Christmas presents a number of challenges for me. The first is I’m not a shopper. I’m a buyer. Need new jeans? Go from car to Men’s Department - find my size - go to cashier - back to car. Ten minutes flat! Now that’s buying. Anything more is painful.
Except Christmas. Because, personally, there’s one significant difference this time of year; something that makes the pain of “shopping” more bearable. And that’s listening to the sounds of all the dead singers coming over the sound system at the mall. Really brightens things up.
Think about it. Listen for it. Bing Crosby - Rosemary Clooney - Karen Carpenter - Perry Como - Eddy Arnold - Sammy Davis Jr. - Nat Cole - Mel Torme - Burl Ives - Ella Fitzgerald - Frank Sinatra - Dean Martin - the Andrews Sisters - Andy Williams - Patti Page - Margaret Whiting - Elvis. All dead. Except at Christmas. At the mall.
These people were recording Christmas songs before most of today’s shoppers were born. Now they’re gone. Except at Christmas. Then we - pardon the words - dig ‘em up. All of ‘em. Every year.
I’m a child of radio. I listened to Ed Murrow from London in the early ‘40's on my little bedside Philco while doing grade school homework. All the mystery shows, the comedies, variety shows and the news. Those were my childhood friends. I knew ‘em all.
For about four decades, radio and television provided me with a fine life of earning a living, travel, one-of-a-kind experiences and making friends. TV was a large part of it but radio was where I felt most at home. Television “is.” What you see is what you get. But radio was “whatever-you-wanted-it-to-be.” Nobody else in the whole world - nobody - visualized the Green Hornet exactly the way I did. When Superman leapt over a tall building, mine was the tallest that ever was!
When you had such deeply ingrained memories of what was possible with radio, who wouldn’t want to grow up and be a part of it? I sure did. Until radio, as I knew it - as it was intended to be - died. Starting in the ‘80's.
My last broadcasting job was in radio. And one day - I just quit. Cold turkey. Radio was gone. Time for me to go, too. Listen now. Pick anyone of three major content categories and listen. Really listen. All sound alike.
Radio is primarily a for-profit product these days. And most of the stations - too damned many of them - are not owned by professional broadcasters any more. Now, majority ownership is “chains” - some with hundreds of outlets. They’ve got investors and stockholders and bean-counters with ex-time salesmen for managers. Bottom line determines programming - not originality. Medford radio - Eugene Radio - Boise radio - Olympia radio. Run up and down the dial and you won’t find any real differences.
It’s not good. It’s not bad. It just “is.” When “The Gipper’s” Federal Communications Commission deregulated radio, it became a Monopoly game with buyers hoarding radio licenses. Buy ‘em. Sell ‘em. Trade ‘em. Pile ‘em up. It just “is.”
So, I go to the mall at Christmas because that’s where my “friends” are. Bing, Ella, Rosemary, Frank, Andy and all the rest. There’s almost no place for them in today’s fractured radio world that’s looking for the 18-to-28-year old demographic of the ratings services.
Well, my “friends” may be as dead as yesterday’s Limbaugh flatulence on today’s airwaves. But they’ll always be at the mall. I’ve tried to picture “Jingle Bells” done by Pink Floyd. Doesn’t work. How ‘bout “Let it Snow; Let It Snow” by Miley Cyrus? No? Maybe “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem” by Led Zepplin?” Ugh! Or “Silent Night” by Madonna? Guess not.
Every generation’s “musicians” make Christmas albums. You hear a new one once in awhile. Or more likely catch one of their videos. Usually country/western. They’re out there. For a year or two. Then gone.
They’ll never be played on background music at the mall any time soon. They won’t be purchased for our personal music collections in anything like the numbers of “White Christmas” recordings by Ol’ Bing. So my question is this. How long can these dead-but-talented-spirits be resurrected each year? Digitally “dug up,” as it were? Even with all those contemporary “flash-in-the-pan” folks recording soon-to-be-forgotten Christmas noise, will we be hearing Rosemary and Mel and Nat for the next century or so?
The answer is, I think, yes. Because there is a quality of permanence in what they did. Because they did it once. They did it simply. They did it right. No echo chambers. No multi-track overdubbing. Except for Les
Paul. It was “Christmas lightning” in a bottle.
Well, off to the mall. Ella and Frank are going to “be there” from 2 to 2:15 this afternoon.
(This column originally appeared in 2013. But some other “ mall listeners-to-the-dead” asked for the repeat. So we dug it up.)