Wednesday, December 4, 2013

wacky tacky tunes: The Sounds of Leroy Anderson

For me, there are certain names that are so inextricably associated with the holidays that they are akin to that of Rudolph and Santa Claus - names like Cole, Crosby, Como, Carpenter, and Ives.  Year after year, these voices, among others, faithfully provide the soundtrack to the holiday experience.  Nevertheless, I always wonder about their motivation for making Christmas albums; was it the overwhelming spirit of this joyful season or, much like it is today, was it a quick buck and guaranteed album sales?

Well, Karen...well, Perry...which one is it?

As I listened to the 24-hour holiday music station today, "Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas" came through the tinny speakers of the wacky wagon.  Singing along in full voice - doing my best Burl Ives impression - I couldn't help but wonder about him.  Don't you kind of wonder about Burl Ives?  I've always loved him and his full-of-folksy-charm singing voice (my first introduction was "The Ugly Bug Ball" in Walt Disney's Summer Magic).  As Burl and I belted it out, I couldn't help thinking that there was something, I don't know, kind of sinister simmering beneath that holly, jolly exterior.  Do you think he loved singing "Frosty the Snowman?"  Did he feel that "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was beneath his dignity?  Did he really want us to "Have A Holly, Jolly Christmas?"  I'm not so sure.  I stopped my sing-a-long as I pictured a tiny recording studio littered with empty whisky bottles and filled with the foul stench of stale cigar smoke and flatulence; between takes, a surly, dissheveled Ives mumbled incoherently at the sound technicians about "real acting" and "Oscars" and "Tennessee Williams."

Oh, something is simmering beneath the surface, alright...

This image I've created of Ives is totally unfounded; the fact that he was supposed to have been a very kind man did nothing to keep me from being tickled by the sordid machinations of my mind - until it came time to rejoin the chorus.  However, I am not here to talk about Burl Ives nor his well-known Christmas compatriots.  I am here to discuss a musician that is every bit as embedded in the holiday tradition as the others but fails to get the same recognition - Leroy Anderson.

Leroy Anderson
June 29, 1908 - May 18, 1975

Leroy Anderson was an American arranger/composer/conductor whose compositions include one of America's most-popular, oft-performed, secular, Christmas tunes.  As it happens, I appreciated this holiday favorite long before I knew of its composer; in researching Anderson further, I discovered that his work transcended the Christmas season.  

Anderson gained national fame in the late-1930's by arranging and writing light orchestral pieces for The Boston Pops.  It was Anderson's uncanny ability to transform the sound of traditional instruments and find the music in everyday objects that made him a musical whiz.  From jazz, to marches, to musical theater, and eventually to Christmas music, Anderson was also quite prolific.  To understand the full measure of Anderson's contribution to the sound of Christmas, I think it is important to review some of his other masterpieces first.

I've discussed at some length the fact that David Rose's "Holiday for Strings" is wacky tacky's theme song.  Well, if David Rose is responsible for the music that plays over the credits of our nonexistent film score, then Leroy Anderson is the genius behind every other song on the soundtrack.

"Jazz Pizzicato" (1938)
Anderson's first composition for The Boston Pops 

"The Syncopated Clock" (1945)
The theme song to CBS' "The Late Show" for 25 years and the real impetus 
for this post.  I fell in love with this song in a Japanese grocery store!

"A Trumpeter's Lullaby" (1949)
Written at the behest of The Pops' principle trumpeter
who was searching for an unusual solo piece.

"The Typewriter" (1950)
This perennial soundtrack favorite was most recently used in the French film, Populaire.

"Plink, Plank, Plunk" (1951)
This was used as the theme song for the game show, "I've Got a Secret."

"Sandpaper Ballet" (1954)
A charming piece meant to emulate the soft shoe routines of Vaudeville

Now we get down to Anderson's Christmas contribution.  In my estimation, there are three kinds of people when it comes to Christmas music - lovers, haters, and tolerators.  Tolerators are those who appreciate holiday music...but only when it is seasonally appropriate.  Lovers are the type of people for whom Christmas music is always seasonally appropriate; a true lover of Christmas music could be sitting on the white sands of Waikiki in the middle of summer drenched in coconut-scented tanning lotion and simply be unable to refrain from humming the refrain to "Mele Kalikimaka."  And haters, as the saying goes, "gonna hate."  Myself, I am a lover and Leroy Anderson's Christmas classic, "Sleigh Ride," never fails to get me in the holiday mood (with the whinny of the trumpet-horse and the whip crack as the best part).

"Sleigh Ride" (1948)
It is reported that "Sleigh Ride" was written during a 
particularly-punishing Connecticut heat wave.  It looks 
like old Leroy was a lover too. Well, Mele Kalikimaka!

In our house, Anderson definitely rates among Cole, Crosby, Carpenter, Como, and Ives, at Christmas and all year long!


Mr. Tiny


  1. My dad had quite a few Burl Ives albums and Id say he is my Christmas favorite but Anderson is good too

    retro rover

    1. Burl is so good! In all honesty, I kind of love it all!

  2. OMG just found your blog and I TOTALLY adore Sleigh Ride, ever since playing it in high school band. It doesn't matter if it is a piano version, singing version, or the original, I just get up and dance. I was listening to the Pandora holiday station the other day, and they played all three versions within two hours. Burl Ives, however - I just don't understand his singing style...
    Thanks for all the links to his other tunes.


    1. Thanks Anonymous!!! Leroy is one of the absolute greats!