Years before he narrated the stop-motion TV special ‘Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ Burl Ives had made a name for himself in Christmas circles with his 1951 single ‘Grandfather Kringle’ (with b-side ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’). It was an unusual tact he choose as he yodelled through a glorious 3 minutes that sounds like it has just descended from the snowy Alps. But the clue as to his positioning in the music industry was in the title because Ives was and still is everyone's favourite grandfather with a voice that is instantly recognisable. A year later in 1952 Ives went the whole hog with his debut Christmas album, the deeply religious ‘Christmas Day In The Morning’ which was a gathering of a quartet of Christmas 45s that came out that year giving the album a total of 8 tracks. Ives must be commended for not sticking to the tried and tested and even the songs we all know like ‘I Saw Three Ships’ were renamed ‘There Were Three Ships’. ‘The Friendly Beasts’ was an old carol that Ives shaped into a folky Christmas ditty with a haunting feel throughout. And much of ‘Christmas Day In The Morning’ has that solemn outlook which really flies in the face of the impression of the ever smiling Burl. So ‘Seven Joys of Mary, Pt. 1’ and ‘Seven Joys of Mary, Pt. 2’ are sparse and Nick Drake sounding in many ways while ‘Jesous Ahatonia’ (aka ‘Huron Carol’) is downright eerie. Neither of the hymns ‘Down in Yon Forest’ nor ‘Kind Herod and the Cock’ changed the momentum but by the end you will have been swept away by the dramatic atmospherics.
Burl’s next Christmas album, 1957’s ‘Christmas Eve With Burl Ives’, would reprise the 8 tracks from his debut Christmas album with 4 additional new tracks. The extras were ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ from his first single, lilting takes of ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, and finally a choral/bell laden ‘What Child Is This (Greensleeves)’ with Burl deepening the tone of his voice to dramatic effect. Although another 7 years would go by before Ives returned to festive duty it was his role in the network TV animation ‘Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ that would turn him into a Christmas legend. As well as voicing the part of narrator/character Sam the Snowman (who looked remarkably like Ives) Ives also sang on several songs for the special which has aired every year on US TV since 1964. The soundtrack was completely written by Johnny Marks but our man made his contributions his own with ‘Have A Holly Jolly Christmas’, ‘Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘Silver and Gold’ going on to become some of his best loved Christmas songs. The instrumentation may have been simple, the production a little less than you might expect but there was so much wide-eyed glee in Burl’s performances it is a big reminder of how special Christmas music can be.
Following the success of ‘Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ Ives would release his best known Christmas album in 1965’s ‘Have A Holly Jolly Christmas’. Gathering the tracks from the Rudolf soundtrack (minus ‘Silver and Gold’) as well as other standards such as ‘Silver Bells’ and ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ this 12-track album was made all the more interesting for its inclusion of some lesser known ditties. Very few will have heard of the slow dance that was ‘Snow For Johnny’, the tender ‘Christmas Child (Loo, Loo, Loo)’ or the overtly religious ‘Christmas Is A Birthday’ but they would have graced any Christmas album.
The mid-sixties would be Ives golden period for Christmas music so 3 years after ‘Have A Holly Jolly Christmas’ his 4th festive LP ‘Burl Ives Christmas Album’ would arrive. By then the folk singer had certainly found his Christmas groove to apply wholesome craft to the mix of religious and secular numbers. As was Ives way he tried his utmost to stay clear of well worn classics and instead gave many of us a first listen to tracks such as ‘Santa Mouse’ (a children’s classic if ever there was one), ‘Happy Birthday Jesus (A Child’s Prayer)’ and ‘The Christmas Story’. This 1968 collection was far more hushed and reverential affair than its predecessor with the singer often using spoken word instead of song to make his point. In many ways this approach gave traditional carols such as ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’ and ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ a beautiful makeover. The results were close to tear inducing and marked Ives out as an imaginative artist beyond his public profile as that of the kindly older gentleman with a unique singing voice.
With Burl Ives legend as a Christmas troubadour par excellence spreading he would show no signs of resting on his laurels for a remarkably ingenious idea for his 5th Christmas album in 1972. Long before ‘Christmas At The White House’ was recorded Ives and his team researched (pre internet remember) the favourite Christmas songs of 13 US presidents. The findings would form the basis for his album with each of the 12 tracks (Jefferson and Eisenhower shared a love for ‘Adeste Fideles’) corresponding to a presidential choice. Like many of Burl’s album ‘Christmas At The Whitehouse’ was released on vinyl but quite mysteriously has never been given a CD reissue. And that can’t have been down to the quality of the material given the warm tidings present on JFK’s ‘Silver Bells’, George Washington’s ‘While Shepherds Watch'd Their Flocks by Night’ and Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Christmas On The Sea’.
Grandfather Christmas would record one more Christmas album in 1972 and as was now the norm he would go about it in a most unusual of ways. ‘Christmas By The Bay’ may have only included one song that Ives had not previously recorded, ‘The Sense of Christmas’, but his band were none other than the United States Navy band with able backup from the Navy’s choral group the Sea Chanters. With its classic snowy/icy artwork this was a lovely way to put a seal (!) on Burl Ives Christmas adventure. The album had a genteel sway throughout with the singer and orchestra seamlessly reliving his best known Christmas charms.
Oh, excuse me, call me Sam.
Burl Ives Sam the Snowman (1964)
What's the matter?
Haven't you ever seen a talking snowman before?