With due respect for Time magazine and Barack Obama, my Person of the Year for 2012 is Dorothy Peachock.
Who is Dorothy Peachock?
Good question. She is, among other things, the only Dorothy Peachock in the United States. More importantly, to me at least, she and her husband, Phil Peachock, are the owners of a music store in Kent, Ohio. Or at least they were until recently.
Spin-More Records closed last spring, when a franchise sandwich shop offered to pay more rent for the space. Familiar story: a beloved local institution is forced out for a cookie-cutter franchise. At least one customer, according to a local news report, wept at the news.
The silver lining, for me and no doubt for other record shoppers, is that Spin-More is selling some of its massive inventory, assembled over 30 years, online. And one of those records – the only one for sale in the U.S., incidentally – was a record I’ve wanted forever.
The package, stamped with Dorothy’s name and address, arrived just in time for Christmas. Opening the carefully packed box, I momentarily succumbed to doubts. Could it really be the right record? Decades had passed since I’d even seen it. Maybe I’d remembered the title incorrectly. Or the artist.
I hadn’t. One look at the jacket and the doubts were gone. It was the right record, all right _ “Christmas Joy,” by George Melachrino and his orchestra, recorded in 1958 “in living stereo.” The Christmas album of my childhood, the best Christmas album ever.
My sister, who was a decade older than me, bought it at the old C.C. Anderson’s store, later Macy’s, in downtown Boise. It immediately became a family favorite. I used to spend hours just looking at the jacket photo, a nighttime shot of a postcard-perfect mountain cabin all but buried in powder snow, gigantic icicles on its eaves illuminated by its golden-glowing windows. It was probably taken in Vermont or Colorado, but I was an impressionable kid who dreamed of skiing in the Swiss Alps and was enamored of all things Swiss. Anyplace that picturesque had to be in Switzerland.
It was the music, though, that made the record special.
“Listen to ‘Jingle Bells’,” my sister said. “It sounds like sled dogs whining on a cold winter night.”
It wasn’t sled dogs; it was bassoons. But she was right. With a little imagination, they did sound like sled dogs. “Jingle Bells” has never been one of my favorite carols. But I like that “Jingle Bells” a lot.
The thing that made “Christmas Joy” different from most Christmas records was that much of it wasn’t Christmas melodies at all. A carol might begin with a familiar tune, then transition to an original phrase or lush orchestral passage that had no earthly business in a Christmas carol, except to make it unpredictable and beautiful. The album kept and held your interest with unconventional instrumentation, chord changes and twists of melodies where you least expected them. More than half a century has passed since it was recorded, and I’ve yet to hear another Christmas album like it.
Looking back, I think some of the happiest times in my life were spent listening to that old record. It wasn’t just the music – though that was a big part of its appeal – it was the times of which it was part. Think Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story.” BB guns or model trains in carefully wrapped packages under the tree, old-fashioned Christmas lights glowing in a darkened room, extra fuses in the kitchen cupboard.
Every December, my grandmother Susie would come and stay for a week or more. Like the Christmas album, she was a family favorite. She’d outlived three husbands, three of her four children and had three homes burn, yet somehow remained the most jovial person we knew. Christmas wouldn’t have been Christmas without her.
Her arrival invariably launched a baking frenzy. She and my mother and sister spent entire days in the kitchen, making pies, fudge, Christmas cookies, old-fashioned fruitcake … Being a boy and too young to be of much use anyway, I’d hunker down in the corner by the heat register and enjoy the results. Homemade Christmas treats, a Hardy Boys mystery, “Christmas Joy” on the stereo — it didn’t get much better than that.
My sister loved that old record so much that she kept it for more than 30 years. (She also liked it so much that even the most delicately worded suggestion that it would make a fine Christmas gift for her little brother was brusquely rejected.) Eventually it disappeared, as records will, its whereabouts becoming a mystery.
By then I’d made a cassette tape of it, but the tape faithfully reproduced every skip and scratch. Then the tape deck broke. I considered getting a new one, but this is the digital age. Ask about tape decks at an electronics store and the clerks will look at you like you had three heads.
Annual attempts to find the album online failed. Only this year did I learn why. For some reason (perhaps because it was what was scrawled on the cassette tape box), I thought the album had been recorded by Hugo Winterhalter and his orchestra. Hugo was indeed an orchestra conductor of that era and had recorded several Christmas albums, but not “Christmas Joy,” which was why my searches came up empty. Only this month, when it occurred to me to search without using Hugo’s name, did I get lucky and find Dorothy.
The record she carefully boxed and shipped from Ohio was in remarkably good shape for as old as it is, but it still had some pops and scratches. Don Cunningham, an audio-wizard friend, removed them on a CD he burned for me, making the long-dead George Melachrino and his orchestra sound good as new. The CD played non-stop on Christmas Eve while the kids and grandkids opened their gifts. Now it’s a favorite with a new generation.
It’s funny how things from your childhood occasionally come back to you, making them more dear than ever. I can’t say that old record is the best Christmas present I ever got. In the sense that I bought it myself, it wasn’t a present at all. And the best Christmas present I ever got, or ever will get, was a guitar I’d ordered and been making payments on for over a year. My parents secretly paid the balance and had it waiting on Christmas morning. No gift before or since has been as beautiful.
“Christmas Joy” wasn’t in the same league as that, or maybe even a Red Ryder BB Gun.
But it was close.