Spend A Little Christmas With The Imperials by Philip Mayabb

At Christmas time 1980, The Imperials were on top of the CCM world.  They had enjoyed steady, progressive success ever since the 1977 addition of baritone singer David Will and lead singer Russ Taff.  Each album they released got bigger and bigger, and they hit the stratosphere with the album One More Song For You.  For the follow up, they had already returned to the studios of Los Angeles with Grammy award winning producer Michael Omartian, and recorded what would be the lineup's final album together, called Priority, but before that album was released in early 1981, they released their first holiday album, appropriately named Christmas With The Imperials.

Christmas music was not necessarily new to the group...they had sang background vocals on Elvis Presley's second Christmas album (Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas) in 1971, but the lone Christmas music of their own was a single track on the 1975 Christmas Sampler Christmas At Our House which was released by the Benson Company.  It was the Sherman Andrus / Terry Blackwood led Imperials who performed the song, which was called Infant Holy.  Sadly, at 1 minute 58 seconds long, it was the shortest cut on the album, but to the best of my knowledge, that was the extent of the legendary quartet's yuletide melodies.

So it was so appropriate that the group's most popular foursome would record their first full blown Christmas LP.  At the time, the idea of Christian artists recording Christmas albums hadn't totally caught on like we know it now...most everyone and their mother has a Christmas recording somewhere in their catalog these days, but back then, just a handful of Christian artists, both contemporary and southern gospel, had wandered in to the holiday arena.  Surprisingly, rather than use Michael Omartian, the man who had piloted the group to their two biggest albums, to produce the project, The Imperials went to world renowned Nashville arranger Bergen White to produce their debut Christmas album.  White was no slouch - his resume in the studio was already legendary, having worked with some musical luminaries as Elvis, Dolly Parton, The Oak Ridge Boys, Ronnie Milsap, and many other giants in both gospel and country music, but he was still a far cry from what the Imperials had experienced on the west coast with Omartian.  The album brought the group back to its roots sonically, and moved them miles away from the contemporary pop sound of both One More Song and the not yet released Priority.  

That is to say absolutely nothing negative about Christmas With The Imperials, it is a classic Christmas recording that legions of devoted fans have been enjoying as part of their Christmas listening for almost 40 years now.  The guys were all in top form vocally on the record, most likely a result of being  tuned up earlier in the year during the Priority sessions.  When you add Bergen White's world class arrangement skills and production to a superb vocal group,  you have a recipe for a stellar Christmas recording.  The song selection on the album is fairly balanced, with 6 traditional Christmas carols, and 4 four more modern numbers.  The musical arrangements on the older songs were fairly fresh and mostly contemporary for 1980, and together they created an album full of Christmas cheer that is still easy on the ears, even after all this time.

The Jim Murray led Child Of Love opens the festivities, a slow number that is a throwback to the earlier days of The Imperials, with that second to none harmony that made them famous.  Jim stays at the microphone for the classic It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, which is the perfect blend of traditional Christmas with contemporary styling - White's arranging prowess really shows on this one, and the members of the group are dialed in on the vocals.  It truly is one of the better recordings of the song that you may ever hear.  From there, it's back to a newer  Christmas song (from 1956) Mary's Little Boy Child, which features David Will.  With a tremendous string and horn section playing behind them, The Imperials pull off this mid tempo classic, which has been recorded by several artists since this version was released.  On track four, Russ steps up to sing a brand new song called Immanuel which recounts the story of the blessed visitation by holy angels to the virgin Mary.  One of the albums longer cuts, it is also one of its best - there is just something special about a song that features Russ Taff.  Once again, strings and horns accompany the proceedings, and adds a layer of Christmas magic to the finished track.  You'll love this one...I guarantee it.  The song leads directly in to O Come, All Ye Faithful, one of the finest Christmas carols ever written, with the Imperials touch added to it.  You'll be compelled to sing along, don't fight it!!

Side two kicks off with Jim Murray singing a song he wrote for the project called Christmas Praise, which is a slower number that could probably be included in your church's Sunday morning worship service, but one that you will still enjoy, as you listen to this iconic group sing it.  Next on the setlist is my all time personal favorite Christmas song Silent Night, with an interesting spin on it.  A traditional tempo is played behind the song as bass singer Armond Morales sings the first verse, but as Russ takes the second verse, the tempo is changed.  The arrangement is one of the most interesting versions of this beloved old carol that I have ever heard, but I love it, and I think you will too.  Then comes my favorite track on the album, which is What Child Is This.  Now this is probably one of the more contemporary songs on the album, with Russ singing the lead vocal, but it has an outstanding jazz arrangement, that would make crooners like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin proud.  The lead vocal is 100% Russ Taff, believe me!  O Little Town Of Bethlehem is next, with David taking the lead, and is a rather straight forward recording of the great Christmas standard, sang as only The Imperials could sing it.  The album closes with O Holy Night, which is a song that some singers have absolutely murdered over the years, but with a group such as this, the safest bet is to let the tenor singer have the lead, and Jim Murray did a sensational job singing it.  Producer White played it fairly conservative with the musical arrangement, however this is one of those songs that loses something if it is tinkered with too much, so kudos to him for leaving a wonderful song intact, and allowing Jim to sing it as it should be.

I hope you enjoy this album on Vinyl Revival this week, my copy of it is not in the best of shape, because it was played many years before I managed to get my hands on the CD in 2000, which was released to commemorate the album's 20th anniversary.  As I have said many times before, The Imperials are my all time favorite CCM artist, and this lineup is my favorite edition of the group, which means that in my collection of Christmas albums, this album has a very special place.  I would dare say that most of the few Christian Christmas albums released before this cannot match the quality of Christmas With The Imperials, and that could very well be a biased opinion, but the fact still remains that even after all these years, this group is still loved by many fans of classic contemporary Christian music, and this is one of CCM's most beloved Christmas albums ever. If you don't believe me, just take a listen this week, and I think you will see why...


Side One - 

1. Child Of Love (Tina English)

2. It Came Upon A Midnight Clear (Sears - Willis / arranged by Bergen White)

3. Mary's Little Boy Child (Jester Hairston)

4. Immanuel (Charles Davis & Garry Hanvey)

5. O Come, All Ye Faithful (Wade - Fideles / arranged by Bergen White)

Side Two - 

1. Christmas Praise (Jim Murray)

2. Silent Night (Mohr - Nash / arranged by Bergen White)

3. What Child Is This? (William Dix / arranged by Bergen White)

4. O Little Town Of Bethlehem (Brooks - Redner / arranged by Bergen White)

5. O Holy Night (Adolphe Adam / arranged by Bergen White)


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