Christmas Rocks! Christmas with the Brian Setzer Orchestra

If you know me or if you’ve been a regular visitor here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure, you know that, for me, it’s Elvis Presley, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra; they have their own categories here. But I’ve often thought that my “favourite” artist of all-time is Brian Setzer. There’s a couple of things that make me feel this way. One is that Brian Setzer is cool. I mean, look-it-up-in-the-dictionary, hair-piled-high, sharp-dressing, hot rod-driving cool. Also, I often like to say that Brian “owns the same records I do”. Much like Michael Bublé, of whom I say the same thing, a lot of the songs Setzer covers are found in my own collection. He knows the great songs of the past and even his original compositions carry the same great sounds. A third thing is that Brian Setzer – in all of his manifestations – checks all the boxes. As leader of Stray Cats, he brought rockabilly to the fore again in the early ’80’s, reviving ghosts of dudes like Cochran, Vincent and Presley. He portrayed Eddie Cochran in one of my favourite movies, La Bamba (1987).

The Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. December, 2013. Photo by Armando Brown for the Orange County Register.

Then he formed the Brian Setzer Orchestra and channeled Louis’ Prima and Jordan and blended his big, fat, Gretsch guitar sound with blasting horns resulting in a rockin’ hybrid of big band and jump blues. Add to this his solo albums that feature surf music and film noir sounds and the fact that he once had Bruce Willis blow harp on one of his records and duetted with Brian Wilson on a charity album and Setzer aligns himself with virtually all my musical tastes. The final piece of the puzzle, though – the thing that makes me continually love, respect and hold Brian Setzer to my breast – is his orchestra’s contributions to Christmas music. This confirmed for me that Brian knows. The fact that he obviously shares my love of the sounds of the season and has revived many of the greatest Christmas songs has bound me to him forever.

© TVT Soundtrax

Jingle All the Way – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1996) — I first discovered the BSO at a pivotal point of my life. Subsequently, the group is forever linked with my entrée into the world of “Sinatra and Friends”; that is, jazz/pop vocal and other jazz-based mid-century sounds. My intro to the orchestra coincided with the Setzer band’s first foray into Christmas music which was on the soundtrack for the film Jingle All the Way (1996) and here is where our story starts. Personal note: back when I worked at McDonald’s, the managers organized a trip to the movie theatre for the crew. Once at the theatre, most of the kids decided to see High School High. But I had recently laughed my head off watching The Last Action Hero and thought that Arnold Schwarzenegger handled comedy well so I decided to see Jingle instead. I talked my buddy, Bouncer, into coming in with me. Good choice, I think. Every other kid saw the silly drug movie that night and I don’t imagine any of them are writing blog posts about it decades later. In Jingle, right out of the gate, Brian Setzer puts his stamp on the music of the season. The BSO’s big, bad “Jingle Bells” is a rollicking good time and Brian injects a reference to how much fun it is to ride “in a ’57 Chevrolet”. But more than this great track are the other two on the soundtrack and what they mean to the Christmas canon.

© TVT Records

I’ve already mentioned that Brian Setzer owns the same records as me and, as we’ll see, this applies to Christmas records, too. I mentioned in my article on the Christmas music of Harry Connick, Jr. that it’s hard to add original songs to the season but if an artist can it is huge for their rep. “So They Say It’s Christmas” is a mellow Setzer composition that features a nice horn arrangement and the stellar vocals of the legend, Lou Rawls. So, here, Brian writes a new song with sound Christmas sentiment and has the sense to know that Lou Rawls has a wonderful and distinctive voice and should by all rights sing every song, all songs. I’ve often thought I would be OK if perhaps Lou was the only singer. More Christmas savvy can be seen in the other two songs by the BSO on the soundtrack. The band is on fire again for the venerable “Sleigh Ride” and who sings lead here? Only Darlene Love, the legendary vocalist who gave life to Classics of Christmas Past like “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”, a song she owns as surely as Bing owns “White Christmas”, a song that has been called the “Greatest Christmas Rock & Roll Song” ever. That’s who Setzer gets. See? Brian knows. Love is also on hand for the rousing closer “Deep in the Heart of Christmas”, a song that was somehow written by Sammy Hagar.

