Monday, December 23, 2013

Holiday (Modern and Sad): Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)

Darlene Love: Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)

If the Band song I wrote about earlier isn’t my favorite holiday song, then maybe “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is. And I’m not the only one—in 2010, Rolling Stone chose it as the greatest rock and roll Christmas song of all time.

There are many things about this song that are remarkable. First, unlike the Band song, it is a wholly secular song. Yes, it mentions church bells, but it is not about anything religious. It is about the sadness of being separated from one’s love during the holidays. Yet despite its sad message it has become a true Christmas classic because of its exuberance. (There is a totally secular version of the song, titled “Johnny (Baby Please Come Home)” which is perfectly fine, but lacks the extra emotion squeezed out of the holiday setting).

Another remarkable thing about the song is the vocal performance by Darlene Love.  It was written for a Phil Spector produced Christmas album by legendary songwriting team Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, and it was intended for Ronnie Spector. But she reportedly failed to give the song the emotional punch that it needed, and instead, Spector turned to Love, who nailed it. One of the best movies that I saw in 2013 was 20 Feet From Stardom, about the difficulties that face backup singers, including Love. One of the most poignant parts of the film is Love’s story of hearing this song come on the radio while she was cleaning a bathroom in someone else’s house. According to Love, she realized that music was her calling, which the world can be thankful for. Although Love never became a superstar, she became a well-respected singer and actress and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

Love appeared in a revue, Leader of the Pack, featuring Greenwich's songs, which, in its early, pre-Broadway, incarnation, included Paul Shaffer as Spector. This relationship led to Love performing the song on the last pre-Christmas episode of Letterman’s show each year since 1986 (except for 2007, when a writer’s strike resulted in the showing of a rerun of the 2006 performance). Here’s a video from this year’s show featuring the 72-year old Love belting the crap out of the song, with a band of what looks like hundreds.

Not only did Love give an incredible performance on the original, the backing musicians are amazing. Spector’s trademark wall of sound is clearly in evidence, with massed background vocals from The Blossoms, The Crystals and The Ronettes, as well as a teenaged Cher. The band included members of the legendary Wrecking Crew, including drummer Hal Blaine, Leon Russell on piano, guitarist Barney Kessel, along with Sonny Bono on percussion. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is one of the most popular holiday songs to cover, by artists as diverse as KT Tunstall, Joey Ramone, Death Cab for Cutie, Jon Bon Jovi, Michael Bublé, Anberlin and Lady Antebellum, to name but a few. Maybe the most famous cover, though, was by U2, which fittingly included Darlene Love as one of the background singers.

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