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Sounds of the Season
A cure for the Christmas music doldrums! Rob Martinez and “The Nights Before Christmas” offer up lost gems, rare classics, and the downright strange
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
The holiday season brings Christmas music. It’s inescapable. Odds are, the first strains of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” or “O Holy Night” or “Jingle Bells” or something are drifting into your ears even as you’re tucking the Thanksgiving leftovers into Tupperware or fobbing them off on guests.
Though there seems to only about five or six dozen Christmas songs that get regular rotation during the holiday season, there are thousands and thousands of them out there, from versions of the standards to originals in every genre and style you can name to goofy novelty songs.
And Rob Martinez has heard them all. Well, not all, but he has heard an insane amount of Christmas music, stuff you probably didn’t even know existed. A host and producer at 89.1 WBOI, Martinez has what might be one of the largest personal collections of Christmas music out there.
Every year around this time, Martinez shares some of this vast collection with 89.1 listeners on “The Nights Before Christmas.” He’s been doing the show since 2011 (there’s even been a “Christmas in July” version).
“Most people hear ‘Christmas music’ and they immediately start thinking about the shopping, the office parties, the usual rush of activities at school and home leading up to December 25th,” Martinez says. “Throw in the same music year after year after year and it's no wonder people get blitzed on egg nog or harder substances…”
“But it's my belief that there is a special piece of Christmas music for everyone that unlocks a precious memory,” he continues. “It's been buried under layers of cynicism, commercialization, and Christmases gone bad. But when that song is heard, Christmas becomes Christmas for a brief three minutes. If I can connect people to those memories and make new ones in the process, then that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Martinez — who also hosts “Movie Music Spotlight” Thursday nights at 10 PM on WBOI — says his collection had its beginnings during his “Christmas parole” from high school back in 1985. “In those days, the only Christmas music you got on the radio was IF a deejay felt like playing it,” he says. “There were no stations playing the same 50 songs 24/7, no YouTube, no Spotify, no Pandora. It was a bleak time.”
Martinez popped a blank cassette into his boombox and waited for some Christmas music to come on; the resulting collection was only 20 minutes long. But Martinez persisted. He got what he could off radio, and rummaged through his family’s record collection. By the end of the 80s, his collection amounted to about two-and-a-half hours of music.
And the quest continued… “I expanded my search to record stores, thrift stores, and garage sales,” says Martinez. “Then eBay, online sellers, Amazon.com, and other Christmas music collectors across America.”
And how large is this collection, exactly?
The current total: 2,300+ albums; over 36,000 songs.
“If I owned an iPod, I could click shuffle and not have a repeat for two months,” says Martinez.
“I don't have a real reason why I began collecting it,” Martinez continues. “My flippant answer is ‘it’s something to do and keeps me off the streets.’ But about six or seven years after this began, I realized that I enjoyed pursuing lost Christmas albums or discovering new Christmas music as a way to escape the same music we get every December.”
With the 2015 edition of “The Nights Before Christmas” starting December 16, we thought we’d ask Rob to talk about some of the highlights in his collection.
So, take it away, Rob…
Vaughn Meader — “St. Nick Visits The White House” (1963)
Vaughn Meader was the comedian who impersonated JFK with The First Family comedy album. It sold 7.5 million copies in three months, becoming the fastest selling album of all time. Meader was now an overnight sensation — he was on countless TV shows, released a second JFK album that sold 4 million copies, and was a millionaire. Towards the end of 1963, he signed with Verve Records to do non-JFK comedy albums. Verve asked about a JFK Christmas single and Meader agreed.
"St. Nick Visits The White House" was released in November, 1963 — possibly in the same week that JFK was assassinated.
Every copy of Meader's JFK records (including the new Christmas single) were withdrawn and sent to the incinerators. Meader was typecast and his career was over. By 1965, he was broke and back in obscurity.
It took me 13 years to find a copy (you can find the story of Rob’s quest at wboi.org/post/president-comic-and-man-santa-claus-hat). I have lots of Christmas music collector friends — some who have been collecting longer than me and whose collections are larger than mine. No one had ever seen or heard of this before I found my copy. It could be the only copy in existence.
AKIM & The Teddy Vann Production Company – “Santa Claus Is A Black Man” (1973)
AKIM is a child singer whose dad Teddy Vann was a soul musician / evangelist. In the early 1970s, they decided to record an album embracing Christmas, Kwanzaa, and black awareness. Filmmaker John Waters included this on his 2004 Christmas album and called the title track "the motherload of crackpot Xmas carols, the 45rpm record I hunted for my whole life and recently bought on eBay at a great deal of personal expense just so you could hear it too."
