- Elvis Presley – lead vocals, acoustic rhythm guitar
- Scotty Moore – electric lead guitar
- Dudley Brooks – piano
- Bill Black – double bass
- D.J. Fontana – drums
- The Jordanaires – backing vocals
Christmas albums by popular music artists can always be a mixed bag (Carpenters, brilliant; Taylor Swift, meh). Elvis’ Christmas Album, his third record overall, falls in the brilliant camp. Consisting of 12 songs, the album is split into two parts, secular Christmas music makes up the first half, and religious Christmas carols make up the second. Despite being his third album in just a two year period, Elvis, his band, and his background singers the Jordanaires were confident in their sound by this point, and able to translate that into a great early rock n’ roll Christmas album.
The album starts off with “Santa Claus is Back in Town”, a raunchy beginning to Elvis’ Christmas Album. The choral opening courtesy of The Jordanaires is ear grabbing and pretty in a traditionally Christmas-like way, but then the salacious drums and vocals kick in and the song becomes a sexy Christmas song…if there was ever such a thing in 1957. Well, if anyone was gonna do it, might as well be Elvis, right? Up next is the perennial holiday standard, “White Christmas”. They chose to arrange this song as a rock n’ roll ballad. Not quite Bing Crosby here, but not totally rock n roll-ified either. The arrangement is quiet, almost subdued on this track, particularly the hypnotic guitar loop played by the always delightful Scotty Moore, allowing Elvis’ vocals to shine.
Elvis’ version of “Here Comes Santa Claus”, which is still a radio staple, is where all the sonic elements that make Elvis “Elvis” come together. Dudley Brook’s piano also gives the song a homey, sing a long feel, just you know, the best Christmas sing a long ever. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” features a beautiful vocal from Elvis, and, in another shoutout to Dudley Brooks, some very delicate piano parts throughout. Going the ballad route ends up bringing out the poignancy of this song, rather than being too schmaltzy which will become a problem in some of Elvis’ later work.
Elvis Presley sings the definitive version of “Blue Christmas”. The vocal affectations of both Elvis and The Jordanaires make this song a perfect holiday confection. The mid-tempo pacing keeps the song from being burdened by melancholy, while still capturing the gloominess of being without your loved one during the holidays. “Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)” carries an everlasting theme of Christmas music, whether it be Mariah Carey or Wham, everybody wants a little romance at Christmastime. Like, “Blue Christmas”, the song has all the classic Elvis elements to it, and is a fitting end to the secular side of the album.
The religious side of Elvis’ Christmas Album gets off to a shaky start. “O Little Town of Bethlehem’s” arrangement is overwrought, and Elvis weirdly seems to be struggling with his vocal interpretation, singing mechanically at parts, almost like he was in fear of messing it up. It’s perfectly nice but instantly forgettable. Side 2 really begins with “Silent Night”. Much better than ” Bethlehem”, Elvis sings softer on this tune, and the arrangement is kept very simple and understated. There are elaborate backing vocals but they are kept in check in the back of the mix until the very end, building to a magical finish.
“(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me)” is the first gospel hymn on the album. While it doesn’t start off strong, meandering too much in the beginning, it picks up about midway through. Thankfully The Jordanaire’s save this song from being a bore. Elvis sounds very passionate on the next song, “I Believe”. He sings softly on the verse, ramping it up for the chorus which gives this tune a slight (and necessary) bite.
“Take My Hand, Precious Lord” is Elvis’ standout vocal of the album. Elvis takes us to church on this one, and the arrangement of the backing vocals functions just like a church choir. Thankfully, they used an understated arrangement for this song, propelling Elvis’ magnificent voice forward. The bluesy piano riff on the last track of the album, “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)” brings the vibe of the album back up a few levels. It’s a fine arrangement to a nice song, and a peaceful way to close out Elvis’ Christmas Album.