100 Essential CDs – Number 31 – Phil Spector/Various Artists – A Christmas Gift For You


A Christmas Gift For You (Phil Spector Records 2002)

UK Chart Position – 19 (in 1983)


Now, I know this is going to be a controversial choice.  I am in no way condoning the actions of Phil Spector that currently finds him a convicted killer in the American prison system.  The man is undeniably a disturbed individual whose drive for perfection has pushed him over the edge to paranoia and madness.  He is the mastermind behind this recording but to ignore what is undoubtedly the best Christmas album of all time and the role of the artists who take part in this recording also doesn’t feel right.

philspector2Phil and Ronnie Spector

In the UK these songs can be heard on the radio at Xmas time and appear on many compilations.  It’s not like convicted paedophile Gary Glitter who was at one time another voice of Christmas who is never played publicly.  There’s also precedence here in someone who was known as the British Phil Spector, Joe Meek, who shot his landlady  and then himself in a murder-suicide in 1967.  This also horrific act has not prevented play of his biggest hit “Telstar” by the Tornados (once oddly cited as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite pop song!).  The writing was on the wall early on for Spector, a man who is often described as a meglomaniac, who as a young artist and songwriter macabrely used his father’s graveyard epitaph “To Know Him Is To Love Him” as the inspiration for his first number one hit for his group The Teddy Bears and virtually imprisoned wife Ronnie which she recounted in her chilling autobiography “Be My Baby” (1990) and was rumoured to bring guns to the recording studio.  There was a horrific car accident in the mid 70’s and years of recluse before the fateful shooting in 2003 and subsequent incarceration for murder in the second degree.


But, I’ve decided to put the history of Spector behind me in this celebration of a joyful Christmas album, which has been with me for as long as I can remember.  Just as the John Lewis or Coca-Cola ads signify the start of Christmas nowadays in Christmas pasts for me the festive season never really got going until I heard The Ronettes sing “Frosty The Snowman” on the radio (although Christmas started much later when I was young!) 

This album was originally released in 1963.  This is the digitally remastered CD which appeared on Phil Spector records in 2002.  It has been released countless times over the years. At one time it was re-released on the Beatles’ Apple Records.  It has appeared regularly in Billboard’s Christmas Music chart listings and its UK chart peak was 19 in 1983 when it was teamed up with a greatest hits album.  I would have played this many times over that festive period.  It has appeared on Rolling Stone magazines list of the greatest album of all time, appears in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and is apparently the all-time favourite album of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, whose layered vocal harmonies of their hits is a direct nod towards Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound”.  It hasn’t sounded quite the same since Spector’s incarceration but a Christmas has never gone by without me listening to it. The All Music Guide To Soul publication rates it five stars and describes it as “This is the Christmas album by which all later holiday releases had to be judged, and it has inspired a host of imitators.”

philspector4Darlene Love

It is part of my own little Yuletide tradition that every December 24th I have to hear Darlene Love perform her version of “White Christmas” which opens this CD. The reason for this is that little spoken bit when she says – “It’s December 24th”, I like to say “it is” before she carries on with “I’m longing to go up north.”.  Opening with that fabulous echoey sound and taken at a faster pace than Bing’s version.  This is the LA version of “White Christmas” as the sunny weather is making Darlene nostalgic for a bit of snow.  This is my favourite version of the song, I’ve always found Bing’s version to be a bit depressing but this is full of anticipation, snow and, amazingly, sunshine.  It’s not all about the production here as Darlene’s vocal performances on all her tracks are a treat.

philspector5The Ronettes out looking for Frosty The Snowman

Next up is that Christmas song I have always looked out for from a child, the tale of “Frosty The Snowman” by the Ronettes.  Great use of pizzicato strings gives the feeling of ice, the great split second pause after Ronnie Spector sings “Stop!” and those delightfully naïve lyrics makes this a gem of a Christmas tune.  “The Bells Of St. Mary’s”, a less familiar song which dates from 1917 has lyrics which I really don’t know what’s going on but I know that lyrically it has no connection with Christmas.  That apparently came when it was linked with a festive scene in the Bing Crosby film of the same name and with Bings’ close connection with Hollywood Christmases, this song found itself being associated with the season despite lyrics such as the bells calling “the young loves/the true loves/who come from the sea”. It always makes me think of mermaids and the falling red leaves puts it very much in the autumn time zone.  Bob B Soxx and The Blue Jeans are given a massive production here and at times it’s a bit of a battle but the lead singer Bobby Sheen, with Darlene Love and Fanita James on back-up just about avoids being swamped.

