Elvis Presley released two – count ’em – two Christmas albums, the first one containing Christmas songs and gospel songs. Add to these a stellar Christmas single released in the years in between and you have 20 – count ’em – 20 Christmas songs. There have somehow been well in excess of twenty album releases featuring his Christmas music so the lesser-initiated in Elvis World need to be careful of what they buy. Thus, this issue of Christmas Caveats.
Elvis’ Christmas Album contained music recorded in January and September of 1957 and was released on October 15 of that year. It was only his third studio album. I noted in my guide to the Christmas music of Frank Sinatra that recording songs of the season was important enough to Frank that he did so very early in his solo recording career; Sinatra’s first Christmas record was also his third album release. Something else connecting these two vocal giants is that Frank’s A Jolly Christmas record had been released only weeks before this one and was also divided in half; secular and traditional.
On a personal note, this has been what has kept me through the years from embracing Elvis’ first Christmas record. As someone who has grown up going to church, hymns and gospel music have long been a part of my life and I have always enjoyed this music – all throughout the year. I cannot latch to the idea that songs about God are only to be enjoyed at Christmas, the celebration of the birth of God’s Son. I understand the obvious connection but I rankle slightly at the idea that “songs about God” automatically should be thrown in with songs of Yuletide. But that’s just me. What may affect all listeners, though, is the idea that half of Elvis’ Christmas Album – being gospel and not Christmas – may fall flat on some fans who do not have any connection to gospel. Anyways, let’s take a look at the Christmas releases of Elvis Presley.
Elvis’ Christmas Album
RCA Victor, 1957
200 different versions 1957-2020, 13 different titles, 8 songs, over 21 different covers
Doing some preliminary research on the many versions released of Elvis’ Christmas Album confirms for me that these Caveat articles serve a purpose. But I have also seen that Presley brings in a different aspect to album releases that makes buying multiple copies of the same record with different art less of a problem for those of us who are not world travelers. By way of explanation, there were 11 versions of this album released in 1957 alone. However, this includes releases in New Zealand, the UK, Japan, Australia and Germany. So, in the case of the global appeal of an artist like Elvis Presley, there is a reason for all the different releases and covers. But that still doesn’t excuse the plethora of releases in North America alone that have featured different song line-ups and cover art.
While Elvis’ Christmas Album remains the biggest-selling Christmas album the world has ever known and one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time, in and of itself its legend has been lost in the mists of time. The Christmas songs on the record have been utilized in scores of other ways over the years and once the record somehow went out of print in the early 1970’s, RCA Records and the company’s subsequent owners have replaced it with plenty of other releases, as we shall see. I think the biggest reason the album itself has not remained a classic in the modern day is down to its inclusion of the gospel songs; say what you like, the record is simply not wall-to-wall “Christmas”. The record and its songs have to be assessed in light of Presley’s subsequent seasonal offerings. So, let’s continue.
Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas
RCA Victor, 1971
65 different versions 1971-2011, 3 different titles, 11 songs, 2 different covers
Again, let me say that, in the case of these two records, the many different “versions” refer mostly to international releases; the attempted fleecing of the record-buying public will come later with posthumous compilations. Wonderful World of Christmas is certainly the less-heralded of Elvis’ two Christmas albums but two things make it significant. First, it is good, very good and many of the songs are among the finest Presley ever recorded, Christmas or no. And secondly, without this batch of songs, future iterations of King’s Christmas music would not have been possible. Along with the 1966 single written by Red West, “If Every Day Was Like Christmas”, this record brought the total number of Christmas songs recorded by Presley up to the aforementioned 20, more than enough to mine and refine for all eternity.
