Dean Martin

Christmas Time is Here — Part II

So in Part I of Christmas Time is Here I briefly described some of the history of Christmas carols and popular holiday songs with the idea in mind that as musicians we are sometimes called to play them and shouldn’t shy away from playing them or enjoying the rich history and tradition they symbolize. In this post I will cover actually moving on to making these songs a part of repertoire. The first step in that direction is, of course, deciding on, and building up an arrangement of a song that you like, that works with your abilities as a musician, and will fit the performance you are going to give. This can be an arrangement you learn or one you adapt from either a vocal or instrumental arrangement that is already out there. Every musical number I do, Christmas song or not, even if it is based on someone’s version of a song, I like to change it a little bit or add something to it. That is just a way of personalizing the music or performance and jazz musicians especially do this all of the time.

If you are inclined to a the classic era of Big Band and vocal performances, you can never go wrong with any of the masters from the Golden Age of jazz and pop: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, and Bing Crosby to name a few. Their interpretations of holiday music are still heard regularly today — I heard Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) in 3 different stores during the buildup to 12/25 this year. The arrangements are usually pretty involved but they are also accessible and can be very inspiring in what you add to the song or (if you also sing) how your vocal arrangement will sound.

Speaking of Chestnuts and roasting on an open fire… We’ve all heard Nat King Cole or someone else sing this song, but how many people have actually seen a chestnut? Have you ever wondered about that? There was a time when chestnut trees were almost 25% of all hardwood stock in some areas of North America and recipes for everything from roasted chestnuts to chestnuts and sausages were typical fare. But a blight, introduced by planting a strain of Asian chestnuts in Long Island, NY in 1904 wiped out literally billions of trees. That’s right, Billions! It’s estimated there are only a few dozen pre-blight trees still alive in North America today and, of course, hardly anyone eats chestnuts during the holidays and almost all of the chestnuts that are eaten have to be imported. By the time The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) was written in 1944, most of the nation’s chestnut tree stock had already been wiped out. What an ecological nightmare! The things I learn blogging sometimes.

Many great instrumentalists from the 40s, 50s and 60s made holiday albums: Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, George Shearing, Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd all made Christmas albums. So did swinging 60s style artists like Herb Albert, and so have newer jazzy/poppy superstars like Wynton Marsalis, Diane Krall and Nancy Wilson. There are literally weeks worth of instrumental and mood-type Christmas music on YouTube and possibly something on one of these albums could inspire you.

Some people may be more inclined to the rock and roll side of things but keep in mind that the lines of where Golden Classics leave off and rock and roll begins is a fine one indeed. Elvis Presley recorded a whole bunch of Christmas music and his tastes range from gospel, to rock and roll to straight pop. His interpretations of the classics (I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Little Town of Bethlehem) are as good as anyone’s because his gospel background and religious convictions give such sacred songs a depth that many secular vocalists just don’t do as well. It’s very easy to reduce a whole lot of the religious holiday music to camp and sentimentality, but Elvis never does this. He also recorded the definitive version of Blue Christmas. On the original version his vocals are awesome and the arrangement, including the background vocals by The Jordanaires, was inspiring and musically groundbreaking for the time. Was this the first rock and roll Christmas Song? Hmm. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I will chime in. Of course there was a whole lot of rock and roll Christmas after 1957 including: Chuck Berry, The Ventures, Phil Spector’s Christmas (including The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, which is also a classic), The Beatles, who released lots of Christmas craziness through their fan club and then later, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s So This Is Christmas and Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time, both of which still get HEAVY airplay during the season. They are modern standards for sure. The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, also has a modern standard with his version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which has also been covered by everyone from Mariah to Bieber. José Feliciano, who I wrote about here, has the awesome Felice Navidad song that still gets yearly airplay and the recently-departed George Michael had a big 80s classic hit with the holiday favorite Last Christmas. Back in 1992 I was lucky enough to catch the Johnny Cash Christmas show when it rolled through New York City. That was a lot of fun. Brian Setzer has had a Christmas show/revue for years and he has covered a whole ton of great songs. Like this one:

