Great Songs: The Christmas Song

Song written by: Mel Tormé and Bob Wells

Song performed by: Nat “King” Cole, and everyone else

When I was about 15 or 16 years old my parents took me out one night to a place called Anton’s in Washington D.C. It was a very fancy, upscale restaurant and jazz lounge. We were going to see Mel Tormé. This may sound a bit odd, as if they were dragging me there because they wanted to go but had no regard for me, but no. It was pretty much for me.

At the time I had been taking guitar lessons for about a year, and was just learning about jazz from my guitar teacher. I basically knew nothing about nothing when it came to jazz, but I knew just enough to appreciate what was going on. These days, of course, I know enough to realize what a privilege it was to be able to see Mel Tormé perform, especially in an intimate setting like that. And of course I am old enough to realize what great parents I have for them to do that for me.

Alas, I don’t remember many details about the show, to be honest. I remember Tormé doing a sort of tribute to Ella Fitzgerald that featured a bunch of scat singing, which I usually can’t stand, but hearing him do it I didn’t mind so much – I’d even go so far as to say I really enjoyed it. Maybe it was the quality of his voice – the velvet fog, you know. I remember Tormé’s piano player was a motherfucker (jazz-speak translation: “a really good musician”). I remember the crowd calling out tunes, most of which I didn’t know (I only knew a handful of jazz tunes at that point). Tormé picked one of them and started singing, only to be stopped by the band – they didn’t know the tune. So he kept right on singing, calling out chord changes as he went. I remember being amazed by this and learning later that he had perfect pitch.

And I remember him playing “The Christmas Song”. Actually I recall that he didn’t really seem all that keen to play it. The owner of the club handed him a note about 2/3 through the set. Tormé read it to the audience: “If you think you’re getting off that stage tonight without playing The Christmas Song then you’re out of your mind and I’m not paying you.” It may have been a gag for the crowd, who knows. But he launched into it, a somewhat loose rendition, changing a few of the lyrics just for fun (“Yuletide carols being sung by a choir/And thoughts of girls ripping off my clothes…”).

As great as Tormé was, his is not the best recording of this song. That distinction of course goes to the original version performed by Nat “King” Cole (there were actually two “original” recordings – the first without strings, the second with. The second is the one that became a huge hit). I remember an interview I saw with Tormé where he said after he wrote the song, he knew it could only be sung by Nat. Who knows whether it was his decision or not, but whoever decided it, I’m glad they did. It’s such an iconic, singular performance that whenever I hear “The Christmas Song” performed by anyone else, no matter how great, it just doesn’t sound right. It’s not just his super smooth voice, but also his phrasing. Listen to it and check out how he alternates between hanging back behind the beat, and being right on top of it. He really makes it swing.

“The Christmas Song” was the first song that ever made me think, really think, about songwriting. I’ve known the song since childhood, of course – everybody has. But it wasn’t until those teenage years that I learned that Tormé had written it (along with Bob Wells).The story of its writing is a great little tale – Tormé and Wells sitting by the pool in summer, thinking up wintry things to try to keep cool. But it wasn’t the story that made me pause and think – it was just the simple fact that someone, anyone, had actually sat down and written this song. I’d never thought of songs that way before. This one in particular seemed like it had just always, well, been there, part of the fabric of time and nature and universal experience. But no, someone created it, out of nothing. And it was that thought, that a person (or persons) could create something so meaningful and lasting, that stuck with me. It was an incredibly powerful idea, one that changed the way I thought about and listened to music for the rest of my life.

In the end what this song stirs in me most is gratitude. I am grateful for this song, for its timeless beauty, and for the memories I associate with it. I am grateful that I was able to see Mel Tormé while he was alive and still in great form, and I am grateful that my mom and dad had the understanding to take me there.

Happy Holidays everyone.


Great Songs: Hot for Teacher

Song: Hot for Teacher

Song performed by: Van Halen (Michael Anthony, David Lee Roth, Alex Van Halen, Edward Van Halen)

Album: 1984

One night a while ago I was at a dinner party and I struck up a conversation with another guy there.

He was about my age, but unlike me was very clean cut, very well dressed. In our conversation I learned that he was a very high-ranking official in his church (for those playing at home, he was the Stake President of the local LDS – aka Mormon – church). I live in a fairly conservative area in Arizona, so this is not unusual. Basically any time I’m at a dinner party of some kind, I’m on my best behavior so as not to embarrass my wife or anyone else.

