Released in November 1963 on Phil Spector’s Philles Records label, ‘A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector’ was originally credited “From Philles Records”. Featuring the entire label roster and a huge host of session musicians and studio engineers, the album was released on the day President John F Kennedy was assassinated. The result was a relative commercial flop for Spector, whose records at the time were almost universally chart hits. Thanks to the passing of time, a significant early ‘70s reissue on The Beatles’ label Apple Records, and critical re-evaluation the record is now considered a classic. We will say nothing to try and change that view.
Featuring covers of well known festive hits, the album draws on the talent of Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans, The Crystals, The Ronettes (including Phil Spector’s future wife Ronnie Spector née Bennett), and the exceptional Darlene Love. Balancing Soul with Rock ‘n’ Roll, the album showcases the label roster at its peak. Or at least, that’s how it was originally packaged.
Like all productions from Phil Spector, particularly in those early years, this is not an ensemble creation; it’s a Phil Spector record through and through. The later title change better reflects this, while the sound leaves the listener in no doubt. Featuring his instantly recognisable ‘wall of sound’ production techniques, each track demands attention in the best way possible. Created with double and triple tracked instrumentation, where electric guitar doubles up with piano and harpsichord, where vocals are layered and echo chambers are used liberally, the sound has the depth and power of an orchestra or the biggest big band, yet plays like a Rock ‘n’ Roll quintet. The tempos roar by, particularly on ‘A Marshmallow World’ by Darlene Love which tears through at a blistering pace, chaotic like a snowstorm.
Opening with a bold, joyous take on Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ by Darlene Love, the album sets out its stake as an alternative vision of Christmas as she segues into a spoken word breakdown recounting orange and palm trees in LA and dreams of a white Christmas up north. Elsewhere, Ronnie Spector’s distinctive vocals crank up the heat on a version of ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ that winks at the mystery behind ol’ St Nick’s identity.
‘Frosty The Snowman’ is a production masterclass as the percussion drives the track with sleigh bells skipping and clipped rather than jangling while ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ has swing in its soul with horns duelling with percussion for prime place in the famed ‘wall of sound’ of Spector’s production.
The one original here ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ is classic 60s Spector-style Soul cut from Darlene Love that has become a classic in its own right. Originally intended for Ronnie Spector, the track was given to Love after her vocal take proved the most powerfully emotive. The most Rock ‘n’ Roll track here, it provides a clear break from Christmas music traditions prior to this point. Every future Rock, Disco and Pop Christmas hit-maker, from Wizard to Mariah Carey owes Love and Spector a significant debt.
In terms of influence, it’s important to loop back to the fact that on its release this album was not an immediate hit. In a pre-Beatles world, Spector and his artists were creating music for teenagers and were often looked down upon by many in the business. So why has this album become a classic?
Clearly, many artists have great Christmas songs (though so many of them are over played it’s sometimes hard to tell), and some artists have been far more inventive. However, as an album of Christmas songs there are few as accomplished. While earlier Christmas albums like Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Ella Fitzgerald Wishes You A Swinging Christmas’ are undoubtedly great albums, the vocal performances are at their heart. The result is great music, but they lack something that Spector’s album excels in; a sense of participation.
The trick with ‘A Christmas Gift For You…’ is that it encourages singing along by capturing the giddy excitement of a childlike Christmas and interpreting it in a way that not only makes sense, but speaks to the adult world. It’s a deft touch that encourages repeat listening making ‘A Christmas Gift For You’ the Christmas album we return to again and again.