Neil Young once stated during a radio interview that as far he is concerned, Winnipeg is the rock and roll capital of Canada.
And ever since Winnipeg-born Gisèle Mackenzie invited listeners to have themselves a merry, little Christmas on her 1957 album, Christmas With Gisèle, a case could be made that our holly, jolly burg has served as the nation’s jingle bell rock capital, to boot.
The proof is in the (figgy) pudding: through the years, scores of homegrown acts have contributed tunes to the Christmas canon, including Randy Bachman (Takin’ Care of Christmas, a Santa-tized version of the B.T.O. smash Takin’ Care of Business), Crash Test Dummies (a how-low-can-you-go rendition of The First Noel) and Burton Cummings (The Eight Days of Christmas, a drug-addled take on The Twelve Days of Christmas wherein, on Day 3, the Order of Canada recipient is gifted "three pink pills, two hits of acid and a dime-bag of Panama Red").
Keeping up with tradition, this month three more artists with ties to the city — J.P. Hoe, Chantal Kreviazuk and Justin Lacroix — issued Christmas albums while a fourth, Don Amero, toasted a pair of achievements: the 10th instalment of his annual Amero Little Christmas shindig, plus the news that his 2018 release, also titled Amero Little Christmas, is now available on Spotify and iTunes.
Hoe says the choice this past fall to record a Christmas disc was predicated by the fact he had a sackful of seasonal songs in the bank, as he typically writes a new one every winter for his J.P. Hoe Hoe Hoe Holiday Show, which celebrated its 15th anniversary on Dec. 13 with a sold-out concert at the Burton Cummings Theatre.
"In September I approached different players who’ve been involved with the show, telling them we’ve been doing this a long time, we have all these songs people only get to hear once a year; why not make a recording of it?" he says when reached at home.
The end result, Brighten Up the Night, contains nine Hoe originals, as well as two time-tested faves, The Christmas Waltz, originally recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1954, and O Holy Night, by French composer Adolphe Adam.
"Even though I’m not a religious person, some of the best melodies are sacred ones," Hoe continues. "Plus (O Holy Night) was one my wife had been bugging me to record for many, many years now, so..."
For his part, Amero, 39, says the decision to fashion together a Christmas album of his own last fall was a "no-brainer," given he’s had a soft spot for music associated with one-horse sleighs for as long as he can recall. While he was growing up in Winnipeg’s North End, he and his family bounced around from address to address, rarely staying in one location longer than six months. Dec. 25 seemed to be the lone day on the calendar when they were able to take a deep breath and set aside whatever struggles they were dealing with at the time, he says.
"In the middle of the storm of life, Christmas music always felt like peace and hope," says Amero, who became a professional performer 12 years ago after his boss on a flooring job commented positively on his voice, after overhearing him singing to himself at work.
"Sometimes in my show I mention how it can feel like a pretty huge undertaking to write a new Christmas song, because so many great ones have already been written. Except my personal Christmas story had never been written and that’s what I tried to bring to the table on my album."
In time for gift giving, Manitoba Music, a non-profit association representing more than 750 players, writers, promoters and venue managers, came up with a 64-song, holiday playlist highlighting local artists from a variety of genres. As comprehensive as the list is — like St. Nick, we checked it twice — there are a few chestnuts missing.
How do we know? Because for the last month, we’ve been scouring record stores, second-hand shops and flea markets, hunting for Christmas LPs, CDs and cassette tapes by Winnipeg artists. Hark the herald angels sing? Guess what? So do a sock puppet named Marvin Mouse, rock band Harlequin and a pleasing-to-the-ear, Crown corporation choir.
Traditional Ukrainian Christmas Carols (1967), the Singing Semchuk Sisters; Ukrainian Carols (1976), Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Male Voice Chorus
According to the latest census, there are close to 120,000 people living in Winnipeg who are of Ukrainian descent. Given that number, you think there would be more information available about the Singing Semchuk Sisters, four gals from Manitoba who released a joyful album of Ukrainian-language carols in 1967.
"We the Singing Semchuk Sisters hope that this Album will remind you of Christmas as you once knew it to be, and if listening to us has brought you a moment of pleasure, we would appreciate knowing this," the Semchuks, winners of best vocal performance at Canada’s inaugural National Ukrainian Festival in 1965, write on the back cover of their LP, which lists Alex Moodrey as producer.
