It was Derek Taylor, the eminent Beatles PR, who gave me my first copy of A Christmas Gift For You, Phil Spector’s classic Christmas LP. It was 1972 and Derek was working for WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic) Records at the time, head of Special Projects I think, but had taken it upon himself to promote a record on a competing label. The edition Derek gave me was a reissue on Apple Records, which had nothing to do with Warner Bros, but he had no compunction about moonlighting for his old chums since Spector, who had produced records by John and George, was sort of family I guess. More to the point, Derek believed in the record and felt, rightly, that it deserved the second chance this Apple reissue offered. 

        Before we go any further with this I ought to state that what follows does not in any way excuse Phil Spector’s conviction for the killing of 40-year-old actress Lana Clarkson, following which he was sentenced to 19 years to life, dying in a prison hospital in 2021. Whatever opprobrium was deservedly heaped upon Spector, however, does not reduce the merits of A Christmas Gift For You nor his skills as a record producer, and Derek Taylor had died six years before all this happened. 

        Recorded at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles over many sessions during the summer of 1963, A Christmas Gift For You was first released in the US on Philles, Spector’s own label, on November 22 that year, by a quirk of fate the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Texas. America was in no mood for festive fun, and Spector’s masterpiece died a death as a result. Which is why I was unaware of it until I happened to be in Derek’s office in the week before Christmas 1972. 

        I was too late to join in the merriment to be found in Derek’s Apple office, described in jaw-dropping detail by ‘office hippie’ Richard DiLello in his book The Longest Cocktail Party, but Derek continued to host lower-key, early evening soirees in his corner office at WEA, sitting in his peacock chair and pouring drinks for visiting music writers. It wasn’t unusual for members of The Faces to be hanging out in Derek’s office as they were favourites with the girls who worked there, along with his PA Mandi Newall and the more jovial members of his staff like dapper promo man Des Brown. 

Derek in his peacock chair

        The LP, now retitled Phil Spectors Christmas Album, was playing when I arrived for my festive drink and when I remarked on it, Derek extracted a copy for me from a box of them on the floor beside his desk. “Happy Christmas, old boy,” he said with a twinkle in his eye as I left with it tucked under my arm. When I got back to my flat in Bayswater, I played it for the first time. And I’ve been playing it ever since, though nowadays it’s more likely to be the CD enclosed within the 1991 Back To Mono Spector collection of three separate CDs, 60 tracks in all. 

The Apple reissue I was given 

        A Christmas Gift For You contains 13 tracks; only one of them, the closing ‘Silent Night’ with its monologue by Phil himself, sacred, and from a glance at the titles, you could be forgiven for assuming it was all a bit cheesy. ‘Frosty The Snowman’, ‘Rudolph’ and ‘Marshmallow World’ might appear childish, but from the opening notes of opener ‘White Christmas’, an ascending line on the bass notes of a piano, and Darlene Love’s pronunciation of ‘I’m’ as ‘Ahiyam’, the stage is set for a Christmas record like no other. The wall of sound thunders in and after a couple of verses steps back. “The sun is shining, the grass is green,” Darlene tells us, half talking, half singing. “The orange and palm trees sway. There’s never been such a day in old LA. But it’s December 24th and I’m longing to be up north. So I can have my very own White Christmas. Oooohh yeahhhh… Ahiyam dreaming…” and off we go again, another verse with a closing nod to ‘Jingle Bells’.

        Almost all the tracks are prefaced by brief, melodic orchestral preludes before the Spector mix of guitars, horns, pianos, bass, drums and additional strings kick in, and every track is a joy. “He had a grand idea,” writes my former Melody Maker colleague Richard Williams in Out Of His Head, his Spector book first published in 1972. “He wanted to make a Christmas album. It sounded like a terrible, corny idea, but Spector knew different: playing on the sentimental core hidden inside his freakishness, he decided he wanted to take all the usual Christmas songs and, using all his artists, really do them over differently.”

        Nowadays they’re not so much different as standard, at least in our house. That’s because it’s been played more often than any other Christmas record, so much so that my kids actually assumed that similar sounding ‘wall-of-sound’ tracks by The Ronettes, like ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘Baby I Love You’, and by The Crystals, like ‘Then He Kissed Me’ and ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’, were Christmas songs too, at least until I pointed things out. 

        “It was an artistic triumph,” writes Richard. “He truly captured the secular spirit of Christmas. Listen to The Ronettes’ ‘Sleigh Ride’, to the care with which it is produced, to the bells and horses’ hooves, and to the way Ronnie sounds like she’s singing from inside a big fur coat. Listen to ‘The Bells Of St Mary’, on which Bobby Sheen sings his McPhatterish heart out over one of [Jack] Nitzsche’s most brain-storming arrangements, with an occasional interjection from Darlene and [drummer] Hal Blaine at his wildest on the fade.”

        I couldn’t agree more and this was why I determined to put Richard’s Spector book back into print while I was running Omnibus Press. To this end, Richard and I met in an Indian restaurant on Soho’s Bateman Street and over lunch agreed terms for a new, slightly revised edition of Out Of His Head. The date was February 3, 2003, but little did we know that at the exact moment we were digesting our chicken tikkas, over in LA Phil Spector was being arrested for murder. Some coincidence.

The original UK edition of Out Of His Head, published by Abacus in 1974

The Omnibus Press edition of Out Of His Head, published in 2003

        We emailed one another the next day, both of us astounded by this quirk of fate, one that surely ranks with the original release date of A Christmas Gift For You. 

        As Richard writes: Just as A Christmas Gift For You was hitting the shops, the new came that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. Suddenly no one wanted tinkling glockenspiels and horses hooves and songs about Mommy kissing Santa Claus. Phil Spectors magnum opus was dead in the water. It would take ten years and the patronage of The Beatles before the album emerged from the status of collectors item to claim a permanent as a seasonal favourite.


wardo said...

My take:

Chris Charlesworth said...

Thanks Wardo. CC