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Monday, January 13, 2020

Elvis Presley: Elvis' Christmas Album


1) Santa Claus Is Back In Town; 2) White Christmas; 3) Here Comes Santa Claus; 4) Iʼll Be Home For Christmas; 5) Blue Christmas; 6) Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me); 7) O Little Town Of Bethlehem; 8) Silent Night; 9) (Thereʼll Be) Peace In The Valley; 10) I Believe; 11) Take My Hand, Precious Lord; 12) It Is No Secret.

General verdict: A surprisingly fresh take on traditional styles, but one whose freshness might not hold up so well half a century later.

The actual LP going by this name, released in October ʼ57 so that it could be played non-stop for at least two months by Elvis fans, is really a combo, bringing together all the material from a shorter Christmas-themed EP and an earlier released EP of gospel songs (Peace In The Valley), thus giving the listener ample opportunity to evaluate and appreciate Mr. Presley in at least two related, but distinct roles — that of a Christmas caroler and that of an ardent gospel preacher. Both roles, of course, came just as naturally to his fairly traditionalist character as that of the hip-swinginʼ rockʼnʼroller, and how much you will appreciate them, to some degree, will depend on how fairly traditionalist you are.

Or maybe not, because, actually, the first side of the album was fairly groundbreaking by the standards of 1957. Accustomed as we are these days to all sorts of non-standard, individualistic, often arrogantly irreverent takes on the Christmas subject by zillions of artists, it is easy to forget that in the 1950s this domain was still completely dominated by crooners; so much so that, reportedly, Irving Berlin petitioned radio stations to ban Elvisʼ version of ʽWhite Christmasʼ, claiming that it profanated the very idea of the song (ironically, he never demanded the same for the earlier Drifters cover which was Elvisʼ main source of inspiration, since he most likely paid little attention to «colored» radio stations). It works much better, consequently, if you play this side back to back with a Bing Crosby Christmas compilation, if only to make sure how Elvis made the Christmas format adapt to his own style rather than vice versa.

It is hardly accidental, anyway, that the album begins with a newly written song, and that its authors are the same iconoclastic kids Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller whoʼd already given Elvis ʽHound Dogʼ — and even if the song is nothing but a generic mid-tempo 12-bar blues, this was arguably the first time in history that a bunch of punks was allowed to have this kind of fun with the established format. A couple other songs are done by Elvis in his «softcore» rockʼnʼroll mode (ʽHere Comes Santa Clausʼ and particularly ʽSanta Bring My Baby Back To Meʼ), nothing too offensive but still inviting you to get up on your feet and jump around in a decidedly un-solemn fashion. ʽBlue Christmasʼ is also innovative, with the Jordanaires playing on the title by singing blue notes in the background — and the entire song, consecutively, dipping into the blues rather than pure country, to which it originally belonged.

All in all, it is evident that plenty of fun had been had with the source material, even if its impact has inevitably become dimmed with age, and today our enjoyment will largely depend on how much we like Christmas tunes in general and how much we remain in awe of Elvisʼ voice in particular. This is all in stark contrast with the gospel songs from Peace In The Valley — even though their arrangements, too, have been predictably modernized, it is obvious that fooling around with such a mediator of dubious origins as Father Christmas is one thing, but tinkering with the well-established format of a direct address to God is quite another. Here, Elvis loyally follows the singing formula of Mahalia Jackson and other gospel greats, and although he does a technically good job — this kind of material requires far stricter voice control and far more advanced technique, after all, than jump blues — this is not exactly the type of music into which I have immersed myself to the extent of needing to see what Elvis can do with it.

Back in the day, it was probably considered more of a PR move to reconcile Elvis with the offended parents of his teenage fans, or, perhaps, even more cynically, to put him on that last corner of the musical market that was still seriously dominated by African-American artists; Elvis himself, however, most likely regarded this as his sincere homage to all the great masters of spirituals, as well as, perhaps, his own way of making peace with God, just in case the latter really took offense at his hip-swivelling behavior. Regardless of the motives, Elvis has plenty of vocal power and subtlety to make some of these gospel songs every bit as sexy as his best love ballads — replacing the Old Testamental fire and brimstone of Mahalia Jacksonʼs deliveries with romantic sentiment that could make the Lord himself blush a little bit (I mean, ʽTake My Hand, Precious Lordʼ sounds like a wedding song all by itself, but Elvisʼ purry touch makes it even more of an under-the-balcony serenade than it already is).

In short, regardless of our personal feelings, this is an album of fairly major historical importance (a fact that is indirectly reflected in its mind-blowing sales records), and furthermore, it might be argued that Elvis would never really match the quality and the freshness of these gospel and Christmas recordings again. Maybe the best news is that this is all still done in the same low-profile, «chamber» format — just Elvis, his little backing band, and The Jordanaires singing hush-hush vocals in the background, no Vegasy glitz whatsoever. This way, the material does not stand at odds with the manʼs contemporary rock and pop classics; however, I still think that it works best next to these classics rather than completely on its own, and should rather be judged according to the «terrific rockʼnʼroll guy puts his stamp on more traditional genres» principle than the «young bumpkin from Memphis dares to compete with Bing Crosby and Mahalia Jackson» alternative. Then, finally, there will be peace in the valley for him. 


  1. “(There Will Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)” is one of the greatest songs of all time IMHO.

  2. There's no contemporary evidence that Irving Berlin tried to get Elvis' White Christmas banned. Apparently, somebody made up that story decades later and we've been stuck with it ever since.

    Berlin kept a close watch on his copyrights and when an R&B version of his song "Easter Parade" made the "race" charts in '49 as "Easter Boogie" without giving him credit, he didn't try to ban it, but simply asked that they title it properly and credit him.

    1. Thanks for the clarification. Yes, here are the details for that story:

      - although it is not very clear why it would be invented in the first place. Possibly an exaggeration with a grain of truth to it.