Hey, we tried; only the letter we sent, as instructed, to "GALAXY RECORDS, Winnipeg, Canada," came back marked "return to sender."
Nine years after the Semchuks’ album hit record-store shelves, the Male Voice Choir of the Ukrainian Catholic Immaculate Conception parish in Cooks Creek celebrated its 15th anniversary with a Christmas release of their own on V-Records, whose headquarters are listed on the record jacket as having been located at 221 Flora Ave., just off Main Street.
Again, there is little data about Ukrainian Carols online, though we did spot a copy on sale for US$16.58 (plus shipping) at vinylminerecords.com, which makes the loonie we paid for it at Value Village seem like a heck of a deal, indeed.
Key tracks: Na Nebi Zirka, Divnaja Novina (Singing Semchuk Sisters); God Eternal, Everyone Rejoice, God is Born (Ukrainian Catholic Male Voice Chorus)
Juliette’s Christmas World (1968), Juliette
Before there was Madonna, Bjork or Beyoncé, there was Juliette, a singer and actor born in St. Vital in 1927 who was known professionally by her given name.
Nicknamed "our pet," Juliette, inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 1999, recorded Juliette’s Christmas World for RCA Records two years after Juliette, the weekly variety series she hosted on CBC from 1956 to 1966, came to a close. Although it’s never been re-released on CD, Juliette’s Christmas World lives on thanks to the internet, where a number of Christmas-y websites continue to extol its virtues.
"The album is at turns delightful, swinging cheese, earnest good fun and heartfelt meditation," reads an entry on Hi Fi Holiday (www.hif-fi-holiday.blogspot.com). "The dominating mood, however, is smooth — thanks to Juliette’s caramel phrasing."
Key tracks: Mary’s Boy Child, Christmas is a Day of Miracles
Archie Wood and His Friends Christmas Album (1969)
"If you grew up in Winnipeg in the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s, chances are you watched Archie Wood and His Friends at lunch," writes a YouTube channel operator who goes by Moxxi.
"In the late ‘60s Uncle Bob recorded a Christmas record and like many Winnipeg families, you probably owned one and haven’t heard it in decades. Until now."
Since Moxxi uploaded a copy of Archie Wood and His Friends Christmas Album six years ago, the video, which displays a still shot of the album cover superimposed over audio downloaded from the 31-minute, 29-second album, has been viewed close to 4,000 times. Comments have been nothing short of complimentary.
"WOW! We used to have this! We used to run home at lunch to watch this," wrote one person.
"I remember the album. When I was five years (old), my father bought the album and it was signed by Uncle Bob, who was there at the store promoting the album," chimed in another.
On a sad note, "Uncle" Bob Swarts, the West End-raised ventriloquist who voiced Archie Wood, as well as the long-running program’s other "stars," namely Marvin Mouse, Petite, Duchess and Tammy True, died in 1989, long before his Christmas album’s cover was added to an online list titled Weird Christmas Album Art, a ho-ho-huh? lineup that also includes Pac-Man Christmas Album and Christmas in Smurfland.
Key tracks: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Night Before Christmas
Winnipeg Mennonite Children’s Choir (1973)
The 40-voice, Winnipeg Mennonite Children’s Choir was founded in 1957 by Helen Litz.
Before changing its tag to the Winnipeg Children’s Choir in 2008, the WMCC, made up of boys and girls age 8 to 16, travelled the globe, garnering numerous achievements in the process, including placing first at the 1970 International Tees-side Eisteddfod in England, taking top prize twice at the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales, and closer to home, being awarded the Manitoba Lieutenant Governor’s Trophy at the Manitoba Music Festival.
In 1973, the choir headed into the studio, or rather, Westminster United Church, to record its one-and-only Christmas album for RCA Records. The LP’s cover, which shows off the troupe dressed in red and white and posing as a living Tanenbaum, is worth the price of admission alone.
Key tracks: Carol of the Bells, I Wonder as I Wander, The Little Drummer Boy
Silent Night, Holy Night: K-Tel Brings you a Merry Christmas (1974)
In 1970, K-Tel, the same Winnipeg company responsible for compilation albums such as Super Bad, Goofy Greats and Bright Side of Music, released the first of its many Christmas albums (A Very Special Christmas with Hagood Hardy, anyone?).
Unlike the majority of K-Tel records, this one didn’t jam-pack 20 songs by 20 original artists onto its two sides. Rather, the LP version features a modest 14 numbers performed by world-renowned orchestras and choirs, including the Boston Pops and the Prague Children Choir.
