The Joy and Darkness of a Christmas Classic: A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
The famous 1963 Christmas compilation album helmed by Phil Spector remains both a well-loved festive classic and a fantastic technical achievement, despite the unpleasant circumstances of its recording and release.
The 22nd of November, 1963 changed history for one overwhelming reason - it was on this date that US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a gunman as his car made its way through the streets of Dallas, Texas. This world-shaking event understandably came to define this date in history, and overshadow all other happenings of that day.
In dramatic contrast to such violent and troublesome news, the 22nd November 1963 also saw the release of an album which has gone on to become nothing short of iconic and to represent wholesomeness, innocence, and childlike wonder. Initially largely ignored - perhaps due to the news, perhaps just through lack of promotion - mastermind producer Phil Spector’s compilation A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector has been listened to in millions of households across the world in the half a century since its release. If you don’t own a copy of the album, you’ve certainly heard tracks such as “Sleigh Ride” or “A Marshmallow World” while doing your Christmas shopping.
With the help and collaboration of a spectacular roster of artists from his own Philles Records label, Spector produced a collection of cover versions of holiday standards (plus one original song) recorded with his trademark “Wall of Sound” production style that he was dominating the pop music charts within the early 1960s.
Spector’s “Wall of Sound” style was already recognisable in 1963 - only a few months earlier he had arranged, recorded and produced girl group The Ronettes’ iconic single “Be My Baby”, (which is, for my money, one of the greatest American pop songs of all time) a dazzling anthem to romantic yearning that combined straightforward melodic and harmonic simplicity with deceptively intricate and grandiose instrumentation. “Be My Baby”, like the myriad of other pop classics that Spector had already produced at this point, is perhaps the purest distillation of the “Wall of Sound” - a style of production that focused on recording in cavernous, echoing spaces, with multiple instruments layered together playing the same section, to create new and innovative sounds that had never been heard before. The result was a vast, symphonic, reverb-soaked sound that carried a sweeping romanticism largely unseen in pop music until that point.
In addition to Spector’s genius in the studio was the talent of those he worked with - primarily female vocal groups with soul-inspired harmonies. A Christmas Gift for You… continued this tradition, with contributions from Spector-approved artists such as The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Darlene Love.
The Crystals had also had a Spector-produced hit that July - alongside “Be My Baby” was the magnificent “Then He Kissed Me”, with its instantly-recognisable chiming guitar intro, powerhouse lead vocals of Dolores “LaLa” Brooks (who had also led the group’s earlier single “Da Doo Ron Ron”), and an iconic later use in Martin Scorcese's 1990 mob classic Goodfellas which further cemented its legacy nearly thirty years later.
Although the juxtaposition of the youthful innocence of the music of these “girl groups” with a story of violence and crime may seem strange, the true stories behind Spector’s recording sessions of the 1960s also reveal a darkness behind the joy of the music itself. Spector’s controlling and cruel behaviour towards his collaborators, both in and out of the studio, is well-documented. LaLa Brooks detailed long, hardworking conditions at LA’s Gold Star Studios without breaks, all at Spector’s behest: “I would be there from 1pm to 1am as a teenager. It was like child abuse.”
Spector's tyrannical, possessive nature wasn’t confined to the workplace either - a litany of accusations from Ronnie Spector (lead singer of The Ronnettes and onetime wife of Spector) ranges from imprisoning her in their house and forbidding her to perform, to installing a coffin in their basement which he claimed that he would display her corpse if she were to leave him (thankfully, she managed to escape his physical and emotional clutches in 1972). Spector is currently serving a sentence of nineteen years to life for the 2003 shooting of actress Lana Clarkson, a charge that is all too easy to believe considering his ex-wife Ronnie’s claims that he would frequently threaten her with a gun during their marriage, and even attempted to hire her assassination after their separation.
It is all too easy to call A Christmas Gift for You… one of Spector’s musical masterpieces - and his production on the album is certainly incredible - but to overlook the outstanding work of the artists assembled and worked to the bone would not only be grossly unfair but would play into Spector’s narcissism and use of others for his own self-glorification. Aside from the album’s production, which defines its cohesive sound despite multiple contributing artists, is the work of The Wrecking Crew, a loose collective of LA-based session musicians such as drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye, and guitarist Tommy Tedesco. The Wrecking Crew were as vital to the album, and the “Wall of Sound” style in general, as Spector was himself.
The vocal work on the album is also one of its defining traits, as it is one of the defining traits of the ‘60s “girl group” sound that Spector helped popularise. Darlene Love’s powerful, husky vibrato carries “White Christmas”, “A Marshmallow World”, and “Winter Wonderland”, making them some of the most definitive and iconic recordings of these standards. Love also sings the only original composition on the album, the stellar “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, which combines thumping drums with orchestral grandiosity and “Be My Baby”-esque backing vocals, and almost reaches that song’s genius and cultural influence.
The Ronettes themselves also appear frequently - with their version of “Sleigh Ride” being perhaps the most well-known cut from the collection, and “Frosty the Snowman” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” also being brought to life by their phenomenal performing talents and the infectious sense of fun and energy that they add to all of their material. The Crystals’ tracks - “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, and “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers”- bring similar exuberant thrills.
It wasn’t just “girl groups” that appeared on the album, however: Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, one of Spector’s only male-led vocal groups, contribute covers of “The Bells of St. Mary” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” that fit perfectly with the album’s festive sound. The final track “Silent Night” brings every artist featured on the album together to provide an orchestral and choral version of the timeless carol, with a narrated message from Spector himself where he wishes the listener a Merry Christmas and thanks everyone who helped him bring the album to life. Unfortunately, the monologue is a touch saccharine even without knowledge of Spector's dark side, and downright hypocritical with that knowledge.
The ‘60s “girl group” sound was defined by the combination of a youthful, sugary-sweet pop sound with rich, warm instrumentation and production - so it is no surprise that it translates so well to a Christmas album. The concept of the “Christmas album” was hardly new in the 1960s, and continues to this day, but it is hard to argue against A Christmas Gift for You… being the most memorable and proficient.
Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys (who attempted to contribute a piano part to the album, but it didn’t make the final cut) has even named the album his favourite of all time - and you can hear its clear musical and production influence on Wilson’s own classics such as Pet Sounds. Despite the album’s unpleasant circumstances, the final product remains a holiday classic, and most likely will for decades to come.