Anyway, he was a nice guy so we talked for a while. At one point we got on the topic of music. He asked what kind of music I liked, etc. At some point I told him I was a guitar player. Upon hearing that, he said “Oh, well, are you a Van Halen fan?”

I was a bit surprised at this, to say the least. Most Mormon church leaders I know (yes I do know a few) don’t listen to any music that is even remotely heavy, and if they do, they don’t talk about it at dinner parties.

“Of course,” I replied.

“Me too,” he said. Uh, what? Then he paused, and said, “You know, I wish I could listen to them more often, but I just can’t. I’m kind of a straight-laced guy, but when I hear Van Halen, it makes me crazy. It just does something to me. I can’t explain it. It’s something primal that I just can’t help.”

And that about sums it up. Van Halen really is a force of nature, and for me, the ultimate tour de force is “Hot for Teacher”. If this song doesn’t stir something in you, you may be dead. Built over a classic Van Halen groove – the hyperspeed shuffle – this song has a force and propulsion that just will not stop.

To begin with, “Hot for Teacher” has perhaps the most famous intro section of any rock song in history. It starts with Alex Van Halen’s extended drum solo. A classic double bass tour de force.

Now I’m no drumming expert, but I would venture to say that this intro is up there with “Wipeout”, “In the Air Tonight”, and “Moby Dick” as one of the most recognizable and beloved of all drum parts. The recording is actually somewhat controversial, but the consensus seems to be that Alex played most of the parts live in the studio, and overdubbed a few of the tom-tom and cymbal hits. I have no idea how he plays it live. I’ve seen Al play it, but it was hard to tell if he was doing all of it, or triggering some parts, or playing a very slightly modified version. The world may never know. And it doesn’t matter – the recording stands as an incredible achievement and one hell of a lead in to…

Perhaps my favorite guitar passage that Edward Van Halen has ever played, and that, my friends, is saying something. What can I say about this intro solo? It’s everything about EVH’s playing that I love all wrapped up into one intro. It’s in your face, fearless, and that TONE. The section is a rolling tapped arpeggio riff that moves like a rollercoaster up and down the guitar neck. And like any good rollercoaster, this one culminates in a precipitous drop – a rapid fire descending tapped lick set in Edward’s favorite Dorian/Blues scale hybrid (a Dorian scale, or mode to be technically correct, is a type of minor scale that Eddie has always favored, both for the sound and because it happens to lay fairly symmetrically across the guitar fingerboard, facilitating this type of tapping run and fitting nicely with his legato playing style).

And then there’s Dave. OK, let me get one thing out of the way right up front. I am not a Dave zealot, nor am I a Sammy zealot, nor am I a Gary zealot. I love this band – in every incarnation. Period. They have managed somehow to create insanely great music over 30 years, and each incarnation has produced classics. OK, maybe I’m going a little far with the Gary Cherone years, but you get the idea. Enough about that.

Back to Dave. Now, Dave is not a singer so much. He is a showman. An entertainer. I think Steve Vai said it best when comparing his tenures with Dave and Whitesnake: you won’t see David Lee Roth standing center stage hitting a high E and holding it for 30 seconds. And you won’t see David Coverdale doing a splits jump off the drum riser. Both are great – they’re just different.

This lyrics are pure essential David Lee Roth. Cocky, brash, sly, with a Cheshire Cat grin the whole time. Most of all they are just plain fun. “I think of all the education that I missed/But then my homework was never quite like this.” And then there’s the immortal “I don’t feel tardy.”

Michael Anthony of course had the thankless job of being the bass player in a band with Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth. Especially on a song like this, there’s just not much he could do to really stand out. Add to that the fact that he was pretty much buried in the mix throughout the Ted Templeman years (VH’s producer), and you have some grounds for contention. I’m not even going to go into the whole Wolfgang thing, but I will be writing more about Mike soon in another post. For now, though, suffice to say that he holds down the bottom end of this tune admirably, and provides his patented harmonies to the vocal chorus and pre-chorus. One of the nicest parts about this tune being recorded live (more on that below) is that you can actually hear Mike during the guitar solo. Check out his lines at around the 3:05 mark – he plays some really nice fifth and octave intervals that give the song a great sense of movement (yes, even more than it already had) before dropping back in the pocket for the rest of the tune.