philspector6Bob B Soxx and The Blue Jeans

The Crystals’ “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” begins with a spoken intro about Santa’s workshop and kicks off a storming version which has inspired most other versions since then, especially the arguably more famous version by Bruce Springsteen. There’s a  greathonking sax solo.  The lasting influence of this album is also evidenced in the next track The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride” which opens with woodblocks and a neighing horse into a “Ring-a-ring- a- ring -dong-ding” backing vocals.  This song is a certain inspiration for what must know be the biggest Xmas song of all time, Mariah Carey’s pension-fund “All I Want For Christmas Is You”.  23 years on from it’s original release Mariah’s song is currently sitting at number 5 in the UK Top 40 charts where it makes an appearance every year, as it races up charts all around the world.  It has actually never topped the UK Christmas charts and has never made the Top 10 in her homeland but this is now the most recognisable Yultetide song, eclipsing the Slades and Wizzards of my youth.  The Ronettes who provide this track with its inspiration do a glorious version of this song written by Leroy Anderson who was also responsible for the lovely instrumental track “The Typewriter”. It has the real feel of the warmth returning to all your regions after some time out in the snow!

philspector7The Ronettes had a fabulous, fierce image

There’s some neo-classical string work to open up another one of the gems of the album the relentless “It’s A Marshmallow World” by Darlene Love.  This song was once again originally a hit for Bing Crosby but I cannot imagine his version has anywhere near the gusto that Darlene puts into it.  An absolute treat of a track. 

There’s footsteps and a smacker of a kiss to introduce the return of The Ronettes for “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”.  Here’s another song which has inspired other versions including the Jackson Five where Michael is unusually irritating as the tell-tale who’s going to tell Daddy what he’s seen Mommy doing!   The Crystals’ version of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” is reminiscent of “Frosty The Snowman” but not quite as good.  Darlene Love is back as the voice of Christmas with “Winter Wonderland” and it is hard not to sing along she frolics and plays “ the eskimo way”. 


The Crystals

My favourite of the Crystals tracks on display is “Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers”.  This song was originally a march for the piano written at the end of the nineteenth century with its English lyrics dating from the early 1920’s.  I love this tale of a toy shop coming alive and amongst wood blocks and chimes the girls put in a great vocal performance.  There’s a fabulous sense of kitsch to the whole thing.  I love it and it is another of the joys of Christmas.

The one original song written for this album has become a Christmas standard.  Spector alongside Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich gave “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)” to Darlene although it was originally written for Ronnie Spector. It’s a big song which requires big emotions and is probably better suited for Darlene’s voice.  In 2010 this was named Rolling Stone magazine’s best Rock N Roll Christmas song and there is no doubt the sense of yearning Darlene puts across in her vocals has made this of lasting importance. It builds to a thundering climax and is a great example of that Wall of Sound in action.  Other notable versions of the song have been recorded by Michael Buble, Mariah Carey and Leona Lewis and it’s often featured in Christmas movies.


Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans are back for a song written and made famous by Hollywood’s Singing Cowboy, Gene Autrey and “Here Comes Santa Claus” which has some great trumpet work amongst the wood blocks, chimes and bells.  The whole thing is rounded up by Phil Spector himself who hovers between the pretentious and creepy with his spoken voice-over of “Silent Night” as he explains his reasoning behind the album.  There’s something always morbidly fascinating about this track and when he finishes his bit it does have a real surge of angelic voices.  As this has been playing as I write this my partner has come in to the room to sit and listen and say “Why do I have to stop to listen to this every year and why do my eyes fill with tears when Spector thanks Darlene Love”?.  I’m not sure either but I know what he means. 

