David Frost’s voice is a silken, old-fashioned thing, a calm English purr that communicates wit or fury without dramatically changing in volume or timbre. It's effortlessly charming the way he welcomes us into the shindig he has thrown: “It's a joy to have you with us,” he announces (without ever really announcing) over lightly brushed toms, wah-wah ripples and a hopscotching piano. Once he finishes speaking, a regal horn section pops out, followed by the familiar jive of joy to the world bursting like confetti cannons. It's Christmas time, so settle in.
So begins From David Frost and Billy Taylor, Merry Christmas, one of the finest Christmas albums ever to be made and duly lost to the annals of time.
To those of a younger generation, the late Frost’s name may best known when followed by Richard Nixon’s, as their tense 1977 interviews were recently dramatized by playwright Peter Morgan on both stage and screen. Yet before these heavyweight moments, he was among the first real wave of British television satirists with That Was the Week That Was, a wave of success that lead to him being referred to as the “best-known Englishman since Winston Churchill.” A large element from that came from his four-year stint hosting The David Frost Show in the United States, where he worked alongside Billy Taylor.
Taylor was one of America’s most recognizable representatives for jazz, with an esteemed career in radio and charity work, having founded the Jazzmobile non-profit, allowing live music to remain accessible to those on the lower rung of the economic ladder. As a pianist, he was well-respected, with a stint as the house pianist for the iconic Birdland nightclub, as well as a recognized performer throughout Manhattan’s jazz hub of 52nd Street. In 1969, he was contacted to act as bandleader and musical director on The David Frost Show, a variety show on US television headlined by the English satirist himself. Frost, an advocate of jazz music, picked Taylor to form a band that would perform not only during the tapings but also to a seated television audience for a full hour prior to cameras rolling. The David Frost Show was a success with American viewers, and so were its musical contributions, made historical by Taylor’s status as the first African-American bandleader on television.
After a successful first season that featured the Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and Burt Bacharach alongside retired detectives, psychologists and evangelists, it appeared a perfectly savvy move to make an album bearing the show's name. “Frost was always working at raising his profile,” says Neil Hegarty, the author of recent Frost biography That Was the Life That Was. “If you consider the format of the show, it seemed natural that the idea of an album would come into play: it would be relatively easy to put together, and able to sell assisted by the success of the show itself.”
Taylor was essentially given free reign with the creation of a Christmas album. In his memoir he recalled receiving the assignment from Frost, who at the time was shuttling across continents with weekly shows both in the US and UK: “He called me into his office and said, ‘Billy, we’re doing a Christmas album… I’m reading a poem, and you're doing the rest.’” The assignment handed down, Taylor assembled a band, organized a choir, and produced alongside Phil Ramone (Billy Joel, Rufus Wainwright, Chicago, many others). The freedom was emblematic of Frost’s hands-off approach with his collaborators, which Taylor adored, calling him a “dream of a boss” and comparing his interview technique on the show to jazz.
Merry Christmas duly follows the variety format set by its fathering show, allowing space for Taylor’s brand of velvet-smooth jazz, children’s music, gospel, and poetry, with each song introduced by an anecdotal Frost. There are some similarities among songs in sound and obviously in subject matter, but the breadth covered by Taylor and his band leaves no cut sounding the same. Intermission music is delivered in a bluesy, seductive drawl before smashing into a cutely atonal child choir’s rendition of “Away In A Manger”; be-bop elements give familiar standards spike; saxophonist Frank Wess gets a song-long flute solo, his airy fusion-esque performance spurring fellow musicians to bring bossa nova flair into the American Christmas canon; in one stunning moment, molasses-slow 20th century American soul gives way to 19th century European choral modes, modern festivities acknowledging a deep, cross-Atlantic history. This is the most explicit moment hinting towards the record’s surprisingly spiritual core—more surprising when regarding the context of the album as a spin-off product from a TV show.
This moment lands during a rendition of the “Wexford Carol,” an Irish carol about Christ’s nativity, performed by regular David Frost Show (and Jonny Carson) guest Gerri Granger. Recognized as one of Europe’s oldest carols, the piece of music has little impact in the United States to this day. The idea to include it on the album came direct from Frost, who specifically requested Granger’s services.
