Monday, December 17, 2012

Charles Brown - Merry Christmas, Baby (Imperial 5902)

Merry Christmas, Baby

Hi folks. I don't know if you've noticed this but, in this day and age of things like Pandora and Sirius XM, the actual versions of many of the songs they play are different from the 'classic' originals that have been ingrained in our heads. I imagine they pick the ones that have the clearest licensing, and figure that most of their target audience (read: not crusty old record nerds like yours truly), won't know the difference anyway. In any event, the practice seems to run particularly rampant in the field of R&B Christmas Music, especially when it comes to this tune... but there may be a reason for that.

The first of many versions, of course, was recorded for Leon Rene's Exclusive label when Charles was the vocalist with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers in 1947. It would break into the R&B top ten the next three Decembers in a row. When Exclusive went belly up in 1949, it appears that the master was picked up by Swing Time, who would change the label credit to read 'Charles Brown with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers', as Charles had headed out on his own by then, and was charting under his own name for the Aladdin label.

Aladdin (originally named Philo) had been the label that released Moore's 1946 mega-hit Driftin' Blues, and was only too happy to sign Brown as a solo artist once he left The Blazers. Nothing short of an R&B superstar, Charles would spend 103 weeks on Billboard's Race Chart between 1949 and 1952, including an incredible twenty nine weeks in the number one position.

In 1953, the colorful Country & Western impresario Don Pierce started up the Hollywood label, initially as an outlet for West Coast R&B. In October of 1954, Pierce would buy the master of Merry Christmas, Baby from Swing Time as Hollywood made the switch from 78 to 45.

According to this Billboard ad, by 1955 the label had coupled it with another Swing Time master, Lloyd Glenn's Sleigh Ride, and it would top Hollywood's impressive list of Christmas releases from that moment on, with a copy spinning on virtually every juke box from coast to coast. By this time, the hits had all but dried up for Mister Brown, and I'm sure it irked the Mesner brothers at Aladdin to see this perennial best seller line Pierce's pockets instead of their own.

In September of 1956, Aladdin would send Charles (and his main squeeze Amos Milburn) down to Cosimo's Studio on Governor Nicholls Street in New Orleans for a now legendary session with the fabled studio band led by Earl Palmer. There they they would cut a new rendition of Merry Christmas, Baby, and release it on both 78 and 45 that December, with Brown's last number one hit, Black Night, as the flip.

By 1959, both Brown and Milburn were recording for Johnny Vincent at Cosimo's, and Johnny couldn't resist cutting his own version of Merry Christmas, Baby, releasing it on his obscure Teem subsidiary. I've never actually seen a copy.

In 1960, Charles Brown and Amos Milburn were signed by King Records, which would release one of my all-time favorite double-siders in time for the Holidays that year, Please Come Home For Christmas, backed with Milburn's ultra-cool Christmas (Comes But Once A Year). On its way to becoming the absolute standard it is today, it would represent Brown's last chart appearance, climbing to #21 R&B and breaking into the lower rungs of the Hot 100.

In February of 1962, Lew Chudd bought the entire Aladdin back catalogue from the Mesner brothers, and re-released the 1956 Cosimo's version (Aladdin 3348) as Imperial 5902, the awesome record we have here today, that December. With it's mournful Crescent City stroll, I think it's better than the 1947 original. After Chudd sold off Imperial to Liberty in 1963, they would continue to issue it every year, and their superior distribution and industry muscle got the record heard.

By 1966, as this Billboard chart of the top thirty Christmas singles shows, Brown would now have two renditions of Merry Christmas, Baby on the list at the same time, with Hollywood 1021 coming in at #5 (just beating out his own Please Come Home For Christmas), and Imperial 5902 at #16. The only person with more records on there was Bing Crosby...

King, meanwhile, had been putting out a Charles Brown Christmas single every year, without much luck. In August of 1968, they brought Charles into their studios in Cincinnati to cut a new recording of Merry Christmas, Baby, probably in direct response to the news that Liberty had been taken over by something called the Transamerica Corporation that Summer. By 1973, according to the Billboard chart of the top fifteen Christmas Singles below, this King version had supplanted both the Hollywood and Imperial releases:

The only person to have two entries on the list was our man Brown, of course, and the other one was on King as well... Bing Crosby was nowhere to be found! It is interesting at this point to note (as the inimitable John Broven pointed out to me), that the publishing on the song has changed, from 'St. Louis Music' to 'Hill & Range', the company owned by the upper-crust Aberbach brothers (notwithstanding the fact that Johnny Vincent had claimed it as belonging to his Ace Publishing for the Teem release all those years before...). In any event, with the ga-zillion cover versions of this tune out there, I'm sure it has proved a valuable copyright indeed!

According to Broven's copy of The Blues Discography, the Bihari brothers would cut their own version of Merry Christmas, Baby on Charles out in L.A. later in 1968, and release it on Kent in time for Christmas every year after that.

In 1970, Brown would cut an obligatory version for Stan Lewis when he signed with Jewel Records, and another for Johnny Otis, released on his Blues Spectrum label in 1974.

In 1977, Jules Bihari would produce an entire album by that name for his Big Town label in Los Angeles. None of these versions got much airplay, to say the least.

After his 're-discovery' in the late eighties, Charles would cut a duet on Merry Christmas Baby with Bonnie Raitt for the benefit album, A Very Special Christmas 2 in 1992, and another one for the 1994 Bullseye collection Cool Christmas Blues... at the Christmas party this past Friday at our local watering hole, somebody played Merry Christmas, Baby by Charles Brown on their new-fangled internet jukebox. It turned out to be the Bullseye 1994 version, bundled as part of their 'Holiday Playlist'. This is the same one they play on Sirius and Pandora... It kind of made me sad to think that this is how people will hear this song from now on.

As I've said in the past, I will always treasure the chance I got to hear Charles perform it live at Tramp's Cafe on 21st Street in New York almost twenty years ago now... "I haven't had a drink this morning, but I'm all lit up like a Christmas Tree..."

Merry Christmas, Everybody!