Christmas at Our House Out of The Closet After 40+Years; by Philip Mayabb
This week's edition of this blog will probably be different from all the others we have presented this year. When I choose an album to play each week on CCM Classic, I try to pick one that I enjoy, and I feel that each of you - our listeners, will enjoy as well. My other job is to write a blog about the album that you will be hearing on the air. Now there have been some weeks when I have been blessed to actually speak to someone involved with the album. Most of the time, it would be the artist, but I have spoken to some producers as well. Other weeks, I write a blog based on research that I have done on the album, whether it was at the time of its initial release, or in the years since the internet came along. In a few rare cases, I write the blog based on my opinion of the music on our feature album of the week, I may describe each song on an album, and give a commentary on the music or the lyrics. While the blogs which are written on the basis of an interview are usually the ones that have the most inside information on an album, I still attempt to treat each weekly blog as if I have interviewed the primary participant on the record, in other words no blog is treated like a second class citizen.
This week's feature album just kind of fell into my lap...I had never heard of it before, never seen it before, but one day as I was searching through the local Goodwill store (something I do quite often), I came across a record called Christmas At Our House. I instantly recognized every one of the names on the front of the album jacket, names like The Bill Gaither Trio, The Imperials, The Rambos, Dallas Holm, The Lanny Wolfe Trio, and so on. I had grown up listening to almost every one of them, and there were a couple of artists on there that I didn't necessarily care for, but I knew who they were. With a mere $1.00 price tag, I figured I had nothing to lose, so I purchased the album. I have honestly been able to find very little on the history of the album, so this week I will have to just tell you what I know from listening to it.
The album was released in 1975 on the Benson Company's Impact label, and it is a Christmas sampler containing songs by Benson's biggest artists from both Southern Gospel and from the newly emerging Contemporary Christian genres. It features 9 of the company's best known artists, and 1 track that is a medley performed by the Benson office employees. There are certainly a couple of artists that I personally would not have chosen to be on the album, but then again, I was an 8 year old boy at the time of its release, so it doesn't matter whether I would have chose them or not. Of the nine artist tracks on Christmas At Our House, six of them are traditional Christmas numbers, and the other three are original compositions written by modern songwriters. This is a different sort of album from almost any other Christian Christmas recording, mostly because of the unique narration between the songs provided by John T. Benson, III himself, in which he gives personal thoughts about the holiday, and some of the artists on the album. Finally, the last thing I can tell you from listening to this album is that even though the music is obviously dated, this is a really good album, which I wanted to share with each of you this Christmas season. It hails from an era when the Christmas album as a whole hadn't really caught on in the Christian or Gospel music industry, as it would in later years, making this a unique take on the holiday.
I must give major kudos to whoever it was at the Benson Company who thought up the idea to record this album. I can't think of another Christmas album in the history of Christian music that it can be compared to. Sure, there are plenty of really good compilation albums from different Christian labels over the years, two that kind to mind right off the top of my head are Word's Our Christmas and the compilation LP from Sparrow Records, both of which we have played on CCM Classic this year, but Christmas At Our House adds that extra touch with the narration, that no other Christmas compilation has, making this a very cool and enjoyable album, even though it has been over 40 years since it was released.
I'm not going to detail each track or artist, but I will hit a few highlights in both categories. In the artist department, there are some on here that are worth mentioning. The Downings, the group who sing the first song on the album, were one of those groups who are hard to categorize, even today. While most gospel music historians consider them a Southern Gospel group, there is a case to be made for them in the CCM market as well. While they were a four part mixed group (complete with a bass singer), The Downings recorded music and lyrics that covered both styles. Christmas Day, So Long Ago is the name of their contribution to the project, and it is one of the three modern songs on the album. It has a lush, modern orchestral arrangement behind the vocals, and would have been just right on CCM radio back then. An interesting side note...one of the members of the group happened to be a young pianist by the name of Dony McGuire, and we all know what he went on to do after the demise of The Downings a few later. Most of the other artists you all know very well. Dallas Holm (is there anyone who was never heard Rise Again), The Imperials (seriously, if you don't know who these guys are, you CANNOT call yourself a classic CCM fan), The Lanny Wolfe Trio, who we featured two weeks ago on VR, The Bill Gaither Trio, who to the best of my knowledge recorded CCM's very first Christmas project in 1972, and Doug Oldham (maybe a bit of a stretch) are all names that fans of vintage CCM have heard many times. From Southern Gospel you have The Rambos, who had one of the greatest songwriters in the history of Christian Music (the late, great Dottie Rambo), Henry and Hazel Slaughter (Henry was the original pianist and emcee for the aforementioned Imperials), and the legendary Speer Family, who were one of the first family groups in the history of Southern Gospel, making up the roster of artists on this album.
As far as the songs go, this album is pretty straightforward. You have Christian artists singing traditional Christmas numbers, but there are some notable tracks, let's start with my favorite group, The Imperials. They were given one of the three modern songs on the album, a track called Infant Holy. Since we are talking 1975, this is (in my humble opinion) the best lineup that ever performed as the Imperials, consisting of Armond Morales, Jim Murray, Terry Blackwood, and Sherman Andrus. Even though the Russ Taff tandem is my favorite lineup, the Andrus / Blackwood edition is the best, and we can have the discussion on which was better some other time, but I digress. Their song is one minute and fifty eight seconds of magic. An a capella number, Infant Holy is exactly what you expect from The Imperials, and that is a showcase of their amazing vocal ability. No other quartet in gospel music history can sing harmony like these four men, and when you hear this song, you will understand why. The track is so complete that there is no follow up narration after the song, it is left as is.
The other song I'll go over quickly is Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem which was recorded by The Speer Family. As I eluded to earlier, they were one of the earliest family groups in Southern Gospel music, and patriarch G.T. (or Dad, as the fans knew him) Speer, has written many songs which are now enshrined in hymnals all around the world. I will tell you that I am by no means a big fan of The Speers, however I was quite impressed with their arrangement and recording of one of my favorite non-traditional Christmas songs. Their performance is one of the better recordings of the song that I have ever heard, and I enjoy listening to it during the holiday season.
I will stop my critique right here, mostly because I want each of you who read this to listen to this most unusual, but very good Christmas album with an open mind. I could give you a rundown of each of the artists and songs, but I think that might take away from the experience you will have as you listen to the album. The artists are referred to as Benson's family, which I totally get. The concept and execution of this album are unique...as I said earlier, I do not know of another Christmas compilation in Christian music history like this one. The album has outstanding performances by both Southern Gospel and Contemporary artists, singing both old and new holiday songs, and when all is said and done, this really is a fun album to listen to, so if you get a chance this week, stop by The Benson Company's house, and enjoy Christmas with their family, as you get ready for Christmas with yours.
1. Christmas Day, So Long Ago (The Downings)
2. Angels, We Have Heard On High (Dallas Holm)
3. O Holy Night (The Rambos)
4. Infant Holy (The Imperials)
5. Silent Night, Holy Night (Lanny Wolfe Trio)
1. Away In A Manger (Bill Gaither Trio)
2. Go Tell It On The Mountain (Henry and Hazel Slaughter)
3. Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem (The Speer Family)
4. What Child Is This? (Doug Oldham)
5. Benson Employee's Sing Along -
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
The First Noel
Joy To The World
Deck The Halls
We Wish You A Merry Christmas
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