My Pop Life #131 : Santa Claus Is Coming To Town – The Crystals


Santa Claus Is Coming To Town   –   The Crystals

Jimmy, I just came back from a lovely trip along the milky way
I stopped off at the North Pole to spend the holiday
I called on old, dear Santa Claus to see what I could see
He took me to his workshop and told his plans to me
Now Santa is a busy man, he has no time for play
He’s got millions of stockings to fill come Christmas day
You better write your letter now and mail it right away
Because he’s getting ready, his reindeers and his sleigh…

You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I’m telling you why….                                  Santa Claus Is Coming To Town…

I expect most of us raised as christians can remember the day when we discovered that Santa Claus would Not in fact Be Coming To Town.  For the simple reason that he didn’t actually exist.  A moment of private devastation.  But we carried on telling each other the story, spinning the yarn.

I was eight years old at the little flint-walled village school in Selmeston in East Sussex, in the shadow of the South Downs.  My holy ground now, filled with echoes and ghosts.  Then, it was filled with wonder and nature.   Seasons changing.   Discovery.  One December day a small group of us were discussing Santa Claus before the teacher arrived.  One child, which one I simply cannot recall, ventured the terrible truth to a sceptical audience of believers that Santa Claus didn’t actually exist.  Like an anvil dropping through the floor this news broke each and every one of us.  Something which perhaps we’d suspected but secretly hoped wasn’t true.  Now it seemed confirmed, announced, solid news to sulk over.  Would Christmas still happen ?  Of course it would.  The stocking was filled by Mum and Dad when we were asleep.  I decided to stay awake all night on Christmas Eve and catch them doing it.  Like probably millions of other small children around the world.  Did I then proceed to break the news to my brother Paul who was a two two innocent years younger than I ?  Memory does not supply the answer but perhaps I needed company in my newly-found Christmas loneliness.  Or perhaps I locked the secret away.

The Crystals in 1963

I never did see my parents or my Mum when she was single fill my stocking, or indeed deliver it unto my bed.  I never did feel it either.  It remains the greatest single thrill available to my memory of Christmas, to wake up on Christmas morning and feel a bulging mysterious generously-filled football sock stuffed with surprises, fruit, nuts, PRESENTS !  God it was exciting, whether Santa did it or not.  At some point (12 – 13-14?) the sock was over, and I felt suddenly grown-up.

My wife Jenny was raised Catholic in North London and has a much more scarring tale of Santa Claus Not Coming To Town.  Her brother Jon, older, and Jenny herself at five, had been bothering their mother, Esther, about writing to Santa Claus, when would he be coming, what would he bring, would they meet him, could they see him, how was he going to get in, there wasn’t a chimney.  “Be quiet both of you !!” Esther suddenly screamed : “Father Christmas is dead !!!”  There was a shocked silence.  Esther decided to explain, I imagine their little faces were as shocked as it is possible to witness.  “He died over 300 years ago his real name is Saint Nicholas, so stop asking me about him it is just a story !!!”  What Esther perhaps hadn’t calculated was that Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St Nick and their avatars are a useful tool for keeping young children in line in December, perhaps earlier.  As the lyrics of the song go : “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…

There were two younger sisters in the Christmasses following, Mandy and Lucy, and to protect them against a similar fate, Jon and Jenny kept up the Santa Claus myth, colluded in the cover story and even helped to fill the stockings on Christmas Eve.  But Jenny told me, today, that she never did have a stocking on Christmas morning, ever.  I have to confess that I felt sorry for her, and vowed that I would create that experience for her at some future date.  Next Christmas !

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town was written by Tin Pan Alley partners John Frederick Coots (who also wrote Love Letters In The Sand) and Haven Gillespie (who also wrote You Go To My Head)  and it was performed live on the radio in November 1934.  The morning after the Eddie Cantor show there were over 10,000 requests for the sheet music, and it remains one of the biggest hits in popular music.  Covers include Perry Como in 1951, Four Seasons in 1963, The Jackson Five in 1970 and Bruce Springsteen in 1975 (1985 release), as well as Frank Sinatra, Lou Rawls, The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus, Bing Crosby, The Pointer Sisters, Justin Beiber and Mariah Carey among many many others.

I’ve chosen The Crystals version which appears on the famous LP  Phil Spector : A Christmas Gift For You simply because, like so many tracks on that glorious album, it is the best version to my ears, both in arrangement, feeling and enjoyability.  The LP was put together in Los Angeles with Spector’s own artists Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals and Bobb B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans backed by the world-famous “Wrecking Crew” in a production arrangement that mirrored the Detroit scene at Tamla Motown.

