Phil Spector’s ‘A Christmas Gift For You’ – The Shocking Story Of The Ultimate Festive Album

Just over half a century ago, super producer Phil Spector applied his Wall Of Sound to 12 festive tunes, with brilliant results. The problem? One of its performers described the sessions as “like child abuse”, Spector took its best track away from his wife Ronnie because she couldn’t sing it to his standards and the producer, in a jokey studio off-cut, allegedly described the album as being for “cocksuckers”. We unpick the ultimate festive album.

THE BACKGROUND

Since forming Philles Records with record exec Lester Sill in 1961, Phil Spector’s rise had been unstoppable. By 1963 he was at his peak, having composed his ultimate classic, The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’. “He amassed so much power in that year, he could do no wrong… it’s made him a millionaire many times over,” noted Mark Ribowsky, author of He’s A Rebel – Phil Spector: Rock & Roll’s Legendary Producer. ‘A Christmas Gift For You’, recorded by the entire Philles roster in a series of lengthy session over three months, showcased Spector’s unrivalled position. It was a rare thing: a record brought to life by its producer as much as its performers. As the late Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun noted, “Phil made the record; the artist was secondary.”

THE STORY BEHIND THE SLEEVE

Though no photographer is credited with supplying the original artwork, a group shot of the performers in festive garb, Spector himself contributes sleevenotes for the record’s back cover. “Can 12 great Christmas songs be treated with the same excitement as the original pop material of today?” he asks. “Until now, perhaps not!”

DID YOU KNOW?

1. Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson plays piano on several tracks and wrote a lost song for The Ronettes that failed to make the cut.

2. Sonny Bono of Sonny & Cher was working as a studio assistant during the sessions. “[Spector] used to yell at him all the time, but Sonny was so sweet,” recalls The Crystals’ LaLa Brooks.

3. Darlene Love performed ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ annually on chat show host David Letterman’s festive episode from 1986 to 2014. “Dave says it’s not Christmas until he hears me sing,” said Love.

4. Despite Spector’s formidable reputation, engineer Larry Levine recalls that the producer would regularly “do stand-up comedy for 20 minutes at a time” when things were going well, while Darlene Love remembers them all receiving gifts from him.

5. The original album was released on the same day President John F Kennedy was assassinated, which is widely blamed for its poor chart performance in the US. It found a bigger audience thanks to an Apple Records reissue in 1972.

BEHIND THE LYRICS

It is so difficult at this time to say words that would express my feelings about the album to which you have just listened” – ‘Silent Night’

Spector’s spoke-word monologue on ‘Silent Night’ could have been very different. “The first time he did it, he used foul language,” recalls engineer Levine. “Something like, ‘I made this record for you, cocksuckers.’”

If there was a way / I’d hold back this tear / But it’s Christmas Day” – ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’

The sole original song on the record, this track was intended for Spector’s future wife Ronnie Bennett of The Ronettes, but was later given to Darlene Love after Bennett’s vocal was deemed not emotional enough.

When suddenly the clock strikes 12 / The fun’s begun” – ‘Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers’

Contrary to the song’s chipper message, The Crystals’ LaLa Brooks recalls the sessions differently. “I would be there from 1pm to 1am as a teenager. It was like child abuse,” she said.

WHAT WE SAID THEN

NME didn’t review it.

WHAT WE SAY NOW

It’s impossible to imagine the festive musical canon without it. Despite largely consisting of covers, the joy that exudes from Spector’s production ensures his take on the songs is the only one worth bothering with.

FAMOUS FAN

Glasvegas frontman James Allan said: “I used to listen to it every day, even in summer. I think my neighbours thought I was mental.”

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

“Christmas meant a lot to Phil. It was one of the biggest projects he ever took on, because it was something that had never been done before.” – Darlene Love, 2013

THE DETAILS

Recorded: Summer 1963
Released: November 22 1963
Length: 34:12
Producer: Phil Spector
Studio: Gold Star Studios, Los Angeles
Highest UK Chart Position: 6
Singles: None

Tracklisting:

1. ‘White Christmas’ – Darlene Love (2:52)
2. ‘Frosty the Snowman’ – The Ronettes (2:16)
3. ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’ – Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans (2:54)
4. ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’ – The Crystals (3:240
5. ‘Sleigh Ride’ – The Ronettes (3:00)
6. ‘Marshmallow World’ – Darlene Love (2:23)
7. ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ – The Ronettes (2:37)
8. ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ – The Crystals (2:30)
9. ‘Winter Wonderland’ – Darlene Love (2:25)
10. ‘Parade of the Wooden Soldiers’ – The Crystals (2:55)
11. ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ – Darlene Love (2:45)
12. ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ – Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans (2:03)
13. ‘Silent Night’ – Phil Spector and Artists (2:08)

This article originally appeared in NME’s Anatomy Of An Album series