Christmas Songs From Off The Beaten Path

Dec 24, 2011
Originally published on December 25, 2011 9:42 am

Bill Adler's resume doesn't scream "Christmas nut": He's a Jew from Detroit who spent years as a record executive at Def Jam Recordings. But since 1982, Adler has produced a yearly compilation for his friends and family titled Christmas Jollies, which gathers holiday-themed music from unexpected places.

"I grew up not having Christmas, and not missing Christmas particularly. But then I met and married a woman who celebrates Christmas, and so I sort of had to get into the spirit," Adler says. "I like virtually everything about the holiday, but as a music lover myself, I very quickly got bored with the standard Christmas soundtrack. So I began to put my yearly compilation together, just as a way to help get myself through the holiday."

Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish speaks with Adler about this year's edition of Christmas Jollies, which includes cuts from Solomon Burke, Ray Charles, The Beach Boys and more. Once you've listened to their conversation, check out NPR Music's "Jingle Jams" — a mix (co-curated by Adler) that includes dozens more holiday tunes from off the beaten path.

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PEGGY SEEGER: (Singing) In nations, all I knew I call, come hear this declaration, and don't refuse this glorious news of Jesus and salvation. Through all the earth, proclaim the birth of Christ, the great Messiah. As once were told by prophets old, Isaiah, Jeremiah.


That is Peggy Seeger, sister to Pete, singing "Babe of Bethlehem." It's the opening cut off this year's edition of "Christmas Jollies," Bill Adler's annual idiosyncratic compilation of holiday tunes. Since 1982, the former record company executive has produced for friends and family a Christmas soundtrack of unexpected songs. Bill Adler joins us now from our New York Bureau. Welcome and Happy Holidays.

BILL ADLER: Well, thank you very much.

CORNISH: So, what's a nice rap label executive from Detroit doing making a holiday music collection for almost three decades?

ADLER: I'm Jewish and I grew up not having Christmas and not missing Christmas particularly. But then I met and married a woman who celebrates Christmas, and so I sort of had to get into the spirit. And I liked virtually about the holiday but, you know, as a music lover myself, I very quickly got bored with the kind of standard Christmas soundtrack, and so I began to put my yearly compilation together just as a way to help get myself through the holiday.

CORNISH: Let's get right to the music. And this is one that will keep you warm on a cold winter's night. And that's Little Jimmy King's "Happy Christmas Tears."


LITTLE JIMMY KING: (Singing) Merry Christmas, baby, and a Happy, Happy New Year. Merry Christmas, baby, and a Happy New Year. It's so good loving you, I could almost shed a tear.

ADLER: It's just so vivid. It's just so well-done. You know, I like every single part of it. I like the guitar playing, the tempo of the drumming and the way the guy sings. And I also like what he has to say. It's very heartfelt and loving.

CORNISH: Where do you find the music?

ADLER: Well, you know, I'm not young and I'm not a luddite either, but, you know, I don't find much music online. I still go to what's left of the record stores. I go to flea markets. I hear from other collectors. That's mostly where I find it.

CORNISH: OK. As you say in your liner notes, you've included the hallucinatory rareness of snow in Jamaica with "Winter Storm" by Ras Pidow. Who is he?

ADLER: I have no idea.


RAS PIDOW: (Singing) Here come the winter storm. I see the cloud of darkness cover the lawn. I get a feel of love to put the thing on...

CORNISH: So, what is it about this song that you love?

ADLER: Well, just because, you know, I do not believe that in fact he ever had or did see a winter storm. I don't believe it. You know, we would have heard about a winter storm in Jamaica. It never happened.


PIDOW: (Singing) Now, I feel the winter storm.

CORNISH: Now, you know, my colleague on Saturday, Scott Simon, he teams up this time of year with Jim Nayder, The Annoying Music Man, to play a bit of essentially torturous holiday music. But yours is not that. And are there any limits to your choices?

ADLER: Well, I'm certainly not driven by the desire to annoy anybody. The first thing I want to do is just please myself. And I'm hopeful that, you know, in the process of doing that I can please other folks as well. And, you know, I know how kind of safe as milk that sounds but the whole attitude isn't a punk attitude. You know, it's really for me. You know, is there a way to locate a pocket of soulfulness in this genre of music, which is frequently kind of unsoulful.

CORNISH: And NPR has its own holiday mix, Jingle Jams. And I want to mention that because you offered up some suggestions for that collection. It's streaming at And we've actually put together a little medley of some of those tunes that you've suggested - some obscure, some not. So here, never before on the same stage are Sonny Boy Williamson, Keb Mo, Betty Carter and Ray Charles and The Beach Boys.


SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON: (Singing) My baby went shopping yesterday, so I'm gonna buy what you need with Santa Claus. My baby went shopping yesterday, so I'm gonna buy what you need with Santa Claus. I'm gonna take mine with me but I'll leave yours in my dresser drawer.

KEB MO: (Singing) Christmastime ain't come but once a year. Bells are ringing and the family's all here. All the children want to help decorate the tree, and they're loving live presents under there for you and me. Oh, Santa Claus is coming is a jingle bell jamboree.

BETTY CARTER AND RAY CHARLES: (Singing) I really can't stay, I've got to go away, this evening has been so very nice.

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Should auld acquaintance be forgot in days of auld lang syne.

CORNISH: Bill, after all these years, what have you found makes a good holiday tune, one that endures?

ADLER: You know, some music does have a kind of a timeless quality to it so that you can go back. You know, for example, I have a track on the current, this year's compilation that was cut on 1928. Well, that's, you know, whatever it is - 83 years ago. And, you know, it could sound antique as hell but in fact it doesn't - at least not to my ears. And I can't predict what's going to sound enduring and timeless when the stuff is made. All I know is when I stumble across it in my little life, you know, if it still speaks to me then I imagine it'll speak to other folks as well.

CORNISH: I'd like to finish up with something just a little bit more traditional. It's actually Solomon Burke. He died last year. And this is Burke singing "Silent Night" in a live performance in a church in 1982, the year of your first "Christmas Jollies" collection. But before we hear it, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to share your music with us and wish you all the best this holiday season.

ADLER: Thank you so much. And I wish the same for you. You know, this is just nothing but fun for me.


SOLOMON BURKE: (Singing) Silent night, holy night, all has come, and all is bright. You know your 'round the young virgin and...

CORNISH: Bill Adler is co-author of "Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label," and the creator of the "Christmas Jollies" collection. You can hear dozens more alternative holiday tunes at This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Merry Christmas. I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.