Good news if you can’t find a copy in a bargain bin, near you: www.ChristmasLPstoCDs.com, a website that specializes in converting out-of-print vinyl Christmas albums onto compact discs, will happily sell you a digital copy, albeit for US$24, about 20 times what we forked out for our vinyl rendition at Argy’s Records in St. Vital.
Key tracks: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Trumpet Voluntary, Sleighride
Here We Come A’Wassailing (1978), the Bass Clef Chorus and Better Half Singers of Winnipeg
The late Neil Harris, who directed more than 200 productions at Rainbow Stage and the Hollow Mug Dinner Theatre, and who also served as the classical music columnist at the Free Press for 10 years, is listed as producer for Here We Come A’Wassailing, recorded at Century 21 Studios in 1978.
The record shows off the voices of two Winnipeg choirs, the Bass Clef Chorus, an all-male troupe, and the Better Half Singers, comprised of women age 16 to 25. According to the liner notes, the dual chorus, under the direction of Helga Anderson, sang together regularly, all over the province. Additionally, they spent two weeks in Iceland in 1977, where they were feted as choral goodwill ambassadors.
Here We Come A’Wassailing, the cover of which displays a sundog peeking out from behind a snow-covered pine tree, contains 10 classic carols, five of which were arranged by noted English composer and conductor John Rutter.
Key tracks: Here We Come A’Wassailing, Good King Wenceslas, Ding Dong! Merrily on High
Christmastime (former title The Season, 1990), Fred Penner
Close to 30 years later, Fred Penner still refers to The Season, which was re-released in 2008 as Christmastime, as the most satisfying project he’s ever been involved with.
Before heading into studio to record the album, Penner came up with a list of holiday songs that had played a big part in his life. A few, such as Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, were obvious picks but in his words, he wanted to go deeper.
"I asked myself what Christmas really meant to me and my song The Season came from that," he says, reciting the lyrics of the title track, "It’s a thought, it’s a feeling, it’s the music we hear. It’s the smiles on the faces at this time of year."
Secondly, because Penner grew up singing in choirs, he wanted to incorporate as many as possible on the album.
"Ultimately this desire led to the Winnipeg Youth Chorus, where my four children sang, the Mennonite Children’s Choir, the Steinbach Sextet and the Hoosli Ukrainian Men’s Choir. Not only was it was a thrill for me to sing in Ukrainian, the power of a men’s choir has always held a special place in my heart," he says.
Key tracks: The Season, In Winnipeg at Christmas, Deck the Halls
Winnipeg’s Rock ‘N Roll Christmas Vol. II (1991), various artists
Ace Burpee once described Winnipeg’s Rock ‘N Roll Christmas Vol. II, which features the likes of the Pumps, Kilowatt and Straw Dog, as "the greatest Christmas album in history."
Rather than discuss the 92 CITI-FM sponsored album, George Belanger, whose band Harlequin contributed a laid-back rendition of The First Noel to the project, has a cherished Christmas tale of his own he wants to share.
Belanger grew up in a three-bedroom home in St. Boniface where he was one of 10 siblings, including eight sisters. His parents were devout Catholics, he says, and Christmas was always a special time of year.
"We couldn’t wait until the Tribune and Free Press published lyrics to all the Christmas carols," he says. "My father purposely bought both papers to make it easier for us to follow along when all our relatives came over to celebrate at our house."
One year, the church his family belonged to burned to the ground and his parents weren’t sure where everybody was going to attend midnight mass. That was when the owner of Loveday Mushroom Farms, one of their fellow parishioners, stepped up and offered his plant on Mission Street as a stand-in.
"I remember singing O Holy Night with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat," Belanger says. "The humble surroundings and smell of manure made it a very special night that I will never forget. My knees were a little sore from kneeling on cement but it was by far the best Christmas mass that I’ve ever been to."
Proceeds from sales of Winnipeg’s Rock ‘N Roll Christmas Vol. II, which contains 14 numbers, including eight songs released 12 months earlier as Winnipeg’s Rock ‘N Roll Christmas, were donated to the Christmas Cheer Board.
Key tracks: It’s Christmas Time Again, Queen City Kids; Open Your Heart, Chris Burke-Gaffney; We Three Kings, Shake Naked
A Professional Christmas (1991), various artists
Starry, Starry Night (1992), various artists
For a person who admittedly isn’t a big fan of Christmas music, it’s somewhat amusing that Juno-nominated producer Dan Donahue has not one, but two Christmas records on his resumé.
