In 1994 I had become a fairly popular entertainer in Whistler and played up there a lot. In the spring of 1994, I met with the head of the Chamber of Commerce in Whistler (Ann Chiasson) to ask if she would like to commission me to do a Christmas album dedicated to Whistler. After a few days thought she agreed to finance the project and we made a tentative date to release the album in November of that year with a CD launch party at a local Whistler bar and grill.
I had agreed to write two songs and do 7 covers for a total of 9 songs.
I had no idea what songs I would cover and I hadn’t written any Christmas songs at the time; I just trusted that I could make it happen once I set my mind to it… then I promptly put the whole idea on the back burner assuming that November was a long way off.
Also in 1994, my Beatles project Revolver had decided to ‘go all out’ as a theatre production and that literally took all of my focus and energies until August 22nd of that year when we debuted our audio/visual extravaganza at The Vogue Theatre in Vancouver.
I must mention that throughout this whole year I was playing 7 nights a week with Cease and Desist at The Avalon Hotel Wednesday to Saturday and at The Roxy with The Surreal McCoys Sunday to Tuesday… so when I did the theatre productions and other gigs, I would have to find ‘subs’ to fill in for me.
About a week after our theatre production was over, something was nagging at me that I was supposed to be doing something… suddenly it dawned on me that I was supposed to do a Christmas album!
I phoned Precision Audio (a company in Burnaby, BC at the time who did CD duplication) and asked them that if I wanted to release an album in mid November, when would they need the masters and artwork? To my horror they replied ‘Two weeks from now”!!!!
I quickly phoned my friend Craig Zurba at MR&D studios and asked if he could get me in for 5 days the following week and he cleared his calendar for me.
I took my electric piano out to the garage with a 4 track tape recorder and my acoustic guitar, and for 4 beautiful afternoons with the garage door wide open though-out a very warm September, I learned the cover songs I would do and wrote two songs.
Nearing the end of my writing and learning and demoing these songs, I phoned Doug Johnson from Loverboy to come over to try a soprano sax on one of my tracks and it turned out beautifully. He agreed to return for the proper recording of it.
I was working with drummer Mike Root at The Roxy and when he heard I was doing a Christmas Album, volunteered his services for the project. I asked him to come by and set up his drums in the corner of my garage to run a song- (Sleighride I believe). Once we felt we were okay with that arrangement, I started playing a 6/8 groove and asked him to play along with it. I yelled out ‘RIDE!’ (for him to go to the ride cymbal) and ‘FILL’ for a drum fill in between chord changes and ‘HAT!’ for him to play a more subdued groove for verses. Seeing as I was just playing chords and not singing, he just followed my lead. At the end of it, I pushed stop on the tape player and he asked what that was. I replied, ‘I think it’s the last song for the album’.
I then gave him a tape with all the other songs I had done with ‘finger drums on my keyboard’ with instructions to know them inside out because I wanted all the bed tracks done and to start overdubbing the first day of recording. He laughed like I was kidding and I told him ‘No this entire album has to be recorded, mixed and mastered in 6 days to go to the pressing plant and I was very, very serious.
I then took that 6/8 track I had done with Mike Root and wrote a melody and lyrics over it. It became the title track of the album. It was a bluesy thing called ‘A Whistler Christmas’. (and incidentally the 10th song)
I did some calling around and the CMRRA helped me find the right publishing companies to pay the rights to, to record and sell the CD’s with these 7 covers. I was a bit amused to discover that ‘Chestnuts’ (The Christmas Song) was now published by MPL Communications which was Paul McCartney’s company! I can always say now that I wrote a cheque to Sir Paul… well kind of…)
May I also mention once again that throughout this entire time, I was playing 7 nights a week? I’m just making sure you’re paying attention…
So in this same time period in my garage (wood shedding as it were) I knew I needed an album cover. That July I had a family portrait done and at the same time had had a decent 8X10 promo of myself done so I was covered there. I phoned Rick Flebbe (RIP) up in Whistler who was a local ‘scenic photographer’ and asked if he would supply some pictures for the cover and foldout and he agreed. I then phoned up my dear friend Colin Wiebe who aside from being a great working musician himself, was also a very gifted graphic artist who did a lot of the art work and advertising set ups for The Vancouver Sun and The Province newspapers. I made an appointment with him to bring all of the artwork, liner notes and lyrics to him for him to assemble into something good.
Colin moved incredibly fast and efficiently and within two days (after work) he had put together a beautiful package for the album. The cover was to be a shot Rick took of Chez Joel Restaurant, which was fitting. Joel had become quite a great friend to my son Carman and myself when we’d go up to Whistler. He was a wonderful man with a great Parisian wit and humour about him. (RIP Joel)
There was one more challenge. One of the songs I wrote involved a children’s chorus and I needed kids of around a grade 5-6 age to sing on the song. After phoning around some schools, I was able to find a teacher who would do the song with her choir as long as the parents were allowed to come to the studio to ‘sit in’ on the recording. After clearing it with Craig (who would have to move furniture around to allow this) I had a meeting with the teacher and the choir to teach them their part in the song.
Now it was time to track the album. I was incredibly overworked from all the tension of putting the ideas together and playing every night until 2am, but we worked our way through it. Some of the vocals are ‘pitchy’ as we did it all live to tape and there wasn’t a lot of time allotted for ‘re-dos’. When the children’s chorus came to record, they had actually learned more of the song than I had taught them all on their own. Craig agreed that what they were doing was wonderful so we added it to their sections. I had found a tape of my daughter Carolyn and Carman that Carolyn had made with a handheld take recorder back when she was about 7 and Carman was about two. On it she was making him repeat in his cute little toddler voice little snippets of mostly non-sensical phrases… like ‘goodbye hallelujah’ and ‘if you take the pic-a-nic basket Mr. Ranger won’t like it’. It sounded so adorable now that they were so much older, I had Craig insert it into the mix of the song during the 12 string guitar solo. (Song: It’s Snowing Christmastime Out There)
Doug Johnson came to MR&D to play his sax solo and sadly he had a 102 temperature from a flu! Being the pro he is, he did a flawless performance in spite of his illness. (All I Want is You at Christmastime)
Craig played B3 organ on ‘A Whistler Christmas’ and a great piano solo on ‘Rockin Around the Christmas Tree’ as we sped through the recordings. (Oh yes – I must mention that Craig also played ‘triangle’ on ‘All I Want is You at Christmastime’ doing his best ‘Ed Grimley’ face the entire time.
In fact, it was done so fast that as we were mixing ‘Chestnuts’ (The Christmas Song), I suddenly realized I hadn’t recorded the guitar solo yet… so as Craig manned the controls, I played the guitar solo live to the mix.
To recap, the entire album from the very start to the finish was completed (recorded mixed and mastered) in 13 days while playing every night. On the 14th day I dropped off the master DAT tape and artwork to Precision to be sent to Toronto for duplication.
I’ve often winced at some of my performances (especially vocally) and had entertained the idea of redoing them for a re-release, but ultimately decided it was a ‘period piece’ and I’ve left it as it is. It continues to sell on iTunes every year and it gets played on some selected stations every year (according to my SOCAN statements)
Thanks for reading:
Here’s a compressed link to the Christmas album. Please feel free to download it for a limited time… and I hope you enjoy and have a lovely Christmas season: