Marvin Gaye, the Staple Singers and more inspired, under-the-radar picks
Originally released on A Christmas Record by ZE label in 1981, the Waitresses’ Christmas Wrapping endures when other holiday music sounds dated. Songwriter Chris Butler finished the lyrics, about two people destined to find love in the cranberry aisle, during the cab ride to Electric Ladyland studio, where the band dashed it off and forgot about it.
Along with a great 80s sax hook, it’s singer Patty Donahue’s delivery that gives the sweet story enough tartness to make it a song we’re always happy to hear at this time of year. With that in mind, we asked Butler what holiday songs make him happy. A self-described Scrooge, he compiled a list of celebratory tunes that provide an antidote to well-worn seasonal staples.
And in keeping with Butler’s tradition of donating money to his local library each holiday, I’ll donate $50 to the Toronto Public Library following the first person who comments to tell us when and where they heard Christmas Wrapping for the first time this holiday season.
XTC (as THE THREE WISE MEN): Thanks For Christmas/Countdown To Christmas Party Time (Virgin), 1983
The one-two I have always liked is XTC masquerading as the Three Wise Men. I’ve always been an XTC freak. The A-side is pure XTC. It doesn’t sound like a throwaway. This came out when I was having a terrible time. The Waitresses had just dissolved, and I didn’t know what I was doing. This cheered me right up. The B-side is looser, messing around with a drum machine but still fun.
PEARL BAILEY: Five Pound Box Of Money (Roulette), 1959
Isn’t this great? Since Patty [Donahue], I’ve loved the speak-singing style, and Pearl does it so well. The lyrics are along the lines of Santa Baby but more street, more to the point. She just wants a five-pound box of money, and she sounds great talking about it. And the band is incredible.
THE STAPLE SINGERS: Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas (Stax), 1970/1972
I’ve long been a Staple Singers fan, but this song is new to me. The lyrics play with the merry/Mary idea. It’s a secular song, but they still convey the message of this time of year being about more than commercialism. Of course, their voices draw you in. I’m really glad I discovered this one.
THE JIVE TURKEYS: Get Down Santa (Colemine), 2010
The Jive Turkeys have a sort of Meters vibe. It’s a song to put on and dance around to while you’re making dinner.
MARVIN GAYE: Purple Snowflakes (Motown), 1964
This is pretty un-slick for Motown. I’d guess it was recorded in Studio B at Hitsville, not the big room, and it sounds great. Marvin’s voice is in fine form, too. Also, purple snowflakes! What does that even mean?
The Snow Miser/Heat Miser Song, from the 1974 Christmas TV special The Year Without A Santa Claus
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it. We used to have the Holiday Banding charity show in Hoboken, New Jersey, when I lived there, and there was a hybrid of two great local bands: the Gekens and the Whatnots. We’d play this song and Christmas Wrapping, and it was always a lot of fun. I always thought Christmas Wrapping would make a great Christmas special.
THE WAITRESSES, Christmas Wrapping (ZE), 1981
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