphone even though it is fascinating to hear how much trouble he is having with his vocal control.
Unreleased Takes 6 through 11 are all short false starts and amusing only for Elvis breaking up laughing as he hits the first note. Previously unreleased Take 12 is however complete - but Elvis seems short of breath and overplays the vocal, missing a few timings. As the next attempt would be the master it is surprisingly unsure. The dramatic pause that Elvis magically added to the master on “Someone slipped and fell” seems miles away.
Many fans will remember Elvis special Christmas Message, “Thank you for listening.. ” that has previously used on various Christmas album releases, often before ‘Silent Night’. Well that was recorded later in 1967 for a Colonel Parker organised radio station “Elvis Christmas special”. This obviously will not be released anywhere else by FTD, so why not include it here as a Bonus Song? In fact including the whole 1967 “Elvis Christmas special” might have made an interesting bonus for collectors, another missed opportunity.
Overall Verdict: Unlike the impressive FTD ‘Flaming Star’ recent soundtrack, this Classic Album release disappoints in its inconsistency and the fact that it doesn’t even contain Elvis’ full ‘White Christmas’ recording! For collectors who have bought Elvis’ Christmas album way too many times before there is so little new material here, in fact only one complete take of ‘It Is No Secret’ and a few false starts. The price of FTDs is not particularly cheap (you can buy the Vic Anesini remastered double ‘Christmas / Peace’ for less than $12!) and while I understand that some collectors will purchase every release, this time they deserve better. This FTD should have been the “ultimate” collectors version of ‘Elvis’ Christmas Album’ and that plainly isn’t the case.