“I was working in the Midwest somewhere, and I flew in,” she says matter of factly, “I got to choose my song and went for the typical American Christmas carol [‘Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire’] but 'Wexford Carol' was interesting for me because it was so different.” Hearing this unfamiliar piece for the first time on tape, Granger was struck by the “cathedral”-esque style of the recording, which was appropriated for an American-style church choir by Taylor. “The way Billy did it was like an old-time Negro spiritual, very harmonic and low—completely different from the original.” Despite the unfamiliarity, Granger’s impassioned performance still sounds immediate, making the song more intimate. It was another day for the woman believed the “singer’s singer,” nonetheless, with her take on the carol recorded in no more than a couple of takes. “I was working on an hourly basis back then,” she drily offers.
Merry Christmas appeared in stores in December 1970 on Bell Records, with press attention from the likes of Billboard, which promised “a Yuletide gift [with] variety and fast pacing that the whole family will enjoy.” However, the sheer volume of Christmas music released year after year—alongside Frost’s prodigious work rate—has left the album somewhat underrepresented within the festive canon.
A large element of what makes this album well worth revisiting, 45 years later, is the openness it has to the oft-lost spiritual side of the season. Frost may joke about the three wise men being the editor of the New York Times, Mets manager Gil Hodges, and Dizzy Gillespie (instrumental highlight "Bright Star in the East"), but his suaveness and humor distract somewhat from what is an opportunity to remind his audience of how Christmas allows ample time to reflect on the power of faith.
Frost came from a devoutly religious background, with a Methodist minister for a father, his teachings of tolerance at odds with the views of the 40s and 50s in Southeast England. “The democratic nature of Methodism states that everyone is open to God's grace,” Hegarty informs me, “and that idea of open mindedness was integral to his character.” You can find these teachings in his one prior recording, a 1967 introduction to a Christmas record for Oxfam, as well as in his decision to make Taylor a prominent part of his show. It is not only the fact that Taylor was hired as a bandleader in an era where the fallout from segregation continued to cause ruptures in American society. It is also the show’s incorporation of jazz, a genre that in Taylor’s on-screen incarnation represented not only hipness but racial equality. That is continued on Merry Christmas—by giving the reigns to Taylor, who offers a take on seasonal standards steeped in African-American musical modes, the idea of Christmas itself is reaffirmed. Goodwill upon all men is not just a saying when listening to this album: It’s the message.
Worlds don’t collide on this album—they coexist, particularly on the aforementioned “Wexford Carol,” which brings together Frost’s Methodist beliefs with the assembled musicians’ American take on religion. This was famously a running concern on Frost’s shows, with recurring theological debates between himself and evangelical preacher Billy Graham, a debate that Hegarty refers to as “lifelong.” There are divisions felt between different sects of religious faiths, let alone European and American takes on similar ideologies. The beauty of Gerri Granger’s rendition of the “Wexford Carol” is how it makes all these elements part of the same spiritual experience, the updated version adding to the original rather than taking away.
The record still impacts the performers to this day, and Granger is occasionally sought out to perform her take on the “Wexford Carol,” still a largely unknown song in the US. “I don't even know how it came up,” she admits, telling a story of performing the carol in a local church in 2013. “I sang it for them at a Catholic church with an organ and the choir there. But the record was spectacular in the way it sounds, mostly because it took such a turn from the usual.”
Granger admits wishing her performance, and the album that holds it, could be entered into the Christmas canon. “I've thought about putting it on my Facebook and telling friends ‘Merry Christmas!’” she tells me at the end of our time on the phone. “I have thoughts about it every year. It's probably time for it to come out again here!” It certainly would help, as the musical and spiritual warmth within keeps it from becoming dated. Forty-five years later, when Frost intones that “it's a joy to have you with us,” whether for a new or old listener, it still rings true.
Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy wishes you a Happy Christmas (because he is a writer living in the UK). Follow him on Twitter.