Obviously I’ve known for years that Elvis Presley recorded a number of Christmas songs over the years, but I did not know that a bunch of his best-known ones spring from a single album called Elvis’s Christmas Album, and neither did I know that not only is this album one of the best-selling albums of all time, but it is also Elvis Presley’s only diamond-certified album. These are things I learned yesterday from a Facebook post by Sheila O’Malley, who gave me permission to reproduce it here, so here are her words. (If you’re going to inquire as to Sheila’s Elvis fandom credentials, well, to quote Captain America: “Son, just don’t.”)
“ ‘Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight’ sounds absolutely filthy when Elvis sings it. It might be his best blues vocal ever, with those beautiful stops that nobody could do but him.” — Tom PettyWhen I was writing that Eminem piece this summer I went down the rabbit hole of “diamond” albums. There are less than 100 of them IIRC and it is a fascinating and sometimes bizarre list. Adele and Kenny G. Boyz II Men right next to ZZ Top. The Titanic soundtrack! Multiple Garth Brooks albums. MC Hammer. Hootie and Def Leppard. Em’s got 2 diamond albums on there – the Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show. Usher. Carole King hand in hand with Biggie. Wikipedia has the full list – I came across a very funnily written ranked list of all 92 diamond albums (92 at the time – the piece is from 2016 – I’ll link it in the comments.
[AN INTERJECTION: Here’s the piece Sheila mentions, summing up the diamond albums up to 2016. It’s an interesting piece, especially since I had no idea some of these records were THAT huge: “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”? Really? I do remember that album being a big deal, and I even think I own a copy, but I had zero notion that it was that big a deal. Granted, the 1990s were not a period when I was terribly up to date on pop music, but you’d think I’d have heard that that album was doing THAT well.
I also find it slightly irritating that the writer disses the film score tracks from the “Lion King” soundtrack album. “Making you sit through four Hans Zimmer instrumentals in between the two sets (of songs or Elton John tracks) is pretty low,” he writes, which is exactly the kind of dismissive attitude to any kind of music other than what the reviewer prefers that I always find off-putting. It was, actually, this kind of thing that ultimately led to me canceling my ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY subscription many moons ago, but that’s not especially relevant to this discussion. Back to Sheila! -Ed.]
Elvis’ 1957 Christmas album is diamond-certified. It wasn’t reviewed all that well at the time – but of course it sold millions and has gone on to be the best-selling Xmas album in the US as well as one of the best-selling albums – period – of all time. The album is a MONSTER. It was a monster THEN and it’s a monster NOW.In other words: on a list featuring mostly contemporary people like Britney Spears, a Christmas album from 1957 is still going strong.The album features traditional carols, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” (the story about him calling for EP’s version to be banned is … suspect, imo.), and “Here Comes Santa Claus” and of course “Blue Christmas” – the Christmas song always associated with him, with Millie Kirkham’s swoopy soprano in the background (his idea! Everyone else was like, “Uhm, are you sure you want her to do that through the whole song? It’s a bit much.” He loved it. He insisted. He was right. Near the end of her life, Kirkham gave an interview where she joked, “If I was gettin’ royalties, I’d be a rich old woman.”)The B-side features religious songs like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night”. Elvis incorporated gospel in his repertoire from the jump – a bold move for someone who was going where he was going. In his 3rd and final Ed Sullivan appearance in January 1957, where Ed Sullivan shook his hand and looked right into the camera saying, “This is a fine young man” – (which almost single-handedly calmed down the fervor of controversy around him) – Elvis sang “Peace in the Valley” – meanwhile, his “Baby Let’s Play House” – an ode to happily living in sin with your girlfriend – is a #1 hit – at the very same time. And his teenage fans didn’t reject the gospel. “Peace in the Valley” was released as a single at first – and it went to #1. They didn’t make enough albums to satisfy the demand – fans had to WAIT to get “Peace in the Valley.” That was his superpower at the time. When he sang “Peace in the Valley” on the Ed Sullivan show, and he sang it straight, filled with an earnest and simple faith – it created major cognitive dissonance in the “he’s an evil sexpot ruining our youth” crowd.But the opener of the Christmas album, the first song on the album, is one of the raunchiest tracks in his entire raunchy repertoire – and that’s saying something! This is the ferocious and dirty “Santa Claus is Back in Town”, written by the great duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Even to modern ears the song – or, what Elvis does with it – is so over-the-top dirty it still conceivably could be seen as shocking. (There are some good covers – not too many though, because why would you put yourself in the position of competing with the original. Dwight Yoakam’s is good! Totally different feel, but it SWINGS.)The song starts with the Jordannaires quartet crooning sweetly, “Christmaaaaaas Christmaaaas Christmaasss” – there are little bells chiming behind them. Like it’s going to be a sweet little sleigh ride. This is a fake-out. It’s a trick. The Jordannaires say: “This is what you can expect from this song.” You feel safe. You reach for the hot cocoa and settle into your armchair by the fire.And then Elvis arrives. You’ve had no time to prepare for him.The way he sings “You be a real good little girl” is not just dirty, it’s debauched.“Hang up your pretty stockings .. turn off the light … Santa Claus is coming … DOWN YOUR CHIMNEY TONIGHT.” (See Tom Petty’s comment above. You’re almost embarrassed by it, but it’s also so funny!)And listen for his evil cackle during the bridge.The fact that this is the first track … that Elvis didn’t bury it to appease the haters … that he included this track basically alongside “Silent Night” … represents an aspect of him that is still not wholly grasped. He LED with this. I still can’t get over it.Elvis asked you to reconcile the boy who loves Jesus with the boy who cackles like a sexy demon during the bridge of “Santa Claus is Back”. Neither was an act.Can the culture embrace such inclusion and inclusiveness? Can the culture accept the secular and the divine, simultaneously? We are so much more comfortable when only one thing is true at one time.Elvis says, “Both are true. And I’m not the only one who feels that way. Deal with it.”
And here is the entire album, on a single YouTube video. I love a good long epic listen as much as anybody, but there is also something to be said for Elvis Presley creating this much magic in just a single 30 minute record.