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Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Budget Label Christmas

For those of you who love those old budget label Christmas records (the kind your parents randomly picked up at the drug store just as something different to play on the stereo around the holidays.) I have a tub of pure Cheez-Whiz for you today.

In the 1950s and well into the '80s, It wasn't uncommon to see racks of super cheap anonymous Christmas records in your local drug store or supermarket selling for anything from 88 cents to $1.98. A cheap "impulse" thing you bought when your Christmas spirit was high, but money was tight. This made an even balance. You got your gifts and wrappings, ornaments for the tree, a quart of dairy egg nog and...Wait...I gotta have tunes!

And there they were. Conveniently close to the check-out stands for ridiculously low prices. Problem. Solved. Granted, it was "mystery music". But who knows?

Sometimes these records became family heirlooms, others donated to the thrift shops. But there's always been a soft spot for those over 40 who can still remember seeing these records at drug and discount stores. 

And a very special thanks to Kaiwaza for finding some of these aural samples.

"Christmas With The Caroleers" The Caroleers (Promenade/Diplomat/Spin-O-Rama, 1963)

First, let's get started with the biggest known of the budget label acts (and absolutely mandatory in any collection of cheapo vinyl); The Caroleers.

As mentioned here, "The Caroleers" weren't technically an actual group. Although some Caroleers tracks have the same vocalists, it appears to be the generic umbrella name for anonymous holiday material from Synthetic Plastics Company (famous for their Peter Pan label of cheap kids records) and their various subsidiary labels regardless of the actual performer. Many of the same songs also appear across several Caroleers LPs on the various Peter Pan/SPC label LPs, 45s and EPs in the 1960s.

Putting names and faces to this music is next to impossible. SPC/Peter Pan (as well all the other budget labels) only paid their studio performers a flat rate with no royalties. They rarely had credits for anyone.

But in my research last week, I made a major breakthrough. I found one actual person that not only appeared on some Caroleers tracks, but could very well be the mysteriously female sounding voice on the "Nuttin' For Christmas" song I wrote about a few weeks ago that was credited to Bobby Stewart as well.

Her name was Toby Deane, a comedienne and voice actress. Bob Purse has an excellent post on Toby's career on his blog, The Wonderful and the Obscure. Toby Deane recorded for Peter Pan/SPC label records and various other budget labels from the 1950s to the 1970s. Her voice is believed to be on several hundred children's records.

And the Eddie Maynard Orchestra. But once again, I run into the same dead ends in my research while looking for Eddie. All that is known is they appear across several Peter Pan/SPC label albums and their holiday music appears on LPs credited to The Caroleers. 

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town The Caroleers (Diplomat/Tinkerbell, 1970)

With the release of this album, the sound of The Caroleers radically changed. No more old recycled tracks, here was a Caroleers album of mostly actual original material. Sung by Toby Deane and Ray Dorey. A pop vocalist who, like Toby Deane, also performed with Benny Goodman's Orchestra in the 1940s. Ray was also a fixture on Boston area on radio and TV in the 1950s and in later years, recorded chidren's records and other material for Peter Pan/SPC.

It sounds more cohesive than other Caroleers albums in that it wasn't a grab bag of whatever was in the SPC/Peter Pan vaults and that it was single group in a session specifically for this album.

Christmas Is For Children; Merry Favorites from Santa's Little Helpers (Design Records DLPX-2, 1957)

Toby Deane also appears on this album. In fact, many of the Caroleer vocalists from the Peter Pan/SPC labels appear on this Pickwick distributed LP. It appears there were no exclusive contracts to the budget labels, as these performers seemed to appear on nearly all of them. 

Design Records was Pickwick's subsidiary label. They're best known today as where Lou Reed got his first break in the music industry as a staff songwriter and recording as session musician and occasional vocalist with some musicians who would later form The Velvet Underground. While most of Design's output was knockoff cover versions of pop songs and sound-alikes, Design occasionally licensed older material of various pop acts. When stereo LPs became the norm, Design took a few, shall we say, liberties with their licensed material (Such as this infamous Roy Orbison "remix".)