In 2005, I found the entire album on eBay and sent a digitized copy to Waters. He sent me a postcard back that said "Thanks for the greatest Christmas gift ever!"
BEST INTERPRETATION OF A STANDARD:
STANDARD CAROL: Frank Sinatra – “Silent Night” (2004)
In August of 1991, Sinatra sung this acapella into a digital tape recorder backstage at a concert on the road. In 2004, the Sinatra Family released a new album with this recording on it - the last original recording of Sinatra's career. It's heartbreaking on so many different levels.
STANDARD SONG: Nat King Cole – “The Christmas Song” (1947 / 1961)
Mel Torme wrote this song during a July heat wave in Los Angeles. He took it immediately to Nat who was still recording with his King Cole Trio. They added strings for the first time for this song... and later in 1961, Nat recorded the famous version everyone now knows. It was the first Christmas song introduced by an African American.
Don't get me started. Why Christmas radio has decided to play the same 40 or 50 songs every December for the past decade is beyond me. There are HUNDREDS of songs - both new and old - that would easily become radio friendly if they decided to play them.
If they asked me, I would add just two songs to the mix:
Margaret Whiting & Jimmy Wakely – “Christmas Candy” (1958)
The Kinks – “Father Christmas” (1978)
Once again, don't get me started. I love the same 40 or 50 songs radio plays every December but why do we have to hear the same versions of "The Little Drummer Boy" or other classics? Can't they mix it up? Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" was getting pretty obnoxious in terms of radio airplay — even that was eclipsed by Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You". However, those pale in comparison to my choice:
Band Aid – “Do They Know It's Christmas Time” (1984)
It was written in response to a famine in Ethiopia and raised money and awareness for the situation. Good job - mission accomplished. But every time I hear Bono squeal "Well, tonight thank God it's them, instead of youuuuu", I want to put my fist through the car radio. Retire it soon.
YOUR “YOU WON'T BELIEVE THIS ARTIST DID A CHRISTMAS SONG”:
Bob Dylan released a full Christmas album in 2009. Let that sink in.
My favorite track is "Must Be Santa" - a Christmas polka. Let that sink in.
To support the album, he made a music video for "Must Be Santa.” Let that sink in.
YOUR "NEVER GETS OLD" CHRISTMAS SONG:
Any version of "Silent Night." And Darlene Love singing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” No matter where I am or what I'm doing, I will stop and listen to those two songs.
BEST ORIGINAL CHRISTMAS SONG OF THE PAST 20 YEARS:
Matthew Hall & Meagan Moore - "When Christmas Comes To Town" (2004)
from The Polar Express soundtrack. It reduced me to tears. Literally. I would add that to my list of songs that need to be placed into rotation on the radio as well.
However, Josh Groban's song "Believe" from the same soundtrack got all the attention. Boo.
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN STUMPED?
Not very often. But earlier this year, my mother-in-law came up to me and asked about a Christmas song her father sang to her as a little girl. Her father was taught the song at St. Peter's Catholic School in Fort Wayne. This song became a holiday tradition in their household and after 18 years of being her son-in-law, she finally asked about it.
And I was stumped - the first time ever.
My mother-in-law asked to come to the radio station to record the song with her two sisters and I agreed.
I hope to play it on my radio show - I want to find out if indeed this was a song or possibly a ditty their father made up for them. I'm hoping for the latter.
GOTTEN A CHRISTMAS MUSIC REQUEST YOU DON'T HAVE OR KNOW?
Not very often. Surrounded by so much Christmas music, my knowledge runs pretty deep.
ANYTHING YOU WON'T PLAY?
Anything by Mannheim Steamroller or Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Also… in 1979, a veterinarian and his wife decided it would be fun to record a novelty Christmas song. It slowly got regional airplay at Christmas time from 1980 to 1983, becoming massively popular in the South and West. In 1984, Epic Records decided to release the single nationally and it sold almost 3 million copies. The recording industry - which had shied away from recording new Christmas music for nearly a decade - sat up and took notice. Christmas music was now a great way to cash in and this dinky little song was responsible for it.
The song? "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer". And I've been cringing ever since.
The Nights Before Christmas will air for its fifth consecutive year on 89.1 WBOI. Broadcast times:
Wed Dec 16 - 9 PM to 11 PM
Fri Dec 18 - 8 PM to 11 PM (all-request show)
Wed Dec 23 - 9 PM to 11 PM