Inside the 'Christmas in the Heart' Sessions
Backing singer Randy Crenshaw talks recording one of Dylan's most surprising projects
A Bob Dylan Christmas album. It seemed like a joke until it wasn’t.
As all of you subscribers are hopefully gathering your families ‘round the yuletide log and putting on Christmas in the Heart—then suffering endless griping from said families until you turn it off again—I wanted to learn about how this strange artifact came to be. So I called up one of the album’s backing vocalists, Randy Crenshaw.
Crenshaw is a professional LA singer for hire who has appeared on an extremely long list of film, TV, and music projects (seriously, click around some of the TV clips on his website, it’s a real rabbit hole). He’d never met Bob Dylan before. He’s never met him since. But he told me about one strange day in May in Los Angeles—extremely un-Christmas-y weather—helping Bob Dylan record Christmas songs.
How did you get involved?
It was the usual thing: the phone call comes and, if you're available, you do it. In this case, Bill Maxwell, the drummer who had worked with Bob earlier [on a session for Christian-rocker Keith Green in 1980], got called either by Bob or somebody on behalf of Bob saying, “Hey, we're putting together this Christmas project. Do you have any guys that can kind of sound like the Jordanaires?” You know, the classic vocal group that Elvis had backing him.
So Bill goes, “Well, I know these guys that have all sang together in this gospel quartet.” At the time, I was doing a daily radio broadcast of gospel and Christian content called the Haven of Rest Quartet. It was an old radio ministry dating back to the ‘30s, but they still did a daily radio show. The guys in the group were used to singing together every day and had a pretty good blend. Bill said, “Well I’d love you guys to work on this Dylan project, but we need somebody who's a super low bass.” Because in the Jordanaires, they always had one guy who would go really low.
We didn't really have anybody in our group that was a low bass so we took three of the guys from our quartet—myself, Bill Cantos, and Walt Harrah—and we called up a session singer friend of ours named Bob Joyce. So that was our quartet of guys that got invited to do the project.
Do you know upfront that this is a Christmas album he's doing?
I think Bill Maxwell said when he made the call, Bob's looking to do a Christmas thing. In our minds, we were dumbfounded. We go, “Christmas record? Dylan???”
A few months later everyone else reacted that way too when they heard about it.
Right. Just because he's always been his own guy and he's always marched to the beat of his own drummer, which is what we all love about him. But if someone had asked me what do you predict is gonna be his next project, I would never ever have picked a Christmas record.
So take me there. What happens when you get to the studio?
We were working at Groove Masters Studio in Santa Monica. That's Jackson Brown's room. It's all set up classic, old school. Every instrument you can want is probably in storage there. It's a great room for bands to come off the road and just put themselves in a studio for a while and come out with a record.
We were in there along with guys from his touring band, and then some extra players that were wild additions. Wonderful players, like Phil Upchurch, jazz guitar player, played on all the Chess Records things. David Hidalgo from Los Lobos. So it had this wild combination of people. There were these two young girls who were kind of like a folk duo [The Ditty Bops], and then a third one who we were told was one of Dylan's daughters [it wasn’t, but interesting that this rumor was going around the studio]. They were super shy and stayed on the far side of the studio the entire time.
What was really interesting to me is the whole thing was done in a way— I haven't done records like this almost ever in my life, which is the old school, everybody's in the room together, everything totally live.
The three female singers were way across at the far side of the studio. Bob was in the middle, sitting there chain smoking and playing a little Farfisa organ and doing his lead vocals. And then the four of us guys doing backgrounds are at the way far side behind some baffles. Then everybody else is kind of arrayed in their own little kingdoms, where they could watch Bob. They all had sight lines; we could all see him.
It was hilarious, 'cause he would just go [extremely raspy Bob voice]: “All right, follow me.” And he'd jump into it.
Did you have the song list in advance? Did you come with charts?
No way. We had no idea what we were going to sing on. His operating method is different than anybody I've ever seen in my life. It still makes me laugh. We came in there and said, "So what songs do you think we'll be doing?”
He said [Bob voice], “Let's listen to some songs, we'll get some ideas.” He has a boombox and he puts on recordings of various classic Christmas songs. “Silver Bells” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or whatever it is. He might listen to two or three different versions of ‘em. Everybody was doing their own wild scratching out of Nashville number charts or chord charts. All these players were individually all doing it. Listening to it going, “Hey run it back a little bit. Okay, no play it again.”
And Bob himself is the guy running it back on this boombox?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
And it's not like he spent a whole lot of time learning how these songs went. Some of the classic ones, I listen back to the record and go, "That's not how it goes!" But he had his own kind of cool take on it, which is probably by not being so overly familiar with it. Sometimes, what do they say, familiarity breeds contempt. He thought these were cool songs and kind of remembered them from his youth, I bet. You grow up in the Midwest, you're going to hear all these tunes.
