North Pole to the Northwest: Little-known local Christmas music

The holidays are here, and rather than succumb to the same old Christmas music, why not explore Pacific Northwest artists from the not-too-distant past who put out some really interesting Christmas music over the years?

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No offense to Tacoma-born and Spokane-raised Bing Crosby or Burl Ives (who spent his twilight years in Anacortes) or other well-known Northwest artists not featured in this roundup. Those guys get plenty of well-deserved airplay already.

The Brothers Four “Mary’s Boy Child”

The original Brothers Four was a folk quartet featuring Bob Flick, John Paine, Mike Kirkland and Dick Foley. They were actual fraternity brothers at the University of Washington in the late 1950s. The group was signed by Columbia Records as that label’s “answer” to the Kingston Trio on Capitol Records. They had a hit in 1960 with a song called “Greenfields” and put out a number of LPs, and a version of the band is still touring.

In 1966, the year they recorded their Christmas LP, they had traveled to Vietnam and performed short shows for troops all over the jungle, arriving and leaving by helicopter. It made an impression on Dick Foley and other members of the group, and they dedicated the holiday record to American servicemen.

Dick Foley said several years ago that “Mary’s Boy Child” is his favorite song on the album.

The Ventures “Snowflakes”

The Ventures were the kings of instrumental guitar rock. The band was founded in Tacoma in the late 1950s by Don Wilson and the late Bob Bogle and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. You’ve probably heard their version of “Sleigh Ride” from their 1965 Christmas album that sounds like a fraternal twin of the band’s huge hit “Walk, Don’t Run.”

Ventures’ co-founder Don Wilson told KIRO Radio in 2015 that he was the one who came up with the brilliant idea to “filter” traditional Christmas carols and more recent Christmas songs through current (in 1965) pop songs. The song “Snowflakes” is a reworking of “Greensleeves,” but the pop song it pays tribute to is unclear. If you know, please comment below.

The Ventures’ original Christmas LP is loaded with similar songs, and comes up on many lists as one of the best Christmas albums of all time.

Etiquette Records “Merry Christmas”

This 1965 LP of legendary Tacoma bands has been reissued on CD and is one of the greatest Christmas records of all time. There’s nary a miss on either side, including rockers by The Sonics, plus sensitive ballads by The Fabulous Wailers, including “She’s Coming Home” and “Maybe This Year.” And don’t forget the prescient “Christmas Spirit.”

Stan Boreson “Uncle Sven Is Coming To Town”

If there was a “Novelty Song Hall of Fame,” the self-proclaimed “King of Scandinavian Humor” Stan Boreson would be in it.

Stan was a quintessential Northwest performer and icon for more than half of the 20th century, and a good chunk of the 21st. He grew up in Everett and was an early star on KING-TV while he was still in college. He put out all kinds of novelty records going back to the early 1950s, and hosted a kids’ program with Doug Setterberg until the late 1960s.

After Stan passed away earlier this year at age 91, a huge public celebration of his life was held at the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI); his widow Barbara died just a few months later.

Stan based his Christmas parodies on the work of another Northwest native named Hal Stewart (also from Tacoma) who performed and recorded under the name of Yogi Yorgesson. Hal died in a car accident 1956, but not before taking Stan under his wing (or his “ving”) and mentoring him; Hal’s widow gave Stan her blessing to carry on the holiday novelty song tradition.

“Uncle Sven is Coming to Town” is from the 1970 Stan Boreson album “Yust Go Nuts at Christmas.” For extra credit, check out Stan’s performance of “Valking In My Vinter Undervear” from Lawrence Welk’s TV program.

What more can you say about this version of the Harry Simeone holiday classic as played by Jimi Hendrix? According to one website, the impromptu performance was “recorded in late 1969, while Hendrix, drummer Buddy Miles, and bassist Billy Cox of the Band Of Gypsys were rehearsing for their upcoming Fillmore East gigs.”

While not really a true Pacific Northwest artist, Cary Grant was married briefly to Tacoma-born West Seattle High School graduate Dyan Cannon. He was 62 and she was 29 when they married, and the union only lasted a few years. It did produce Grant’s only offspring, the actress Jennifer Grant. This unusual song, from 1967, is most certainly a tribute to this father’s special little girl.

Ron Holden and The Thunderbirds “Who Says There Ain’t No Santa Claus?”

Ron Holden grew up in Seattle and had a hit with a single called “Love You So” in 1959. This odd Christmas number, “Who Says There Ain’t No Santa Claus?” was released in 1960, and holds the distinction of being the only holiday tune where the protagonist dies in the electric chair.

Do you have a favorite Northwest Christmas song or album? Tell us about it in the comments.

Editor’s note: The story was originally published on Nov. 15, 2017.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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