All BSO album graphics © Surfdog Records

Boogie Woogie Christmas (2002) — Surprisingly, it took the BSO six years after Jingle to release their first full Christmas album; but it was worth the wait. Boogie Woogie Christmas may feature nigh on the best line-up of Christmas songs to grace a contemporary Christmas record. Again, a lot of boxes checked. Setzer re-records his tunes from Jingle All the Way but he features his own fine singing voice on “Sleigh Ride” and “So They Say It’s Christmas”. Each and every track has some sort of retro cred and/or can be traced back to a legendary artist having recorded the song before. “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” – written be Leon René, who also wrote “Rockin’ Robin” – was recorded in a smokin’ R&B version by Mabel Scott in 1947. Setzer tackles back-to-back Elvis Presley tracks with “Blue Christmas” followed on the album by “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. You don’t know how bold a move it is to even attempt to cover the latter, a walloping Presley tune, one of the grittiest he ever recorded, Christmas notwithstanding. It’s the horn chart here that is so striking and it doesn’t hurt that, after the instrumental break, Brian says “Mrs. Santa Claus, you’re lookin’ pretty good tonight, I gotta tell ya”. Setzer and his boys do well growling their way through this, one of the meanest Christmas tunes ever. See? Brian knows. But Setzer is not done yet.

Setzer always provides great graphics with his album releases.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a delightful and fun tune that lends itself to many treatments and varied and interesting partners have duetted on it. Perhaps the most unconventional pairing features the original “singers”; Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams debuted the song in the film Neptune’s Daughter from 1949. Who does Brian bring in to duet with him? Only my fave, Ann-Margret, of all people. Unreal. Brian knows. Just listen to Annie deliver the best “Hey, uh, what’s in this drink?!” you’ve ever heard. Setzer then pays tribute to Les Brown with a note-for-note reading of Brown’s treatment of The Nutcracker Suite before lifting off again with “(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man With the Bag”, another jumpin’ Christmas classic introduced in 1950 by Kay Starr. But my man still ain’t done.

You may not include Jesus Christ in your Christmas festivities. Thing is, Christmas is the celebration of His birth. I respect performers who can kick up their heels with a fun set of Christmas songs but then aren’t afraid to include a carol. Brian Setzer is one of these performers. The fact that a record called Boogie Woogie Christmas ends with “O Holy Night” and “The Amens” is beyond impressive and shows his sincerity. Setzer may be a hard-rockin’ rockabilly cat but when it comes to recording a Christmas album, he includes one of the most venerable pieces of music ever written. Additionally, you often hear how difficult “O Holy Night” is to sing and I always consider it “The Test”; think you can sing, bud? Let me hear you do “O Holy Night”. Perhaps surprisingly, Setzer’s voice soars as he sings this song and this most rockin’ album ends on a reverent note with a song about Christ as man’s redemption; “truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother…” And “The Amens” is a brief traditional piece Brian presents a cappella with a choir. The last words on this album are “God’s wonderful peace be with you now and evermore. Amen.” You see what I’m saying? Brian knows.

Dig That Crazy Christmas (2005) — With his second Christmas album inside of 3 years, Setzer added more retro jump blues-type Christmas tunes to the orchestra’s songbook. The album features “Dig That Crazy Santa Claus”, another from the pen of Leon René, “Zat You Santa Claus?”, a comical tune that had been done so well by Louis Armstrong and “Cool Yule”, another seasonal nugget from Satchmo that was written by Steve Allen. Brian also presents his first originals on this record. “Hey Santa!” is a fireball with lyrics that paint Santa as a buddy, a cat who will do you a solid and who enjoys a fast ride; “Hey, Santa! Well, are you goin’ to Atlanta? Can I hitch a ride with you, old man? Cause my gal lives in Dixieland”. The other original also brands St. Nick as something of a speed freak. A mid-tempo grinder, “Santa Drives a Hot Rod” features some more great lyrics by Setzer; “I do believe that Santa’s sleigh got a big block Chevrolet…” Speaking of lyrics, Brian scores points for adding words to Glenn Miller’s immortal “In the Mood” and turning it into “Gettin’ in the Mood (for Christmas)”. Lots of great lyrical sentiment, then, but the highlight is mostly an instrumental.