So, depending on your preferred style of music, you can adapt and arrange any song you see fit and spice up everything from musical performances to family gatherings. Christmas songs, carols and melodies lend themselves to a wide variety of possibilities; they can have a very bare bones arrangement that you may sing along with, or they also can be turned into an instrumental mind-blower like what the always amazing Ted Greene does below. When I was in a punk band we used to do a twisted, Black Sabbath kind of take on Santa Claus is Coming to Town. When I got old and settled down, Christmas Time is Here was the first Christmas song I learned to play as a solo improviser and I have played it every year since and performed it at numerous gigs. This past year I worked up an arrangement that was based on The Ventures version of Sleigh Ride and tweaked it to work with gypsy jazz, rehearsed a couple times with the fellows, and away we went at a gig 4 days before Christmas. It was one of the best songs of the gig(!) even though no one had either a vibrato bar or copious amounts of delay since we were playing amplified acoustic. As always: If you are playing the songs instrumentally MAKE SURE you can play the melody without screwing it up! That means going over it a bunch of times. You should be able to play it 3-5 times in a row without a mistake. If you can’t, you will probably fudge it at the gig or in front of people. So beware!

There are about 7-8 songs that I can play pretty well solo and I start getting them together in the fall and play them through the season. Christmas songs are great vehicles for learning to play in an unaccompanied style (especially if you are new to unaccompanied playing), because the melodies are so well-known and the arrangement you can begin with can be very simple, but still very effective. As always take it slow and work your way through it a couple bars at a time. Since most songs do not have many different parts or modulations (unless you add them, which you can certainly do!) you will find that they will come together pretty quickly. Learning to play and perform these tunes is also a great test of what you can add to the performance every time you play it once you become comfortable improvising with yourself. I blew off a version of White Christmas while a few of us were sitting around one day in December and it sounded pretty flippin’ good! If you’re comfortable with the arrangement and comfortable improvising (throwing in some wacky chords and riff choices) you can turn the song into a really special and personal thing…and it can be a little bit different every time! So maybe give that a go later on in the year. Here is a list of jazzy, snazzy solo guitar instruction to get you started. If you’re not up to that yet, try these. You will become part of a long and very storied and important tradition that has involved the guitar and other string instruments for the better part of a millennium. Even if you play in a punk or metal band — everyone likes Christmas songs if you play them well and it’s November or December. Whatever you do, don’t even try this in July man!

Here is Part 1 of this series.

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Glen Campbell — Guitar Legend

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I recently watched two clips on YouTube that profiled Glen Campbell: singer, guitarist, actor, American TV personality. The first was his Behind The Music special from 1999 and the second was 2012 a CBS News Sunday Morning that was Glen saying Goodbye. He had recently made public his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and accepted the inevitable by releasing an album and doing a final tour. Today Glen is in the final stages of the illness at a care facility near his home in Tennessee. He had a very prolific entertainment career and remains one of America’s most popular stars. His stratospheric rise in the late 60s to the top of the pop and country charts, his popularity with American television audiences, boyish good looks and wide array of talents guaranteed he would remain in the public eye even after the big hits stopped coming. His loss is kind of personal because he reminds me of my parents and my days as a child. I can remember watching his show on television while my mother ironed or read stories to my younger sister. His variety show and shows like Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island and The Monkees were all 1st run things for me — I saw them as they happened back in the Swingin’ 60s.

Glen Campbell’s career began very early — by 1954, before he was 20 years old — he was already playing in bands and appearing on local radio in New Mexico. He learned to play as a youth and always credited his Uncle Boo with teaching him in the early days. Life as the son of a sharecropper in Arkansas wasn’t easy, but a way out appeared very early on when his father bought the family a Sears and Roebuck guitar. Because the action was so high, a crude capo was fashioned out of an inner tube and from then on Glen would always be a prodigious user of capos, and obviously a prodigious player of guitars. Eventually he would make his way to Los Angeles and become, by the early 60s, a very in-demand session guitar player.

While it is pretty common knowledge now, many people who became Glen Campbell fans at the end of the 1960s had no idea of Glen’s early history as a session guitarist or his association with a group of people who would later come to be known as The Wrecking Crew; a collection of the finest session musicians on the west coast. As a session musician, Glen is estimated to be on anywhere from “high-hundreds” to “a thousand” recordings — everyone from Dean Martin to Sonny and Cher, Simon and Garfunkel, The Champs, The Mamas and the Papas, Nat King Cole, scores of garage-y guitar type groups and even Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. There are many resources dealing with Glen and The Wrecking Crew and this makes for fascinating reading.

