Though Christmas Melody was co-written in 2004 by my then-boss Denise Rich, Jodi Marr, and Neil Sedaka, it languished for years, until I was able to finally produce a recording of it featuring American Idol alumna Syesha Mercado in 2011. Reflecting on this recently, I realized the arc of the song’s creation and evolution into a recording, marked the first time in my twenty-five year career that I was able to take responsibility for shaping and protecting my own idea through the entire creative process. Rather touchingly, it was also the last song I ever worked on in any professional capacity.
Some context: by the early-2000s, getting a song recorded by an outside writer was already a convention twenty years past its prime. Before the British invasion, Top-40 radio was to a great extent a singles business, with the venerated Brill Building writers like Neil Diamond, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield and so many more, competing to get their hit songs recorded by the singers of the day. It was a great business, and many of those songs are beyond legendary, but the Beatles changed everything. Since the advent of the rock-driven transition from singles to albums in the mid-1960s, everything changed. At some point, I’m going to say late-1970s, early-1980s, everyone knew that there was big money in publishing, which is how famous singers who had never felt the impulse (or had the attention span) to write, suddenly were stretching those creative muscles like kitty cats after a long nap (and always in the presence of actual writers who, you know, wrote the song). Now I don’t wish to cast aspersions in a positive piece like this, but I gotta level with you, every singer is not a writer like Sia or Annie Lennox. When everyone realized all those publishing pennies could buy a house (as Ellen Shipley did with her royalties from Belinda Carlisle’s “Heave is a Place on Earth”) you can bet very few people were feeling nostalgic for the golden age of the interpreter.
But back to my happy Christmas story: Denise Rich was a writer, certainly not an artist, and not a record producer (the other way to get on a record more easily). My job as the head of her publishing company (with a roster of just one writer—that’s right, Ms. Rich), was admittedly not an easy one. I described it often as trying to sell TV’s with tubes three years after flat screen TVs came out (I would frame the comparison differently depending on whom I was speaking to. If it was someone much older than myself, I described getting songs recorded by non-recording artists as working for the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit in the 1930s. Larry King liked that one.) Still, I was determined to succeed. That was our way in the record business of the 20th-Century: if you don’t achieve the desired outcome, push harder. That determination to find a way to get Denise’s songs recorded is what led me to Christmas and the notion of creating a seasonal ballad.
Why Christmas? Because every year there is a glut of seasonal product of mostly artists singing the same tired songs poorly. Since the 1990s when Grunge killled all authentic expression of sentiment in popular culture, it seemed the only time you we as a culture were permitted to be sincere (and corniness be damned!) is during the holidays (or at funerals or in war time.) Since Denise was not a teeny bopper and, truth be told, I had no interest in trying to compete with whatever was hot, I thought creating a Christmas song made sense. They are traditional; they can be elegant; they are vocal; they can make you cry; and if you get one cut and on the radio, it get’s played every year. Plus, I wanted to work with a great Brill Building writer very badly; partially because I respect the hell out of them, and partially because I wanted to get a sense of what my career might have felt like if wasn’t selling TVs with tubes. So here’s how we did it:
What became Christmas Melody began with a simple concept: a new holiday song inspired by the Carpenters’ Merry Christmas, Darling—one of the all-time great holiday classics that was written by Richard Carpenter and Frank Pooler and recorded in 1970. I guess I’m a pushover for Christmas songs that capture the emotional complexity of the holiday season. You can keep your “Joy to the world, the Lord is come” and any of that jaunty, merry Christmas stuff because the primary thing that comes during the holiday season for most of the people I know is not joy but sadness and loss. I saw this song as an opportunity to create a traditional ballad that expressed sentiment without muting it in air quotes and irony; apparently a cultural mandate that began during the Grunge era.
Since what I wanted was both traditional and in need of top-tier craftsmen to collaborate with my boss, I felt it created an opportunity for a mature songwriter. Though this decision might have been regarded as a liability by potential recording artists for a pop song, on a holiday song I felt it added cache and actually made the song more salable. So yes, I was seeking a sentimental ballad written by old people. I like old people because they are professional, know what they’re doing, and tell great stories. I generally dislike working with kids because they are late, entitled, and teach me little except to work with old people next time. For Christmas Melody’s music, I knew just which old songwriter to turn to: Neil Sedaka.