Jack Nitzsche, Darlene Love, Phil Spector recording The Christmas album in 1963

The Wrecking Crew (whose moniker is disputed by bassist Carol Kaye who claims it was invented in the 1990s by drummer Hal Blaine) were young session musicians at the beginning of an illustrious career which would see them backing Nancy Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, The Mamas & The Papas, The 5th Dimension, The Carpenters and Simon & Garfunkel among others.   Here under the direction of Spector and Jack Nitzsche they were creating what would become known as “The Wall Of Sound” where everything including the kitchen sink was thrown into the mix and the resulting songs changed pop history, such as Be My Baby by The Ronettes (July 1963) which epitomises the effect, and on this LP,   the magnificent Sleigh Ride – an auditory and musical marvel of a piece of work, alongside The Crystals wonderful re-working of the standard Santa Claus Is coming To Town.

The Crystals

The Crystals were signed as teenage talent in 1961 from Central Commercial High School at E33rd St in New York City, and famously, Myrna Giraud, Barbara Alston and Mary Thomas recorded their first single There’s No Other (Like My Baby) in their prom dresses having been driven to the studio directly from their High School Prom in 1961.

They went on to cut three of the best singles of all time : Da Do Ron Ron, He’s A Rebel and Then He Kissed Me, all on Phil Spector’s Philles label, but their line-up changed constantly and Spector would sometimes put out records with The Crystals name on it and other singers such as Darlene Love or The Ronettes singing the song.  This tended to strain the relationship, if you can call svengali/teenage girl  “a relationship”.

Same Crystals line-up in their civvies

Eventually the group left for United Artists in 1964, but ironically all their best work was with the manipulative and oppressive pop genius Spector and his partner Jack Nitzsche.  The one constant in the constantly-changing group line-up was Dolores Dee Dee Kenniebrew who was also present at that famous first recording in Manhattan and she still sings with The Crystals today.

Dee Dee Kenniebrew

Their version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, recorded in 1963, was the first to change the chorus to take the first note off the one-beat, onto the off-beat giving it the drum break and the excitement we hear in the Motown versions, Springsteen‘s live take, The Beach Boys and all others since that date – more or less making earlier versions seem plodding and square.   Do we have to credit Spector with that ?  Or Nitzche ?

After The Brighton Beach Boys had been together for a few years the idea of performing a Christmas gig became irresistible, and after we’d worked out Brian Wilson’s  Little Saint Nick (itself a homage to Phil Spector like much of The Beach Boys early work) we looked at other songs from The Beach Boys Christmas Album, and this one leaped out and demanded an outing.   We’d been booked to play The Pavilion Theatre (poster above by Rory Cameron) which was as close as we ever got to cultural establishment respectability and we wanted to make an effort.  For that particular show I found an amazing triptych mural which my friend Jan Gage had painted for our  wedding reception – a three-part giant homage to Hokusai’s The Wave on which we had printed our invitations.  It felt appropriate to Catch A Wave and so it hung behind the drum kit.  Rather amazingly Jan Gage and her boyfriend Vince came down to Brighton for this show and it remained the only time a) that she saw the band and b) that we used that triptych because Jenny, rightly, said she wanted it preserved for all eternity rather than have it driven around to gigs in the back of a van.

Hokusai : The Wave

As for the song in question, we ended up doing a slightly star-spangled version arranged by Stephen Wrigley  which started like The Beach Boys with close vocal acapella, styled like The Jackson 5 with their underpinned harmony and finished with Springsteen – a Clemons-style raging baritone saxophone solo courtesy of Charlotte Glasson, in-between sounding absolutely nothing like The Crystals, but owing them a debt of arrangement.  I sing the bass on this song, from deep F to even deeper Bb.  We stole Clarence Clemons‘ baritone aside “You better be good for goodness sake” from the Springsteen version because we are frankly shameless musically, especially at Christmas.

Clarence Clemons & Bruce Springsteen

So Santa Claus Is Coming To Town this week (it is December the 21st 2015) and …he also isn’t.  We like to tell each other these stories.  We prefer stories to The Truth.  Obvious reasons.  Stories are better, good guys win, we live happily ever, we learn life lessons etc etc, all that.  Santa Claus is pretty harmless though isn’t he?  She ? Is he black ?  Malaysian ?  We are all Santa Claus aren’t we ?  Coming to Town.  Driving Home For Christmas.  Are you hanging up your stocking on the wall ?

Barbara, Dee Dee, La La and Fran

Enjoy your holiday, wherever you may be.

just for fun we nicked the harmonies from The Jackson 5:  

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