Phil Spector believed that he was making an album which would be revolutionary in the music industry and that it was something nobody had done before, doing something special for the music of Christmas.  Fifty-four years on suggests that this was successful.  Away from the holiday season Spector produced so many amazing records, my favourite of which being “He’s A Rebel” for the Crystals but also all-time classics for The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, Ike & Tina Turner, The Ramones and The Beatles both as a group and on solo projects.  If only the rest of his personal life had brought as much joy.

There are many versions of Darlene Love singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on YouTube as it was an annual event on the David Letterman Show and latterly on “The View” which I think is the US Version of “Loose Women”.  Here Darlene is joined by R&B star Fantasia.


A Christmas Gift For You is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £2.72.  It can be downloaded for £4.99 . In the US it is available  from $3.26 and $5.99 as a download.  In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify,

100 Essential CDs – Number 81 –Ben E King – Stand By Me- The Ben E King Collection



Stand By Me: The Ben E King Collection (Warner Platinum 2005)

The story goes that in 1958 twenty year old Benjamin Nelson was lead singer of a group called The Five Crowns.  They had a good local following and appeared at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem alongside a much bigger group The Drifters.  The Drifters had come off a run of big hits but since their lead singer Clyde McPhatter had left the group had become directionless.  Something their manager George Treadwell was aware of.  He sacked the whole group and took the Five Crowns on as The Drifters, who now had a new lead singer in Nelson, who had a likeable baritone voice.  Originally not a popular move with concert-goers the new group went into the studio and began a run of all-time classic hits.  In time Nelson became Ben E King and as the lead voice of The Drifters recorded such songs as “Save The Last Dance For Me”, “This Magic Moment” “Dance With Me” and “I Count The Tears” four tremendous tracks which appear on this 20 track CD and have also been discussed in what is very much a companion Essential CD – Dance With Me- The Drifters Collection also released by Warner on its Platinum subsidiary label in 2005.


King’s tenure as lead vocalist for the Drifters was surprisingly short-lived.  After approaching the prickly Treadwell for a rise which was turned down King went solo.  Like McPhatter before him he was retained by Atlantic Records.  In 1960 he began working with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – two of the greatest songwriters and producers of this era.  Working with them at the time was a young wannabe megalomaniac Phil Spector, who had come off a number 1 hit of his own as part of The Teddy Bears- whose “To Know Him Is To Love Him” is macabrely surely the only hit that is based upon the epitaph on a writer’s (Spector again) father’s gravestone.  Spector hung around studios absorbing everything and wrote alongside Leiber and Stoller (although only Leiber was credited at the time) “Spanish Harlem”.

             Leiber and Stoller working with Elvis             Phil Spector with Darlene Love

This is a lovely song which is just perfect for King’s crystal clear delivery and excellent diction.  The latin flavour gives it very much a feel of what he had been doing with The Drifters.  This became his first solo hit reaching number 10 in the US charts. In the UK a cover version by Jimmy Justice went to number 20 in 1962, the same year he also scored a top 10 hit with a version of the Drifters’ “When My Little Girl Is Smiling.”  Eleven years later Aretha Franklin did better with her version (US#2, UK#14) and whereas there is no faulting the Aretha vocal it does feel very much like a cover version.


Aretha also had success with another song on this album “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” written by Ahmet Ertegun and Betty Nelson (Ben E. King’s wife).  King’s original is taken at quite a leisurely pace and became his 4th US Pop Top 40 hit reaching #11 in 1962.  Aretha took it at a more urgent pace with a gospel call and response feel and in 1970 also got to #11 in the US and #13 in the UK.  I like the original version but I think in this case Aretha’s cover is the stronger track – making it one all between them.