And down here, I dug out some of the earliest stuff that was available back in the day. Perennial, old-timey fruitcake-like music you probably heard dropping from the automatic record changers inside your parents/grandparents BIG console stereos of the time. Choruses, orchestras and pipe organ music. Mostly playing public domain traditional carols.

Christmas At Our House; Favorite Christmas Carols Martha Tilton and other Great HOLLYWOOD Vocal Stars, George Mather at The Console (Tops Records,1956)

Martha Tilton was called "The Sweetheart of Swing", best known for her 1944 hit "I'll Walk Alone". After 1950, Big Band swing music had given way to the pop balladeer and her career was fading and she was recording for Tops.

This album also features Marni Nixon, who was a movie playback singer (she recorded the vocals for Deborah Kerr's singing parts in The King And I.) She is also fondly remembered in the Seattle area as the host of KOMO-TV's kids TV show Boomerang.

Thurl Ravenscroft was a radio and animation voice actor and basso singer who sang the classic 1966 version of "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" (not on this album.) and the legendary voice of Tony The Tiger in TV commercials for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes.

Doris Drew (Not to be confused with Doris Day) was a jazz singer and like Marni Nixon, often recorded songs for actress singing parts in movies. Norma Zimmer would join Lawrence Welk's orchestra as it's religious singer. John Gabriel would find later fame as a soap opera actor in the '60s, '70s and '80s. and probably best known as Seneca Beaulac in Ryan's Hope. All that is known about John Gustafson is he had an uncredited role as a background singer in the 1954 movie musical Brigadoon. And I can't find anything at all on Bill Reeve.

Tops Records was a typical budget label that specialized in the "knockoff", sound-alike record and often sold packaged compilations of these. When the LP was invented, they changed to recording originals by fading and B-List stars. At their peak in the late 1950s, they were the most popular budget label in America.

They also pioneered the "cheesecake" album cover (With Hollywood actresses on the covers, including Jayne Mansfield, Mary Tyler Moore - who appeared on several Tops LP covers. Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak.)

Jayne Mansfield
Mary Tyler Moore
Rita Hayworth
Kim Novak & Rita Hayworth

But then after a strange merger with failing Geiger counter maker Precision Radiation Instruments in 1958 (which established it's own subsidiary record label) and a couple years later, a disastrous acquisition by an investor who was completely inept to the record business, Tops was bankrupt and it's catalogue was sold to Pickwick Records just two years after the acquisition.

Another strange coincidence was Tops Records were also pressed at the same South Central Los Angeles pressing plant as the Bihari brothers' infamous Crown Records. Just what connection Tops had with Crown is still unclear with many collectors. It's believed the plant was originally owned by Tops and sold to Crown and then used again by Tops as a cost cutting measure. Even some Tops recordings appeared on Crown (attributed to different artists) and vice-versa. At this time, Crown's record quality was still fairly decent. But after Tops folded in 1962, Crown's quality tanked. And like Crown, Tops covers were known for splitting at the seams as they were just two pieces of cardboard held together by a cover slick.

Hail To Christmas Peter Raymond Carolers (Wyncote, 1966)

On this album, it appears the lead caroler on some tracks on Side 1 is a very off-key caroler who sounds like he's trying to shout over the orchestra. He also botches the lyrics in "Jingle Bells".

It takes work to botch up the lyrics in "Jingle Bells".  

Wyncote was owned by Cameo-Parkway Records, a major independent label based in Philadelphia and named for a Philadelphia suburb.

You'd think Wyncote, being owned and operated by a major independent would have better quality albums than the usual budget label dreck. But nothing could be further from the truth. They were amongst the very worst budget labels I have ever seen. Every Wyncote record I ever owned (all of them clean and some close to mint) was plagued with ghastly surface noise, the vinyl often had bumps and even a few air bubbles. Like Tops/Crown, Wyncote covers were slapped together with no inner paper or plastic sleeves and the quality of the music? Well, let this sink in.

Christmas Favorites The International Choristers and Orchestra Featuring George Mather (HIM again?) at The Mighty Console (Craftsmen/Golden Tone/Tops, 1959)

Nothing says international Christmas like four random average American-looking white people from the Midwest and a rather annoyed looking sidewalk Santa, who seems to be pondering "How much did they say I was getting for this stupid photo shot again?"