Because Denise and I knew Neil Sedaka a bit socially (and he lived around the corner), I felt he was the logical person to write the music. Sedaka’s melodic gifts and pop music bonafides are prodigious and part of our collective memories, having composed the melodies to so many hits, like “Solitaire,” “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “The Hungry Years,” “Laughter in the Rain,” “Where the Boys Are,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” among many others. Mr. Sedaka agreed and wrote the music almost note for note as it is heard in the final recording. As a Brill Building veteran, Neil understood my brief and he submitted two excellent options within days. I responded particularly to one of them, a ballad that captured the wistful quality of the Carpenters’ song without in any way being derivative. Here is the scratch demo Neil submitted:
As Denise could be rather distractible at times, I often preferred to have a second writer in the room with her. During that period, my go-to person was always Jodi Marr, a young writer/producer who had collaborated with Denise many times and was exceptional at navigating her eccentricities during the writing session, the only time when I couldn’t do it myself. She is also one of the best writers I know. When I put Jodi on a song, I was guaranteed to get a finished product that was exponentially better than it would have been without her. Indeed, Jodi’s skills were in many ways very similar to the Brill Building greats in that she could write for specific artists or concepts but always with a freshness and immediacy. She also wrote across musical genres and in both English in Spanish (during that period, we enjoyed number one hits on the Billboard Latin singles and Dance charts). Her lyrics were always clever, specific, and heartfelt without being treacly. She was my secret weapon. In addition to all that, she has tremendous reverence for pop music history and her response to a collaboration with Neil Sedaka was as effusive as the chance to co-write with a more current hitmaker.
Given all this, it was no surprise to me when she and Denise holed up in our studio high above Central Park and banged out lyrics that exceeded my expectations. Not only did its rich narrative put a twist on the main lyrical concept of the Carpenters song—being far away from a loved one at Christmas—but its imagery was inspired by the shimmering park below, which gave the idea an urban twist. Lines like “Lights along the park/lead lovers out of the dark” truly reflect the gift that makes Jodi Marr such a genius lyricist and I will always feel great affection for the time I got to be Don Kirshner and she my Cynthia Weil.
I demoed the song with both male and female vocals to maximize my ability to get it cut. For the female vocal, I didn’t want to use Jodi, who has an amazing, emotive voice, but I felt it was too edgy. In creating a demo, I always want to convey a feeling of necessity for the intended singer to want to sing the song herself. Part of this is depends on the song, but there must be no impediments to getting the song cut in the demo, nothing that is so specific that it interferes with potential singer to imagine herself on the song. Jodi’s voice has a bit of a Stevie Nicks quality, which is great—I mean, everyone loves Stevie—but Jodi’s vocal could be limiting if I wanted to pitch the song to a stylistically broader pool of singers. For this reason, I used one of my favorite session singers, Jennifer Karr, because she was dependable, a fast study, and always left room for the potential recording artist to project her own voice on to the song. Here is Jenny’s vocal on the demo:
Unfortunately, around the time the demo was finished, I tendered my resignation to Denise Rich Songs in order to finish working on a project with Natalie Cole. In leaving, I left the responsibility to get Christmas Melody cut by a big pop star (I had always heard Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood) to my successor at the company, who apparently did not share my enthusiasm for the song’s potential, perhaps because he felt no personal connection to it. Though this is typical when there is a regime change, I always felt terrible for the song’s creators and, in a funny way, to the song itself, which on merit deserved to be heard by a wide audience. The thought of Christmas Melody languishing in anonymity was a personal regret—one that mainly occurred to me during the holidays—strangely mirroring the lyrics to the song. I was encouraged by the fact that Mr. Sedaka liked the song enough to record it himself in 2008. Here is his version. I like Mr. Sedaka’s very floral arpeggios:
Finally, in 2011 my friend and business manager Craig Muench phoned and asked me if I had a Christmas song I could recommend for his client Syesha Mercado. I had already met Syesha and knew that she sang extremely well. Syesha loved the song and our original demo was in her key. I called Denise (with whom I have always remained on friendly terms) and asked if I could record Syesha in Denise’s studio, the same room that inspired the lyrics. Denise agreed and we cut the vocals in one afternoon. Syesha, who has gone on to success on Broadway and continues to create music, was terrific to work with and our friendship has continued. Though five years had gone by, the song was created to have no “sell by” date, having no references to anything that could make it sound dated; it was and remains unmoored to any specific time or sound. I was very happy with the finished record particularly I had finally honored my commitment to the writers and the song itself.
Here is Syesha Mercado’s finished master recording of Christmas Melody:
The very best thing about good songs is that there is always the possibility of being recorded again and given a new life. Indeed, the reason I wanted to concentrate on holiday songs is because of the yearly batch of Christmas releases that creates opportunities for cuts that are very rare to find. Though I was able to deliver a master from a wonderful vocalist, I remain hopeful that the story of Christmas Melody is not finished, that a producer or artist somewhere will hear the song and re-record it. Though almost everything in the business has changed, the desire to hear a song on the radio remains an enduring hope for everyone involved in making music.
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