Each year, in the days leading up to Christmas, I typically share a favorite offbeat jazz-pop album that conjures up warm images of the holidays. Last year, my pick was Jo Stafford's Happy Holidays: I Love the Winter Weather. This year, my throwback pick is June Christy's This Time of Year (Capitol), which was arranged by Pete Rugolo and released in 1961. You won't recognize any of the album's tunes. None of them are holiday standards. The album was a concept LP with original compositions and lyrics by Arnold and Connie Pearce Miller.
According to Todd Everett's liner notes in the 2005 reissue of This Time of Year, the Millers made up half of the Double Daters, a San Francisco vocal group. During World War II, the group sang locally with touring big bands that couldn't afford to travel with a vocal group. After the war, the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Arnold worked in advertising and Connie stayed at home. I do not know whether the Millers were part of the Double Daters that recorded If I Ever Love Again with Frank Sinatra in July 1949. Discographies don't list the group's members, and several vocal groups used the name, including one formed by vocal arranger Ray Charles, who worked with Sinatra at the time.
In Los Angeles, the Millers continued to write and publish songs. In the late 1950s, the couple was introduced to June Christy and her husband, tenor saxophonist Bob Cooper. In 1959, Christy recorded one of the Millers' tunes, Night Time Was My Mother, on her LP The Song Is June. Michael, the couple's son, is quoted in the liner notes: "Writing This Time of Year was their passion. They wanted to capture all the emotions of Christmas, from the joy to the sorrow. There are some emotional moments but also a lot of upbeat jazz."
This Time of Year is an unusual holiday album, and it grows on you fast. The tunes have intricate melodies and unusual lyrics, but the real star here is Rugolo [pictured], whose arrangements adhere to a jazz feel without selling out. And all the while, the charts frame Christy's hip, dry-vermouth vocal sound perfectly. It's tough not to love an album with a cover featuring Christy in red stretch ski pants and a waist-length shearling jacket poised to hurl a snowball.
As for Stafford's Happy Holidays: I Love the Winter Weather, the tracks on this album are all you need to rekindle memories of a slower time, when a snowfall meant sleds and a fireplace. Most of this Stafford CD appeared originally on Stafford's Happy Holiday (1955) and Ski Trails (1956), both released by Columbia. Each track on the CD is a work of art, with Stafford's inimitable warm, maternal singing style backed by the handsome, clarinet-high orchestrations of husband Paul Weston.
Stafford was popular with virtually all audiences. Over the weekend, while doing research, I came across a 1945 article in the New York Amsterdam News that reported she was rated Harlem's second favorite vocalist behind Billie Holiday based on local record sales. It's easy to hear why. This 1956 album features 22 tracks, including By the Fireside, Sleigh Ride, Winter Wonderland and It Happened in Sun Valley.
JazzWax clip: Here's Jo Stafford in 1955 singing By the Fireside with the Starlighters. Dig Stafford's enormous breath control, which she learned from Tommy Dorsey in the early 1940s along with her bandmate Frank Sinatra. The remastering of this track is so good you can actually hear Stafford inhaling before delivering lyrics...