Wednesday, December 10, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Christmas (Baby
Please Come Home)" /
Darlene Love

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

I must have been on the nice-not-naughty list that year back in college when, as the newspaper's record reviewer, I was sent a free copy of  a early 1970's re-release of Phil Spector's Christmas Album. I consider this record a holiday-must-have right up there with Nat King Cole's Christmas album and the Robert Shaw Chorale's Joy to the World.  It's a stocking full of pop standards performed by all the girl groups, underlaid with Spector's trademark wall of sound.

Among its many tasty treats, none is greater than this justly celebrated Darlene Love track.

Like Dean Martin's rendition of "Baby It's Cold Outside," Darlene's version of this 1963 Ellie Greenwich-Jeff Barry song is so perfect, I really don't ever want to hear anybody else sing it. There are dozens of covers out there, but please, folks, beware of imitations.

Inside scoop has it that Phil commissioned this song for his then-wife, Ronnie, but she couldn't give it the raw power Phil had envisioned. Hearing Darlene run through it in the studio, he promptly gave it to her instead. (Add that to Ronnie's grounds for divorce.)  But as usual, Phil was actually right.

Like a lot of pop holiday songs, it really has very little to do with Christmas. The story line is dead simple:  Darlene's guy isn't around, and she wishes he were, and the holiday gaiety makes being alone even harder. "They're singing Deck the Halls / But it's not like Christmas at all / I remember when you were here / And all the fun that we had last year." The particulars remain vague -- f'instance, WHY isn't he there?  Did they break up? Is he a soldier overseas?  Did he go off to prison?  Any and all could be true -- but what really matters is the anguish of her pleas for him to just come home, dammit.

It's not a conversation, really.  I don't get the sense that he's hearing her sing, or even that he will (or can) come home. She's not apologizing or blaming or trying to change the situation in any way. There's no story, just emotion:  She misses him, she misses the good times they used to have, and she feels out of sorts with the world.  It's a song that could easily sound mopey or self-pitying (dig up Death Cab for Cutie's version if you prefer that), but not when Darlene's singing it.  Oh-ho, no, not at all.  And with that buoyant arrangement, it's anything but a downer. What a magical sleight-of-hand that is.

As per usual with a Spector production, there's an amazing line-up of studio musicians here -- Leon Russell on piano, Hal Blaine on drums, arranger Jack Nitzsche on percussion, Tommy Tedesco and Barney Kessel on guitar, Jay Migliori on sax -- even Sonny Bono on percussion, with his wife Cher as one of the backing singers. (They needed more than the usual percussion crew on this album, to add a festive layer of sleigh bells, church chimes and egg shakers to sound like falling snow.)  True, you can never pick out any individuals on a Phil Spector track. But it's good to know they're all there, adding to the joyous avalanche of sound.

Ah, they just don't make 'em like this anymore.


Karen Romano Young said...

My take on this was empowerment: you're not here, you dope, but I'm having a great time without you, now listen to this saxophone solo…

We try not to miss this annual Letterman event. Thanks for this one!

wwolfe said...

My wife and I were amazed by Darlene's final performance of this song on the Letterman show this year: she's 76 and her voice has lost very little range or power from her early 1960s commercial heyday. What a talent!