From “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”, Nov. 18, 2009. Courtesy Rusty Waves YouTube Channel.

Hearing the Brian Setzer Orchestra essay “Angels We Have Heard on High” is to experience a transcendent moment. Co-arranged by Setzer, this timeless tune is done in a way that suits the BSO’s energetic swing style without sacrificing the traditional composition. Setzer strums his Gretsch and seems to reference “I Fought the Law” before picking out the ancient melody cleanly. The payoff is a melding of many canny elements; excellent drumming, a vigorous horn chart and the celestial choir that raises this tune to levels that could be appreciated by the original angels that delivered the Good News. Hearing this is akin to what you’ll get from Harry Connick’s “We Three Kings”. It is an intensely emotional experience and the female voices bring chills. Brian knows and scores serious points with this presentation. Almost hard to focus on the rest of the album as “Angels” is the second track.

Rockin’ Rudolph (2015) — It was ten years before the BSO hung up another sonic stocking of Yuletide delights and this one was a bit different. Rockin’ Rudolph contains the same amount of songs as the other two Christmas albums but of the twelve tracks one is presented twice, once in an extended version, one contains the vocals of not Setzer but female singers including his wife Julie, and four are instrumentals; it made me think that perhaps Setzer’s voice – he was 56 at this point – was starting to fail him. The sequencing didn’t help – Brian sings the first 6 tracks and then the girls and the instrumentals take over and we close with the repeated track. Odd. Additionally, while there is the same number of tracks, this album is much shorter than the previous two, coming in at 33:54 or a full 10 minutes shorter than Dig That Crazy Christmas. That being said, this weirdness is not a reflection of the content which is excellent again but I will say this record is the least remarkable of the three.

Setzer is inventive again, though, as he adapts the theme from The Flintstones into the fun and exciting “Yabba-Dabba Yuletide”, the song that is extended and later used to close the record out. Setzer seems to check off the Christmas tunes he has missed and adds “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, “Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to his group’s canon. He spins “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” into “Rockabilly Rudolph” and “Joy to the World” into “Swingin’ Joy”. The orchestra does well on the carols “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and it’s great to have them included amongst the rockin’ sounds – again I say, Brian knows – and the girls come in to do a pleasant “Little Jack Frost”, a nice old Crosby tune Brian is wise to revive. A fun album that is an excellent companion to it’s superior predecessors.

There’s more, though. Rudolph is considered the BSO’s fifth Christmas record. Consider that 1/3 of the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s 9 studio albums have been Christmas albums and the first two were the group’s consecutive releases, coming in ’02 and ’05. In 2008, the Brian Setzer Orchestra released a compilation – The Best of Collection – Christmas Rocks! – that was comprised of only Yuletide favourites from their first two seasonal offerings with a few bonus tracks. That’s a practice usually reserved for artists like Perry Como who record Christmas music for thirty years and then there is a Christmas compilation released. As a companion, Brian put out the same CD – as Ultimate Christmas Collection – but with an added DVD featuring a 100-minute Christmas concert. Still not content, in 2010 the Orchestra released Christmas Comes Alive!, a recording of a concert in Knoxville, Tennessee that features 15 of the BSO’s Christmas gems.

As if all these releases weren’t enough, Setzer has embarked on a Christmas Rocks! tour every season – up until 2019 – since 2003. That’s 15 years of taking a Christmas show on the road which places Setzer among past greats of Christmas music. Artists like Wayne Newton have presented Christmas-themed shows and Andy Williams would give over all of his performances at his Moon River Theatre to Christmas music in November and December. In this way, Setzer aligns with the Christmas Crooners of the past.

Let me repeat; Brian Setzer knows and Brian Setzer owns the same records that you and I do. Additionally, he loves Christmas music and can’t stand to not be releasing it to the public. All these things are wonderful and they make Brian more than a guy we just listen to; it kind of makes him a friend, too. Someone you’d like to hang with. With his hot rods and his tattoos, he may not look like Bing Crosby and you’d never mistake him for Johnny Mathis but you can have the same “Christmas experience” with Brian that you can have with these other stalwarts of Christmas music. His reverence for the season mingles nicely with his propensity to light it up and have a good time – which kinda describes Christmas itself, doesn’t it?

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