"Personally, I associate records that came out around this time of year with Christmas," says Donahue, seated in a St. Vital coffee shop five minutes from his home studio. "Rubber Soul (by the Beatles) came out in December 1965, when I was 13, and every year as Christmas approaches I make sure to give that a spin."
In 1991, Donahue was approached by lawyers David Wolinsky and Mark O’Neill, the latter of whom Donahue describes as "this feisty Irishman who loved to sing." The two had been tossing around the idea of putting together a Christmas album to raise money for a pair of charities, Winnipeg Harvest and the Christmas Cheer Board. They were crossing their fingers Donahue, with more than 300 recorded projects to his credit, could help them out.
Their idea: gather a group of local professionals — doctors, engineers, teachers, architects, you name it — and get them to record classic carols such as Adeste Fideles, and pop songs such as John Lennon’s Happy Christmas (War is Over).
"There were a few prima donnas who I had to reel in a little bit, but overall the talent was definitely there," Donahue says, turning over a CD copy of A Professional Christmas.
In the fall of 1992, Donahue bumped into radio personality Roger Currie at the Reh-Fit Centre on Taylor Avenue. Currie informed Donahue he had an idea for a fundraising CD of his own and was hoping Donahue, through his industry connections, could assist him in getting it off the ground.
The finished product, Starry, Starry Night, featured a who’s-who of Winnipeg performers, some of whom donated tracks they’d previously prepared, and others, such as Fred Turner, ex- of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and Tom Jackson, who recorded tracks specifically for the album.
"It was commercially available in record stores, and if I remember correctly, sold quite well," Donahue says.
Key tracks: Birth Song, Christmas Every Day (A Professional Christmas); Takin’ Care of Christmas, Randy Bachman (Starry, Starry Night)
Noel Chez Nous (1997), various artists
Michelline Lamontagne is a founding member of Franco-Manitoban outfit Bandaline. Six years after the troupe was formed in 1991, they were approached by music producer Leo Dufault, who was putting together a Christmas-flavoured charity album, Noel Chez Nous, in support of St. Boniface Hospital.
"At the time, we were not a very well-known group, so to be asked to participate on an album that had such big names as Crash Test Dummies, Fred Penner and Daniel Lavoie was a very huge honour for us," says Lamontagne, a nursery school teacher by day.
Bergers Qui Etes Ici-bas, the number Bandaline chose to do, is a traditional French folk song, that translates roughly as, "the shepherds from around here," Lamontagne says.
"It’s one we had just started singing that year and is about how something big is going to happen, the birth of Jesus, and the shepherds need to come right away."
The album, which came out on CD and cassette, was formally released Nov. 21, 1997 at a sold-out concert at St. Boniface Cathedral. Most of the acts that appeared on the album were on stage that evening, Lamontagne says, including Chantal Kreviazuk and Marcel Soulodre.
"The cathedral was full, it was a pretty big deal," she says, adding "you bet," when asked if Noel Chez Nous has a permanent spot on her Christmas playlist, year in and year out.
"It was a really good mix of songs and styles. There was enough well-known stuff to draw people in but once they started listening, they were able to explore a few things that were a bit different, like our contribution."
Key tracks: Christmas Solstice, the Wyrd Sisters; A Star in the East, Tom Jackson; Dans une Etable Obscure, Daniel Lavoie
A-Channel Presents River City Christmas (1999), various artists
In 1997, Natasha Kaminsky was studying at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she had been awarded the Lionel Richie Scholarship in Songwriting. Two years later, she was back in Winnipeg when, in the middle of July, she was suddenly inspired to write a whack of Christmas tunes.
A few months later, the fruits of her labour were released on River City Christmas, a 15-track album funded by local television network A-Channel, in support of the Children’s Hospital Foundation.
"I’ve always loved Christmas music — my parents jokingly call me Tinsel ‘Tash — and that’s why, I suppose, I started coming up with all these Christmas songs one day, when I sat down to do some writing," says the married mother of two.
While Kaminsky handles lead vocals on one of her six compositions, the merry and bright Do the Snowflake, she invited others, among them Chris Bigford, Marcie Campbell and Kimberly Spears, to sing her other five efforts.
