You might think that the phenomenon of the commentary track began with the invention of the DVD. In truth, the commentary track dates back to the invention of the laserdisc. Shows what you know. Jerk.
But even before that failed home video format, did you know there were special commentary tracks recorded for 45s? It’s true! Several record labels experimented with releasing Commentary Sides, which were meant to run at the same time as the song itself. They contained remarks about the song you were listening to by some of the musicians and composers involved with its creation.
Of course, in order to fully enjoy this feature with the technology of the time, you needed at least two record players and a friend to help you sync up the two. The time and energy involved explains why it never caught on with the general public, and it became one of the more notable “gimmick” failures in the history of the recording industry, almost as bad as Capitol Records’ disastrous “Scratch n’ Sniff Singles.”
However, such discs were produced for decades for a niche collectors’ market, and it just so happens, an eccentric uncle of mine just gifted me his collection of Commentary Sides, just in time for the holiday season. (He needs more space for his Hummels.) So I thought I would present transcriptions of commentaries from some Yuletide favorites. First up, the classic Christmas song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” released in 1952.
MAURICE WORTHINGTON III, CEO, SAKS FIFTH AVENUE: For this Christmas season, Saks decided to commission a holiday song that we could sell to promote our Christmas card, which featured a picture of a child creeping downstairs late at night to catch his mother kissing Santa Claus. We saw the enormous success Montgomery Ward had with “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and thought we could do that ourselves, but with something a bit more sophisticated and reflective of the Saks brand.
TOMMIE CONNOR, COMPOSER: Mr. Worthington and I had a meeting at my studio. He said he admired my work on “Never Do a Tango with an Eskimo,” and thought I’d be perfect to write a song where a woman was “doing something” with Santa. I asked him to clarify exactly what he meant, and he just elbowed me in the ribs over and over again for five minutes. I told him I still didn’t understand, and he sighed and said, “Make them kiss.” He sounded really disgusted. He was also kind of sweaty, which was weird because the studio was pretty drafty.
WORTHINGTON: There was a lot of back forth with Tommie, but it was ultimately a fruitful creative collaboration, if the record sales are any indication.
CONNOR: Worthington had a few suggestions for the lyrics that I thought were unsuitable and also described things that might be illegal. At one point, I requested they remove my name from the publishing credits, but Worthington yanked a wad of hundreds from his pocket and told me…you know, I really don’t feel comfortable talking about any of this.
WORTHINGTON: As much as the composition itself, the performance captured on the record was key to the song becoming such a big hit. Little Jimmie Boyd was an absolute revelation, just the perfect voice to sing this tune.
JIMMIE BOYD, SINGER: Mr. Worthington asked me to hold a cinder block and run up six flights of stairs before we did the first take. My legs were real wobbly when I was done. Just as the tape started running, he punched me in the throat and said if I didn’t sing anyway he’d make me do it again. That’s why it kinda sounds like I’m crying on that song.
WORTHINGTON: Admittedly, there was some controversy involving the song from people who misinterpreted the lyrics. It was actually banned in Boston for a while, but we met with the local diocese and had a nice chat, and they agreed it was all perfectly harmless.
CARDINAL O’MALLEY, BOSTON DIOCESE: Mr. Worthington’s words haunt my very being to this day. I am not sure he has a soul, or if he does, that it hasn’t been sold to the service of the Great Deceiver.
WORTHINGTON: I think some people simply read way too much into the song. Really, it’s just a playful little story about a little boy who sneaks out of bed on Christmas eve and sees a mature woman locked in an embrace with an immortal gift-giving elf, their brows glistening with ardor by a roaring fire, deaf to everything in the world but their own passion. Isn’t that what this holiday is all about? I think it is.