Other guitarists associated with this group of people who were also known as “The Clique” included Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, Al Casey and James Burton. Carol Kaye, the first lady of bass guitar also has recollections and information on her site and in an interview here. As she points out, The Wrecking Crew wasn’t really known by that name at the time and there were a lot (50-60) people involved — all of the best session players in Los Angeles at the time…and Glen Campbell was one of them. From the UNOFFICIAL MARTIN GUITAR FORUM here is a funny aside:

…Glen Campbell once recounted a great story about the Strangers In The Night‘ session. He got a late call asking if he could do a session next day because the producer needed several acoustic guitars on the track and they were one short. Glen arrived next day all sun tanned, long flowing mane, jeans, boots and Beach Boys-type shirt to find that Sinatra’s musos were all jazz players with short hair, button-down shirts, neckties and slacks. They eyed him disdainfully. The guitar players were seated in a line with Glen on the very end and the orchestra rehearsed all day long to get the desired sound. Early evening they got the call that Frank was on his way and the tension in the studio mounted. Thirty minutes later Sinatra arrived and went straight to the control booth and the musos all craned to catch sight of `The Gov’nor’. Sinatra walked out into the studio and the orchestra spontaneously rose and applauded him. Suddenly Frank looked over at Glen and yelled to the MD `Get rid of that long haired faggot on the end! Campbell rose to his feat and made ready to leave only to find Sinatra standing directly in front of him challenging `can you really play that thing?’ GC sat down and played some really tasty licks and Sinatra said `Okay, you can stay’. After the session Sinatra sought Campbell out, stuck a wad of $$$ in his shirt pocket and invited him to a party at his Palm Springs home.

I’m not sure I believe this story totally. Strangers in the Night was cut in 1966 and Campbell I don’t think had a “long, flowing mane” until the 70s. Still… a fun piece of 60s music lore. The fact that Glen was a part of this group of LA session players that included Barney Kessel, James Burton, Howard Roberts and the Session King, Tommy Tedesco was a testament to his guitar talents, his work ethic and his ability to get along well with others. Also, in a short time, he would be one of a few emerging talents [Roy Clark (who is in this post) being another] who could sing like a bird and play the hell out of the guitar.

One band that Glen did a whole lot of work for, and even joined for a time, was The Beach Boys. The rock and roll sound of the BBs and similar acts like Jan and Dean was right up Glen’s alley and he looked and sounded the part. Some of his session playing (Dance, Dance, Dance) survived through release, some (rock and roll intro to Fun, Fun, Fun) was most likely redone by one of the “Boys”, although it is probably impossible to know for sure anymore. In December of 1964 he filled in for Brian Wilson, who had driven himself crazy with work and too many commitments. Glen was a Beach Boy until mid-1965 when Bruce Johnson took over as a “live” Beach Boy. Also at this time The Astounding 12-String Guitar of Glen Campbell album was released to very little fanfare, but it provides some interesting aural insights into Glen’s musical background. He was already a skilled picker capable of bringing his Arkansas blues, country and early rock and roll licks tastefully to any song. Probably this album was released to try and capitalize on the very popular folk boom at the time. In 1965 The Big Bad Rock Guitar of Glen Campbell was released and sounds like it could have been put together between Wrecking Crew sessions. Great versions of Walk Don’t Run, Ticket to Ride, James Bond Theme, It’s Not Unusual and other pop hits of the day. I like this album much better and like the swinging 60s pop sound from this period.

In the early-mid 1960s most of the popular/rock and roll production values of the LA scene imitated in a fashion the Phil Spector Wall of Sound. Here is Simon and Garfunkel’s Blessed as it appeared on the 1965 Sounds of Silence album. This was a hastily-cut record after the initial success of The Sounds of Silence single had garnered some airplay as an acoustic song and was then remixed without Simon and Garfunkel’s knowledge or input as a post-Dylan electric folk-rock number. Here is Simon and Garfunkel doing Blessed as an acoustic number live in 1967. Sounds de-tuned and in drop-D tuning, but still captures the various guitar parts of the original. Notice all of the echo on the studio version; you can really hear it on the drums in the outro. The studio recording has at least 3-4 guitar parts and there are some cool delay/comb filter-type effects too. This album was produced by Bob Johnson, who produced Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisted and albums by Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen. Not really sure if Blessed was recorded in Nashville or LA, but Glen Campbell is listed on the credits for the album. This production is also very reminiscent of The Byrds and The Beatles mid-60s “folk-rock”. Rubber Soul was released a few weeks before this song was recorded.