The verse breaks are reminiscent of ZZ Top’s “La Grange”, but lighter and less swampy. Eddie skipped playing one of his usual Frankenstein Strats for this tune in favor of a Gibson Flying V, for two reasons: (1) it was the only guitar he could find that day that had dead strings on it, and (2) the dual pickup switch allowed him to switch seamlessly between the verse and chorus sections. The dead strings are something I’ve never heard from anyone other than Eddie. He has always sworn that dead strings sound better when recording than new strings do. Most guitarists love new strings for their bright sound, but obviously Ed knows what he’s doing.

In another classic VH move, the song was recorded essentially live, with Ed, Al, and Mike all playing live in the studio (the vocals were overdubbed later, as they always are). Eschewing overdubs, they played the whole song through – if someone messed up, they just ran through the whole song again. Want proof? Listen to the guitar solo – there’s no rhythm guitar underneath, just bass and drums. This I think is the key to the lifeforce evident in the song – you just can’t get that same raw power when everyone plays their parts separately.

Speaking of the guitar solo…it kicks off with a reprise of the descending tapping lick from the intro, and stays in the same F# minor tonality for the duration of the solo. The solo itself is kinda fascinating, because it contains little of the histrionics for which Eddie is famous – no tapping, no whammy bar madness. There’s barely a harmonic (tap or artificial) to be found. The song is going by at such a walloping speed that you hardly notice that Ed is essentially blowing straight up blues licks over the entire solo. It’s times like this that you remember Eddie’s guitar hero growing up was Eric Clapton. Think Crossroads-era Cream, put a manic shuffle underneath it, and bingo, you’ve got this solo. The Cream comparison is even more appropriate when you factor in the no-rhythm-guitar-underneath-the-solo aspect. It’s pretty much the ultimate power trio tune.

As I said earlier, Van Halen has produced so many classic songs that it’s hard to single out just one. And of course a bunch of them will eventually show up on this list (and the Great Albums list…and the Great Solos list…). But I had to cover “Hot for Teacher” first. It may not be the best song of the Dave era, but it’s up there. And above all else, well…I can’t explain it – it just does something to me.

Great Songs: Three Little Birds

Song: Three Little Birds

Song performed by: Bob Marley & the Wailers

Album: Exodus (also included on Legend)

When I was a kid, maybe 8 years old, I really liked the song “Matthew” by John Denver. It’s a good song, somewhat melodramatic, but I mostly liked it because my name is Matthew. I don’t remember how it got started, but I recall for a few weeks my dad and I used to sit on the couch in our living room, put the song on the stereo, and sing the song together. It wasn’t really a planned bonding moment, it was just one of those random things kids and parents do together and then kind of move on to something else. It’s one of my most cherished childhood memories, and one of the earliest concrete memories I have where music is the focal point.

Flash forward to a few months ago, and I’m burning a CD for my own kids to listen to in the car. I put Three Little Birds on there just for the heck of it – they know the song a bit because it’s featured in a Nick Jr. short animation. We go for a drive to the store. The song comes on. I start singing along: “Don’t worry about a thing…’cause every little thing’s gonna be alright”. Slowly, tentatively, so do my kids. I sing a little louder. They follow suit. Soon we are all singing full voice together. The song ends and we all laugh. I am so full of joy I can’t stand it.

Wikipedia and other sources tell us that the origin of Three Little Birds is disputed. Some say it was written about some of Marley’s backup singers; others say it was about actual birds that fluttered around Marley’s back door. The true story matters little. What matters is the feeling. Others have written about uplift, or elevation (here and here)…I believe this song is the perfect embodiment of this emotion. It is pure inspiration, pure hope and love. This is one of those songs that has the power to lift the soul. In many ways Three Little Birds is a symbol of the things that Bob Marley stood for, and Marley is also a symbol of what Three Little Birds stands for.

Three Little Birds is now a standard in our house. I sing it to the girls at bedtime (along with Little Wing and Blackbird and Summertime). The song is now an indelible piece of my memories, and hopefully my kids’ too.

Three Little Birds Links


Amazon (single – mp3)

Amazon (Exodus album – mp3)

Amazon (Exodus album – CD)

Amazon (Legend album – mp3)

Amazon (Legend album – CD)