(Part 1 of a short series highlighting my favorite Christmas CDs.)
Back in 1998, Christmas arrived in August. Well, it did if you were a Chicago fan, that is. You see, it was in that month, the hottest down in here in Texas, when the then-thirty-year-old band released their first ever Christmas CD. And wouldn’t you know it was numbered twenty-five?
When you stop to think about it, you had to wonder why one of America’s most successful rock acts never recorded even one Christmas song. Peter Cetera did a one-off, semi-countrified version of “Silent Night” and Robert Lamm recorded “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” but that was it. The closest the band ever got to a winter song was “Song of the Evergreens” off of Chicago VII.
Chicago 25, coming three years after Night and Day, Chicago’s CD of newly-arranged big band standards, the expectations among the Chicago fan base was quite high for the Christmas CD. What songs would they select? How would the band stamp their indelible sound on time-honored classics? And, honestly, how could they add anything new to the endless steam of Christmas music we hear year after year. And would any of these versions become definitive?
I could certainly give a track-by-track run down of Chicago 25 (and I have, to many friends and fellow Chicago fans) but I’ll point out a few high points of this CD. As I have mentioned before in previous reviews of Chicago records, the sheer number of instruments and vocalists in the band brings a multitude of possibilities to any one song. These seven musicians are professionals who can evoke any number of nuances from their instruments. Walt Parazaider brings all of his saxophones and his flute is featured on many songs. Robert Lamm’s piano playing, including electric piano, is a joy to hear throughout the fourteen songs of Chicago 25 but especially “The Christmas Song”. Bill Champlin’s vocal arrangements (“What Child is This?”) can give boy bands like N*Sync a run for their money to say nothing of his tickling the keys of his B3 organ. Keith Howland’s guitar embellishments interspersed in the songs evoke a jazz feel more than a rock sensibility. Back in 1998, trumpeter Lee Loughnane was undergoing a renaissance in the band as his trumpet playing markedly improved in the concerts and showed up on Chicago 25.
All the songs selected and arranged got the typical Chicago treatment. Some of the tunes are better for it. A few surprises do pop up. “Feliz Navidad,” as sung by Jose Feliciano, is one of the happiest Christmas songs out there. I dare you not to tap your toe when this song starts its inexorable march in your brain. Under Lamm’s reading, the song is a slow, moderately-paced song of beauty. In a nice touch, Lamm adds some xylophone and marimbas. It’s one of the unexpected yet understated songs on this record.
You can’t say Champlin’s bluesy “Santa Clause is Comin' to Town” is unexpected, however. To say that Champlin is soulful is to understate the obvious. But the rest of the band—especially Jason Scheff’s bass playing—really gets into the act. This is one of the funkiest cuts in Chicago’s catalogue and it gives the horns a chance to stand and just wail. What makes this rendition so much fun is Champlin’s lyrical riffs. “You better be cool\y’all gotta chill\you gotta behave\you all know the drill.” And the B3 just weaves in and out of this track. A highlight if you like your carols just a little bit dirty.
“Christmas Time is Here” is the Vince Guaraldi song from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Lamm acknowledges his appreciation to Guaraldi with a delicate version of this newer classic. The horn arrangement is quite good as is Howland’s guitar licks. You'll love Lamm’s electric piano. He noodles in and out of the melody and his own vocals. Loughnane’s muted trumpet ends the piece, setting a lovely mood that can sweep you away back to your childhood.
The next track, however, will wake you up. Chicago’s secret weapon in 1998 was Lee Loughnane’s vocals. Yes, the trumpeter sang a few songs back in the 1970s (on Chicago VII, X, and XI) but had not stepped behind the mic since. So “Let it Snow” was a wonderful treat. In a version that would be at home down in New Orleans, Loughnane’s pulls a Louis Armstrong, singing and playing. This song proved so popular in 1998 that the band recorded a version in Spanish. “Let it Snow” even found its way into the summer tour set list. It was a little weird hearing this song in the heat but the feel of the song will melt snow or your margarita.
As good as these renditions are—Feliz Navidad” is a nice change and other songs, like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" are my preferred versions—most of these songs don’t quite reach the level of definitive. One exception exists. Chicago’s reading of “Little Drummer Boy” puts all the other versions—and, yeah, that includes the Bowie/Crosby version—to the back of the line. The song itself, while nice, never had the heft of other Christmas songs, secular or sacred. Chicago changes the equation. In a fade-in, the drums kick up a shuffle beat, not fast, not slow, but just enough to get your toe tapping and to make you realize this is something different. As Bill Champlin’s soulful voice begins to sing the first verse, producer Roy Bittan’s (E Street Band) accordion colors the feel of the song, giving the song an acoustic quality underneath the main beat. Champlin makes it through the entire first verse with only the horns offering the answering counter melody. As you first listen to this version of the song, you’ll probably think “Okay, this is a great song and the horns are wonderful and discreet.” Then the chorus kicks in. And, in a first for Chicago, there is a choir: twelve additional singers to go with the three main Chicago vocalists. The result is somewhere between magical and sublime. Verse two brings in Jason Scheff’s high tenor, floating above Champlin and the choir. During this vocal onslaught, the horns continue to wail away and the accordion drones on and on. The horn charts are so stamped in my head that I hear them even when listening to another rendition. I consider this song one of the best songs in Chicago’s entire catalogue and a definitive version of "Little Drummer Boy."
Five years after Chicago 25, Rhino updated the disc with six additional songs and renamed the collection Chicago Christmas: What’s it Gonne Be Santa? It’s a testament to a band with vocalists growing out of the woodwork that five of the six new songs showcase a different lead singer. Again, the newer songs give that distinctive Chicago stamp on old classics. Lamm’s “Winter Wonderland” is pure Chicago circa 1973. In retrospect, “Winter Wonderland” provides a nice clue to the types of songs Lamm would release a year later on his excellent “Subtlety + Passion” disc. “This Christmas” has Scheff in full R&B mode while the acoustic “Bethlehem,” an original tune, provides a nice, acoustic glimpse of the three kings.
Just as “Little Drummer Boy” stood head and shoulders above the other tracks on Chicago 25, “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” is the best song from the extra tracks. Simply put, this is one of the flat-out most fun songs Chicago has ever recorded. The newest—and youngest—member of the band, guitarist Keith Howland, arranged this song and sings lead. It’s a fast, up-tempo song that brings to mind “When is This World Comin’ To?” off of Chicago VI. The horn charts are fantastic and, as is my wont, the bari sax all but blats its way out of your speakers. In the original lyric, the final verse lists the various toys that kids want. Howland tailors the final verse to instruments for his band mates. At the end, after he’s questioned Santa on what treat will be left for him, Howland shouts out “How ‘bout a shiny electric guitar?” and lets rip a guitar riff and solo that would have made Chuck Berry proud. It’s an exuberant ending to and exuberant song. It’ll leave you smiling and tapping your foot long after the song fades away.
Christmas is all about memories, usually from childhood. At times, it’s even about memories you never had but a nostalgia induced by music. Nat King Cole’s reading of “The Christmas Song” is definitive and no Christmas would be complete without hearing it at least one (fifty?) time. Ditto for Crosby’s “White Christmas.” But if you want something fun, occasionally different, but altogether satisfying, you can’t go wrong with inviting Chicago into your house for Christmas.