Following In Bing’s Footsteps

Let’s say you are a successful modern recording artist.  Your agent or manager or record company comes to you and asks you to do a Christmas CD.

A Christmas CD sounds attractive for lots of reasons.  You wouldn’t need to write any new songs.  Flip through the pages of the American Christmas music songbook, pick out the songs you want to record, hire some studio musicians, book a week of studio time, and you’re set.  It’s cheap, and straightforward, and your dedicated fans will probably buy just about anything you produce.

And yet . . . if you were a real artist, and not just a fad act looking to make a quick buck, doing a Christmas CD should fill you with trepidation.  It’s daunting to follow in Bing Crosby’s footsteps and sing the same songs he put his stamp on.  And unless you want to go to the fringes of Christmas music and fill your CD with novelty numbers like All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth and Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, that’s exactly what you’re going to have to do.  How do you bring something new and fresh to songs that have been sung thousands of times by different artists and are as familiar to listeners as Happy Birthday?

I love to listen to Christmas music when December rolls around, and one of the things I like about it is hearing how different artists have tackled the standards.  You wouldn’t think anybody could produce a White Christmas that could contend with Bing Crosby’s definitive treatment, but the Drifters’ doo-wop version, Oscar Peterson’s jazzy take, and Linda Ronstadt’s duet with Rosemary Clooney are each as enjoyable and memorable, in their own way, as Crosby’s rendering.  In fact, you could argue that the very familiarity of Christmas songs has caused artists to experiment and push the boundaries of the music — often to good effect.  Christmas music is flexible enough to work with the Windham Hill approach, jazz stylings, choral backing, rock ‘n’ roll, and other genres.

We should applaud artists who release Christmas CDs.  Some of them will suck, for sure . . . but every now and then someone will rise to the challenge and hit upon an arrangement or approach that gives a new perspective to an old favorite, and add to the long roster of holiday classics that we can enjoy, again and again, in holidays to come.

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