On the Mike Nesmith/Monkees song Mary, Mary, a fun, but silly basic rock and roll song if there ever was one, there are 6 guitar players listed: Peter Tork, James Burton, Glen Campbell, Al Casey, Michael Deasy, and Don Peake. Holy Cow…the Stones could’ve done this without overdubs! Maybe this was another reason the session work dried up, because you know all these guys are billing for the session. It’s the music equivalent of the mafia no-show construction jobs! By the end of the decade this production style would be out of fashion, technology would grow by leaps and bounds, many artists wrested control for their projects away from producers and many bands were capable of playing all of their instruments. But here’s Glen talking about his time as a session guitarist and demonstrating guitar techniques with Craig Kilborn, including his love and use of the capo.

As he recounts in Behind the Music, he did so many sessions he bought a car and had money to burn. After two disaster gigs opening solo for The Doors (wow!) he related that he didn’t go out on the road again until after his television show was a hit. Session work was more rewarding and enjoyable. When I first began playing guitar, I used to read Guitar Player magazine, which featured a regular column with premier session guitarist, Tommy Tedesco. It was always fun to read what Tommy was up to — whether it was a Bop gig, a new television show theme, a movie soundtrack. He would also list the other players, what instruments he used and how much money he made from the session. It was pretty cool reading and anyone who remembers those columns has an understanding of what Glen’s career was like for most of the 60s. Tommy Tedesco’s son, Denny, captured all of The Wrecking Crew‘s glory and history in his 2008 film The Wrecking Crew. Definitely see it if you haven’t.

In 1968 Glen Campbell became a superstar and although he had a hit with Jimmy Webb‘s By the Time I Get to Phoenix it was Gentle on My Mind that really launched this 2nd half of his career. Both he and the song’s writer, John Hartford, won two Grammy Awards each in 1968 for their performances of the song in the Country and Folk categories and in 1999 BMI announced that the song was number 16 in their Top Songs of the Century list. Personally, I think the above version is the best online performance: Hartford’s banjo sounds outstanding and his playing conjures up images of a train clicking over the rails in between his sung lines in the first and third verses. Glen shows how great an interpreter he is and was capable of always injecting different nuances into his performances so they never sounded the same. The fourth verse is a well-done duet that effectively pairs both their voices and personalities to close out the song. This performance serves as a microcosm of the tone of Glen’s television show and it’s easy to see why it was so popular. Wildly talented, good-looking and likable star and supporting cast play great music (and indulge in some comedy). A winning formula if there ever was one! While em>Gentle on My Mind isn’t a guitar number, Glen did pick a whole bunch of guitar on the show. Besides Hartford, who made frequent appearances during the show’s run, there were music performances from Three Dog Night, Stevie Wonder, Jerry Reed, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, The Monkees, Ray Charles Nancy Sinatra, Linda Rondstadt and many more. The show was on the air from 1969 through 1972 and it made Glen a household name.

Unfortunately, as Glen’s star kept rising, he was pressured to drop the guitar playing and concentrate on being The Rhinestone Cowboy singer. Country music began to be seen as passe in the mid-70s and because Campbell had so much success as a popular singer it was thought that the guitar image was too “Nashville”, even though hits like The Rhinestone Cowboy and Southern Nights only boosted his popularity. This is probably the main reason that many people never realized how good a guitarist he is. Fortunately, Glen never stopped playing and many performances of his picking during the 80s and 90s is preserved online.

The above performance, really captures the essence of Glen Campbell. Who else can really do this tune? I think the word is ICONIC. While there are many guitar players who sing — Clapton, Richards, Harrison, Gilmour, etc, etc, there are very few singers who can really PLAY. According to his website, Glen Campbell had ‘Twenty-one Top 40 hits with two hitting No. 1. Six Top 20 albums including chart-topper Wichita Lineman. Twenty-seven country Top 10 singles — spanning 22 years — and nine country No. 1 albums.’ If all of the music he appeared on as a session musician is added to the list, his contributions to popular music are staggering! Since so much of his early work and popularity was from the 60s, he reminds me of childhood and he’s always been there making music throughout my adult life as well. Though Glen will be leaving soon, he will leave many treasured gifts and memories behind; a multi-talented man, but first and foremost, a guitar picker par excellence!