"It’s always fun to see what other people bring to your songs," she says. "I have my own ideas and sing them a certain way, then somebody else will take a run at it and it will become a completely different entity."
Although River City Christmas wasn’t a runaway bestseller, somebody was obviously listening. A few of Kaminsky’s songs from the album were used in the locally-shot film Seven Times Lucky (2004), which means every once in a while a small royalty cheque "from Bulgaria or wherever" turns up in her mailbox.
Key tracks: Do the Snowflake, Natasha Kaminsky; Santa Don’t Drive No Pick-up Truck, Foster Martin Band; Manitoba Star, Danny Kramer
He(a)rd at Christmas (2006), Bison Men’s Chorus; Sing Noel with the Winnipeg Male Chorus (2000)
Two weeks ago, we reached out to the Bison Men’s Chorus, mentioning we’ve owned a copy of their 2006 CD He(a)rd at Christmas for a few years now, and how it’s one we always make sure to listen to, as the big day approaches.
That same day, Ian Hughes, past-president of the choir, largely made up of graduate students, faculty, staff and alumni of the University of Manitoba, got back to us, writing in an email, "Thanks very much for mentioning the Bisons’ He(a)rd at Christmas in your coming article. Thanks even more for listening to it every year. I worried I was the only one."
Hughes, one of 55 singers who contributed to the recording, says it’s one of five the group has put out since they formed in 1985.
"As I recall, He(a)rd was made up of our Christmas repertoire for that year and the previous," Hughes says. "Of some considerable pride to the chorus, four of the selections, Gaudete, Candlelight Carol, In the Bleak Midwinter and The Infant King, were arranged specifically for us by members of the chorus. A fifth, Shall I Call Him Jesus, is an original composition by longtime member Keith Tipples, who also solos in the recording."
The Winnipeg Male Chorus turns 60 in 2020. Two decades ago the group, whose live concerts consist of classical, pop, religious, folk and show tunes, toasted its 40th anniversary with a Christmas CD, Sing Noel with the Winnipeg Male Chorus.
The 20-track disc was recorded at Sturgeon Creek United Church, under the direction of Ann Koop-Hunsberger. An entertaining effort, it includes sacred classics such as Hallelujah Amen, as well as hum-along earworms such as Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.
Key tracks: Rejoice and Sing Noel, Momma Mary, Still, Still, Still (H(e)ard at Christmas); Fanfare for Christmas Day, Feliz Navidad (Sing Noel with the Winnipeg Male Chorus)
Hydro Sings! (2001), Electric Chords
Melissa Meilleur is a supervisor at Manitoba Hydro. She’s also a member of the Electric Chords, a 25-voice choir comprised of current and former employees of the provincial Crown corporation. In 2001, 12 years after the late Cliff Harris formed the group, they recorded Hydro Sings!, a collection of 20 classic carols.
"The CD was sold internally as a fundraiser for the corporation’s various charities," says Meilleur, when reached at her office. "We also gifted a number of discs to the charitable organizations we were involved with to sell themselves and raise extra funds that way."
This month was a busy one for the Electric Chords. Besides performing in the lobby of their downtown headquarters at 360 Portage Ave., they also appeared at the St. Norbert Farmer’s Market, the Manitoba Legislative Building and, earlier this week, Cityplace.
"It’s a nice break; you certainly come back to work energized after a noon-hour concert," Meilleur says.
Key tracks: The Sussex Carol, Bring a Torch Jeannette Isabella, I Saw Three Ships
Songs of the Season (2016), Chad Celaire
For the fourth year in a row, Chad Celaire, the owner of Bee-2-Gether, a novelty-bike rental business that has been operating at The Forks for more than a decade, is appearing around town as the Christmas Singer, a smooth-voiced singer whose renditions of Yule-time classics such as White Christmas and Winter Wonderland have drawn comparisons to Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Nat King Cole.
In 2016, Celaire, a former youth minister, recorded Songs of the Season, wholly comprised of tunes he’d been performing regularly in hospitals, care homes and shopping malls around town. In December of that year, he toasted the release of the album at a sold-out show at the Park Theatre.
"It was amusing because as a minister I’d been in front of a crowd thousands of times but that night for whatever reason, I found it hard to control my emotions," he said in a previous interview. "Thankfully I was able to relax a few songs in and by the time the show was over it had turned into this truly amazing experience."
Key tracks: The Christmas Song, Holly Jolly Christmas, Someday at Christmas
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.