Gene Autry's style was straightforward,
unadorned, homespun - qualities that served these timeless songs well. But, did he swing hard? Nope. Was he remotely hip? Nah. So, one could
argue that purchasing A
Gene Autry Christmas (1994) - the first-ever high-quality CD of Autry's Columbia sides
- is overkill. Even more, highlights like "Rudolph" pop up on so many collections. But, I think
you'll find this is money well spent. Gene Autry's Christmas music may not be "hip," but it's endlessly charming - and it set the mold for much of what came in the
next twenty years. Further, Autry's unceasing, childlike faith in a secular Santa will win your heart.
better! Gene Autry, you see, cut so many great Christmas sides for Columbia that
neither package discussed above - either separately or in tandem - can be considered
absolutely complete. This situation was happily remedied in 2004 by Varese Sarabande's
Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings. Finally, every precious Christmas song
this famous singing cowboy cut for Columbia Records is collected in one spot! While
those previous compilations were excellent, they overlooked songs as essential
as "Merry Texas Christmas, You All" and "Thirty-Two Feet - Eight
Little Tails." One particularly rare cut, "He'll Be Coming Down The
Chimney," was previously available only on the 1954 collection, First
Christmas Record for Children. Happily, The
Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings has them all, beautifully mastered,
annotated, and packaged - perfect! This is quite literally the rosetta stone of
modern Christmas music.
Two years later, Varese issued two more collections that compliment Complete
Columbia Christmas nicely. The first, Year-Round
Cowboy: Songs For The Whole Year, compiles nearly two dozen songs Autry recorded
about other holidays or seasons - Halloween, Thanksgiving, the 4th of July,
Easter (Autry wrote "Peter Cottontail"), and even dreaded April 15 ("I Paid My Income Tax Today"). Year-Round
Cowboy also throws
in Gene's two greatest Christmas hits, "Here Comes Santa Claus" and
"Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer." More than a little wacky, but fun!
other 2006 reissue, while historically significant, opened a can of worms: the second phase of Gene Autry's Christmas career. When Autry left Columbia in 1957, he founded Challenge Records with former Columbia executive Joe Johnson. (Challenge is best remembered as the label that released the Champs' timeless party anthem, "Tequila.") From 1957 to 1959, Autry recorded about 20 Christmas-themed tracks that have been released over and over again across the decades hence. The history of their release is impossibly murky, but I'll try to untangle it - the highlights, at least.
Oddly, the first batch of tracks - Autry's first-ever full-length Christmas album - was issued not by Challenge itself but by Pickwick subsidiary Design Records. In most people's minds, that LP, Gene
Autry Sings The Original Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer And Other Christmas Favorites (1957), and its iconic cover art, form Autry's true holiday legacy. I would argue otherwise. First of all, this isn't "the original" anything. The recordings are mostly just new versions of songs he recorded for Columbia, and they are simply inferior - bordering on easy listening "filler" about half the time. The one keeper is "Nine Little Reindeer," the lone new song on the album, and cowritten
by Autry, Johnny Marks, and country legend Merle Travis
Regardless, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (and endless reissues on other Pickwick labels including Grand Prix, Hurrah, and Allegro) spent a lot of time on a lot of turntables, and people love what they know. Despite the fact that it never made the charts, Rudolph became a ubiquitous, totemic symbol of the holiday season. It just wasn't Christmas for a lot of little cowpokes until Gene Autry announced, "Happy holidays, folks, wherever you may be!" (It's worth noting that Columbia - who owned Autry's superior, original masters - jumped on the bandwagon in 1964 by issuing their own LP with a nearly identical title, The Original Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer & Other Children's Christmas Favorites.)
But, the moral of our story is this: Be sure to hunt down Gene Autry's original Columbia masters, most notably The Complete
Columbia Christmas Recordings
Innumerable budget-oriented Autry Christmas collections
most of them skimpy, shoddy, and badly mastered. Most importantly, they are almost all
licensed from Autry's latter-day Challenge masters - not the superior Columbia sides.
Autry sold his interest in Challenge in 1958 about the time they issued their own LP, Christmastime With Gene Autry, consisting of mostly the same tracks as the Pickwick album. The following years, they also released a genuinely bizarre, giddily goofy single, "Santa's Coming In A Whirlybird" (1959). But, always a keen businessman, Autry took his Challenge masters with him, and under his direction (I assume) an alarming number of versions of roughly the same batch of material subsequently emerged. Some of these appeared on Autry's own labels Republic - Holidaytime With Gene Autry (1966) and Christmas With Gene Autry (1976) - and Champion - Happy Holiday With Gene Autry (circa 1980). Countless others have been leased by semi-reputable, budget-oriented imprints like Mistletoe, Gusto, Excelsior, Laserlight, and Essential Media.
So, what to do about Autry's Challenge recordings? For cowboy enthusiasts and Christmas collectors, The Original Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer is probably the way to go - if only for its sentimental value. For me, Varese's Here
Comes Santa Claus (1999) makes more sense. At 16 tracks, it includes most of the Rudolph LP (skipping three of the worst tracks), plus "Santa's Coming In A Whirlybird" and several songs that leaked out amidst all of those aforementioned albums. Be warned, however, the meager discographical information on Here
Comes Santa Claus is wrong about half the time.... His Christmas Album (Collectables, 2007) is an acceptable substitute - about the same tracks, negligible liner notes.
In some ways, his Challenge recordings are perfectly
serviceable. Gene Autry was
notoriously professional, and songs like "Nine Little Reindeer" and "Santa's
Coming In A Whirlybird" are nothing if not entertaining. But,
they lack the punch of his earlier Columbia Christmas records and are necessary only for
fanatics (guilty as charged). Stick with good stuff - Santa wants you to be good!
Almost as a footnote, Varese Sarabande released A Melody Ranch Christmas Party in 2016. It compiles heretofore unreleased radio transcriptions (1942-1955) from the "Melody Ranch" show Gene Autry hosted on CBS stations from 1940 to 1956. Unsurprisingly, the show featured an annual Christmas program, and the CD includes contributions from all the "Melody Ranch" regulars including singer Johnny Bond and comedian Pat Buttram, plus a cameo by Rosemary Clooney - not to mention alternative renditions of all the Gene Autry Christmas classics. Certainly, these recordings are the least essential in Autry's holiday repertoire, but if you've already covered the Columbia and Challenge bases, they provide an additional and fascinating insight into his enduring popularity. [top of page]