The biggest hurdle for us was, we're used to coming in and somebody’s written us charts. There's always an arranger. Same with horns and strings. You don't come in and go, "I wonder what the second violin part should be like? Hey, I’ll make up something.” No, you go in and you sing whatever's thrown in front of you and and all sounds real slick and clean. In this case he's going, [Bob voice] “Alright, let’s listen to the Bing Crosby version.” So we listen to it and we're going to ourselves, “But that has a whole orchestra on it! There's strings and horns and a big choir, and they all have something written for them, and we don't. What are we going to do?”
So what did you do?
Bill Cantos, one of our guys in our quartet, is our most musically brilliant guy. He has perfect pitch and is a very good arranger. So when he was going to the restroom, we decided to make him emperor of our group. When he came back, we said, “Bill, you're our arranger. Quick, write down a chart for us.”
Because otherwise, all all four of us are going to have different ideas of who does what where. I mean, we could spend hours and come up with something as a head chart, but they're going to want to record in 10 minutes. That was Bob’s thing, you listen to it a couple times, and then boom, you jump in. And unless it was really disastrous, that was the final version of it.
Not a lot of songs getting 10 takes I gather.
No, there were never— one time we did three takes but that was very unusual. It was because of audio problems. It wasn't because, “Oops, we didn't really sing anything good” or “Oops, we were out of tune.” No, it had to be a disaster to redo it. So there's stuff on there that, to this day, I squint my eyes and cringe a little bit, but overall it's kind of cool because it's all rough around the edges. We’re not used to that. We’re hired guns that come in as a section, and somebody's written stuff for us, and we read it, we do it as beautifully as we can, and then it's all part of this big slick package. It sure was not on this record.
That's interesting because I talk to a lot of musicians who play with him and I can see, if you're a really good guitarist, just sort of winging it. But as a four-piece vocal group, I guess all four of you individually can’t just be totally winging it, or you won't be together at all.
Exactly. Therein lies my point. So Bill Cantos basically scribbled out stuff really quickly. We go, "Okay, let's sing at the intro, let's sing on the chorus, we’ll do a little ooo’s here…” We’d decide on that amongst ourselves, and then Bill would madly scribble some stuff out. The rest of the players, who were just basically doing a chord chart for themselves, were like, “Oh, we’re ready to go.” And they were.
That sounds stressful. So everyone's waiting on you guys to scribble out your charts?
Yeah. In some cases, they were all looking at us like, what's taking you so long? Which I understand from a player's standpoint. I play a little guitar and stuff. I know what it's like to be in a band where it's an improv band, it's a jam band. Then, you know, you play different. But this was like big, slick versions of really well-known Christmas songs. We're trying to fit into a template and we don't even know what the rest of the template's gonna be. That was the challenge of it.
Crenshaw’s co-singer Walt Harrah adds: “We just walked in and my memory is that they were actually already rehearsing, or maybe even had laid down a couple of tracks, and they said, ‘Hey why don't you guys just sing some stuff?’ We're looking at look at them like, ‘Well, it kind of doesn't work that way… How does how does your arrangement go? I mean, do you want us singing—?’ They weren't giving us any instructions. They were ready for us to just step in front of a mic and sing. So it was kind of an awkward moment. One of us said, ‘Well, maybe you could give us a general idea? Did you want us to do some oohs or aahs, or did you want us to sing along with a melody in some spot…?” And these are almost like foreign questions.”
So how long is this all taking? One day, multiple?
All of our singing was in one day. I mean, they did several days I think on the project, because there were tunes that we never heard [on the record], so we knew those were probably on a subsequent day. I think we sang on five tunes we recorded in one day.
The young women folk singers were making their way too, and their thing didn't always match what we were doing. Sometimes we had alternate ideas on other sides of the room.
Do you remember any examples, any songs where you might be able to hear that?
“Here Comes Santa Claus.” There were some moments where it's like, “Ah, ladies, we're doing this here and what you're doing…oh, alright.” But since nobody died and made us king, we said, “Well, if Bob likes it, and the band's okay with it, we're not going to assume control and do a coup.” So we sat over on our side and tried to sound really good as a section, but it really was a funny fit. Sometimes we felt like we were the round peg in the square hole.
Is Bob giving any feedback on your parts or anything else?
Not much of anything. He really wasn't very talkative. At times, we’d go, “Is that kind of what you're looking for?” [Bob voice] “Yeah, yeah, sounds good.” But there wasn't a lot there was no technical stuff like, “Hmm, could you do a higher inversion? Maybe a different chord here?” Nothing like that. It was more like, “Good feel, let's do it.”
