Christmas with the Rat Pack A Swinging Good Time
By Kristin Battestella
I’m not talking about all this newfangled Clooney and Pitt suavity, no! Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. shine again in the 2002 compilation Christmas with the Rat Pack. With a blend of swing, secular staples, and traditional tunes, young and old can enjoy this jazzy Christmas of yesteryear.
What better place to start than Dean Martin’s winter classic I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm? While not completely synonymous with Christmas itself, this cuddly tune sets the swanky fireside mood of the album. Then again, “Oh by gosh by golly…” Yes, it’s the time of the year to hear Frank’s Mistletoe and Holly. Even if you don’t always care for Sinatra or his music, this tune is now in our traditional Christmas lexicon and adds some humor to our silly notions of Kris Kringle, excessive foods, and of course, presents!
Now, I like Sammy Davis, Jr. all well and good- especially in Robin and the Seven Hoods-but his music gets the short end of the stick here. The previously unreleased Christmastime All Over the World is one of three Sammy vocals lost between his more famous pals. A Shame really, Sammy swinging and spreading solid cheer here. Unfortunately, Frank’s first carol The First Noel seems a little flat and more melancholy then usual. I don’t think we’re used to hearing Sinatra sing on such a slow and down arrangement, and the style of this hymn doesn’t really fit him.
Baby, It's Cold Outside is one of those songs that everybody kind of knows the words to, but can still sing along in the spirit of good holiday fun. Audiences who also aren’t major fans of Martin or old school styles can also enjoy the breeze and wit here. There’s drinks, cigarettes, records, and overnight winter scandals, oh my! Also swinging is Sinatra’s I Believe. It’s barely a Christmas tune but for a few lines; but it’s easy, breezy joy is perfect for Frank. Any fan of The Chairman can back this one.
Dino slows things down next with the Christmas city classic Silver Bells. Even though we’re getting into the traditional December mood with these next few tracks, Martin still adds his hip spin here. Slowed down, yes, but still somehow swinging! Unfortunately, Sammy’s next contribution is a sub par rendition of The Christmas Song. It’s seems slow, too long-winded, and poorly orchestrated against the Nat King Cole original. Even so, it’s still great background party music.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is a little better from Frank Sinatra, but it still seems like he’s trying to hold himself from busting out into his happenin’ self. I’ve no doubt he has the talent to belt these carols proper, and I don’t understand some of his restraint. 18 of the 21 songs on Christmas with the Rat Pack are secular or barely Christmas related-but only good Catholic Sinatra sings the three true carols. The lighthearted fun returns with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Maybe kids today recall other quick and silly renditions, but I suspect the young at heart recall Dino’s version with the fondest memories. His ‘Rudy’ keeps what could be a juvenile track all in good fun. As I listen, I always want to add the ‘like Monopoly!’ quip-and it doesn’t seem out of place.
Yes, some of the traditional tunes are not in the style or arrangement for Sinatra, but there’s no denying him for The Christmas Waltz. Maybe you don’t know the song by its proper title, but we all recognize Frank’s ‘song of mine in three quarter time’ and it has become a big a part of the contemporary Christmas. Where Frank sounds a little obligated in his carols, he gives his genuine voice and holiday blessings here. Adding to the winter bachelor fun is Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Now, there are literally hundreds of versions of this song to pick from, but Dean Martin’s easy delivery makes it seem this song was for him. We can joke about his drunken antidotes, but we shouldn’t forget Martin was also a charismatic and talented comedian, actor, and singer who knows how to put some spirit and holiday mood in a tune.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas might be Frank Sinatra’s best track on Christmas with the Rat Pack. It’s in the perfect melancholy style and arrangement. Though a little easier and happier than Judy Garland’s original, the Chairman knows how to bring a tear to even the toughest guido’s eye. By contrast, the Peace on Earth/Silent Night medley serves up a little reverence from Dino this time. Now, it took me several hours of online research before I finally discovered that this mix stems from of all things, Lady and the Tramp! It’s been so long since I’ve seen it, that I couldn’t even remember it opened the movie! Martin takes Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee’s idyllic and Christian lullaby and mixes in his own beautiful melodies and perfectly soft notes. By golly, instead of being so obscure, everyone should be putting this on his or her Christmas albums!
I actually feel bad for good old Sammy. His Jingle Bells is too loose, fast, and out our place between Dean Martin’s traditional sounds. Some of Christmas with the Rat Pack does seem ill placed or poorly chosen tracks. Truly, I don’t know why the producers included these three songs, as they are not the best of Sammy’s stuff. Was it all about marketing and demographics and trying to sell out on the Rat Pack’s name? Where then are Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, or the associated ladies like Shirley MacLaine and Angie Dickinson? Surely, there are renditions of them laughing it up with gang? Heck, why not have Bing Crosby songs, cashing in on his loose association with the packers at hand? But no, that would have been too traditional and vanilla. Sammy Davis Jr. converted to Judaism anyway, so I wonder what he’d think about being on a Christmas album in the new millennium?
But of course, no holiday album is complete without White Christmas, and Dean Martin delivers it on Christmas with the Rat Pack. Not as tearful as the Bing Crosby original, but not quite the bluesy Elvis take either; Dino keeps us in the old-fashioned sentimental mood. Instead of the hectic hysteria of Christmas, Dean reminds us the best part of the season is sitting with a cup of eggnog in a comfy chair watching the snowfall. Sniff!
The traditional hymns and the other Sinatra tracks here stem from A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra and The Sinatra Christmas Album issues. Those albums are of course split with a secular Side A and religious Side B, and Frank takes on It Came Upon a Midnight Clear as our third carol here. Again, the stilted reverence seems a little forced amid the other easy and hip secular tunes, but Sinatra does have the voice, doesn’t he? Likewise, Dean’s Winter Wonderland has us kicking back and thinking of the good old days again. Secular yes, but it’s the good, mid century
secular. Not to be out done, Frank returns to form for I'll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams). His slow stylings perfectly linger over every bittersweet note here. Americana
Of course, Christmas with the Rat Pack returns to its hip and happening note with A Marshmallow World and a live Auld Lang Syne. Frank and Dino team up for some loose fun that’s perfect for a drunken swingers winter night. It’s not a serious candlelit church service by any means, but Christmas with the Rat Pack goes out with a lovely toast and holiday hurrah. Originally released with a mixed track listing between our swinging trio, my media player divides Christmas with the Rat Pack between them. It’s nice if you prefer one of our boys to the other, and at a careful listen, the original track listing can seem uneven, too. Then again, the blend is also great for the soundtrack behind your swanky holiday party. There’s certainly a few gems here to choose from. Most of the Martin songs also appear on the newly released My Kind of Christmas CD, and many of the tracks are available for individual downloads on Amazon and such.
If you’re looking for a truly reverent Christmas album, you should probably look elsewhere. Christmas with the Rat Pack is a fun collection blending old hip-ness and Christmas traditions for the easy listening December office or the mature, swinging holiday party. Any fan of the swanky sixties, Sinatra, Martin, or Davis can enjoy this compilation all winter long.