Elvis Presley – Classic Christmas Album (review)

Elvis Presley – The Classic Christmas Album (RCA / Legacy) review

The ultimate holiday album from the King

Even though they’ve been repackaged many times, Elvis only recorded two holiday-themed albums: Elvis’ Christmas Album in 1957, and Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas in 1971.  This new Classic Christmas Album takes the best from both of those records, and then adds a few surprises to make the finest Elvis Christmas record yet.

The disc opens with two tracks from 2008’s Christmas Duets, an attempt to fuse classic Elvis vocals onto newly-recorded backing and turn them into duets with some of the biggest stars in country music.  “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” featuring Carrie Underwood, is the better of the two – she uses considerable restraint and does a classy job.  “Blue Christmas” is impossible to update correctly – no other song on this disc is so closely associated with the singer.  Martina McBride gives a valiant attempt, but ends up over-singing her parts.  Luckily, the original, untampered version of the song is featured at the very end of the disc.

The next seven cuts come from his 1971 album – his voice is more mature and the results here are somewhat mixed.  “Winter Wonderland” is sung in such a laid-back manner, you wonder if he knew the tape was rolling.  The track is saved by the bluesy, half-tempo ending.  Presley does several original holiday tunes, all in ballad form – “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees” is a close cousin to “In the Ghetto” in arrangement, while “The Wonderful World of Christmas” is heartfelt.  The finest song of this era is the almost six minute jam session of Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby” – featuring searing guitar work by James Burton.  Presley sounds like he’s having a blast directing the band and hamming it up.

Next comes another nice surprise – “If Everyday Was Like Christmas” was originally only released as a single in 1966 and is rarely included in other compilations.  With a music box at the beginning and the help of the great Jordanaires on backup vocals, this ranks as one of his most under-appreciated works.

The remainder of the disc features the songs from his first Christmas album.  These are the best of the bunch – and still sound fresh today.  His impassioned vocals backed once again by the Jordanaires is a thing of absolute beauty on “Silent Night, “ he hoops it up on “Here Comes Santa Claus,” then plays it straight for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  But, it’s the trio of tunes that end the record that stand as Presley’s holiday legacy – the bump and grind blues of “Santa Claus is Back in Town,” the finger snapping of “Santa Bring My Baby Back,” and the ubiquitous “Blue Christmas.”  Many others have attempted these, but never have they reached the heights of the originals.

While Elvis Christmas, which came out in 2006, features more songs (23 tracks), many of them were actually gospel numbers not associated with Christmas specifically.  That’s why the 17 tracks which make up The Classic Christmas Album is the finest collection ever released of Elvis’ holiday material.     –Tony Peters