Special Indeed: A Very Special Christmas at 35

The greatest modern-era Christmas compilation was released in 1987; here’s why it’s so memorable

Various Artists A Very Special Christmas, A&M Records 1987

In the 1970s and 1980s, few pop/rock artists recorded Christmas albums.

There were one-off singles, to be sure, some of which have become holiday classics, from Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” and Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas” to the Eagles’ cover of “Please Come Home for Christmas” and, of course, Wham!’s “Last Christmas.” But albums were another beast; arguably, the only ‘80s pop or rock Christmas album released prior to 1987 was, uh, 1986’s Christmas With The Jets. (My review: no.)

So where does Jimmy Iovine’s labor of love, A Very Special Christmas, fit into the holiday tradition? I’d argue it single-handedly transformed the Christmas album tradition in the United States. AVSC was a landmark in a legion of ways, not just in terms of putting together a collection of new recordings by huge stars of its time – though that shouldn’t go unnoticed – but also in that never before had so many superstars recorded Christmas records at the same time, let alone released them together. This album is, in fact, “very special,” and it stands out from just about every Christmas album produced since its release.

The album’s charity thrust – all of its proceeds, and those from all subsequent releases to this day, are donated to the Special Olympics (as Annie Zaleski reported in 2013, “[royalties from the albums total well over $100 million, which has allowed the Special Olympics’ health and fitness programs to grow in 159 countries”) – made it easier, of course, to solicit top talent for its contents, as did the leadership of Iovine, then an ascendant superproducer. Iovine has come up through the music industry as an engineer, and then producer, on records for the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and U2, so suffice it to say his rolodex was plentiful. Not only did he reach out to the artists on AVSC, he personally produced half of the album’s tracks (including Nicks’s, a staid, album-closing take on “Silent Night,” and U2’s romp through the Phil Spector classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”).

 

VIDEO: U2 “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”

Apart from Michael Jackson and Prince (who offered “Another Lonely Christmas,” but saw it rejected as it had already been released), arguably every major star of the day is present and accounted for here: Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, U2 (in the year they became global superstars), Madonna, Run DMC and Sting all contribute. Each went in different directions, too. Springsteen cut “Merry Christmas Baby” (originally an R&B hit in 1947 for Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers) live with his E Street Band; Sting went all Christmas-chant-goth, foreshadowing his lute phase with “Gabriel’s Message”; Houston returned to church with a soaring read of the gospel standard “Do You Hear What I Hear” (her vocal was reportedly recorded in one take, because that’s how good she was); and Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” got a Betty Boop treatment from Madonna. And then there’s Run-DMC.

Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay recorded the only original for AVSC, and it’s a humdinger. According to DMC, they originally turned the idea down when first asked by their publicist, Bill Adler, afraid he’d want them to do a corny cover version. But Adler had an ace up his sleeve, a copy of Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa.” Talking with The A.V. Club’s Evan Rytlewski in 2013, DMC said:

“So Bill gives Jay the song [“Back Door Santa”] to take to the studio and put the record together. Me and Run, we hadn’t heard the music yet, but Bill keeps trying to convince us to do it. Meanwhile, Jay took the record to the studio, chopped it up and put the music together, and as soon as Run and I heard his beat, we were both like, “Yo, this is dope!” So Run went home to write his rhyme, I ran home to write my rhyme, and we went to the studio and laid it down.” And when you combine the rhymes Run and DMC wrote about their Christmases growing up in Hollis (part of Queens, NYC) with the awesome cut-up job JMJ did on “Back Door Santa,” you get “Christmas In Hollis.”

 

VIDEO: Run DMC “Christmas In Hollis”

(For even more on the genesis of “Christmas in Hollis,” I highly recommend Mitchell Kezin’s 2013 documentary Jingle Bell Rocks!, more broadly about Christmas music collectors, but with a plumb segment all about Run-DMC’s Christmas classic, featuring interviews with both Adler and DMC.) 

Ironically, original pressings of the album featured Bon Jovi’s live take on, no joke, “Back Door Santa.” (It’s fine. Jon’s vocal and Richie Sambora’s guitar solo at least offer some big dumb hair metal pizazz.) Not everything here succeeds; Bryan Adams’s “Run Rudolph Run” is rote karaoke, while the Pointer Sisters’ “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is like a glass of flat champagne, and Nicks’s “Silent Night” is a little dull. Many of the others, however, are really fresh takes on Christmas standards, such as John Mellencamp’s Americana spin on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (totally of a piece with that year’s The Lonesome Jubilee) and Eurythmics’ synth-soaked “Winter Wonderland,” in addition to others mentioned above.  That’s certainly helped make the lion’s share of this album’s cuts become bonafide classics, heard on the radio every year at Christmastime, in eternal gold status. 

 

VIDEO: John Mellencamp “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”

A Very Special Christmas ended up becoming its own cottage industry, spawning several sequels, TV specials, and even compilations, all sporting versions of Keith Haring’s distinctive cover artwork. There are highlights to be found through the series, but as a piece, nothing tops the original album that started it all. One of the biggest reasons so many of the songs found here have become standards is simple: they’re that good.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

 

 

 

 

 

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Thomas Inskeep

Rock and Roll Globe contributor Thomas Inskeep tweets more frequently than he blogs, reviews singles on a regular basis for The Singles Jukebox, and has previously written for SPIN, Seattle Weekly, and Stylus. He lives in Indianapolis, IN.

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