Between these two Aretha covered single releases came the song which is an all time soul classic. I get goosebumps from the first moments of the introduction of “Stand By Me” that scraping guiro sound and guitar riff.  It is a superbly written song and one of the most significant pop songs of the 1960’s.  Written by King alongside Leiber and Stoller it was originally intended for his old group, The Drifters, who passed on it and King ended up putting his marvelous vocal to the track.  Released in 1961 after “Spanish Harlem” it reached number 4 in the US charts becoming his biggest hit.  In the UK it stalled at an inexplicable #27, matching the chart position of his previous UK hit “First Taste Of Love” (a track not on this CD).  It was a song that would not fade and artists such as John Lennon and Kenny Lynch had hits with it.  It has been a hit in many different languages and over 300 artists have recorded a version.  The music world had not finished with Ben E. King’s version, however.  In 1986 the song was central to the excellent film of the same name directed by Rob Reiner and starring River Phoenix.  It fitted the mood of the film perfectly.  It was re-released in the US where it got to number 27 and in the UK was concurrently used in a Levi 501 Jeans advert.  This, together with the exposure in the film, certainly did the business and in February 1987 it topped the UK charts for three weeks.  In 1999 it was certified as the 4th most played song of the century.  In 2015 it was entered into the US National Recording Registry because of its immense significance.  A 2012 BBC4 TV show “The World’s Richest Song” placed it as the 6th highest earning song of all time- a massive achievement when you consider “Happy Birthday” and the once a year most famous Christmas songs were on the list.  “Stand By Me” is certainly worth the price of this CD alone.


But there is more to Ben E King than “Stand By Me” although after this release in the early 60’s he was suffering from diminishing returns.  The delightfully cheesy old Bing Crosby hit “Amor” in which King is really playing around with his vocal was a follow-up single (US#18, UK#38).  For a man who penned one of the greatest hits of the century it is surprising that King became somewhat fond of the cover version and we do have quite a few on this CD.  There’s an odd version of “I Could Have Danced All Night” the “My Fair Lady” song which just doesn’t work, there’s a good “Moon River” and a passable “Dream Lover”, which doesn’t challenge the Bobby Darin original.

King also recorded the first English version of a standard pop song “I (Who Have Nothing) an Italian song with English lyrics by Leiber and Stoller and got to number 29 in the US in 1963.  This is a song which became better known by artists such as Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones and Sylvester and which for some reason does not appear on this CD.  What does appear is King’s version of another song associated with Bassey- “What Now My Love”, an English language version of a big French chart-topper by Gilbert Becaud. Bassey had reached the UK Top 5 in 1962.  King’s version, recorded two years later, shows him having a good go, without getting the chart success of later American versions by Sonny and Cher, Herb Alpert and Mitch Ryder.

The lesser known songs of this period are amongst the highlights of this CD.  “Walking In The Footsteps Of A Fool” from 1962, “Here Comes The Night” from 1961 and “It’s All Over” from 1964 are all great examples of songs which straddle the lines between pop and the developing soul sound.  By 1964 the British Invasion was dominating the UK and US charts and the huge popularity of Motown was introducing a younger R&B sound and many artists including Ben E King found their hit careers stalling.  There’s evidence in some of the later tracks of King trying a more gutsy vocal- in fact, his vocal on the 1966 track “What Is Soul?” is pushing him into the Otis Redding/Wilson Pickett bracket.  It is somewhat overdone.  It actually sounds less like Ben E King and more like the vocals of the Gibson Brothers of “Que Sera Me Vida” fame but it’s a determined effort to fit into the more Southern soul sound of the mid 60’s.



And suddenly Ben E King in the mid 70’s was relevant again.  This was a result of the closing track on this CD the space age disco-funk of “Supernatural Thing” which gave him a US #5 Pop hit in 1975- some 14 years after his first hit.  Saved from the oldies circuit he recorded an album with Scottish funksters The Average White Band, which was critically well received, especially “A Star In The Ghetto”.  Twelve years after this his fortunes would change again with the re-release of “Stand By Me”.


Ben E King died in 2015 at the age of 76.  He was survived by his wife Betty, who had penned “Don’t Play That Song”, after a marriage of over 50 years.  It is inevitable that he will most be remembered by one song but there was a lot more to his career than this and a handful of vocals for The Drifters and this CD is an excellent example of this.


Stand By Me : The Ben E King Collection  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £13.22, and used from £11.03 and as a download for £3.49.  In the US it is currently $6.70 new and used from $0.63.