And it really shows on this album in particular. They sing in perfect English with exaggerated German and French accents.

From here, we go to the late '70s and the disco-themed Christmas budget albums.

Christmas And New Year's Party - Irwin the Disco Duck with The Wibble Wabble Singers and Orchestra (Peter Pan, 1977)

Disco Noel Mirror Image (Pickwick, 1979)
Mirror Image was Pickwick's house band in the 1970s. They appeared on several "sound-alike" Pickwick albums of the 1970s.

Disco Noel included a free disco dance lesson.
Pickwick was so confident in the success of the Disco Noel album, it was immediately followed up with Yuletide Disco.

And they did sell quite well, in spite of disco rapidly falling out of popularity at this time.

But this would be the end of the era of the budget label Christmas record. Pickwick had been sold to PolyGram earlier in 1979 and would soon cease operations and Peter Pan/SPC would concentrate solely on their kids records.

Still, it was an era. And it still feels weird walking into a discount retailer and not seeing the bins of budget label Christmas records like I used to.

Merry Christmas!


  1. When well-known artists recorded for Tops (like Martha Tilton, Mel Torme, Lena Horne, etc.), they hadn't exactly "faded" (some artists like Johnny Desmond and Kate Smith were definitely fading, though). The reason they wound up on those LPs is that a jazz musician named Dave Pell began working at Tops and used his contacts to get better artists for a new Tops series -- and he managed to get quite a few major artists. He was also credited with upgrading the photography; this would be around the time of the collectible Tops covers of then-unknown models like Mary Tyler Moore and Kim Novak. Unfortunately, Tops pressings and packaging were still awful, except for the gold vinyl releases. BTW, Mel Torme's Tops LP not only got good reviews, it became highly collectible and was eventually reissued on CD.

  2. Fantastic post!! Thanks for the hard work and dedication that was obviously spent in rounding all of this up!

    1. Thanks, I'm doing some research on Toby Deane and it seems like in spite of the body of work she's put out, nobody remembers her.

      There are more people who remember Dora Hall better than Toby Deane. And that's sad. I understand she passed away in the early 2000s

      Damn...I would have loved to have gotten the story straight from her. I probably would have gotten a better insight into her career and these budget labels, their sessions and names of artists and producers. To fill in blanks and bring forth their rediscovery, so to speak.

  3. Love it! I also have a number of disco Christmas LPs and they never fail to put a smile on my face!

    1. I was kind of rushed for time, so I didn't post all the information I had on them (no, Toby Deane does not appear on the Irwin The Disco Duck album from what I remember. I had a copy, but I lost it.) But she did sing on The Peppermint Kandy Kids records.

  4. Larry Waldbillig: Bob Purse covered Toby Deane in 2009. His DivShare links are now gone with DivShare, but he is still at the blog: http://bobpurse.blogspot.com/2009/01/toby-deane.html

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  6. I'm researching Eddie Maynard. And I've been coming up with nothing -- aside from album covers, and a mention in this article.

  7. Lol - that was great fun. I have never heard of these particular budget Christmas records, although I was already aware of several of the labels mentioned. Something else to look out for in the resell shops now. We were one of those snobby families I guess - only had Firestone (Columbia Special Products) Christmas records. :)

    Then there was REALLY low budget: Anyone remember the Christmas recording giveaways from the gas station? Gulf had them. You know - those one sided recordings pressed onto a piece of cardboard. They were 7" EP - but they were square. You would go cross-eyed trying to set the needle down in a circular groove on a square spinning record, especially since the recording material was clear PVC over Christmas graphics on the cardboard. If they warped - as they are prone to do - one had to tape them to the turntable in order to play.

    Speaking of Christmas Disco: If you ever run across a 12" EP titled "Hallelujah 2000" do pick that one up. No idea what the "2000" was about - it was released in the 1970's. It's a 14 minute, quite frenetic, disco rendering of the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah. Don't try to dance to it - you will hurt yourself.


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