If you head to the official internet stop, ShopElvis.com, and search under “CDs”, you will not find either of these records – as they were originally released – for sale. An Amazon search of “Elvis Christmas CD” reveals approximately 10 results, one of which is the original Christmas Album. The “officially endorsed collectors label”, Follow That Dream, has released expanded versions of both records – as they do with many of King’s albums – in 2011 (Wonderful World) and 2014 (Christmas Album). Both contain multiple takes of various songs on the albums, giving you an idea of how Elvis and his band arrived at the master versions. But both appear to be out of stock and at any rate are extremely hard to find. Follow That Dream’s magnificent collections are limited release affairs. So, how best to collect all of Elvis Presley’s Christmas music? Glad you asked.
Let’s look at a handful of the many releases that have utilized Elvis’ 20 Christmas songs. In November of 1970, a budget version of Elvis’ Christmas Album was issued on RCA’s Camden label. Gone were the gospel songs and in their place were added the ’66 single “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” and – inexplicably – “Mama Liked the Roses”, a tender song of remembrance recorded at American Sound Studios in Memphis in 1969. Neither song had yet featured on an LP release. This version of the album bore the US cover shown above middle with Elvis wearing his blue Speedway jacket (I have one!). Then in 1976, the RCA Pure Gold imprint released what they called Blue Christmas on vinyl and cassette in Canada. It contained what amounts to the best of the ’57 and the ’71 albums plus “Mama Liked the Roses” but minus “If Every Day Was Like Christmas”, available on earlier editions. This is the version I grew up with.
In 2006, RCA/Sony/BMG offered the inexplicable Blue Christmas that contains all of eight songs. Avoid at all costs. That same year, there was an Elvis Christmas released that has everything – except “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” so beware that one. Cool cover, though. Surprisingly, twelve good selections can be found on Merry Christmas, Love Elvis from 2013. This little-seen collection is oddly packaged with an image on the cover that looks to be from King Creole. You could do worse – but you could do better.
Until the day that six of my friends are carrying me by the handles, I will bear a grudge against Natalie Cole. Actually, if I’m giving credit – or placing blame – where it’s due, it is Presley’s longtime conductor Joe Guercio with whom I have a bone to pick. In another surprising Elvis World connection, Guercio had been working in the early 1980’s as musical director at the Las Vegas Hilton with many artists not named Presley, Natalie Cole included. Guercio suggested to Cole1 that she honour her late father by singing a virtual duet with Nat who would appear singing on a screen. Joe wrote an arrangement of “Unforgettable” for this encounter between the two Coles and Natalie used it in concert. By 1991, Natalie had experienced a comeback of sorts and was still in the flush of her last two records having been hits. Then in June of ’91, Cole recorded her duet with her dad and put it on a record with her versions of other songs made popular by Nat. The album was a smash and many other artists followed suit and picked up this gimmick. Elvis – or the estate – included.
Christmas Duets was released in 2008 and featured King “singing with” various ladies of country music. For Presley people, I can see this as a mildly intriguing novelty but mostly I can imagine that fans are totally dismissive of an album like this. As I usually say in these cases – like Rod Stewart doing the Great American Songbook – who is the intended audience? Obviously – and, I would have to say, exclusively – it would have to be fans of singers like Carrie Underwood, Anne Murray (EP had recorded her “Snowbird”), Wynonna Judd and LeAnn Rimes. And what’s up with Martina McBride? The lady with the cool name sings here with King and also butts in on Dino on a 2013 recording of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. So, fans of those singers, those who appreciate Elvis as a sort of country music granddaddy who reminds them of their grandparents who listened to Elvis, might be down with this. Beyond that… Real Elvis People may hear the opening strains of “Santa Claus is Back in Town” in the mall or on a music channel and get excited – until they hear that it is not the original. Then at the very least they tune out and at the worst they are enraged; not a feeling you want at Christmas time. I will try to accept it that people may enjoy this record but it will not be easy for me.
