The Rant has often proclaimed our appreciation for music all along the edges, from indie rock to Americana to D’Angelo’s abs, we mean his neo soul brown sugar. The Rant can hang with almost any hipster music crowd. But when it comes to Christmas tunes, we want our odes to the season served up like comfort food: over-orchestrated, familiar, white bread, and kitschy. No one checks all those boxes like the Ray Conniff Singers.
The picture is pretty much all you need to know about Ray Conniff. Musically and physically, he’s Edgar Winter if Winter had been raised in a suburban strip mall by Amway1 distributors. Apparently a strand of his hair served as the genetic basis of Dorothy Hamill’s wedge. If you’re wondering, Mark and Dorothy Hamill are not related even though they shared the same hairstyle.
But let’s not kid ourselves; one does not get to have his own Singers unless he has some musical chops. And Conniff certainly did, working on orchestrations for producer Mitch Miller2 at Columbia and backing among others, Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney, and Marty Robbins. His arrangement on “Chances Are” by Mathis covers a multitude of later musical sins.
One day in the studio Conniff paired a male and female chorus singings notes, not words, with the orchestra. Mitch Miller liked the sound and allowed Conniff to record an album of his own using the concept. And thus were the Singers born. How did they sound? So glad you asked. If that video does not make you laugh out loud, congratulations, you are Ray’s target demographic. Proceed immediately to Branson.
From 1957-1968 Conniff and the Singers recorded over thirty albums. That’s a mind-boggling three a year. Kanye would demand physical assumption into heaven and a declaration of his immaculate conception if he kept up that pace. And those albums sold, Yeezy. Twenty-eight hit the Top 40, and total sales from around ninety albums during his entire career hit 70 million.
Like all popular artists, Conniff knew Christmas album money lasts forever. He recorded three Christmas albums for Columbia with the most successful, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, making him the best-selling Columbia artist of 1962. Keep in mind that Columbia recorded every major jazz artist of the era, had Tony Bennett on the label, and had just signed a young folk singer named Bob Dylan.
The Ray Conniff Singers are the epitome of what used to comprise mainstream American pop culture: utterly professional, immensely enthusiastic, slickly produced, and devoid of anything unsettling, controversial, or soulful. In other words, capitalism operating with the valves wide open. No holiday has achieved the same level of consumptive excess without artistic expression than Christmas. So The Rant must pair the two for maximum enjoyment each season3
We often forget how long America clung to this homogenized entertainment. Up with People4performed at the Super Bowl as late as 1986 (their fourth appearance) and Michael Jackson didn’t usher in the modern spectacle of halftime shows until 1993. And honestly, other than Prince’s mesmerizing performance and Bruno Mars’s joyful exuberance, those shows have highlighted what has replaced Conniff’s professional blandness–cleverly packaged commercials designed to grow a performer’s brand. All must bow to the brand. The Rant is reminded of the Times article where a musician admitted creating very little because they spent all their time promoting themselves across social media.
But Christmas endures by playing on that nostalgia. Ray Conniff and Peanuts return; Hallmark churns out endless Christmas movies with the same plot (Someone is dead and someone has moved home. Will they ever love again? Umm, yeah. Yeah they will. With another impossibly-good-looking-for-their-age former sitcom star); people watch It’s a Wonderful Life without irony; Bing Crosby and David Bowie can even sing “The Little Drummer Boy” together in this enchanted land of no tension or conflict. Who knew Crosby would turn out to be the freakiest one in that duet by the way? We are not celebrating the birth of Christ; we are celebrating the resurrection of the unchallenged supremacy of the WASP world that reigned for so long. That’s what your Fox-loving family member is really riled up about when you refuse to say “Merry Christmas.”
We suggest “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” for the full Ray Conniff Singers experience. Have a hearty laugh and then remember that the true meaning of Christmas is no longer having to find the true meaning of Christmas by listening to Ray Conniff. Or listen to Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” for the same result. Either works.
- Amway now describes itself a multi-level marketing company, which is how we’re describing pyramid schemes these days. In much the same way the Trump presidency operates as a multi-level marketing effort to make America great again, both appear to operate illegally with no repercussions and continue to succeed despite the fact no one you know personally likes them
- Miller had his own singers, known as The Gang, that recorded folk songs and standards. His “Sing Along with Mitch” television show featured lyrics at the bottom of the screen and a bouncing ball to help the audience sing along, a technique that lives on at sing along screenings of movies like The Sound of Music and White Christmas. Mitch also rocked one of the great goatees of pop culture history
- The Rant would be remiss not to mention our friend Scott the Mortician who each year produces our favorite gift: a mix tape of weird and delightful Christmas songs, including what Scott has termed the Conniff Love Fest of ’04. Produced under the moniker Festive Grinch Musik, the yearly complication is the greatest act of holiday cheer you have never heard. And yes, The Rant is lording it over you. You should acquire more interesting friends. Not that your ‘edgy’ friend that has the Celtic ink and thinks Aziz Ansari’s stand-up is funny is falling short. Not at all
- Up with People still exists and still tries desperately to convince you of their cultural relevance! The page documenting their Super Bowl triumphs makes us truly happy. Was there ever a more Up with People brag than informing us their stage show at Super Bowl XVI required 34 car batteries? We think not. One of the greatest Simpsons parodies of all time was a Super Bowl performance by a group called Up with Everything singing Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” while doing the Charleston