If Elvis’ Christmas Album was the lone achievement of Elvis Presley, it may still qualify him for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The album was released October 15, 1957 at the peak of Presley’s appeal and ability and includes several definitive versions of beloved Christmas songs. The genius of this album, which is rarely duplicated among pop Christmas albums, is the seamless integration of traditional holiday hymns alongside straight ahead rock and roll songs. Having a side of rockers and a side of traditionals ensured that grandma and granddaughter would both buy this album and work it into their annual rotation.
The album opens with a beautiful chant of “Christmas” by the Jordanaires to set a solemn holiday mood but that mood is immediately shattered when Elvis enters and delivers a song that rocks and grooves harder than most of his preceding catalog. The song, Santa Claus is Back in Town, is bluesy, dirty, raunchy, and surely at least in part responsible for a few September babies. This is a statement song that, despite its holiday inspiration, this is a rock and roll record.
The following track, White Christmas, is a staple of radio playlists but not quite the definitive rendition of this classic song. It does, however, lead right into a version of Here Comes Santa Claus that is probably in the top three versions of the song. The song ends with a standard Elvis ending, reminiscent of Teddy Bear.
By the time track four, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, is over, listeners probably wondered if the album opener was a fluke as Presley presents three mid-tempo, almost jazzy arrangements in a row. Then he pulls out the big guns.
From the first three notes that ooze out of Presley’s mouth, it’s clear that Blue Christmas is a standout track and, in fact, the second definitive rendition on the album. There’s not a soul who has recorded this song since who didn’t have Elvis in their mind whether it was to consciously mimick him or to consciously avoid mimicking him.
He then follows that song with Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me) which is, admittedly, a little too close to some of his other hits to be counted as wholly original but nevertheless this quintessential Elvis song is presented on every radio station from coast to coast every winter.
The next side focuses on traditional carols and gospel songs and proves that Presley’s voice is as effortless in the church as it is in a swampy southern rock club. O Little Town of Bethlehem and Silent Night are beautiful arrangements that highlight Presley’s soulful voice as well as the Jordanaires’ exquisite background vocals.
The entire B side of this album is much more solemn in tone and is a unique contrast to the A side rockers. All in all, though, Elvis’ Christmas Album is a rare album that offers something to rock fans and gospel fans without pandering to or alienating either audience. It is a masterpiece of holiday music and a highlight of Presley’s early work that holds up among any other Christmas album that has come around since.