|This album was somehow a part of my family's Christmas tradition.|
The Winston Singers.
|Built for comfort, not for speed.|
They sound famous, right? You're pretty sure you've heard of them. They had that one song. Or was it an album? Or maybe it was a TV special with Jim Nabors and the Marine Corps Band. Whatever. They did something.
The truth is that The Winston Singers were a bunch of uncredited session musicians who made two quickie cash-in Christmas albums for a low-budget record label in Pennsylvania called Wyncote
in the mid-1960s. For the most part, their albums weren't even sold in real record stores. Instead, middlemen called "rack jobbers" would rent space in drug stores and department stores to hawk these inexpensive albums to people who were buying sweaters or talcum powder or lawnmowers.
One of those LPs, simply titled Christmas Carols
(aka 14 Christmas Carols
and released in 1964), found its way into my family's music collection, along with my dad's Joan Baez albums and the Sound of Music
soundtrack. We used to bring it out every December, though the only thing we had to play it on was a Fisher-Price portable turntable that was designed to be sturdy rather than acoustically pleasing. Eleven months out of the year, this album was collecting dust in some hall closet.
In retrospect, that was probably for the best. I recently revisited The Winston Singers' album and found it to be mostly terrible. The jacket does not include any sort of credits or liner notes, just plugs for other holiday-themed Wyncote LPs like Organs and Chimes
and Silent Night
. No legitimate singers, musicians, or producers would want their names on an album like Christmas Carols
. Wyncote may not have been at the absolute bottom of the American record industry, but it was in the lower third. The nicest thing I can say about the LP is that it's pressed on good quality, durable vinyl, much better than some of the flimsy compilation albums I've found from the '70s and '80s that are so wobbly they're almost like flexi-discs. (Even the sleeves on those are thin and cheap.)
As its title suggests, Christmas Carols
|The short-lived, low-budget Wyncote Records.|
—which was available in both stereo and mono (our family splurged for the stereo)—consists of chintzy, rinky-dink choral renditions of Yuletide songs like "Jingle Bells," "I Saw Three Ships," and "Joy to the World." The stuff everyone knows, in other words. Of the 14 selections, there were only two titles I didn't immediately recognize: "Hail to Christmas" (from the Babes in Toyland
operetta) and a somber number called "Christmas Hymn," which closes the album.
The music is best described as loud and shouty, with very little subtlety or nuance. Dynamics are not in evidence here. I can't quite tell how many Winston Singers there are. It sounds like maybe five to ten, both men and women. They are accompanied by an organist, whose shrill tones occasionally threaten to drown out the vocals. The mixing seems noticeably "off" somehow. I'm not sure if the singers could hear the organ at all, since they're never quite on pitch. Musically, Christmas Carols
is just not of professional caliber. It's more like what you'd hear at a smallish church or school with limited resources.
The one track I remembered most vividly from my youth was "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." That's a carol I've always liked anyway because it has an eerie, spooky vibe to it. Plus it name checks Satan—rare for a holiday tune. And, sure enough, "God Rest Ye" is probably the strongest part of the entire Christmas Carols
experience. The tinny organ and curdled vocals actually kind of work to the song's advantage.
"Go Tell It on the Mountain," on the other hand, is a disaster. I don't know why the very Caucasian Winston Singers thought they could tackle a spiritual, but they were misinformed. At least this rendition is brief. In fact, all 14 songs on this album are brief. I doubt anything goes past three minutes. A wise decision. Christ is merciful; albums recorded in his name should be, too.
Overall, despite its many technical shortcomings, Christmas Carols
fulfills its destiny, which is to be generic, instantly recognizable holiday music. On that count, it succeeds where the bombastic Mannheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra so often fail. The Winston Singers' LP is something (mostly) unobtrusive to have on in the background at a holiday party, for instance. My folks used to have big Christmas parties at our house every year, inviting mostly work friends, and I'm sure this record got some playtime there. You could also listen to the album while wrapping presents or trimming a tree. Maybe we used it for that, too.
|The sophomore (and farewell) LP.|
this obscure, indifferently made Christmas album from 1964—probably the result of an afternoon's work by people who did not care how it turned out—became an integral part of my family's holiday traditions. It served in that capacity for at least a decade, maybe more. Because I associated this record with vacations and presents, I was even excited to see the ugly LP cover, which depicts some creepy, dead-eyed Dickensian caroler figurines in an unflattering close-up.
I'd say we got our $1.99's worth out of this LP.
No other Christmas album ever had quite the same importance in our household as the Wyncote budget record, but there were a few pretenders to the throne. My mother bought a copy of A Very Special Christmas
in 1987, for instance, only to be horrified that it contained a newfangled rap song, "Christmas in Hollis" by Run-D.M.C. Even the offerings by Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, and Bruce Springsteen were too noisy for her liking. About the only track that met with her approval was "The Coventry Carol" by Alison Moyet.
Maybe The Winston Singers were on to something. Or maybe not. They released a second album, Little Drummer Boy
, in 1966. The title track was the only new recording on it; the other nine songs were borrowed directly from Christmas Carols
. Neither "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" nor "Go Tell It on the Mountain" made the cut. Wyncote Records went under the next year.