Christmas Duets has three tunes that are not duets but that feature brand new, contemporary accompaniment for Presley’s original vocal. These three new recordings are used on yet another collection entitled Blue Christmas that was yet another Sony/BMG money-grab from 2010. This Blue Christmas otherwise contains a mix of ’57 and ’71 and also the ’66 single. 2012 brought an album with yet another line-up of Elvis Christmas music. The Classic Christmas Album – who do they think they’re kidding with this title? – contains the duets with Miss Underwood and Miss McBride, those were the two chart hits from the Duets record, among other Elvis-only favourites. I thought that this record and Blue Christmas may try to avoid repeating titles to at least give buyers a chance to collect all of the Presley Christmas songs but, no; there are some titles inexplicably repeated on the two releases. And another thing. As I reported on Frank Sinatra’s The Classic Christmas Album, that CD isn’t really any of those things. Like with the Presley release here, it’s the title I object to as it’s misleading.
In 2017, the third collab between King and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was released, this time a program of Christmas music. It’s not a bad record but it’s a little unnecessary and is a hit-and-miss affair. Some songs – obviously – benefit from orchestral accompaniment while others suffer. The album starts – as the whole Christmas season should – with “Santa Claus is Back in Town”, one of the single greatest recordings Presley ever made. But what makes it so good is its surly nature, its grit. The things that make it so good are the very things that are neutered by a big classy orchestra. The album ends, though – as all Christmas records should end – with “Silent Night”, a song perhaps best presented in an orchestral setting. So, Christmas with Elvis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is good in a novel way but should never replace Presley’s original recordings.
So, that’s what not to buy. Here’s what you should seek out.
In 1994, I was thrilled to discover If Every Day Was Like Christmas, a new collection that year that contained for the first time all of Elvis Presley’s Christmas music on one CD. My only beef with this release is the sequencing. “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” starts things off which makes sense as it’s the album’s title. Then comes the 1957 recordings followed by the ’71 which is fine but I’d prefer if the sequencing matched that of the original LPs. Nit-picky. But what I really don’t like is the alternate takes that are included being interspersed willy nilly throughout the CD when they really should have come at the end. One small caveat with this collection is the “Silent Night”. While it is the original master, it begins with a nice Christmas greeting from Elvis during which you can hear the opening strains of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and then it goes into “Silent Night” so you don’t really get a proper Elvis presentation of that venerable carol. Interesting that this CD seems now to have been deleted by the record company. I used to joke – perhaps not unfounded – that RCA/BMG realized they had given consumers ALL of Elvis’ Christmas recordings on one release, contenting many of us with the thought that we would never have to buy another Presley Christmas record. Well, we can’t have that, said RCA and they began to dump out various collections of EP’s Christmas songs almost annually. They waited until 2003 to start the deluge and they got it right on the first try.
Christmas Peace (2003) is actually pretty impressive. This release contains 2 compact discs for the price of one. Disc One – “Christmas” – contains all 20 Christmas songs and Disc 2 – “Peace” – is loaded with gospel recordings and actually checks all the high points of Elvis’ career recording sacred music. The second disc has everything from “Peace in the Valley” to the stirring “If That Isn’t Love” hitting highlights like “Without Him” and “He Touched Me” along the way.
So, to wrap up, as I said, Christmas Peace is reasonably priced and if you want all the Christmas songs – properly sequenced – with “The Best of Elvis Gospel” thrown in, here you go. If you see If Every Day Was Like Christmas in the wild for cheap, by all means, pick it up. You can rip it onto your computer and burn yourself a disc with the songs in the proper sequence, as I have done.
In the last 20 years on almost a dozen CDs, RCA has released Presley’s Christmas music in just about every manner and every rendering possible. And while it is easy to own all of Elvis Presley’s original Christmas recordings – and you should – it’s equally easy to waste your hard-earned dollars on samplers that omit titles or contain non-original material or duets. Decide what you want and go get it. I hope this helps and I hope you have yourself a King Christmas!
- Delaney, Joe (2001). Cole Owes ‘Unforgettable’ idea to Conductor. Las Vegas Sun.