We did this kind of polka version of “Must Be Santa,” which I hadn't heard before. We ended up being the big echo choir behind him. But the funny part was we weren't exactly sure what he was saying. We used the excuse of, we needed to write down words to make sure we were all together on our part.
You know, it's an additive type song. So every time through, he’d add another phrase to it. “Big and red…blah blah blah…blah blah blah.” But it was going super fast. And it was coming out like [incomprehensible Bob slurring]. We go, “I have no idea what he just said. I need subtitles.” So we said, “We really need another one. We messed up all the lyrics.” So we had him speak the lyrics slowly. So then we were able to transcribe.
It was really funny because he at one point, he goes into a thing where, instead of the reindeer being Vixen and stuff, he has Nixon. He lists former presidents. We go, “Really, we're singing about former presidents flying the reindeer?” It’s classic Dylan.
What was his reaction to you guys asking him to slow down and actually recite the lyrics for you?
He was really kind about it. He didn't seem perturbed at all. He said, “All right, here you go." So we're madly writing it down.
We didn't want to point out the fact that we could not understand every other word that he was actually singing, because we didn't want him to feel bad about it. We’re having a great time on this song. So it ended up being like we're the translators that sing it after him. He goes [incomprehensible slurring] and then we’re the group precisely pronouncing everything.
Is he playing the Farfisa you mentioned the whole time he singing?
At times. It was more, I think, to check whether he's singing in tune. We're looking at each other like, “I’m pretty sure that's not working…”
By this time, his voice has kind of gotten down to be like a Tom Waits-ian rasp. It’s kind of cool, it's just very textured and like somebody breaking up glass. So it was really hard to discern stuff.
Also, because he didn't really go over the songs overly much, he wouldn't always know where the melody went. So then he might repeat the same melody on two successive phrases. But it kind of worked. Again, at the time I couldn't imagine that it would work. And then I'd listen to it and go, "You know, that's kind of cool in a rough and ready way.”
I think that's part of the charm of the album. You have him at the roughest his voice has ever sounded—I mean, he sounds way better now than he did then—contrasted with these very beautiful singers, both you guys and the girls too.
Yeah, the girls sounded very sweet and angelic in places and very innocent, and we were trying to be all slick than Jordanaires. So the contrast was extreme, but it was really fun too.
Do you remember if you recorded any songs that didn't make the record?
I think all of our stuff made it on. We sang on "I'll Be Home For Christmas,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Must Be Santa” of course, "The First Noel,” "O Little Town of Bethlehem".
This is in one session. A lot of times nowadays, we'll do one tune in a two or three-hour session, just because modern recording takes every little element and everybody stacks stuff and gets ultra picky about every little syllable. No. This was in one day with a nice lunch break where Bob called in Subway sandwiches for everybody. He was very relaxed.
Subway was the fancy studio catered lunch?
Yeah, Subway sandwiches for all. And he didn't go off like royalty and hide himself. He was sitting in the little lounge with us eating his Subway sandwich.
A couple people were asking him about stuff. We tried not to be ultra fan geeks and destroy his entire lunch experience, but everybody had their fave things about Dylan we wanted to ask.
What’d you ask?
I remember asking about who his favorite guy folk singer was. Just because there were lots of rivals back in his day. He said he liked Gordon Lightfoot. That Gordon Lightfoot was pretty much his favorite voice from a really young age. Which makes sense because Lightfoot was Canadian. Bob was growing up in Minnesota, he'd get Canadian radio and TV I'm sure.
There's sort of a thing when you're around somebody who's so renowned, everybody's trying to not bug them. Be on their good behavior. Rarely do you find somebody who really disturbs the peace and gets in their face. And they usually have handlers that shoo those people away. But Bob had none of that. He didn't have a bunch of hangers-on. It was just him there.
Do you remember any other questions people asked?
Somebody asked him about a tune, I can’t remember what it was. He was really super sweet about it. By that time, he was emceeing his own radio show [Theme Time Radio Hour]. He was very knowledgeable about roots and Americana music. We got into conversations about some favorite artists, but I can't remember the specifics. All I remember is going, “You know, this guy's like a cool uncle that you'd want to invite to your party.” Not mister small talk, but just, wow, this guy's really interesting.
The other thing that was funny is we’d get to an end of a take, they’d play it back, and we’d hear stuff and really want to fix it. “That second time we were kinda late getting into the chorus, I wonder if we can retake it.” He didn’t really want to do retakes. Even when we said we can do it as an overdub. You know, we've got multi-track here. It was done on 24-track analog. We wouldn't have to retake everybody, just us. I think he relented in a couple cases, but it was kind of like, “No man, that sounds good.” Alrighty then.
