Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Christmas Off

Thursday, December 19, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Christmas Off

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

In this heartfelt saga, we’re first heading back half a century at WBR. Back to years when employees got a full, ten days off each Christmas season.

Back to ...

The Late 1950s

Since Jack Warner did not start WB Records until 1958, we have only two years that fit this decade. But those two years were treats.

The normal work days between Christmas and New Year’s – nine days in all – got designated “vacation days” for us all. That meant “nine days off, and paid, too.”

Those nine days off were the heart of our Christmas then. No big Christmas parties. Nobody dressed like Santa. Warner Records just couldn’t afford that stuff. Back then, Warner Records was losing money, and Jack Warner, he never rode in a sleigh. We were shaky.

In that first year (1958), any “star name” recordings were few-to-nil. For that Christmas, WBR snuck out one album without an artist’s name on it. On the cover it said, only, “The Sounds of Christmas.”

1958: The Sounds of Christmas

This first Christmas album came with no singing. Just music box transcriptions of mom’s favorites, with a few bells and chimes added.

Things needed to get better, and soon.

The staff in 3701 Warner Blvd., housed in that old machine shop, was kept small. So parties could not be afforded. Take 1961, for instance. Warner had a couple of hits – Bob Newhart and the Everly Brothers – but expenses? Just not allowed. In December of ’61, we had a negative month – more returns than sales. Many days, our distributors’ telegrams would come in saying “NO SALES TODAY.”

Bravely, and having escaped the 1950s, one miracle arose with a red nose:

Warner Records’ First Christmas Party – 1961

1961’s Christmas party was held downstairs in the old building.

Took place in a cleared space, about 20x20. Two bottles of New York State champagne, plus Styrofoam cups. The small home office company just stood around, 27 of us, huddled. There were no bonuses. No gifts. Then company president Mike Maitland turned to our ever-flip promotion-head Joe Smith and whispered to him, “Say something funny.”

I cannot recall Joe’s joke that afternoon, but we 27 sipped wine from Styrofoam and then headed for home. There was no record player there, so WBR’s first “Christmas LPs” were not played.

Why not:

• 1959: Warner TV Stars: We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Album included artists already under Warner-TV contract, like Connie Stevens, Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, Dorothy Provine, Clint Walker, and lesser remembered TV persons. So-so sales.

But for Warner staffers it meant: nine days off. Nine days when we could think of Santa Claus or Bethlehem or the Rose Bowl game on black-and-white TV.

First “star” to sing a Warner Christmas album:

• 1962: Bing Crosby’s I Wish You a Merry Christmas

Bing Crosby had been singing these Christmas songs for records since 1945. This album, already 17 years from “now,” is still considered “early,” however. And it has been re-and-re-released since then.

Not all Warner Christmas product had to be sticky sweet, however. Comic Allan Sherman recited his own view of Christmas and getting presents with his new, 1963 lyrics to “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas,” based on recent gifts he got:

Here’s a nibble of Allan’s single:

On the twelfth day of Christmas, although it may seem strange,
On the twelfth day of Christmas, I'm going to exchange:
An automatic vegetable slicer that works when you see it on television,
but not when you get it home,
A chromium combination manicure scissors and cigarette lighter,
A pair of teakwood shower clogs,
An indoor plastic birdbath,
A pink satin pillow that says San Diego, with fringe all around it,
A hammered aluminum nutcracker,
A statue of a lady, with a clock where her stomach ought to be,
A simulated alligator wallet,
A calendar book with the name of my insurance man,
Green polka-dot pajamas,
And a Japanese transistor radio.
Merry Christmas everybody!

“Twelve Gifts” was a hit also at Warner’s Christmas party, and in Sherman’s next album.

Skip Ahead to 1965

In the years to come, Christmas parties improved. Hits always help. The albums of Christmas song that Warner/Reprise put out were hardly … classical. No oboes, no bassoons. Warners was now a POP label, concentrating on Santa and sleighs and cute elves in mini-skirts. Albums like:

• 1966: The Dean Martin Christmas Album.

• 1968: The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Stars sold.

Company parties still took place on December 24th. And in these later 1960s, the parties had left the downstairs floor at 3701 and now took place in Bigger Restaurants, like down-the-street’s The Smokehouse. Free food. For Christmas, well… Uh, can we get some more garlic bread, please?

And it being those happy, sexy, late Sixties, our larger home office mingled. Often single staffers hitting on one another in the era of “sex, drugs, and rrrr …and us. We felt so hip. A party where one or two girls could reach down in their purse bottoms to sell you a white pill for ten bucks. HIGH times parties.

Then Comes Those 1970s and More

And the ‘80s, too. Big Sales. Fleetwood Mac and dozens more. Despite those nine days off, the Warner Group had become Number One. Take that, Columbia!

Then, of the Warner Group, one of that group’s labels – Warner alone – we became Number One.

By now, we’d gotten used to the “Nine Days of Vacation.” That and usually getting a Christmas BONUS check, too. Girls now carried other stuff in the purses at these parties.

And in the background, now on three floors of WBR’s new Christmas chateau at 3300 Warner Blvd., often sequestered in division settlements named Promo and A&R and even Engineering, pre-parties began early and in their own style. Dates were made for “later, after.”

Santa was not much seen or heard, ‘tho WBR did create Christmas cheer albums, often for the Midwest states or beyond:

* 1975: Phil Spector’s Christmas Album

Spector’s compilation album originally was born on Phil’s own label in 1963, with his Ronettes, Crystals, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, and even Phil singing “Silent Night” along with his Wall of Sound artists.

But with major artists having contract limits on how many albums for how much dough per year, having them do a one-month’s appeal album got less frequently scheduled in the Eighties and Nineties.

Twentieth Century Warner Partying

As the decades rolled forth, Warner Christmas albums got, well, a big more adult-behaving, and the parties did, too. Some sounded reverent even.

Josh Groban brought us a dreamy Noel. With oboes. Platinum oboes:

• 2007: Josh Groban’s Noel

Noel became our biggest-selling album of the year; quintuple plantinum in America alone.

Hear it:

Then another “good music” approach to noel songs:

• 2011: Michael Buble’s Christmas

Check out a sampling of Buble’s album here:

This was clearly a new Century at WBR.

And the now-hundreds of Warner Records employees at our Christmas week’s parties, many of them now behaved as … adults.

A drink, a hug, no garlic, then, home to their own families and a roasted turkey complete with Eight Days of Leftovers, too.

Any way you cut it, fifty-plus years of those Nine Days of Christmas: worth celebrating, any year you could be there. Even this one.

And at home, your nieces and nephews came over and got wide-eye over your Warner library of those old CDs of old Christmas. They’d turn to you and …

“You knew him?” they’d ask you in amusement.

And you could smile and nod back, a bit like Santa himself.

-- Stay Tuned