Hello there! This week our blog features an iconic holiday song, Blue Christmas. We will first discuss the original release by Doye O’Dell in 1948. Next, we will review a famous cover of this song by Elvis Presley, and we will finish with a parody of this tune by Seymour Swine and the Squealers.
Doye O’Dell and Blue Christmas:
The song Blue Christmas was written by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson. It is a song that describes a man’s loneliness during the holiday season.
I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on our green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me
And when those blue snowflakes start fallin’
That’s when those blue memories start callin’
You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas
The first recording of Blue Christmas was by Doye O’Dell in 1948. O’Dell’s version was followed in short order by three covers in 1949. The first was a single from country singer Ernest Tubb. At the beginning of 1950, Tubb’s version climbed to #1 on the Billboard Most Played Juke Box (Country & Western) Records playlist.
A second cover was from Hugo Winterhalter and his orchestra and chorus; that version made it to #9 on the Billboard Records Most Played by Disk Jockeys charts. A third version of Blue Christmas was from Russ Morgan and his orchestra, a version that made it to #11 on the Best-Selling Pop Singles lists.
Allen Doye O’Dell was born in Gustine, Texas in 1912. His father moved to Plainview, Texas where he ran a cotton farm. Doye was inspired to become a musician by his uncle Tom Gregory who was a fiddle player. At left is a photo of O’Dell.
Doye’s first big exposure came when he appeared on radio station WDAG in Amarillo, Texas. He then moved up to appear on NBC radio. O’Dell played with a number of bands and eventually moved to the West Coast, where he appeared on the Los Angeles TV station KTLA. There, he starred in a Friday night TV show called Western Varieties.
O’Dell eventually ended up in a band called Sons of the Pioneers. This was one of the most famous country music bands of all time. It was started (pioneered, so to speak) by vocalist and rhythm guitarist Leonard Slye, who added Bob Nolan on bass (and vocals, including yodeling), Tim Spencer on vocals, and Hugh Farr on fiddle.
The group began to achieve a major regional following, and in 1934 they signed a contract with Decca Records. Their first big signature hit was Tumbling Tumbleweeds.
Then in 1937, Leonard Slye was offered a movie contract. In short order, he became the most famous singing cowboy of all time, under his screen name Roy Rogers. The Sons of the Pioneers then backed up Rogers in a number of his many movies. Below is a photo of Roy Rogers.Embed from Getty Images
So here is Doye O’Dell in the original 1948 recording of Blue Christmas.
Doye has a fine voice and the song is presented as a country & western tune, with backing from guitar, upright bass and fiddle. The song features a Hawaiian guitar solo in the middle.
As you can see, this includes a video clip of a band playing in a movie. The band is obviously not singing Blue Christmas (the band continues to play even after the song ends). The video takes place in a bar, where we see closeups of a cowboy with some resemblance to Roy Rogers.
Is Doye O’Dell playing with the band in the corner of the bar? The video is not sufficiently sharp for me to discern the identities of the musicians.
However, O’Dell had begun a movie career in about 1940, and a number of his movie appearances were as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers. For example, O’Dell appears with this group in Along the Mohawk Trail (1945), Home in Oklahoma (1946), Hit Parade of 1947, and The Gay Ranchero and Under California Stars (1948). And Roy Rogers starred in the last three of those movies. So that could be Doye O’Dell playing in the band in that video.
O’Dell also appeared in various other movies and TV programs. For example, he appeared in episodes of Maverick and I Love Lucy.
Doye O’Dell died in January 2001 at his home in Northridge, California. We salute Mr. O’Dell, who was a prominent singing cowboy and had the distinction of the first recording of a holiday classic (by last count there were over 400 covers of Blue Christmas!)
Elvis Presley and Blue Christmas:
By the mid-1950s, the song Blue Christmas was a popular country & western holiday tune. However, the song became an iconic classic after it was covered by Elvis Presley.
The song was included on the 1957 release Elvis’ Christmas Album. Like all Elvis albums at the time, this record was a best-seller, and Blue Christmas was arguably the favorite song on this release. In 1964, Blue Christmas was released as a single and made it into the top 20 in both the U.S. and the U.K. playlists.
However, we will show Elvis singing Blue Christmas at a significantly later point in his career, in the so-called ’68 Comeback Special show broadcast on NBC TV from Las Vegas in Dec. 1968. Below is a photo of Elvis performing in this TV special, whose actual title is Singer Presents … Elvis.Embed from Getty Images
Elvis’ career had taken many turns since he burst onto the scene in 1956. First, he was drafted into the Army in 1958. Although he recorded several songs prior to his induction, which were released during his time in the Army, Elvis’ career suffered because he was never on tour or on TV during this period.
After his release from the Army, he devoted more and more time to work in films. This was at the behest of his manager, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, who stopped Elvis from touring in 1961 and focused on his movie career. After one great movie, Jailhouse Rock, the Elvis films went from bad to worse.
Presley’s movies had only the flimsiest ‘plots.’ Worse still, the plot was nearly identical from one movie to the next. Producer Hal Wallis
decided to shorten filming schedules, almost abandoning rehearsals and retakes. He stopped shooting on location and centered all his activities in the studio. Wallis also resorted to smaller studios, dropping experienced crews. … Meanwhile, studio recordings also declined in quality, with musicians often recording their parts before Presley himself.
All of this would be tolerable if the movies featured great rock and roll songs; unfortunately, even this was lacking. The cheesy formulaic songs in Elvis movies would have been right at home in a 3rd-rate off-Broadway production. You can tell from the song titles that they were stinkers – for example, ‘No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car’ and ‘Rock-a-Hula Baby.’
So, Elvis had a lot to prove with a live TV program in 1968. The network, NBC, expected a Christmas special. However, Elvis was determined to show that he was still capable of rocking and rolling.
Elvis dressed up in a slinky leather jumpsuit, assembled some of his old bandmates such as guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana, and wowed the television audience. Here he is singing Blue Christmas from that special.
You can see why Elvis’ version of Blue Christmas became the standard for this tune. His delivery is sincere but very sexy. He looks healthy and lean (he worked hard to get in shape for this appearance), and his voice is still great.
Guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana are joined by drummer Alan Fortas and guitarist Charlie Hodge. The stage for this event was small, like a boxing ring, and very intimate for the audience.
The ‘Comeback Special’ jump-started Elvis’ career once again. He returned to the studio and cut an album that was not a movie soundtrack, and he signed up for performances at the Las Vegas International Hotel.
In Vegas, Elvis assembled a band that was led by guitarist James Burton and was named the TCB Band. They became Elvis’ backing band for the remainder of his life. Elvis also added a big horn section, quite likely modeled after the Vegas act of his good friend Tom Jones.
Elvis broke attendance records in Vegas, which was wonderful for his ego (back in 1956, Elvis appeared at the Fremont Hotel; however, his contract was terminated after one week, because the Vegas clientele was accustomed to acts like Frank Sinatra, and they could not relate to a hip-shaking country boy with massive sideburns).
It is heartening to see Elvis rocking once more in 1968, and he was clearly having a great time!
Seymour Swine and the Squealers and Blue Christmas:
In 1985 a parody holiday song was released, under the pseudonym Seymour Swine and the Squealers. It was a version of Blue Christmas, supposedly sung by Porky Pig. The song became a viral favorite, and has been played over and over again at Christmas time every year since its release.
First, let’s review the character and voice of Porky Pig featured in the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon series. That series of animated cartoons ran from 1930 to 1969, although most people would agree that the “Golden Age” of Looney Tunes shorts was the period from 1935 to 1964.
During that time the main animators were Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett, and Chuck Jones directed many of the sequences. They introduced the classic characters Porky Pig (1935), Daffy Duck (1937), Bugs Bunny (1938) and Elmer Fudd (1940). Above is a picture that includes several of the Looney Tunes characters.
Between 1942 and 1953, more characters were added, including Tweety Bird and Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, Speedy Gonzalez, and Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner.
The cartoons represented incredibly zany antics, memorable characters, and exceptional graphic art. Who can forget the wisecracking Bugs (“Eh, What’s Up, Doc?”), the slow but determined Elmer Fudd (“that wascally wabbit”), and the incredibly complex machinations of Wile E. Coyote, who is perpetually outsmarted by the Road Runner.
One of the most amazing things about the Looney Tunes series is that nearly all of the voices were produced by one man, Mel Blanc. Blanc was the man behind the voices of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Tweety and Sylvester, Speedy Gonzalez, Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner and several others.
Mel Blanc was the most famous voice artist of his time. In fact, he was the first voice artist to obtain screen credit for his work. The different voices are so distinct and instantly recognizable that it is difficult to imagine that they were produced by a single individual. At left is a photo of Mel Blanc with several of the characters that he voiced.
Anyway, here is the audio for Blue Christmas by “Seymour Swine and the Squealers.”
As you can see, this is simply a takeoff on Mel Blanc’s Porky Pig voice singing Blue Christmas, in the style of Elvis Presley. “Seymour Swine” is actually Denny Brownlee, who recorded the parody in 1985 for the John Boy and Billy radio show from Charlotte, North Carolina. Brownlee is accompanied by a guitarist, and the song also contains a “spoken word” section in the middle (like the Elvis 1957 recording), and a kazoo solo.
One of the memorable features of this song is that the other people in the studio are cracking up at Brownlee’s ‘Porky’ imitation.
By the way, the early Looney Tunes cartoons featured significant violence and suicidal sight gags. They also showed addictive behavior (smoking, drinking to excess and popping pills), and they displayed insensitive racial and ethnic characterizations of African-Americans, Jews and Hispanics. During World War II the cartoons also featured stereotypes of Asians and Germans.
Note that the famous Looney Tunes characters frequently poke fun at physical disabilities – Porky’s stutter and Daffy Duck’s lisp are two examples, and many believe that Elmer Fudd was intended to represent a man with Down’s Syndrome.
In recent years, DVDs have been released of the Looney Tunes catalog. They contain a disclaimer voiced by Whoopi Goldberg that states:
The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in the U.S society. These depictions were wrong then and they are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming that these prejudices never existed.
I agree with the disclaimer. At the same time, the Looney Tunes cartoons represent some of the funniest and zaniest visual humor ever produced – they are classics, and the team of Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Mel Blanc were comic geniuses!
That’s All, Folks!