Harrah adds: “The other interesting thing was that Bob wasn't really interested in hearing the playback. So we would record something he go, ‘Okay, that's great, what's next?’ I remember the [engineer] going, ‘Well, don't you want to hear what we just did?’ And he goes, ‘Well, okay, I guess so…’ He literally had no interest.”
And the producer is him, under his pseudonym Jack Frost.
Yeah, and his engineer seemed to know exactly what he was doing. A couple times, I asked the engineer, “Are you gonna tweak that, fix it, pitch-shift it?” He looks at me, shakes his head, and goes, “Why would I do that?”
Is it strange recording a Christmas album in the summer in California? I assume it is blazingly hot and not feeling Christmasy at all.
Yes. You sort of get used to that strange strange dichotomy of the weather being blazing hot. That's the whole basis for Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song.” He and his writer Bob Wells were trying to write a Christmas song in July. This is before air conditioning became widely available. They're writing a list of, "Hey, let's think cool. What things make us think of wintry cold?” So they wrote a list of stuff. That became the song. “Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”
So, for us, we're used to coming in about that time of year. Ho ho ho.
I saw on your website, you’ve sung on a lot of Christmas albums. Amy Grant, Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow. Robert Davi—I did not know Robert Davi had a Christmas album.
Oh yeah, man. He’s doing his best Sinatra impression.
I love Christmas records. They're one of my faves to sing. But there's a lot of tropes to Christmas records. You have to do a nod towards certain kinds of chords. Certain tunes crop up again and again. Even if you're doing a lot of originals and new things, you’ve gotta nod to the stuff.
So we were amazed because Bob was doing really famous and iconic Christmas songs, but not worrying too much about doing exactly like the Frank Sinatra version or the Nat King Cole version. It was more like, “I think he's listening to the Louvin Brothers version?”
Were the Louvin Brothers one of the people he might have played on that boombox?
Oh yeah. He played Burl Ives stuff and Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, but they were all these classic versions with huge orchestras and choirs all arranged to the nth degree. What was funny is we did nothing like that for the record itself. We felt a little ill-prepared. But then we go, "Well, let's scuffle along and see what we can put together.”
I just can't get over the visual image of Bob Dylan with a boombox putting in cassettes or CDs, swapping them out, hitting play.
Yeah. It was great. You know, he didn't put on any airs.
His band was obviously used to working with him that way. Because they had no problem. They're listening to a version, they're scribbling little chord charts for themselves. “Okay, we got it.” They were almost telepathic, you know? Bob would only say a couple words, and the guys would seem to understand perfectly exactly what he was looking for.
We went away from it going, “I don't know what this record is gonna sound like. Is this gonna work? Maybe they'll overdub a bunch of stuff and it will sound like a big orchestra.” Nope. He kept it spare and bare.
Just like it did in the room I bet.
Yeah, and that was the other thing too. We never record everybody in the room together. I hadn't done in years. It was so cool to be able to do that. That's not the norm. Not in Hollywood.
You still listen to the record around this time of year ever?
Oh yeah. “Must Be Santa” gets played a lot. I'll listen to it and get a chuckle about it and go, “I remember that one.”
Did you ever see the music video he did for it?
Oh yeah, it's hilarious. Aren't they having a party in some house? As I recall, there's some guy who is trying to burglarize the place and then escapes and jumps out a window. And at the end, Bob and Santa are sitting there shaking their heads like, “What's that all about?”
To me it's kind of like a dream thing. You wake up from a dream and it was kind of disjointed like that and weird.
It’s a really funny video. But I think that's something interesting listening to the record again. Even though there's certainly humor on it, he’s not singing these songs as a joke or with a wink or tongue in cheek or anything.
Absolutely. I never got the idea that he was joking on the songs or trying to mock them or be ironic. Not at all. He was real straight ahead. "Oh, these are beautiful songs. A lot of people sing them around this time of year.” And, I gotta say, his giving the proceeds from the project to charity, I thought was the coolest. Because a lot of people do these things, and they try and get rich off of them. So I take my hat off to him. He did it for the right reasons.
It's like, “Hey, here's a tribute to some roots music I came up on. People love this music. It may not have been my cultural thing, but I was in and around it, and I remember hearing this.” He didn't joke or goof on it at all. I appreciated that.
Thanks Randy! Merry Christmas and happy holidays everyone! (One more newsletter coming before the big day, Flagging Down Santa delivering a special present of some never-heard Rolling Thunder soundboards—subscribe if you aren’t already)