I was working for A&M Records in Hollywood, California …
The owners of the label – A&M was privately held for almost 30 years – created a unique and wildly successful business model. There have been plenty of other successful music people, but few like Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss (the “A” and the “M”).
Beyond all of the great music and artists they fostered between 1962 and 1990, they built something that many (if not most) other labels could not: a reputation as honest businessmen. While I never checked their tax returns I can, without hesitation say that they treated the artists with respect, including paying their royalties.
In the late 1980s, A&M was asked to oversee the creation, production, marketing, and promotion of a new recording titled “A Very Special Christmas.” This was a truly unusual album where the artists all contributed their time and talent to create a great new album for the holidays, and all of the money would go to Special Olympics. Other labels wanted this project but A&M, I always suspected, had been selected as the one that could be most trusted with the money. After all, the music industry had a less than stellar history (at least a reputation from the ’40s and ’50s) of paying the artists every dime they had coming.
The Album’s Three “Wisemen”
As one of the marketing execs at the time, I was thrilled to be involved with the project. Besides, I had favorite tracks and enjoyed spreading the word about this new album. From the Keith Haring cover to the 15 tracks by some of music’s biggest players, this was clearly going to be a hit. My favorite tracks remain “The Little Drummer Boy” by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, “Santa Baby” by Madonna, and “Silent Night” by Stevie Nicks. While all of the performances are worthy of being on the album, these three artists got out of their comfort zones to deliver exceptional performances.
Perhaps the easiest of the three was Madonna. I’m not suggesting she “phoned it in,” but it seemed so effortless for her to play the vamp. At times she seemed to channel Eartha Kitt’s original recording, and delivered her own unique take by injecting a fair amount of her obvious sexiness (but not too much) into a holiday classic.
Then there’s Bob Seger. Since I first heard “Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale there have been two additional versions of that stand out as being both surprisingly effective with the holiday classic and staying true to the artist’s unique style. The first was in 1977, when Bing Crosby and David Bowie teamed up for a medley of “Peace on Earth”/“Little Drummer Boy” for Crosby’s television special. The recording became a classic in its own right. The second was when Bob Seger threw his complete rock ’n’ roll voice into the song. He’s soulful, authentic, believable.
Rounding out my top 3 from the album is Stevie Nicks. She surprised a lot of people by adapting her distinctive contralto voice to “Silent Night.” There are surprises – as in her octave shifts through obvious refrains. In this recording Nicks makes one of the most sacred and performed songs in Christendom her own.