Book Review: 'Christmas With Elvis: The Official Guide to the Holidays From the King of Rock 'n' Roll'
by Jay Gabler
December 23, 2021
It’s hard to believe now, 64 years after the release of Elvis Presley’s first Christmas album, but the idea of the King singing seasonal songs was at the time somewhat controversial. Referencing a well-known exotic dancer of the era, one Los Angeles DJ said that playing Elvis’ Christmas Album for his listeners would be “like having Tempest Storm give Christmas gifts to my kids.”
While postwar Americans were sorting out their complicated feelings about the commercialization of the holidays (see also: A Charlie Brown Christmas), Elvis the Pelvis couldn’t be faulted for failing to recognize the reason for the season. Once you got through the Santa-centric first side, you could flip the LP for an entire second side full of reverent hymns and carols.
Of course, as Robert K. Elder notes in his new book Christmas With Elvis, there was a certain expedience to that sequencing: Presley only recorded eight new tracks for the album, with those songs bolstered by the contents of a previously released gospel EP. St. Nick himself could appreciate that kind of efficiency.
Elvis’ Christmas Album would be one of two holiday albums the King would release in his lifetime, though posthumous reissues, repackagings, and re-recordings (including an ersatz duets album and one with a symphony orchestra piped in) have raised that count considerably. Elder details the story behind every track on the 1957 album and its 1971 follow-up, Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas - as well as touching on the well-known “If Every Day Was Like Christmas,” a track from his 1966 album How Great Thou Art.
You’ll hear Presley’s holiday songs in a new way after reading Christmas With Elvis. His most perennially popular holiday song, for example - “Blue Christmas” - wasn’t one he was particularly keen on. He only perked up after backing singer Millie Kirkham improvised the “woo-wee-woo” hook that would become iconic.
Elvis was considerably more enthusiastic about the album’s opening track, “Santa Claus Is Back In Town.” It was written on the spot, in a mixing room at the studio, by the legendary Lieber and Stoller - who heeded Colonel Parker’s summons without realizing he expected them to show up with song in hand. In less than 15 minutes, they had the entire song, citing “writer’s block” as the reason they weren’t even quicker. Elvis loved the bluesy song, which “took him back to his Beale Street roots,” Lieber would later say. (As Elder notes, the swaggering song might not have made the cut if there’d been any more time for second thoughts.)
The rest of Christmas With Elvis delves into the many dimensions of Presley’s surprisingly involved relationship with the holiday season. He cherished Christmas from his Tupelo boyhood, when it might be enough cause for celebration if his family simply had groceries to eat. When he became rich, Elvis gave lavishly. A timeline of gifts he presented includes watches for Priscilla and the Colonel, cars for friends and girlfriends (and himself); and a wheelchair for the president of his fan club. Far more fascinating is an adjoining timeline of gifts Elvis received: what do you get the quintessential man who has everything? How about a set of bongo drums (Priscilla), a gold tiger’s-eye necklace (a girlfriend), or a four-foot plastic statue of Jesus (his entourage)? “They think it’s marble,” the sculptor reported.
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that Christmas at Graceland was gaudy. The living room was adorned with a white plastic tree that rotated on a musical stand, decorated with red ornaments to match the velvet curtains. Elvis, we learn, was the original Clark Griswold: his Memphis mansion was decorated with so many lights, pilots flying overhead thought the driveway was a landing strip.
Elvis liked to shoot fireworks at Christmas, making a run for the Mississippi border to stock up on the equivalent of over $15,000 worth of rockets. He and his posse then took the stash out to the field behind Graceland and shot the fireworks - at each other. They wore protective goggles, though such were prone to melting when buzz bombs got too close. Unfortunately for Elvis’s mom’s chickens, no protective gear was issued to the henhouse, which was occasionally hit by friendly fire. In the words of Linus Van Pelt, “Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it's getting too dangerous.”
Even aspects of Elvis’s life you might not associate with Christmas turn out to have a seasonal angle. The 1968 comeback special, for example, was originally envisioned as a venue for Elvis to deliver carols until producer Steve Binder successfully pitched Presley on the format that would reinvigorate his career with a series of thrilling performances. (As Elder observes, Binder’s Midas touch failed him a decade later when he helmed the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special.)
The Venn diagram overlap between Elvis fans and Christmas fans is pretty substantial, so there are plenty of people out there who’d be glad to find Christmas With Elvis tucked under the tree. If you really want to splurge - and you know Elvis would - you can find an associated singing Elvis bobblehead, sold separately and packaged with a miniature, condensed version of the book that’s perfectly titled. If you’re going to have an Elvis Christmas, after all, you might as well have A Very Elvis Christmas.
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